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COVID-19 in the Caribbean: the opportunities and constraints for farmers

As Trinidad and Tobago’s Government starts to implement its lockdown exit strategy, we spoke with long-time colleague, Keron Bascombe, about the impacts of the pandemic on local food security and some of the unexpected opportunities for farmers and agripreneurs.

Some of the Tech4Agri team take a tractor ride out into the field to report on the impacts of COVID-19 for local farmers © Keron Bascombe

What is the current situation with regards to COVID-19 infections etc. in the Caribbean and in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) specifically?

The COVID-19 situation has, like in many other parts of the world, brought fear and panic in T&T – not only in terms of becoming sick, but more so in regards to the effect on our economy and food systems. Our small islands have been in lockdown since 29 March, but the reality is our health systems and infection tracing abilities are constrained due to limited resources for both treating infected patients and carrying out regular testing.

According to T&T's Ministry of Health, out of a population of 1.4 million, our country has seen 116 positive cases and just eight deaths. Measures to avoid an immediate health crisis have been replicated across T&T. Stay at home orders are in effect except for essential workers, and messages on personal hygiene via governments and the private sector are constant. On 11 May, easing of the strict lockdown was initiated, with curfews being extended and food outlets and banks being allowed to function – as long as social distancing guidelines are in place. The T&T Government has also released a lockdown exit plan that explains how, over six phases in the next two months, normal life will begin to resume with the reopening of businesses and the population back to work.

However, efficacy of the lockdown measures and infection and death rates vary across the region. For example, Belize has had just 18 cases, and two deaths, while Jamaica, which has been facing 'anti lockdown' behaviour, has reported 520 confirmed cases and nine deaths.

How is it impacting on agriculture and food systems within the region/country?

The impact has had negative and positive results. In T&T, the agriculture sector was already in disarray before this crisis. Public/private support structures are absent in the agricultural value chain and the risks involved in food production, such as produce theft, remain. Increased consumer uncertainty at this time means that spending has also reduced. Our country, and region as a whole, also has an unbelievably high food import bill representing 80 to 85% of our overall food supply. The majority of imports come from the US, but with their agriculture and food distribution system collapsing, concerns have mounted over maintaining a consistent food supply.

As a result of such challenges, many have turned back to agriculture to grow their own food, which may result in positive benefits for reducing the country’s import bill. Food delivery has also now become common place, and the country is literally being forced to eat local.

How do you see the impact on agricultural entrepreneurs?

Some agripreneurs have closed down, albeit temporarily, given the lockdown. These are the ones who are waiting it out, hoping for a swift return to normality. But things will never be the same, with the general public now vastly more aware of food sources and the importance of food safety. Conversely, other agripreneurs are innovating around the problem as deliveries, bundled products, and online activity becoming the norm.

In an interview with my social enterprise, Tech4agri, Curtis Carabai, a young farmer and winner of T&T’s Ministry of Sport and Youth Affair’s 2019 Agriculture Award, explains some of the opportunities and constraints for farmers: "I, like other farmers, have seen a 20 to 25% increase in business. We have a chance to feed the country now that imports have slowed, and are pooling resources to meet local demand. Some farmers who sell at open markets have obviously taken a hit with four major markets temporarily closing and seeing fewer visitors due to the issue of social distancing. However, I deal with groceries. Customers feel safer at a grocery store, as they are expected to enforce better sanitisation measures."

What impact is it having on your career in terms of being able to report on agriculture and how do you think others in agricultural journalism will be finding the situation across the region?

As a freelancer I have no safety net and I need to continue working. This has been a challenge during lockdown as I am not considered an essential worker – despite operating in the fields of media and agriculture, which are considered essential by the Government. We at Tech4agri, have had to find workarounds in accessing equipment and going out into the field to report on the current situation for farmers with regards to COVID-19.

The positive in our eyes is that this situation has highlighted the relevance of our work in promoting increased use and uptake of digital technologies within the agriculture sector, which is evidently now more essential than ever to enhance production. Our aim is to continue to spread this message out in the field with farmers, and support progress towards increased technology awareness and uptake.

Sophie Reeve

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