30 Jul 2020

Producers and agricultural workers as the resilient unsung heroes of COVID-19: A dialogue with the International Trade Centre.

Farmers and producers worldwide have shown extreme adaptability and resilience in these times of uncertainty. Yet they remain the unsung heroes of the story. We asked Hernan Manson from the International Trade Centre’s Alliances for Action programme team about the findings of their latest report on this matter, including the need for immediate relief versus strategic measures to tackle the long term effects of COVID-19.

As life slowly returns to a “new normal” in many countries, it is easy to forget this is not the case everywhere. Some regions across Latin America and Asia are still highly impacted by COVID-19, continuing disruption in the lives of farmers and workers. Small-scale producers have shown resilience, innovation, and bravery, from building their e-commerce capability, to using agricultural equipment to sanitise public spaces. Today we speak with the International Trade Centre (ITC) about their latest report on this matter: Unsung heroes: How Small Farmers Cope with COVID-19

Fairtrade International (FI): Worldwide media is currently dominated by COVID-19 stories, but what is happening on the ground that the general public may not be aware of?

ITC-Alliances for Action: The healthcare sector has been heavily spotlighted - with reason - and in the food sector, focus has been on the industry, distribution and the hospitality/restaurant side. However, there has been little reporting on the farmers and workers behind global food supply chains.

They are the unsung heroes of this crisis; without healthy and nutritious food there is no possibility of a sustainable future or resilience. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights that the global food supply is built on the shoulders of farmers and agricultural workers.

Furthermore, when we look at food production in the global south, the main commodity-producing countries are mostly developing or least developed countries who, in addition to COVID-19, are being affected by a double crisis: climate change and price volatility crisis. The pandemic has deepened the impact of these existing crises and the associated global recession effects have severely affected the pathway towards inclusive jobs and growth.

FI: Is that what brought you to write the report on the Unsung Heroes?

ITC-Alliances for Action: ITC Alliances for Action decided to work on the Unsung Heroes report to fill that information gap and to relay a message from the global farmer community. The ITC Alliances for Action team strongly believes that we need to shorten the distance between farm and table for good trade to happen.

The starting point was to give a voice to the producers, our partners, and we structured the report around their feedback rather than come up with an a priori theory and feed their comments into our report. The Alliances for Action network - smallholder farmer representatives, Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises and communities worldwide - was a rich resource we had available to tap into. We based the report on 14 interviews with Alliances for Action partners that are representative of the smallholder farmer community, many of whom are also members of Fairtrade certified cooperatives.

FI: What would you say are the three main takeaways of the report?

ITC-Alliances for Action: One big takeaway is that the smallholder communities behind our global food supply chains, largely in developing countries, are facing a triple crisis: climate, price volatility and now health. This is placing enormous strain on them in terms of impacts like economic recession, food insecurity, health vulnerability, income issues, cash flow issues, increases in cost of doing business and livelihood risks and trade disruptions.

A second takeaway is that to navigate the additional shock of this pandemic, smallholder farmer communities have to put emergency recovery strategies in place. If they are to flourish in the long term, they also need to look beyond the crisis and plan initiatives that are strategic and enable sustainable economic and social development.

Lastly, the onus cannot only be on the farmer communities. If we are to shrink the distance between farm to table in a responsible manner, then we need the corporations, governments, high-visibility food industry representatives and consumers to partner and play their part as well.

While family farmers and their associations need to scale up their capacity for resilience and competitiveness, public and private sector also need to support and work in close partnership with them to implement locally- and regionally-developed solutions through global partnerships.

FI: Speaking about resilience, in your report you make a big emphasis on the need for emergency versus long-term recovery measures. Could you elaborate a bit more on this?

ITC-Alliances for Action: These are the two frameworks that emerged. When it comes to an emergency response, protecting the health and nutrition of farmer cooperative members was absolutely key, as was to build a solidarity network for farmers’ welfare. The report provides examples of how producers and agricultural cooperatives in the Dominican Republic, Latin America, Ghana and Liberia are prioritizing measures to keep farmers healthy.

