Women share their experiences surviving Covid-19, rising hunger and the climate crisis
Since the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a global pandemic on 11 March, countries have introduced a range of measures to contain the virus by imposing restrictions on the movement of people, goods and services.
Now, we're seeing how the pandemic and the containment measures associated with it are deepening pre-existing inequalities and exposing vulnerabilities in social and economic systems.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation's recently published State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 (SOFI), in 2019 nearly 690 million people were chronically food insecure. The report predicts that between 83 and 132 million people will become food insecure by the end of 2020 due to the impacts of the pandemic.
Between August and September 2020, ActionAid spoke to women farmers across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe about the impact of Covid-19 on their daily lives and their ability to provide for their children. Here are some of their stories:
Dulali Begum, the entrepreneur who will not give up:
Dulali Begum, 38, is an agribusiness entrepreneur living in Purbo Udakhali village in the Gaibandha district, Bangladesh.
Dulali has been working with ActionAid’s partner SKS since 2016, participating in the local women’s savings group Zamuna Women’s Group, discussing issues on women’s rights and receiving training which enabled her to set up a small poultry business in 2018.
With a small loan, Dulali, built a poultry farm and bought 300 chicks for rearing. She earned a net profit of BDT 8,000 (US$ 93) from the first round of selling. In the second round she earned profit BDT 20,000 (US$ 230) from rearing 600 chicken. Her business grew, her family were doing well and she was able to pay back the loan.
But due to the pandemic, 2020 is looking significantly different for Dulali, and, like many families their income and food intake has plummeted.
As Covid-19 spread in Bangladesh, Dulali struggled to sell her chickens, markets were closed, transporting the goods was a challenge and the buyers were weary of buying chickens for fear of contracting Covid-19 through the chickens.
Dulali persevered, travelling to different markets, but eventually closed her business, selling the 30 day-old chicks back to the seller for much less than they would have made at market. Instead of making a profit, she lost half of the capital and was unable to sustain the business. Her dreams were shattered.
Dulali relied on her savings to feed her family for the first two months of lockdown. As the family's income dwindled, she set up a small tea shop in the village.
“I became very frustrated when I lost everything due to Covid-19 pandemic and became desperate how would I support my family. I borrowed 500 taka (5US$) and started the tea business buying sugar, tea and other necessary materials," she says.
I earn 100-200 taka (US$ 1-2) a day from the shop which makes it very difficult to provide 3 meals a day for the children. So, we have started to live, eating once or twice a day.”
Dulali has also faced challenges from within her community.
“Neighbours told me it is not normal for a women to run a tea shop. They said to me that you are a women, how can you run a shop like this beside the road? Religious leaders of the community also opposed it, saying how can a women run a tea shop, you have a husband and two sons, why you are required to run the shop on your own? Then my husband said as he will support me with the business and so that people will not say anything," she says.
"I cannot do my business and my family income has been decreased. We are in crisis but don’t know when I will be able to regain the loss.”
Dulali Is determined not to give up and says soon she will borrow some more money to start the poultry farm again.
Soap-making supports Furaha and the Maendeleo women’s group during Covid-19:
Furaha Ntawigira, 39, is married with six children, living in the Nyiragongo territory in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Furaha is the secretary of Maendeleo women’s group which benefited from ActionAid training in soap making. The project aims to diversify incomes and increase women’s access to and control over their land.
“Covid-19 is worse than Ebola. It has affected farming activities and shaken the local economy. Before Covid-19, we could go to buy goods in Rwanda, Goma, Rutshuru or Masisi.
"When the lockdown was declared, people could no longer move out of their villages. Therefore, we could neither buy nor sell and only survived thanks to farm produce, though there was poor production in the current growing season. We ate what we got from the farm during the lock down, we could not get variety of food and spices," she says.
Furaha says there was a poor harvest this year because farmers were unable to travel to buy seeds and pesticides from Rwanda or Masisi territory.
In response, ActionAid is training women in the district on agroecology, climate resilient, sustainable farming techniques that work with nature, to reduce their reliance on bought seeds, pesticides and fertilizer.
