Laston Kwendanguwo stood tall, towering above everyone in his flowering tomato field.
In the abundance of farmers willing to learn from each other, he issued a reminder for all to maintain a distance of at least one metre from each other because coronavirus spreads fast in crowded settings.
For members of Mbira Farmers’ Club in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwansambo, Nkhotakota, occupational health and safety is almost everything to their push to overcome hunger and poverty.
They are not only keen to prevent accidents while working in the garden, but also infectious diseases.
This has become a new normal with the discovery of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) transmitted through contact with infected droplets when talking, coughing, sneezing or touching contaminated surfaces.
The global pandemic discovered in China last December has disrupted every sphere of life, sending economies crashing to the ground.
The measures require everyone to keep distance, stay home if necessary and frequently wash hands with soap to prevent coronavirus infections which have already claimed 103 lives from 1 702 confirmed cases in the country
Some countries have imposed nationwide lockdowns to slow coronavirus transmission so that healthcare facilities are not overwhelmed.
President Lazarus Chakwera ruled out the likelihood of imposing a lockdown 100 percent, saying the stay-at-home measures would disproportionately affect Malawians living hand-to-mouth.
Instead, he wants Malawians to strictly follow all precautions recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), including physical distancing and reductions in social gatherings to minimise contact.
Bearing this in mind, Kwendanguwo, chairperson of the farmers’ club, finds it safer to lead by example than die defiant.
He led his group into practising precautions so that they can continue producing their crops without putting their lives at risk.
The club has reduced the number of farmers who meet at any given moment to discuss their shared challenges and rewarding farming methods.
Says Kwendanguwo: “Even those who can fall victim to the fast-spreading virus will need food, so we can’t just stop producing.
“This is why we need to protect ourselves so that we can help protect the nation from Covid-related hunger. We always share coronavirus prevention messages during meetings.”
The club grows paprika, tomatoes and maize on their irrigated plots with support from Sustainable Agricultural Production Programme (Sapp).
They obtained a loan from the project’s Village Challenge Fund (VCF) for procuring irrigation and other farming tools.
Another farmers’ group from T/A Mwansambo has been struggling to sustain business since the country confirmed its first Covid-19 case on April 2.
Although Mwansambo Extension Planning Area has not registered any confirmed Covid-19 case, Matamula Farmers’ Club stopped meeting regularly as members were afraid of contracting coronavirus, work in the club farm has been greatly affected because many members no longer participate.
Health workers have detected the virus in 34 people across the eastern district along the shoreline of Lake Malawi.
Agricultural extension and development coordinator Geoffrey Mambo says farmers stand to benefit if they keep safe.
“This should not be a reason for the farmers to be happy and cautious because disruptions in importation of farm produce due to the global pandemic means they have a bigger market share to satisfy,” he says.
The concerns about personal and public health are rampant in many farmers’ clubs, including VCF beneficiaries.
Chimwemwe Bomba, chief agriculture officer at Lilongwe Agricultural Development Division, is concerned with the negative impact of Covid-19 on farmers, who nourish the nation and bankroll the economy.
He says coronavirus has disrupted farming, extension work and the way the Ministry of Agriculture serves the farmers.
“Since the farmers are meeting in small groups, there is need for the agriculture officials to visit them regularly and make more trips to reach all farmers.
This poses a new challenge because of limited resources. We also can’t overcrowd the vehicles when going to the field,” she states.
Bomba opines that the farmers could safely be reached via mobile phone.
The ministry is producing Covid-19 messages to be shared through extension workers and local radio stations.
Sapp national coordinator Rex Baluwa said the programme has activated a $616 000 (about K300million) contingency fund bankrolled by the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad) in Rome.
The emergency fund seeks to improve the well-being of 6 000 farmers affected by Covid-19, says Baluwa.
“We will assess how much they have been affected by the Covid-19 and they will get farm inputs such as seed and fertiliser depending on how they have been affected. Those in need of financial support will be linked with an existing VCF window,” he says.
The contingency plan also includes the use of mobile phones, radio and other information and communication technologies to spread extension messages as well as Covid-19 precautions.