By Dr Dick Nuwamanya Kamuganga, President, Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFFE)

We are entering into uncertain times. On 30th March 2020, the President issued public health guidelines in response to the rapidly and aggressively spreading COVID-19 pandemic. As of today, Uganda has reported 52 positive cases of Pandemic COVID-19.  At the outset, I would like on behalf of the farmers in the country to appreciate the President’s decisiveness in guiding the country to prevent the spread of the pandemic in Uganda. The timely guidance in many ways have scaled down the momentum of infections and will save lives and contain the dangers associated with the reach of the virus to a wider Ugandan community. We also extend our appreciations to the office of the Prime Minister’s initiative to extend relief food to the vulnerable within the urban and peri-urban areas so far.  Our special thanks go to the Ministry of Health, Hon. Ruth Aceng and her team-the health workers, the Uganda Police Force and Uganda Peoples Defence Forces for overseeing the implementation of the public guidelines to keep us safe.

It is already evident that COVID-19 is not only a health crisis but also a human and economic tragedy disrupting every aspect of human life around the world indiscriminately. It attacks the rich, the poor, young and old, the advanced nations and the poor nations are all grappling with the same basic things of containing the pandemic and putting a halt to this human tragedy.

What we have seen in the last few days of lockdown have shown us that we must have a comprehensive strategy to tackle this pandemic.  The farmers believe we need to be ready on a different front. After securing our health and lives, the next frontier to secure is that of national food and nutrition security. Food and nutrition security are only second to health. In fact, to survive COVID-19 nutrition is at the core, we cannot ignore food and nutrition security during and after the period of the pandemic.

In this respect, Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFFE) recommends the formation of a National Food and Nutrition Security Task Force to oversee different aspects of food and nutrition security in the country during and after this pandemic.  We strongly believe a well-composed task force will play a better role in coordinating production, harvesting, processing, distribution and selling and buying of the food in the country and beyond.

Since the lockdown, the country and the world, in general, are in a state of disruption. The food production networks are uncoordinated, the distribution, logistical and market systems networks have broken down. International food trade and other trade, in general, has broken down. In Uganda, the closure of schools, universities, markets, restaurants, hotels, and transport networks will both in the short- and medium-term affect food availability, accessibility, and affordability dynamics in the country and beyond.

In this article, I reflect on the economic impacts of the pandemic with a farmer’s lens. But I also offer 17 main pathways towards sustainable food and nutrition security during and after the pandemic.

First, let’s organize and establish a coordinated effort toward national food and nutrition security during and after the pandemic period. Currently, with the lockdown and curfew, there is disarray and the sector actors have been left on their own.  In this respect a coordinated effort in the form of a national food and nutrition security task force coordinated by the Ministry of Agriculture but with stakeholder representatives on the table down to the parish level. Each level from national down to parish level, there should be a coordination centre and coordination team with a feedback mechanism to support an efficient food and nutrition security systems.

Let the coordination task force has a bottom-up approach. Farmers who need seeds are in the villages not in trading centres and there is restricted mobility between the two points. Seeds need to be followed by knowhow and any other advisory services.  A number of institutions offered support systems to farmers before COVID-19 attack. Because of the lockdown, this support system has broken down. Hence, this work cannot be left at the mercy of the extension workers alone in the parishes and sub-counties. It needs all stakeholders on the table and in small teams. Small teams at the village can be coordinated by the parish chief, who can provide the feedback link to the sub-county, district, sub-regional, regional and ultimately national task force coordination centre and team. We have 10000 parishes across the country, 5000 of these parishes are in the productive agro-ecological zones. We can afford to have 5000 small health, food and nutrition security teams to ensure the country’s food and nutrition security and strategically be read to feed other nations in the region.

Second, let the task force assess the need for seed and other inputs urgently. The planting window is rapidly closing. In the next 2 weeks, the window will be fully closed. We need to act now.  At UNFFE we approximate that 40 per cent of farmers had not planted by the time the country was locked down.  With the disruption of the logistic network and information flow, these farmers may not have a chance to plant. But this needs not to be so.  The coordination team can identify, procure, and deliver seed and fertilizer to the 5000 parishes in the productive agriculture zones across the country.

Third, the task force can establish and coordinate farm supporting logistic network. We have 2000 sub-counties across the country. 1000 sub-counties are located in the productive agro-ecological zones. Let’s deploy delivery trucks based on needs coordinated at the district level (or sub-county level) to deliver seed and other inputs across the country in the next 7 day-14 days.

The farm supporting logistic network can also help deliver farm output to peri-urban and urban centres for marketing.  The disruption of the normal transport system has meant the disruption of the proper functioning of the value chain systems supporting both the rural and urban centres. Let the food and nutrition security task force establish new distribution centres across the country and reinforce the existing ones.

The fourth function of the task force would be to find and coordinate farm finance.  The country lockdown has disrupted the credit and funding systems that supported food production, harvesting, post-harvesting, and processing and distribution systems in the country. Mainstream banks, SACCOS and village banks are not working properly. Farmers cannot get credit. Banks are not giving credit to farmers and farm value chain actors. The sector needs production supporting finance. The sector needs transport supporting finance. The sector needs storage and post-harvesting handling finance. The sector needs food processing and agro-processing finance.  All these processes are essential to guarantee food and nutrition security in all the corners of the country and beyond. The sector needs emergency funds- Let’s establish a food and nutrition security fund. The task force can locate, negotiate terms and provide financing and funding to the farm sector value chain actors now and until the effects of the pandemic are smoothen out of the national economy.