Local crime increased as people lost their livelihoods due to lockdown. Furaha says: "Many thieves used to break into farms and steal the harvest. I had potato crops on the farm before the lockdown but thieves who lacked food during the hard times, broke into farms to steal the harvests, including mine. If you met them, they would beat you and threaten to kill you in case you reported them."
But with handwashing now vital to preventing the spread of Covid-19, the Maendeleo women’s soap-making business is booming. ,
“Now apart from the income from farm produce, I can get 7$ of profit from soap making per week. Last time, after selling off the farm produce and eating a quantity, there was no income to cover the period between two harvests. Now, the soap business will do it,” Furaha says.
With this income Furaha was able to buy potato seeds, she says: "Had I not made and sold the soap I wouldn’t have got seeds for next season”
Eating poisonous wild tubers for survival:
It is the beginning of the lean season in Malawi, the period between planting and harvesting, when many families have reduced access to food and income.
Nkhoma, a smallholder farmer in Phalombe District in Southern Malawi, has struggled to find enough, nutritious food for her family since losing her livelihood to Cyclone Idai in 2019. This year has continued to be tough, with harvests in southern Malawi affected by a dry spell, followed by the global pandemic. In March, the Malawi government announced travelling and gathering restrictions as part of Covid-19 preventive measures, affecting Nkhoma’s access to market and earnings.
“In 2019, we didn’t harvest much but the situation was bearable considering that most organisations were distributing food to us. However, this year, I only got food support from ActionAid Malawi and that was four months ago,” says Nkhoma, a mother of six.
To survive, Nkhoma and her husband, John Kapasule, wake up early in the morning, walking four hours in the mountains to gather Mikawa, a wild poisonous tuber. The tubers, which taste like potatoes have to be boiled for about six hours before consumption, as a way of removing the poison. Nkhoma, says she counts herself lucky that the poisonous tubers haven’t done any harm to their lives.
“Due to hunger in the area, the scramble for the wild tubers has become high. On a daily basis there about 100 families in the mountains digging for tubers and one has to count themselves lucky if they find the tubers in good time,” narrates Kapasule while eating the cooked tubers, their only meal for the day.
The food crisis is affecting about 2.7 million people in Malawi, 1.9 million in the rural areas with 15 percent of the country’s population in the country needing food support between October 2020 to March 2021. (UN 2020)
ActionAid Malawi’s Emergency and Resilience Specialist Tchaka Kamanga says “ActionAid, together with its grassroot partners, will be running a cash-transfer programme to enable targeted poor and vulnerable households earn some income to buy food during the lean period. But due to funding limitations ActionAid Malawi will only target about 200 families in Phalombe and Nsanje, leaving out numerous others in dire need.”
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Rebuilding a groundnut business after Covid-19 hit The Gambia:
Mam Kaddy, 40, lives in the Central River Region South, The Gambia, in a community that mainly depends on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods.
Married with five children, Mam benefited from an ActionAid project aimed at building the resilience of smallholder farmers to climate change.
Mam managed to build up a lucrative groundnut processing and soap-making business. She was able to support her family, build a larger house and employ people to help with the business.
But her businesses has been hit hard by the impacts of Covid-19.
“I used to give them [my family] fish or meat when it’s my turn to cook. But none of that is happening now. Everything that we saved has finished and we don’t have anything for our survival,” says Mam.
When the first case of Covid-19 was reported in The Gambia on 17March, the government imposed stringent measures to curb the spread of the virus. These measures included border closures, abolishing of social gatherings and closure of lumos (weekly markets).
“The pandemic ruined my business and made my livelihood difficult. Before the start of the pandemic, I spent a huge amount of money to purchase items like sorrel, baobab, and groundnut to participate in the National Trade Fair that is annually organized by The Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI)," Mam says.
"I also spent a significant amount of money to process the groundnuts into paste and oil. Unfortunately, the trade fair was cancelled due to coronavirus. The lumos [weekly markets] have stopped. This makes the marketing of my products very difficult. The baobab and sorrel got spoilt and I sold the groundnut paste and oil at a giveaway prices.”
