Agriculture as a buffer in COVID-19 crisis: Evidence from five Sub-Saharan African countries


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Impact of COVID-19 Crisis on Agriculture: Evidence from Five Sub-Saharan African Countries


Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have not been spared from the negative impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Articulating a policy response to the impact of COVID-19 requires understanding how and which households have been impacted and if households may have been able to rely on or move into specific activities that may act as a buffer in crises. Governments of five SSA countries (Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria, and Uganda), in collaboration with the World Bank, are implementing several rounds of COVID-19 high-frequency phone surveys (HFPS) to monitor the socioeconomic implications of the pandemic. Agriculture is one of the focus topics included in these surveys. The sample included in the HFPS were interviewed face-to-face in 2018/19 as part of the Living Standards Measurement Study – Integrated Survey on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA) project, making comparison possible. Given that HFPS data collection coincided with the 2020/21 pre-harvest season, this piece focuses primarily on pre-harvesting using data collected from April-August 2020.

The data show that agriculture continues to be the main source of livelihood of smallholder households in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the share of households involved in agriculture increasing since the start of the pandemic. Prior to the outbreak, 76% of Nigerian households were involved in agriculture (either crop or livestock farming), but the share has increased to 84% since the start of the pandemic. Similarly, in Malawi and Uganda, 91% and 79% of households are involved in agriculture now, compared to the pre-pandemic levels of 84% and 76%, respectively.

Percentage of households involved in agriculture before and after COVID-19 outbreak, by country

These changes are products of the net effect of households moving into and out of agriculture; in most cases, entries are larger than exits, with the exception of livestock in Uganda. In general, the share of households that have entered into agriculture since the start of the pandemic is higher than those exiting. For instance, in Malawi, about 9% of households who were not involved in agriculture before the pandemic are doing so now, compared to about 2% that have stopped. Similarly, the share of Nigerian households who have gone into agriculture is higher (12%) than those exiting (4%).

At the subsector level, the share of households that have gone into crop farming appears higher than those that have exited. About 16% of Ethiopian households that were not involved in crop farming before the pandemic are doing so now, compared to about 3% are not cultivating crops in the 2020 agricultural season. In Nigeria, about 19% of households who did not own/raise livestock pre-pandemic are doing so now, compared to about 15% that owned/raised livestock last year but are not doing so after the outbreak. In Uganda, however, we find more households exiting livestock production (17%) than those entering (10%). Across countries, the percentage of households going into livestock production appears higher than those transitioning into crop farming. This can possibly be explained by the seasonal nature of crop production compared to livestock farming.

Churning in and out of agriculture since the start of COVID-19 crisis

Looking deeper at the transitioning in and out of agriculture by rural-urban divide, the data show that, across countries, more urban households are moving into agriculture compared to their counterparts in rural areas. About 21% of urban households in Malawi who were not cultivating crops pre-pandemic are doing so now, compared to 9% of their rural counterparts. Similar results are observed in Nigeria and Uganda, where the share of urban dwellers going into crop production during the 2020/21 agricultural season seem higher than the share transitioning into some in rural areas. The high increase in urban dwellers participating in crop production might be the consequence of food security and employment challenges emanating from the pandemic's negative impact, which is more pronounced in urban areas.

The share of urban households going into livestock production in Uganda after the outbreak seems about the same as in rural areas, though the rural share exiting livestock production seems higher (20%) compared to 11% in urban areas. Across countries, the data seem to suggest that rural households are exiting livestock production more than they are entering (more pronounced in Uganda). This is probably due to the impact of the pandemic on livestock production activities such as access to feed, animal health services and markets (In Nigeria, limited access to feed (89% of livestock households), animal health services/drugs (79%) and limited access to markets (82%) were reported by respondents).

Churning in and out of agriculture, by country and location country (% of households in location)

While agriculture has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the effect seems less pronounced compared to other sectors. Households were asked in different rounds of the HFPS if they received income from specific sources (including agriculture, non-farm family business, wage, and remittances from abroad) and whether the income from those sources increased, decreased, or stayed the same since the start of the pandemic. In April/May 2020, 41% of Ethiopian households who received income from agriculture in the last 12 months reported loss of income from agriculture (i.e., agriculture income decreased compared to before the pandemic), while 85% and 63% reported experiencing income loss from non-farm family businesses and remittances from abroad respectively. Similarly, in Malawi, 73% of households who received income from agriculture in the last 12 months reported loss of income from agriculture in May/June 2020, while 84% and 58% reported loss of income from family business and wage work, respectively, during the same period. We observe similar results for Nigeria and Uganda. Across countries, the share of households reporting income loss from these sources, however, seems to have reduced in the months following the first phone interviews. This might be attributed to the easing of lockdown restrictions in the countries during subsequent interviews.

Overall, there is evidence that the agriculture sector is serving as a buffer for low-income households in the region, similar to the role it played during the 2008 global economic crisis (FAO 2009).

Incidence of income loss (% of households with income from source in last 12 months), by country and interview month



Akuffo Amankwah

Economist, Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS) team, Development Data Group, World Bank

Sydney Gourlay

Economist, Development Data Group (DECDG), World Bank

Alberto Zezza

Program Manager, Development Data Group, World Bank