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Malawi: COVID-19 social distancing measures disrupt markets and farmers’ income

It is a cool, dry winter afternoon and Ida Maganga is arriving home from her field of Irish potatoes and tomatoes about 200 metres from her house. The 35-year-old mother of three looks puzzled and unhappy. Recently, the customers who buy her crops are not coming in large numbers to the markets in her area.

Mrs. Maganga says this is because of the social distancing measures that the government recently announced to control the spread of COVID-19. It means that she needs to quickly figure out ways to sell her perishable crops.

She says, “The coming of coronavirus disease will cripple the already poor prices for Irish potatoes and tomatoes at the market. This will drastically reduce my income.”

Mrs. Maganga farms in Kapenuka village, Dedza district, about 90 kilometres south of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. She first heard about COVID-19 on the radio and later through a cellphone alert from the Ministry of Health.

She says, “I learned that the signs and symptoms of a person infected with coronavirus are coughing, sneezing, and fever.”

She adds: “However, I was scared when I heard news about social distancing measures put in place by government to ensure that less people are infected. I knew that this would negatively affect me as a farmer.”

In Malawi, the government is advising people to keep at least one metre apart, stop shaking hands, avoid public gatherings of more than 100 people, and reduce the number of people in both public and private vehicles. Weddings and religious services are banned.

The government announced that markets would be open for half-days, but this has been challenged in court, and has not been implemented. People must keep social distancing measures in markets, but are not adhering to them.

Mrs. Maganga says that COVID-19 control measures have changed how farmers market their goods, because marketing to customers requires social contact. She adds: “COVID-19 measures have closed access to markets, a thing that will dwindle our income from farming. I rely on local markets to sell my tomatoes and Irish potatoes for me to support my family.”

Oliver Enock is a businesswoman who buys tomatoes at the farmgate and sells to vendors at local markets. She is a mother of two and lives in Nkungumbe village in Dedza district.

She says the measures to control coronavirus are killing her business. With the social distancing measures, many vendors who buy her tomatoes and Irish potatoes are finding it hard to manage transport because fewer people are allowed in a single vehicle.

She adds: “Before the disease, I was buying five baskets of tomatoes a day from farmers and was making a profit of 5,000 Malawi kwacha ($6.70 US). With the social distancing measures in place, I only manage to buy three baskets of tomatoes per day, from which I am getting a profit of around 3,000 Malawi kwacha ($4 US).”

Richard Nguluwe is a 29-year-old fishmonger from Ntchetche village in Lilongwe rural district. He says social distancing measures have reduced his daily profit from around 8,000 Malawi kwacha ($10.70 US) to about 3,000 Malawi kwacha ($4 US).

Mr. Nguluwe explains: “I understand coronavirus is deadly and I am trying to adhere to social distancing measures. But this has affected my daily life because my fish business is not ticking. I rely on fish from the lake and if these COVID-19 measures are followed, where will I get the fish and to whom will I sell?”

Chisomo Botha is the extension worker in Dedza district. He says that although measures such as social distancing are negatively affecting farmers’ income due to reduced market activities, it’s very important for farmers to follow the measures to fight the virus.

Mr. Botha explains: “All tomatoes, cabbages, groundnuts, and maize come from rural areas and are supplied to cities. So it’s important for us to share information with farmers to help them not to spread or get infected with COVID-19 because farmers are at the centre and are the main source of food for people who live in towns and cities.”

Although Mrs. Maganga’s income has been reduced, she says she will continue to adhere to social distancing measures in order to protect her and her family, though it will have a long-term impact on her standard of living.

She explains: “My plan this year was to renovate my house using income from farming, but with poor prices and lack of customers, my profits will be less and I have to wait for a better time when the social distancing measures are lifted for me to achieve my dreams.”

This resource is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.