By Ben Bilua
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic took the world by storm in December 2019 when the first case was discovered in Wuhan, China.
It was later declared a pandemic in January 2020 with more than 53.5 million confirmed cases and more than 1.3 million deaths globally as of November 15, 2020, according to the World Health Organization.
For many Pacific Island countries, Fiji and the Solomon Islands included, COVID-19 was an unexpected life-changing experience. The pandemic meant an urgent change in all things considered normal from grassroots level to national and international arena. The pandemic meant border lockdowns, restricted movements and curfews to curb the spread of the virus.
Ultimately, these changes also brought on socio-economic changes that meant reduced household incomes, purchasing power and access to markets of rural and urban households in Fiji and Solomon Islands.
A recent study titled, ‘Assessing nutrition and socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on rural and urban communities in Fiji/Solomon Islands’, by The University of the South Pacific’s (USP) Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (PaCE-SD) delved into these socio-economic impacts.
From the loss of income due to the loss of jobs and reduced sales at markets to increased hardships faced by many households, families were experiencing reduced expenditure on food and non-food items.
In Fiji alone, one third of the workforce of about 115,000 Fijians lost their jobs or worked on reduced hours as a result of COVID-19. The crisis had even resulted in the closure of 93 per cent of the country’s tourism industry, according to the study, with the Fijian economy expected to contract by 21.7 per cent by the end of 2020.
PaCE-SD acting director Dr Morgan Wairiu shared major findings of the research, which was carried out in nine rural and peri-urban communities in the Central and Western divisions in Fiji, and surveyed 339 households between July 20 and 31, 2020.
He said the assessment was commissioned and resourced by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, The International Fund for Agricultural Development and built on the partnership with Foundation of Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development (FRIEND-Fiji), and Fiji Government through Fiji National Food and Nutrition Centre (NFNC) and the Provincial Administration, Naitasiri.
“People in urban areas are moving back to rural communities. There is also an increased incidence of social issues such as land conflicts and thefts of high value crops and livestock. Communities are selling more unhealthy cheap products such as cigarettes, kava, noodles, snacks to generate income for households,” he revealed at the launch of the study on November 12, 2020 in Suva, Fiji.
“Many people are moving to the villages and are contributing positively to increase the productivity of farms.
“As the lockdown eases, households are selling some produce but there is a worry that the purchasing power and income of many households is getting worse. Sales are likely to continue to decrease as many households produce the same products.”
According to Dr Wairiu, many households had turned to farming and fishing to increase access to food and income while some mainly women engaged in informal businesses such as cutting grass or cleaning compounds and selling alcohol, cigarettes and home-made puddings and pies as a means to addressing the loss of livelihood and income from the COVID-19 crisis.
He said cultural practices such as “Na solesolevaki” (working together) in the Fijian context, sharing food and bartering had re-emerged or intensified as effective coping mechanisms.
“Some families rely on withdrawals from the Fiji National Provident Fund and remittances. About 80-90 per cent of households have been sourcing food from backyard gardens and farms and purchase rice, flour, sugar, canned fish, and noodles to supplement their diets,” Dr Wairiu said.
“The main foods produced in backyard gardens include root crops, plantains, vegetables and fruits and very few rear poultry or cattle for eggs, milk and meat.
“Some communities in the Western Division are exceptions to this norm, especially Drasa Civicivi settlement where cattle are raised. Many households have reported consuming fish and other seafood 1-3 days in a week and red meat one day a week.”
In the case of the Solomon Islands, Dr Wairiu said a similar trend emerged out of the COVID-19 crisis with lockdowns, travel restrictions and curfews contributing negatively to the tourism and other major commercial sectors.
He said access to domestic markets in the Solomon Islands was also impacted as majority of workers were laid off without salary or wages.
“This has impacted the livelihood and wellbeing of citizens. This has had a knock-on effect on employment, incomes, purchasing power and market access of households in two peri-urban communities namely Barana and Burnscreek, and two rural communities – Ngalimbiu and Panatina (Mataruka) on Guadalcanal,” he shared.
“Household incomes and purchasing power have declined and families have reduced expenditure on food and non-food items. Self-employment has increased for the peri-urban communities even though vendors are still experiencing difficulty in accessing markets to sell produce.
“After the government’s directive to repatriate most of the city dwellers to their home provinces, Honiara City Council closed all market outlets, except the main central market. This resulted in a decline in sales which has discouraged many farmers who prior to COVID-19 restrictions, travelled almost daily to sell produce and for higher prices in the market.”