In Liberia, for example, farmers continue going to the farms, but the Farmers Union Network of Liberia (FUN) are educating their farmers on prevention and applying social distancing in the best way possible, according to FUN’s President, Josephine Francis. African countries have been swift and strict with prevention measures, as they seek to minimize the economic and health impacts of the virus. “Immediately what we have done is to engage our medical doctors, where they have developed bullet Dos and Don’ts. The doctors are at the disposal of the farmer members at the district level,” said Samuel Adimado of Kuapa Kokoo Cooperative Cocoa Farmers and Marketing Union. “At the head office, they have done training for all the staff and they have instituted all health precautionary measures.” Recognizing that these measures will create economic hardships, the Ghanaian cooperative is topping up staff salaries and compensating workers.

It is also crucial to highlight the importance of information sharing and clear communication channels across value chains, in order to obtain the latest developments and safety guidelines. Lastly, public- private partnerships to trigger emergency response measures for transport, health protection and logistics also proved to be effective. The Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI), for example, is working with Caribbean governments and farmer organizations to tackle the crisis regionally, mobilizing its network for data collection and analysis. The institute monitors and reports on food supplies to identify gaps and keep the supply chain intact, CARDI Executive Director Barton Clarke said. Regional meetings with high-level business and government leaders use the data to develop emergency regional policies on food supply. Strategies under consideration include increasing local product supply streams; boosting interregional trade; strengthening export protection; developing private sector partnerships; and making public policy responses.

On the other hand, when it comes to overcoming adversities in the long run, we saw another set of needs.

Firstly, we want to highlight the need for diversification to mitigate and adapt to environmental health, social and economic risks. Diversification makes it easier to adapt to climate change and means better soil quality and productivity. Diversified crop production also improves livelihoods and the welfare of farmers by mitigating income risk, ensuring food security and improving household nutrition.

In addition, adopting a multichannel strategy to explore new markets at domestic and regional levels is very important. Targeting several market channels at the same time, focusing on local economies as well as export, and branching out into new products can bring in more customers while diversifying market and price risk.

And of course, digitalization. Digitalization of working procedures and new online delivery platforms enables producers to get better organized. This means they can reach local, regional and international markets and win new customers. It also responds to the growing demand for responsible production and consumption and bridges the gap between producers, buyers and consumers.

FI: Were any other findings in the report particularly surprising?

ITC-Alliances for Action: Farmers and their associations have a tremendous level of resilience and the capacity to survive in an emergency. They are used to enduring natural disasters, floods and cyclones aggravated by climate change. By definition, they are self-sufficient in terms of growing the basics they need for food and having their own social support networks.

However, resilience without growth only leads to a constant state of survival. Solving emergency issues producers face - many of which they are not responsible for – is not enough. Neither is supporting their participation in trade a way that is fair and competitive.

Good trade with concrete results and the possibility for producer communities to flourish requires long term strategies and global partnerships from farm to table.

FI: Lastly, what would be your recommendations going forward?

ITC-Alliances for Action: Farmers and farmer organizations cannot do it alone, and their voices are often under/misrepresented or unheard. Collective action is key to inclusive, sustainable, productive and commercial alliances engaging individuals, as well as associations, institutions, businesses and policymakers.

Resilience strategies and strategic plans for growth abound within producer networks. These networks are hemmed in, however, by power asymmetries and processes dictated by the status quo.

A shift in consumer mindsets is increasingly challenging this status quo. The pandemic has accelerated this shift, as the world slows down and has time to reflect. Consumers value the people who produce their food and want to hear what they have to say.

Farmers are well equipped to steer the world towards a ‘new normal’ in the way it produces, trades and consumes. Some of the COVID-19 impact and/or trends are temporary, but they mark a shift which is here to stay. Whatever the new normal ends up being, it will have implications for all of us – consumers, industry, development partners and policymakers – in terms of how we can support the resilience and growth of agricultural producers.


About Unsung heroes: How Small Farmers Cope with COVID-19: The global pandemic has hit small farmers with disruptions in health, food security, transport, finance and demand. It has also increased the cost of doing business. Smallholder farmers, already dealing with the effects of a climate and price crisis, are taking emergency measures for resilience. At the same time, they are preparing long-term strategies to regain competitiveness. This report relays the message of smallholder farmers on COVID-19 impact and recovery. It provides insights on what support they need from all value chain actors. It builds on 14 interviews with partners of the International Trade Centre’s Alliances for Action programme.


Fairtrade has established a Producer Relief Fund, and Producer Resilience Fund to support Fairtrade certified producers to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Find more information and application instructions here