To keep her business afloat, Mam took a loan from the Credit Union, payable after one year. This initiative, run by ActionAid's partner Apex , means that she can borrow money at an interest rate of 5% which is much lower than banks and other credit unions.
"With cash support I was able to buy food for my family and restart my business,” adds Mam.
Organic farmers produce distributed to vulnerable families in Minas, Brazil:
Between May and June, in Minas Gerais, Brazil, ActionAid partner, Centro de Agricultura Alternativa, teamed up with Grande Sertão Cooperative and other organisations to bring 144 tonnes of organic food to 2,000 food insecure families in the region.
The collaboration has allowed organic farmers to earn during the pandemic, while markets were inaccessible.
Family farmer, Efigênia Tereza de Marco says: “Everything became harder with schools and fairs being closed everywhere. How could we sell our products when everything’s shutdown?
“Then we suddenly heard about this support and this made us very happy. We producers need to see this action in particular. It’s not about just selling and generating income, it’s something that has to do with lots of values. It’s very good to have in mind that this healthy product will reach families who really need it, and that it has quality, as it is made with care.”
A similar project in the forest region of Minas Gerais, the Alternative Technologies Center (CTA-ZM) has distributed more than 22 tonnes of food, targeting the families of vulnerable children out of school due to the pandemic. The food baskets include fruit, vegetables and baked goods from woman-led community kitchens.
“During this pandemic and isolation we were no longer able to sell to schools. This support has enabled us to transport the products we already had and it has also helped us with income. Without the support from ActionAid, we would lose the equivalent of at least 50% of our income” says farmer and baker Marlene Nicolau.
Unable to sell her avocados, Ernestine is now relying on food support to feed her daughters:
Ernestine Mukandoli, 39, is a single mother of two girls of ten and one, living in the Nyanza District of Southern Province, Rwanda.
Before the Covid-19 outbreak, Ernestine was a fruit vendor at a prison located near her home, making a profit of about 1,000 Rwandan Francs (approx. US$1) a day. Ernestine’s daily income covered her family’s basic needs, they did not go to bed hungry and her daughter was able to attend school.
Their life has become harder since the first case of Covid-19 was registered in Rwanda back in March 2020. The government imposed new measures, limiting the movement of people countrywide and small businesses and informal workers, like Ernestine, lost their livelihoods overnight.
“Since the Covid-19 outbreak in Rwanda, the prison’s administration limited the number of visitors and instructed a suspension of individuals selling fruits to the prison’s canteen until further notice,” says Ernestine.
The restriction of movement has forced Ernestine to seek casual, irregular work at neighbouring farms, earning 800 Rwandan Francs (approx. US$ 0.8) for a day’s work.
With supply chains disrupted across the country, it is harder for smallholder farmers to earn an income from their sales, limiting their capacity to pay their casual labourers, often paying women like Ernestine with food rather than money.
“The challenge I’m facing now is that we are in the dry season and farming activities are limited, so it is very hard to find a casual work on someone’s farm. I can spend a whole week without getting someone to hire me,” Ernestine adds.
“It has been four months now that I am prohibited from selling avocados, [to the prison] I impatiently look forward to the permission to resume my small business,” Ernestine adds.
The government of Rwanda, in collaboration with its development partners, is supporting the most vulnerable families with basic needs like food and hygiene supplies. Ernestine's was amongst the 1,200 families who received food support, distributed by ActionAid Rwanda as part of the emergency response to Covid-19.
“You can’t imagine how relieved I felt to be able to have at least two meals a day for my daughters. ActionAid’s food assistance has helped me save my wage from the casual work and I’ve been able to rent a small piece of land where I grow my own potatoes and vegetables that my family is now relying on, as the government steps into reopening businesses,” says Ernestine.
“We thought that Covid-19 would be over soon for us to go back to normalcy. I now fear that it will stay longer than expected. I do not really know how our life will look like if it takes long, because it is very hard to live in these bad conditions,” Ernestine says.
