Covid-19 and the Cotton Sector: Adapting and Innovating at Farm Level


Published Thursday, May 21st, 2020

By Alan McClay, BCI CEO

Communities around the globe have been grappling with the Covid-19 shock and its immediate impacts. The after-effects and continued implications of the global pandemic will be felt for some time and the economic outlook appears challenging for at least 18 months. I shall come back to that mid-term outlook in a later blog post.

But right now, it is refreshing to be able to look at some tangible, constructive steps being taken at field level. Our on-the-ground partners as well as our own BCI team are adapting to the constraints imposed by the pandemic and supporting cotton farming communities. Every crisis carries an opportunity and the learnings from this experience will deliver benefits in the long term.

All the way at the beginning of the supply chain stands the cotton farmer. The challenges impacting farming have become more apparent in cotton recently, with the double blow of climate change and falling prices raising fundamental questions about the viability of cultivating the crop.  All cotton farmers are affected, but it is the smallholders, making up as much as 99% of cotton farmers worldwide, who are the most vulnerable as has been most eloquently expressed by Subindu Gharkel in the Fairtrade blog. Many smallholders lack economic stability – living from one harvest to the next – and do not have a social safety net, which was a reality long before this pandemic. Falling prices and the accumulated impact of disruptions in the supply chain will present real and devastating consequences for smallholders.

The fact that the coronavirus is mostly concentrated in cities does not mean that rural communities have been spared. They may be far from the vortex of contagion, but they are also less resourced with protections against the coronavirus and adequate healthcare if they or their family members become ill.

In some countries (India is one example), governments have stepped in with measures to minimise risk for rural and farming communities, providing some elements of protection. In addition, hundreds of local organisations have been mobilised, including many BCI Implementing Partners (IPs), working to not only ensure that farmers receive training and support for the upcoming cotton season but also providing food packages and safety equipment as well as training aimed specifically at facing Covid-19 challenges.

Supporting Indian Farming Communities

Implementing Partners in India are using WhatsApp to share advice on how to stay safe in the face of Covid-19 with farmers and local communities. Guidelines and best practice are being shared in the form of audio, video and e-posters developed in local languages. Field Facilitators (teachers employed by Implementing Partners who deliver training to BCI Farmers) are calling farmers who do not have access to smartphones. And through wall paintings and jeep campaigns*, partners are striving to reach as many people as possible.

BCI Field Facilitator in Madhya Pradesh, India, writes a wall slogan: “To get rid of Coronavirus, wash your hands with soap.”

BCI Implementing Partner Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF) has turned to mobile phones and video technology in order to make up for restrictions on the mobility of Field Facilitators, who normally carry out training among farming communities in person.

ACF has adapted programme materials into local languages to share with rural communities  through video calls and Whatsapp, and for farmers without smart phones, the organisation is ensuring contact is kept up and an ongoing dialogue is maintained through telephone calls. Read more about this in my interview with Chandrakant Khumbani, General Manager, ACF.

Piloting a New Approach in Mozambique

In Mozambique, the BCI Assurance Team has piloted, in record time, a new process for maintaining assurance activities in a lockdown situation, while prioritising the health and wellbeing of all concerned – field and partner staff, farmers, workers and verifiers.

BCI conducts a remote assurance process in Mozambique.

Despite restrictions in movement due to lockdown, BCI and Implementing Partner staff were able to implement the full assessment process by remote communications. While the use of technology cannot fully replace on site visits and face-to-face interaction, the pilot exceeded expectations and has also provided some useful lessons for post-covid assurance assessments. Thanks to the ability for some farmers to travel to areas with adequate communications facilities as well as planning and preparation between our on-the-ground partners and the BCI Team, the evidence gathered through the pilot helped overcome some initial skepticism and provided learnings about logistics, communications tools and interview formats, that will be integrated into  guidance for BCI Teams in other countries.

As a result of the pilot, the BCI Assurance Team is also rethinking business as usual. It was challenging and uncomfortable to move away from the norm and implement the remote process, but this is helping us to think about how assessments can be done more effectively.

Ultimately BCI Farmers will be better served and BCI capacity building and assurance will be strengthened thanks to these learnings.

* To reach as many people as possible, IPs may use vehicles which are painted with key messages or adorned by banners containing campaign slogans. A sound system is attached to the vehicle and live announcements or recorded audio messages are played. In some cases, the vehicle are also used to distribute pamphlets to the targeted population. This approach takes inspiration from the tactics seen during elections in India, especially in rural areas. Different types of four-wheeler vehicles are used, but the approach is still called a ‘Jeep campaign’ as Jeeps used to be the most popular campaign vehicles in rural India.