Until 2017, Tabitha Kisinga, mother of ten, was farming her family land. She depended on the March to May and October to December rainy seasons as the norm in her matrimonial home in Kwale County, in the South Coast of Kenya. But weather patterns became erratic, making it increasingly hard to raise her big family on income from farming since money from her husband’s provision of casual labour was never enough.
In 2016, Kisinga said, “the drought was so bad that everything I planted dried up.” This brought the family to the realisation that survival would be difficult if they continued to depend on rainfed agriculture. So, Kisinga and her husband teamed up with 21 other farmers in their village to raise 70,000 Kenyan Shillings ($615) which they used to purchase 3 acres of land near the Ngangani dam in Eastern Kenya, so that they could start a mini irrigation scheme. They then registered themselves with the government to mark the beginning of the Ngangani irrigation scheme. “We started this project in 2017 so that we can eradicate poverty in our community,” says Kisinga who is also the group chairperson.
The project flourished, they planted tomatoes, collard greens, spinach, onions and African nightshade that would be sold to middlemen at the farm gate, allowing members of the irrigation scheme to concentrate on farming. All changed in early 2020, when Covid-19 was reported in East Africa. Subsequent restrictions on movement disrupted supply chains and the group had to reorganise for their farm to survive. “It became difficult to even find petrol for our generators; prices shot up,” saysTimothy Mwaniki, the group secretary.
The lockdown also meant that the middlemen were no longer coming to Ngangani to buy their produce, which caused a glut. “Farmers resorted to transporting their produce on motorcycles to nearby towns like Taru and Samburu, where they would sell to the largely semi nomadic population in the area,” Kisanga explained, adding that even after this, Ngangani irrigation farmers’ group members still struggled for income, as buyers didn’t always come to the markets.
Kisinga recalls one time when having ferried their produce to the next town for sale they found no buyers and this forced members to let tomatoes on half an acre of land to rot. “We had half an acre of tomatoes. But the women who used to travel in large numbers to buy the tomatoes never came to the market due to travel restrictions,” Kisinga says. She adds that most of the markets that would have provided an additional market for their produce were closed.
Closure of markets was also a big problem for Noeline Nakanwajji, a farmer in the semi-arid Ankole-Masaka corridor in central Uganda. In 2019, Nakanwajji received a solar powered pump from the government as part of Uganda’s efforts to increase the use of renewable energy for irrigation in the country. This enabled her to irrigate her farm of tomatoes, passion fruit and coffee.
And while her yields were improved, restrictions on movement disrupted crossborder trade, pushing prices down . “We used to plant tomatoes for export to South Sudan and Kenya but the market collapsed during Covid-19,” says Nakanwajji. Nakanwajji explains that a box of tomatoes that used to cost 400, 000 Ugandan shillings ($112.6) was being traded for 100,000 shillings($28.2), affecting her ability to invest further in the farm. With the drop in prices and reduced income, Nakanwajji resorted to the use of watering cans as she could not invest in sprinklers and pumps, hence reduced productivity.
Struggle to Keep Afloat
Wasswa Lubega, a farmer from Mpigi district in central Uganda, is one of the many farmers who have struggled to keep afloat. He used to grow passion fruits on a large scale using a solar-powered irrigation system but he says he now is on sabbatical from agriculture.
“Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I was employing 60 workers because the passion fruit business was profitable. The bag of passion fruits was between Ush 500, 000 ($141.8) and Ush 750, 000 ($212.7). When the pandemic hit, the prices drastically dropped to Ush 110, 000 ($28.4) per bag,” Lubega explains.
While the prices have since increased to Ush 300, 000($85.1), Lubega says the losses from Covid-19 forced him to cut his workforce by half. “I am taking a break. Let others manage until I recover from the losses.”
The losses and subsequent economic lull has not only reversed gains initially made in resilient agriculture including investment in irrigation equipment.
Dr. Kennedy Ignokwe the FAO Uganda Climate Change Programme Team Leader says “COVID-19 and the attendant restrictions have hindered plans and activities related to either supply, installation or repair of solar irrigation systems.”
Jonathan Bukenya the Irrigation Engineer at Davis & Shirtliff a company whose services include the supply and installation of irrigation equipment agrees that Covid-19 negatively affected their operations.
While he says they were able to move even during the severe lockdowns- courtesy of travel permits from the government, farmers’ enthusiasm and capacity to acquire irrigation equipment declined.
“In Uganda, the number of farmers purchasing and installing irrigation equipment reduced by 60 percent,” he said.