COVID-19 and small-scale farmers’ resilience: growing and eating food during the pandemic in Masvingo, Zimbabwe


  • Daniel Tevera – Department of Geography, Environmental Studies and Tourism, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town 7535, South Africa
  • Fezile Ncube – Hope Tariro Trust, Masvingo, Zimbabwe
  • Stefanie Lemke – Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University, Coventry CV1 5FB, UK
  • Nicole Paganini – Centre for Rural Development (SLE), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 10115 Berlin, Germany

Small-scale farmers are key food producers in the global South and yet the majority of them are food insecure [1, 2]. Their vulnerability to hunger and malnutrition has been especially visible during the current COVID-19 pandemic. By April 2020, many African governments had introduced national lockdowns intended to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. In mid-March, the Zimbabwean government declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency and introduced travel restrictions and banned large gatherings. Civil society actors, scholars, the FAO, and the World Food Programme (WFP) raised concerns about how the pandemic was destroying the livelihoods of low-income households and making them food insecure [3-5].

The data presented here are part of a larger study on the lockdown-induced challenges that small-scale farmers face both as food producers and as consumers, and the gender-specific coping strategies employed by them in their attempt to overcome these challenges. This participatory co-research was initiated by a group of small-scale urban farmers from Cape Town, South Africa. This farmers’ group had engaged previously in a research collaboration on the contribution of urban agriculture to food security and livelihoods with local and international researchers and scholar-activists from the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany and Coventry University, UK. During the COVID-19 lockdown in March/April 2020 this collaboration was expanded to include Masvingo in Zimbabwe and the West Java and Toraja regions in Indonesia, including a total of 400 farmers across the five regions. Findings from the larger study were published in Sustainability and can be found here.

In this blog we focus on the situation during COVID-19 from the perspective of small-scale farmers in Masvingo province, Zimbabwe. These farmers cultivate on average 5 hectares of land using labour-intensive techniques and rely largely on rain water, selling their produce in Masvingo city centre.

Participating farmers co-designed the research, collected and uploaded data through digital survey tools and contributed to data analysis and interpretation. The study consisted of two parts: the first part involved designing and conducting a digital survey using the digital KoBoToolbox (open source application) data collection tool applying a co-research approach. The second part involved triangulation and data analysis, which was followed by drawing conclusions with the help of the local co-researching farmers. Data were collected over five weeks: one survey per week during April 2020 (4 surveys in total) and one survey in the first week of June 2020, with 53 respondents from Masvingo, 68% of whom were women. Due to poor connectivity, farmers sent their survey answers via WhatsApp and student assistants in Berlin entered the data into the KoBoToolbox [6].

Farmers’ perceptions of the impact of COVID-19

Zimbabwe is not self-sufficient regarding food production. In recent years the country has met the food deficit gap through imports which constitute an important component of the food system. In Masvingo city, the provincial capital of the province, the main sources of food are supermarkets, outlets selling cooked food, fresh food markets and home gardens. Although food is readily available in supermarkets and informal food markets, many low-income households are food insecure because they cannot afford to buy sufficient food supplies. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity for already marginalised households. While urban home gardens in Masvingo city and elsewhere in Southern Africa have become a common feature of the urban landscape, production remains limited as many households are not able to produce enough food to meet their daily dietary requirements [7].

During lockdown in Zimbabwe small-scale farms were not regarded as providing “essential services”. This helps to explain why as many as 32 percent of the surveyed farmers reported difficulties accessing their farms and markets. Farmers who produced food for household consumption reported that they were highly affected by market disruptions that made it difficult for them to sell their produce. They further reported that they experienced hunger and food insecurity due to food shortages and spiking food prices during the lockdown between March and June 2020. In their communities, market closures, economic recession, and increasing number of thefts were also documented. This coincided with an already critical period of economic crisis and hyperinflation in the country. Among the coping strategies that were employed in response to price hikes and less money available to buy food were: eating more staples (e.g. maize meal and rice); reducing consumption of fruit; skipping meals (mostly breakfast); and reducing portion sizes. It is important to note that more women than men resorted to these strategies.

Word clouds illustrate the different answers of women (left) and men (right) on the biggest challenges identified by them. The font size corresponds with the frequency the respective words were mentioned.

Strategies to achieve resilience to crises in the long term

The lockdown in Zimbabwe, following the COVID-19 outbreak, had significant effects on local food systems and food supply chains. A key finding is that the measures imposed in response to COVID-19 highlighted and partly exacerbated existing socio-economic inequalities among food system actors. The strict lockdown in Zimbabwe restricted the production capacity of a significant number of small-scale farmers and not only led to increased food insecurity but also resulted in loss of income, since fresh food markets were not operating at full capacity. On the other hand, local food systems continued to operate and were strengthened by social capital and adaptive capacities of small-scale farmers, reaching out to the immediate family, farming networks, or their neighbourhood.

Farmers in Masvingo started to establish seed banks & grow vegetables in kitchen gardens. Photovoice, June 2020

Consequently, many small-scale food producers faced novel challenges around cultivation, harvesting, and marketing of farm produce. The COVID-19 crisis has shown that it is not only small-scale farmers who need to increase their adaptive capacity to improve resilience; decision-makers also need to ensure that those who provide small-scale solutions, in particular women farmers, are an integral part of food systems and have the capacity to improve their resilience to shocks, especially when an enabling and supportive policy environment and institutional structures are lacking. For Masvingo, while food aid helped to mitigate immediate shortages, long-term measures are required that include affordable farming inputs, as price hikes and price fluctuation regularly challenge the resilience of farming. While small-scale farmers mobilized their social resources to act in a flexible manner in the face of the COVID-19 food crisis, it is insufficient to rely on this adaptive capacity only. To make food systems more resilient in the long term, multiple stress factors such as the impacts of climate change, as well as structural inequalities and marginalization of actors within food systems must be considered. For small-scale farmers to contribute adaptive and transformative capacities to restructuring local food systems, a broader, holistic, multi-level strategy must be applied, which includes environmental factors, issues of governance and inclusion, and related policy measures [8, 9].

A farmer growing cabbage to sell in the
neighbourhood. The farmers market in Masvingo centre was closed during the lockdown. Photovoice, June 2020.


We thank the farmers in Masvingo, Zimbabwe, without who this research would not have been possible and who acted as co-researchers and provided additional information, reflections, and guidance. The research was funded by fiat panis Foundation and Freunde und Förderer des SLE.


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