The novel coronavirus pandemic has derailed the implementation of development projects across rural Zimbabwe, invariably affecting the rural folk and the vulnerable. Most local and international NGOs have partially closed or reduced their operations slowing down the implementation of various rural projects covering water and sanitation, health, irrigation and agro-processing projects, livestock rearing and numerous other infrastructural projects that aim to build the resilience of vulnerable rural communities. In this report, our Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor Sifelani Tsiko (ST), speaks to veteran agronomist and executive director of the Community Technology Development Organisation Mr Andrew Mushita (AM) about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on rural development work.
ST: To what extent has the lockdown measures affected the operations of the Community Technology Development Organisation in various sites across the country?
AM: The organisation has taken heed of the lockdown and scaled down operations by resorting to working from home. Most of the action research, field activities and events that required public gatherings have been suspended to avoid incidents of spreading the Covid-19 pandemic.
Key essential services are the ones that are continuing such as humanitarian assistance programmes, but these are undertaken with strict observance of the social distancing requirements. Presently we are in the relief phase where CTDO staff is reaching communities using appropriate technologies and with support of the mainstream.
The Covid-19 has brought many challenges. There is need to shift to a “New Normal” situation. Enabling communities to adapt to a new normal is very critical. Under the adaptation phase, our focus will be on restoration of livelihoods by adapting to the new situation and working with mainstream for improved health and livelihoods.
The transformation phase will, therefore, facilitate sustainable behavioural change and well-being with respect to health and livelihoods. The next phase in this pandemic will be building resilience of community and their institutions to combat the situation with greater resistance.
ST: Which are the main areas of intervention by the CTDO that have been affected greatly?
AM: The activities that have been affected include asset building, nutrition gardens, field-days to showcase successful agricultural technologies, seed and food fairs designed to highlight crop diversification, climate change adaptation and knowledge management.
The other aspects include activities related to farmer field schools (FFS) where farmers set their research objectives, discuss their results and findings, farmer trainings and capacity building in the areas of nutrition, ecological agriculture, conservation agriculture, conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture among others.
With agro-ecology they enrich their knowledge about the resistance of crops to climate change they carry out integrated management of pests and diseases, and they have tools to improve their production planning.
Most of our school feeding programmes have been put on hold though we have provided food packs to the vulnerable children. The concept is to facilitate children to have access to nutritious food whilst at home as schools open the children will be in a position to resume schooling in a healthy state.
ST: What could be the impact of the restrictive measures on the livelihoods of the rural poor you serve?
AM: The emergence of Covid-19 as a global pandemic has exposed humankind to its unpreparedness to manage such diseases in terms of food and nutrition security, robust healthcare systems and information management.
It is important to develop people-centric, resilient agriculture that is premised on ecological agriculture principles and practices. However, due to the recurrence of these diseases such as Ebola, influenza and the current Covid-19 pandemic, an integrated approach that takes into consideration elements of food production and nutrition security, use of herbal medicines and knowledge management of local communities becomes critical and essential.
The three key pillars of food and nutrition security that is achieved through crop diversification, use of herbal medicines and local knowledge management becomes a key strategy and response mechanism to support resilient agriculture systems.
The use of herbal medicines need to be integrated into the farming systems and promoted to enhance localised healthcare systems by smallholder farmers and indigenous communities.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the use of herbal medicines and phytonutrients continues to expand rapidly across the world with many people now resorting to these products for treatment of various health challenges in different national healthcare settings.
In addition, WHO notes that, this past decade has obviously witnessed a tremendous surge in acceptance and public interest in natural therapies both in developing and developed countries with these herbal remedies being available not only in drug stores, but now also in food stores and supermarkets. It is estimated that up to four billion people (representing 80 percent of the world’s population) living in the developing world rely on herbal medicinal products as a primary source of healthcare and traditional medical practice which involves the use of herbs is viewed as an integral part of the culture in the communities. Because of poverty, food prices increases, demographic changes, energy costs, climate change and other factors, there are significant risks to sustainable food security in Africa and Zimbabwe in particular.
Food security is an economic and social right enshrined in the Constitution of Zimbabwe and many other countries and is important to achieve peace and prosperity. There has been neglect to the environmental aspects of food security. There is need to ensure that the production of food is environmentally friendly.
The whole concept of food security is wider and more complex than how institutions think as it should incorporate soil fertility, ecological balance, biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, local niche markets, as food is the first medicine for humankind.
The measures that have been introduced and implemented by the Government to curb the spread of coronavirus pandemic have reduced trade, by not allowing outsiders to travel.
Farmers have limited access to the markets though their crops were in the fields especially those which are highly-perishable like vegetables.
Farmers who used to have income from their formally employed husbands, who worked in the cities, have since stopped because of closures of the workplaces. The impact is the limited and reduced options to secure food and income security resulting with increased poverty. There is need to have social safety nets to cushion most of these smallholder farmers.
ST: Are you in any way implementing new development projects that could stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in rural areas where CTDO is working in?
AM: The organisation is now supporting smallholder farmers with activities related to small livestock rearing, like chickens and goats which do not require group dynamics. Vegetable production and access to local markets is another area of focus. During this period, we are also evolving the concept of “farm to house” with the facilitation of the field staff.
ST: What can the Government, NGOs, multilateral agencies, international financial institutions, the private sector and civil society groups do to prevent vulnerable rural communities from sliding further into poverty?
AM: Government, development partners and CSOs need to develop a framework for continuing to support vulnerable communities during and after the coronavirus which is robust, short, medium and long term as most of the economies will face real challenges to recover.
Most of the vulnerable communities’ livelihoods, economic opportunities will collapse, hence the need to develop comprehensive development assistance programme that focusses of enabling policies, economic strengthening, technological support and social support mechanisms.
ST: Donor partners are major contributors to the financing of CTDO projects. Do your funding partners understand the impact Covid-19 has brought on your work? Are they likely to continue supporting you in the wake of delays brought about by the pandemic?
AM: We are in constant communication with our funding partners, reviewing the situation and discussing the measures that need to be taken to facilitate continuation of the current programmes in the face of Covid-19 pandemic.
ST: What do you think needs to be done to ensure the continuity of rural projects if the Covid-19 pandemic continues spreading for a few more years?
AM: In the event that the pandemic continues, adaptation measures would need to be instituted as a key integral part of livelihoods.
ST: What are your hopes and fears for the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the rural poor?
AM: My greatest fear is the loss of lives, livelihoods and income opportunities as this will erode all the gains from the past development interventions. Nonetheless the world will never be the same again after this pandemic.