In Ernestine's district of Mukingo, ActionAid Rwanda and partners are using local radio and the megaphones to raise awareness about how to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Due to the 40 days of total country lockdown in Rwanda from 21st March to 2nd May 2020, many businesses were heavily impacted. Though restrictions have now eased, many small businesses remain closed. As a result of Covid-19 effects on the labour market, the unemployment rate in Rwanda increased from 13% in February to 22% in May 2020, according to a survey of the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, with 25% of women and 19.6% of men being unemployed in May 2020.
Mavis' harvest hit by travel restrictions in Zimbabwe:
Mavis Gofa, 25, is a smallholder farmer who grew up in the Kawere community, Zimbabwe. After receiving training by the Zimbabwe Small Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF) in collaboration with ActionAid Zimbabwe, Mavis began growing drought tolerant grain crops.
Her family is now able to produce food for consumption, whilst selling the surplus, thereby generating income for other household needs.
“I have stayed here in this village and many people try to demotivate me. Looking at the current economic situation in our country, staying here and practicing farming is far better than migrating to the city where job opportunities are hard to come,” she says.
Although she has been doing very well as a smallholder farmer, Mavis faces several challenges such accessing markets and the burden of unpaid care work, especially during Covid-19.
“I stay with my grandmother and two cousin brothers. I spend a lot of time doing household tasks and sometimes I wake up very early in the morning so I can balance with my garden work. My grandmother is old, and it is my role to take care of her during this period of Covid-19.
"Despite the issue of unpaid care work, the coming in of Covid-19 has tightened our access to markets. We are losing produce due to spoilage because we have nowhere to sell it. We are also losing our produce at police roadblocks on our way to Harare. It is very difficult to access customers due to lockdown,” says Mavis.
Giving an example of her losses, Mavis says: “ In one of my trips to Harare in June 2020, I carried 15 boxes of tomatoes which I used to sell about US$15 per box. I left three boxes worth about US$45 at a police roadblock for me to be allowed to proceed to Harare despite having a travel letter with a local police stamp. From the 12 remaining boxes, I sold only three for US$15 each, but sold the rest of the boxes for only US$10 per box because I was afraid they would go bad before they were bought.
"Because of lockdowns few people are coming to the Harare Mbare Musika market, so one is forced to sell their produce at lower prices to avoid having more losses, as tomatoes are perishable. Because of the reduced family income, we are now eating twice a day instead of three times.”
Since the ActionAid training, Mavis is now cultivating more small grains such as sorghum and rapoko, creating seeds which her community members can store, replant and still achieve good yields. The small grains crops are also adaptive to drought prone conditions compared with maize, commonly grown by smallholders in Zimbabwe.
‘’These crops were underestimated yet they are nutritious. More awareness is needed to teach famers out there to venture into growing OPV [open pollinated varieties] crops and I have seen that less costs are also involved as they do not require fertilizers,” Mavis adds.
La Speranza food bank in Milan, Italy sees demand rise 20% during pandemic:
An ActionAid-supported food bank in Milan is highlighting how the Covid-19 crisis is pushing more families into food poverty across both the global north and south.
The food poverty programme was setup three years ago, with the aim of supporting local food banks run by La Speranza, in response to increasing need for food assistance, particularly from newly arrived migrants, fleeing from conflict, hunger and climate change in the global south.
But as coronavirus hit, growing numbers of local citizens, pushed into food poverty by the pandemic, have also started to rely on the project to feed their families.
Demand for food assistance has increased by 20% since the start of the pandemic – the food bank now supports around 1,000 people with food and other essentials including nappies and personal protective equipment, with some of the food distributed being sourced from local farmers and agricultural projects.
Roberto Sensi, ActionAid Italy’s policy adviser on global inequality, says: “Corsico is on the doorstep of one of the largest agricultural areas in Europe and on the borders of Italy’s second largest agricultural city, Milan. No one should be going hungry.
“But as the latest hunger figures show globally, Covid-19 is pushing more people into food poverty. Our food bank project encapsulates how the poorest and most vulnerable communities across the Global North and South are most at risk from rising food insecurity.”
Our local teams have already reached five million people across 40 countries, from distributing millions of food packages to funding life-saving women’s shelters.
But this crisis is far from over. And we urgently need your help to support the world’s most vulnerable communities.