Firth, farmers are losing livestock now as a result of the unpredictable flow of inputs and as a result that they cannot reach their farms on time (farm decision-makers who are not located at the farms). Veterinary drugs and feed need to be coordinated now to support predictable, quality and quantity production across the country in the next 9 months. Farmers are losing their chicken, pigs, etc., now because of feed and animal drugs. Dairy farmers are losing their cattle because of veterinary drugs and feed.  The national task force can be broken down into value chain specific sub-task forces coordinated by the Ministry of Agriculture and the farmers as key members on the team.

Sixth, the delivery of knowhow. The extension services now are needed like they were before. But methods of delivery must change not to endanger society. E-extension, we can work with digital agriculture companies to deliver content specific to specific value chain advisory services, delivered by -SMS-es, electronic dashboards, call-centres, radio and TV programs all focused on current planting season, quality and quantity output for both domestic, regional and international markets. The World Economic Forum based in Switzerland estimates that Europe will be hit by Vegetables and fruit shortages in the next 3 months. That’s a trade opportunity for Uganda seasonal capacity that beats all other countries producing vegetables and fruits.

Seventh, establish sub-regional, regional and national staple food reserves.  The task force can help organize sub-regional food and nutrition security task forces that will enable identification, production, harvesting, preservation, and processing of sub-regional staples.  Establishment of regional and sub-regional staple food reserves.

Eighth, in partnership with NIRA, this is an opportunity to profile and know all the farming households across the country, the value chains being produced, and the acreage, for proper agro-ecological zone planning, and national food and nutrition security planning.

Ninth, the national food and nutrition security task force can help the national plan for the strategic opportunities emerging out of this crisis within the region and international. Many nations will be disrupted and emerge out of the crisis in need to secure food and nutrition for their own economies. International trade in food will emerge as an important post-pandemic era. Uganda should be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity.

Tenth, the task force can also help coordinate with the MSMEs in the peri-urban and urban centres. These have been the drivers of agriculture commercialization and modernization. They have been partners with the farming sector in the country that keep the thread of national food and nutrition security system functional. Everyone knows what the role markets like Kalerwe etc. play. They are full of MSMEs that provide more than 75 per cent of the informal business jobs in Uganda in the food sector. Therefore, providing the largest source of income and livelihoods but also support farmers across the country. A mechanism can be found by the task force to find

Eleventh, the task force engages the domestic and international banks on the existing loans and debt within the economy, specifically within the agricultural sector with a view to restructuring them. We know now that COVID-19 has exacerbated the risk in the sector. But also, the COVID-19 uncertainty has hit the agriculture sector as well.  The farm sector through agricultural exports is the driver of our foreign exchange earnings after workers remittances and tourism both of which have collapsed flat. It’s the main source of foreign exchange. Foreign exchange is crucial in keeping the economy afloat. Let’s support the sector with the necessary finance with flexible terms of re-servicing the loan. In the Central Bank Statements, yesterday morning didn’t mention any special attention needed for the sector. The ministry of finance needs to step in here and direct special agricultural funds needed to keep the rest of the economy well-fed and afloat.

Twelfth, the task force can advise the government on agriculture-based import substitution strategy, but also national agriculture export-driven economic recovery plans. The Central Bank yesterday indicated that we expected an economic contraction of up to 3 percentage points. It could be worse.  Nations of the world will shrink in economic size. They will be drawing economic recovery strategies. We can have a first-mover advantage as we have had in containing COVID-19 spread in the region. In this aspect, Uganda is leading by example. It can also be in preparing for national recovery but also assist regional economies to recover by export food and nutrition security to the region. This requires formidable planning, coordination and resource allocation in agricultural value chains that can be easily regionally and internationally traded to earn the much-needed foreign exchange.

Thirteenth, the task force can coordinate identification, selection and design, offer know-how and manage the planting of food nutrition guaranteeing foods like horticultural and vegetable crops with export potential but also which can utilize smallholder pieces of land, home gardening, vertical gardening, rooftop gardening including also aquaculture, rabbit farming, poultry rearing, apiary farming etc. to provide quick sources of nourishment for the citizens.

Fourteenth, the task force could monitor with intentions to stabilize food prices.  It’s alleged that panic buying, neighbouring countries buying grain for strategic reserves, hiked transport costs from the farms to the urban/ consuming centres have resulted in an upward trend within essential staple food prices. It would be a duty of the task force to ensure there are no artificial prices raises as well as break monopoly of the transportation companies as well as middlemen speculatively pricing the food items.

Fifteenth, the task force could act to catalyze digitization of agriculture. Leveraging digital solutions during this period of the pandemic where human contact is reduced will usher a new era of agricultural productivity and internationalization of our smallholder farmers farm output. That accelerates the integration of smallholder farmers’ value chains into the global agricultural value chains.

Sixteenth, the task force will engage with resident development partners such as the African Development Bank, the World Bank, UN agencies in the development sector to coordinate with government and put up a sustainable support system to ensure the food and nutrition sector in the country does not collapse but also through our leadership we can keep food security in the region stable.

 Sevenths, we propose the composition of the task force to be led by MAAIF (including all its MDAs)  and be composed of the Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Finance (financing), Ministry of Trade (international trade component), the Ministry of Water (water for production).