Livelihoods on the Line
What COVID-19 is Costing Smallholder Farmers
With the onset of COVID-19 and subsequent quarantine measures, smallholder farmers’ livelihoods have taken a serious hit. On-the-ground initiatives are building momentum to get them access to the resources they need to keep growing.
Farmer with cows

This story is an update from our COVID-19 and Smallholders news series.

In India, most smallholder farmers keep their money at the local post office.

That might sound unconventional. In India, however, it’s the norm among rural farmers. The post office is safe, secure, more accessible to remote villages, and comes without prohibitive rules like minimum account balances. 


When state lockdowns restricted travel and closed non-essential services, post offices remained open. But farmers were afraid — and in some cases, not even allowed — to reach the nearest India Post. Once there, they were concerned about overcrowded locations, long lines, and the risk of exposure. They faced a decision nobody should have to face: Risk infection to withdraw the operating cash they need for their farms and livelihoods, or…there really wasn’t another option.


But there was another complication.


Rabi (winter season) crops were ready for harvest (with no market access to sell), and Kharif (summer or monsoon season) crops were about to be planted. During the month of May, the agriculture industry in India typically operates at 200 to 300 percent capacity. The timing couldn’t have been worse.

Hourglass icon behind a farmer



During the month of May, the agriculture industry in India typically operates at 200%-300% capacity. The timing couldn’t have been worse.

This dilemma is a microcosm of a larger set of challenges facing smallholder farmers everywhere, every day. The solution here was both ingenious and simple.  


Instead of bringing farmers to the post office, the Bayer team brought the post office to the farmers. Kiosks set up at Bayer’s partner Better Life Farming centers let growers access their cash and pay for seeds and other inputs in a one-stop experience.


The larger economic challenge facing farmers is more complex, and the solution will likely be more complicated.



Stuck in a Financial Rut

Smallholders operate one day to the next, with such a narrow margin of error, that even the smallest disruption or hiccup could cause their delicate balance between expenses and revenue to turn upside down. COVID-19 is no hiccup. It’s a farm-rattling shock to this fragile system. 


Imagine this scenario:

  1. A farmer who has trouble accessing their cash, or is worried about market prices for their produce, makes the difficult decision to buy cheaper, lower-yielding crop inputs.
  2. They may even be deceived by counterfeit products.    
  3. The solutions are inferior and yield less.
  4. Their harvest suffers, and so does their income, even if the prices are fair.
  5. Having earned less, they won’t even have a decision next time — their livelihood is impacted significantly and the cycle continues.

Or a similar situation:

  1. Because of the lockdown, a farmer has trouble finding buyers for their produce.
  2. They sell what they can at a fraction of the market value.
  3. And can barely afford the labor costs to get produce to the buyer at that price.
  4. They’re forced to give away or destroy what they can’t sell.
  5. Their income is a fraction of what it would be typically and so is their investment in the next season — thus, the cycle continues. 

These scenarios aren’t just possible. They’re already happening, and they’re keeping Bayer’s global smallholder COVID-19 task force up at night. 


Breaking the Cycle

To a member, the task force will tell you their main responsibility is to provide guidance while staying out of the way of country teams who are helping farmers get everything from seeds to crop protection to cash from the post office.


Klaus Eckstein, Senior Bayer Representative Bayer South East Africa and member of the task force says “Smallholder farmers are standing up to the challenges of the pandemic in their best effort to keep growing food for their families and communities.


“They’re finding new solutions and the team at Bayer is helping in every way that we can,” he says.

Arnab Das
This isn’t a problem you can just throw money at... This is a problem that requires the efforts of people on the ground in each smallholder community – and it takes collaboration, passion and innovation.
Arnab Das
Bayer’s Head of Smallholder Farming for the APAC region

“From providing immediate donations of seeds and crop protection inputs to longer-term access to partnerships and digital tools, our aim is to help smallholder farmers become more resilient,” he adds.


“Because when farms are more resilient, so are the farmers and communities who rely on them,” Arnab says.


Luis Offa, Head of Regional Business Strategy LATAM, says that in Latin America, the impact of COVID-19 on smallholder farmers is not yet fully known, but will certainly compromise food production, especially in countries in Northern LATAM.


“This means we have to be more flexible than ever before in our way of working,” Luis explains. 


“It calls for more agile project approaches that allow us to learn fast while piloting and experimenting in focused areas that support smallholders where they need it most in these times,” Luis adds.




Keep exploring the
news series

Women picking chilies

Two Farmers, A World Apart


Bike in front of a field

After the Start: Where Smallholders Stand Nearly a Year Into the Pandemic


locusts thumbnail

A Pandemic and a Plague: Locusts Add to Farmers’ Dilemma


Farmer in a field

Breaking the Cycle: A New Season
for Smallholders


women standing in field in front of mountains

Digital Defense: How Information Can
Help Farmers Fight COVID-19


Marketeers in India

Safeguarding the Food Supply Chain
In Two (Not So) Easy Steps


Farm worker washing hands

Fighting Hunger With
Hand Washing