In Sergipe, the smallest state of Brazil, families from 15 vulnerable municipalities are working with UNDP to overcome the economic difficulties generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The “Dom Tavora” project, funded under an International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) loan, is adapting itself to keep providing advisory and capacity-building support to small farmers whose work is essential to food security in the region.
Nearly half of the project’s beneficiaries are rural women. Ana Maria Santos, a member of the Unicapri Family Farming Association, says that the project keeps on providing support even at a distance. “We are very grateful for the technical assistance we are receiving through our means of communications because we need it,” she says.
Training at a distance
Ana Maria refers to the advisory through digital technologies. The Sergipe State Secretariat for Agriculture and the project’s team of 30 advisors successfully adopted them to help farmer families and their organizations to access markets for inputs, products, services, and labour.
In areas with an unstable internet connection, WhatsApp is being used as a tool to provide individual advice and to quickly share information.
Technical assistance based on photos, videos, and audio messages helps to monitor and support production, maintenance, and repairs of equipment and infrastructure, carry out checks on the deliveries, and so on.
Farmer José de Jesus explains that the advisor helps even when the farmers struggle with a complicated animal birth. “The sheep farming project is very important to our community. We were trained by the technical advisor and every time we have any doubt, we seek his guidance. Thanks to the project we are maintaining our flock,” he says.
Throughout social isolation, a farmer requested and received guidance via WhatsApp while conducting a veterinarian surgery; accounting specialists were able to inspect farm equipment at a distance and women engaged in poultry farming received video training on how to build feeding and watering systems with the materials they had on hand.
The project team also uses smartphones and WhatsApp for weekly meetings with buyers to discuss availability and commercialization of the local produce. This has been essential to ensure access to markets during the pandemic.
One of the key challenges that the farmers are facing is selling their products. In response, project advisors have worked with the farmers on two alternatives: Identifying and adopting new forms of marketing and sales, including web and social networking tools that could be maintained in the future. This helped to bring sales back to 50–60 percent of the produce as compared to only 10–20 percent sold in March. The team designed a participatory certification mechanism where producers inspect each other’s work to ensure the quality of collective production and generate collective marketing with everyone responsible for maintaining the agreed quality of products and redirecting unsold produce back to communities to complement food supply. As a result, chicken farmers were able to commercialize practically all their poultry and eggs. Should the restrictions continue much longer, the next step will be to ensure inter-municipal exchange to diversify the diet of local communities.
“I expect that the online marketing of eggs and chickens, that started due to the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, will increase significantly in the coming weeks and will be maintained afterward,” says Daniel Nakabayashi, one of the advisors.
The project had already been working on support to rural women and youth by prioritizing enterprises owned by them. An initiative called Young Agent (Agente Jovem) was designed and piloted within the sheep and goat value chain during the last couple of years.
As a result of the increased use of technology to lessen the effects of social isolation, local young people became much more engaged in production and marketing, helping their parents deal with the related challenges.
Now this dynamic is being expanded to other production chains, offering to young agricultural workers and children of small farmers training on sustainability, new technology, access to markets, and other topics identified under the pilot initiative. As a result, they will be able to help not only their parents but also other farmers in their communities both during the COVID-19 crisis and afterward.
The pandemic has affected women disproportionally, both in economics and workloads.
Female owners of handicrafts enterprises and cooperatives lost practically all of their income. The project advisors helped them to define the specifications, the production process, production cost and final price for making masks as well as to sell their products to the state institutions who later distributed them for free to those in need.
Community leader Xifroneze Santos, from the Caraíbas Quilombo, says that the production of the masks has had a positive result to ensure income in pandemic times. “It is a very difficult moment, but we need to resist being able to exist.”
In response to the reported increase of domestic violence among the project beneficiaries, gender and gender violence themes were integrated into the training plans for the 22 rural productive associations. The objective here is to encourage female financial autonomy.
Story and photos by UNDP Brazil