18 Oct 2022

What can we learn from the pandemic about farmers’ and workers’ resilience?

We spoke with the researchers who surveyed more than 300 producers to find out.

Peru Banana 2021 APBOSMAM FARMERS Docuseries 35264 870
Workers of the APBOSMAM cooperative wash, prepare and pack bananas for export in Piura, Peru
Ángela Ponce / Fairtrade / Fairpicture

We commissioned a study to explore how COVID-19 affected farmers and workers, and more importantly, to understand why some producers fared better than others during the pandemic and its side effects. The study, titled Fairtrade certification and producer resilience in times of crises, was published today and provides insights into the resilience of Fairtrade coffee, banana and flower producers compared to their non-Fairtrade counterparts, and the factors that contributed most to mitigating the impact of the pandemic.

The study included two main analyses: a representative global survey of 523 Fairtrade producer organizations to learn about the impact of COVID-19, and case studies to compare Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade producer households in Kenya (flower workers), Indonesia (coffee farmers) and Peru (banana farmers). For the case study analysis, researchers conducted a comparative survey of 304 households that belong to one of either seven Fairtrade or six non-Fairtrade producer organizations, along with focus group discussions with close to 100 farmers and workers, and interviews with producer organization managers.

We spoke with Ms. Manuela Günther from Scio Network and Mr. Bilal Afroz from Athena Infonomics, the lead researchers of the study, about how to define resilience and what the findings suggest for how to support producers during times of crisis.

Why was COVID-19 a good case study for looking at the resilience of farmers and workers? A global pandemic isn’t an everyday event, or at least wasn’t in recent times before 2020 – so why is it useful to look at?

The COVID-19 pandemic is, of course, an extreme event. However, we know that with the rise of climate change, and financial pressures – such as through inflationary tendencies, a fall in commodity prices and a rise in farm input costs – producer organizations around the globe have come under pressure. Sadly, this will not be the last time that farmers and workers in developing countries will experience hardship. This makes it important to understand how producers’ resilience is strengthened.

We should say, given the COVID-19 context we adhered to social distancing and use of personal protective equipment during the surveys and focus group discussions. The spread of the omicron variant in Peru at the time our team was there required us to change the study participants because of rising infections at the originally selected organizations. So even as we were trying to understand the impact of COVID-19, the study itself was also being affected, albeit in a small way.

How were you defining and measuring ‘resilience’ in the study?

We measured resilience aligned with Fairtrade’s Theory of Change and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s guidelines for Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture systems (SAFA), consisting of 1) good governance, 2) economic resilience, 3) environmental integrity, and 4) social wellbeing.

Based on these four dimensions of sustainability, we then built two indices – one for the global survey with Fairtrade producer organizations (filled in by the organization’s managers) and one for the case study survey with farmer and worker households in Peru, Kenya and Indonesia. For example: under good governance, the resilience index for producer organizations focuses more on organizational aspects, such as asking if the organization develops annual sales plans and cash projections. For households, on the other hand, we included questions such as “Do you think that the management of your producer organization understands what your priorities are?”

The SAFA framework is a great attempt to measure resilience in a more streamlined way. However, it contains a wide array of topics and sub-topics with hundreds of different indicators, so the measurement of resilience can vary largely even within the framework. This calls for a streamlining of the topics and sub-topics to be included in the measurement of the resilience of Fairtrade producer organizations, so that future study results can be compared better.

The study found that Fairtrade households reported less impact from COVID-19 than non-Fairtrade counterparts by 12 percentage points. In terms of resilience, you also found that Fairtrade households scored 9 points higher on the overall resilience index than non-Fairtrade households, especially driven by benefits in social wellbeing and economic resilience.

This is based on about 300 households producing coffee, bananas or flowers. Can the findings be generalized more broadly to other Fairtrade products and regions?

We used different tools in our study design to make the study as representative as possible. The global survey on the impact of COVID-19 was sent out to as many Fairtrade producer organizations as possible. After completing the survey, we combined the data with another global survey and merged it with available internal statistics. Because of the sample size per region, the data are representative of Fairtrade organizations from Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, but to a smaller extent for Asia and the Pacific.

For the case studies – which were looking at the question of resilience and comparing Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade households – the producer organizations were selected to represent some of Fairtrade producers’ major characteristics. Therefore, amongst other criteria, selected Fairtrade producer organizations included both small-scale producer organizations (e.g. coffee farms in Indonesia) and hired labour organizations (e.g. large flower farms in Kenya); cover all three producer regions (Latin America, Asia, and Africa); produce one of Fairtrade’s major products; have been certified for at least four years; sell at least 50 percent of their harvest on Fairtrade terms, and have received Fairtrade COVID-19 relief and resilience fund support. This was necessary to ensure the results could say something about the impact of Fairtrade certification and of the COVID-19 support provided.

For the non-Fairtrade counterparts (the counterfactuals), the study fieldwork teams in the respective countries worked with Fairtrade regional managers where necessary to identify non-Fairtrade producer organizations of a similar size, producing the same crops, in the same or nearby region, that were willing to take part in the study. Nearly half of them had other certifications, such as GLOBAL GAP (Good Agricultural Practices).

So the short answer is: the findings on the impact of COVID-19 can be generalized to other Fairtrade producers, while the findings on resilience are as robust as they can be as case studies, given they are major Fairtrade products and are compared with similar non-Fairtrade organizations and households.

The recommendations at the end of the study are all suggestions for Fairtrade, such as expanding Fairtrade sales opportunities for producers and promoting women’s participation within producer organizations.

But how – if at all – are the study findings also applicable beyond Fairtrade?

Some of the study’s findings are applicable to producer organizations at large, not just Fairtrade ones. For instance, although good governance and environmental integrity are very important in their own right, during the pandemic we found that aspects of social wellbeing, such as income diversification and food and nutrition security, and economic resilience, meaning access to credit for producer organizations and savings among households, were associated with a lower impact from COVID-19.

These are aspects that buyers, governments, NGOs and other food system stakeholders can also contribute to, and which will be relevant in almost any early response situation. Similar research looking at other types of crises, such as dealing with the effects of climate change, may reveal a different balance of resilience factors.