In terms of the household food systems, the research noted that this had shifted in the four studied communities and more households including youth were becoming actively involved in agricultural activities such as crop and piggery production.
There was still a decrease in the reliance on foods purchased from the shops and markets while an increase was noted in the consumption of food from gardens, hunting (jungle) and fishing (rivers and streams) to meet daily food needs.
The tools used in this research were developed through the Community Food and Health (CFaH) project, which was funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund through the UK Medical Research Council.
For Solomon Islands senior journalist Priestley Habru, backyard gardening was the way to go in terms of ensuring his family had sufficient food for their dietary needs.
He has dedicated plots of land for his backyard garden at his residence in Honiara, Solomon Islands.
“From general observation, there has been an increase in backyard gardening during this pandemic due to low supply of fresh local foods like vegetables and other root crops,” he said from the Solomon Islands.
“I’ve planted slippery cabbage, shallots, pepper, tomatoes, beans, banana, eggplant, pak choi, salad and ball cabbage. Now, I don’t need go to the market to buy vegetables.”
He further expanded his backyard farming to include rootcrops such as cassava, taro and ginger.
“For me, this is a good thing because we take these things for granted. I decided to go into backyard farming as a mitigating factor against the impact of COVID-19 – social distancing, restricted movements, curfews and health and safety precautions against coronavirus,” he said.
“It also saves money and fuel instead of travelling to local markets to buy these for my family.”
Habru says backyard gardening was also a means to stay physically fit and healthy, particularly with persisting health issues such as non-communicable diseases on the rise in the Pacific region.
He said the cost of living in Honiara was also expensive with most residents in the Capital City now realizing the importance of backyard farming.
The buck has not stopped at individuals. Youth groups in the Solomon Islands are also mobilising to ensure food security and agricultural sustainability in times of crisis.
Malaita Provincial Youth Council president Philip Subu shared that youths and university graduates had engaged in their 100 days farming program in the province.
He said youths would work the land planting kava, taro and assorted vegetables.
“The objective of the program is to improve food security and also income generation as employment is difficult to find due to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy,” Subu said.
“The availability of jobs is a disaster in the Solomon Islands. A lot of high school dropouts or even University graduates are unable to secure a decent job.
“This issue worsened with COVID-19 and as such we tried to mitigate these impacts by taking the first step to help ourselves.
“We want youths to get away from the dependency mindset or dependency syndrome. We want them to cultivate a self-reliant mindset.”
He said agriculture was a million dollar sector that had not been fully utilized over the past 40 years and this was something youths wanted to change.
The 100-day program is part of COVID-19 mitigation initiatives to address food security, income generation and building livelihoods.
Another Solomon Islander Norman Vavaha turned to backyard gardening when some public servants were laid off as a result of the State of Public Emergency.
Vavaha, a senior staff at the Central Bank of Solomon Islands, lives in the Central Bank Mbokona Housing Estate and grows cabbage, melons, tomatoes and pak choi.
“You plant for your own consumption rather than pay for crops from the market. The surplus vegetables that we sell can even cover the cost of buying more seeds,” he said.
“Food security was another reason I wanted to focus on backyard gardening. In the event the market closes down, my backyard garden provide my family and I with fresh produce.”
He said gardening was also a way to clean up the yard and utilize limited space to grow vegetables.
COVID-19 restrictions had also changed his routine and hobbies, which means most of his time was now spent on farming rather than socialising with friends.
Vavaha and many other farming enthusiasts are grateful to the National Disaster Operation Committee (NDOC) and Livelihood Committee for supplying Honiara residents with free seedlings as part of initiatives to promote food security during the pandemic.
NDOC noted on its social media platform that seedlings were distributed from East to the Western side of Honiara.
“The team from NDOC also provided information factsheets on backyard farming management. The livelihoods cluster is also tasked with planning food security programs. Assessments will also be done on the food stocks and its shelf life,” the committee said.
“Rapid production of vegetables, harvesting of root crops and rice, as well as fish and livestock production are also plans in the pipeline.
“This response will improve the food security of households who rely on their gardens as food sources.”
This is the new norm for many communities in the Pacific and one of the key messages of the PaCE-SD study was the the need to adjust home garden strategies to increase the diversity of planting materials and seedlings (to include vegetables, pulses, seeds, fruits and herbs).
This includes the promotion of raising small livestock such as chicken, ducks and pigs to support locally produced meat, eggs, to increase the diversity of local diets.