By Charles Dhewa
For more than 10 years, Samson Mundodzi a gifted blind farmer from Nyazura in Manicaland province of Zimbabwe used to be accompanied to Mbare market for selling his commodities. Like all other farmers, Samson would have his commodities loaded onto long distance buses that passed through his home and get to Mbare market in time for consumers to snatch his commodities before returning home with the same buses.
By banning long distance buses as part of measures to contain the spread of COVID19, the government of Zimbabwe unknowingly cut the livelihood for Samson and thousands of disabled people like him. While the pandemic has turned the economy into a survival of the fittest ecosystem, where able bodied people can walk long distances to scavenge for transport or jump onto the back of trucks, disabled people cannot even attempt such tricks. The level of hassling induced by COVID19 is beyond the vulnerable.
The pull of agriculture and need for targeted responses
Given its low barriers to entry, most disabled people across Africa have found a home in the agriculture sector and agriculture-related income generating enterprises. Where governments have tried to introduce cushioning allowances for the SMEs sector, such measures have not been carefully disaggregated to cater for the needs of people with different levels of disability. If the state of infrastructure has been unbearable for able-bodied people for a very long time, what about the disabled who have many other challenges?
COVID19 has presented an opportunity for policy makers and development agencies to look critically at some of these issues with a view to developing better solutions post-COVID19. Besides being a moment of truth, the pandemic has revealed how African mass markets are a better expression of interdependencies that bind food systems and society together including different forms of disability.
The power of addressing widening inequalities
The first step for policy makers and development agencies to change the current system that is characterized by exclusion is to recognize that they are part of it. The COVID-19 pandemic forces has exposed interdependencies and inequalities that threaten to widen if not carefully addressed. Business have been presented with an opportunity to be a force of good beyond public relations gestures such as being captured on camera donating COVID19 masks as part of corporate social responsibility activities aimed at getting media publicity for marketing purposes.
To the extent COVID19 is a warm up training for society to deal with a changing climate, private companies and development agencies are being compelled to consider the impact of their decisions on communities and the environment. There has to be more purpose than making money or appetite for donor money through writing reports that paint a rosy picture when things on the ground are different.
Instead of embracing interdependence, Pre-COVID19 there has been an increasing tendency by development agencies to muscle out government and the private sector from rural agricultural ecosystems by creating consortiums that distort markets and grab roles that should be played by government and the private sector. Just as the pandemic is compelling the private sector to think deeply about how to build businesses that have a positive impact on society, the development sector should be doing the same by ensuring development programs are more inclusive to all members of the society including the disabled who should also own interventions not just be considered beneficiaries.
However, markets cannot solve everything
What has also become clear through COVID19 is that markets on their own cannot solve all shocks. For instance, while in the early days of the 21 day lockdown period formal markets like supermarkets were allowed to operate, they could not meet the needs of most consumers in terms of diversity and quantities of food required. Neither was there space for the disabled to get what they wanted ahead of everyone. Some entrepreneurs and businesses may have tried to practice business differently but were constrained by the culture and rules of the market.
In the mass market, it became clear that the right infrastructure did not exist to understand whether food supply chains were having a positive impact on society and lessening shocks on different actors including the disabled like Samson Mundodzi. The pandemic has shined the spotlight on the need to change the system so that markets create value for all actors and different classes of consumers. Without the right comprehensive infrastructure, it is difficult for farmers, consumers, and other value chain actors to understand whether the agriculture sector or a particular value chain is having a positive impact on society.
That is why, post-COVID19 should see drastic changes in the marketing system so that agriculture can create value for all value chain actors, not just for funders and middlemen. Appropriate infrastructure can also enable data collection -making it possible to see who is positioned where and who is doing what as well as who is being excluded. Such immense systems change requires some interdependent combination of behavior change, culture shift, and structural change. Unless the government, the private sector, and development agencies commit to changing the rules of the game, outcomes will remain the same for value chain actors including the disabled and poor communal households.
When development organizations empower communities to produce their own food and add value to existing resources, they contribute in building strong communities and minimize government spending to solve problems being created by externalities like environmental damage. The same applies when private companies and financial institutions provide better incomes and unlock opportunities that prevent environmental damage caused by low wages and limited sources of livelihood. Such interdependencies are rarely explored as most private companies and development agencies are obsessed with pursuing an isolated impact.
The best thing the private sector and development agencies can do is creating a socio-economic system that enables people and communities to be resilient in the face of future shocks. Dealing with COVID19 is good training for dealing with climate change which certainly presents a much bigger disaster because it cannot be cured with a vaccine-like COVID19 to limit its impact.
Business can still much for social good
The tendency by African countries to appeal for support to the donor world runs the risk of underestimating how much business including local businesses such as SMEs can do for social good if the system is structured in the right way. While COVID19 has shown that there is a limit to what the free market can solve when properly organized African mass food markets can solve much more than they are currently doing. As part of the private sector, agricultural markets have enabled the agriculture sector to achieve more than what the development sector has done.
Using agriculture as the main catalyst, the private sector has pulled millions of Africans out of poverty and created innovations like value chain systems that have improved many people’s lives. There is no doubt that if restructured properly post-COVID19, the private sector can become a more powerful force for social good. The private sector cannot solve all problems because there are plenty of challenges that the market cannot solve by itself. For instance, disability issues cannot be fully solved through private agricultural enterprises. To a large extent, all country’s class and social justice issues that the market is not able to solve by itself.
Some elements of the environmental crisis we are currently facing are not going to be solved solely by business behaving differently. Such issues are going to require public-policy solutions. This is where the government and the not-for-profit sector like development agencies are absolutely necessary for generating collective solutions. That will ensure Samson Mundodzi and millions of disabled people in the developing world will do not continue to remain marginalized.