The impact of COVID has become a rallying point for forward-thinking corporate responsibility. It is gaining recognition as a human rights issue particularly for the millions of small farmers in value chains that supply our most popular commodities – coffee and chocolate to cotton – and who are unable to meet their most basic needs.

Rural communities, while initially sheltered by remoteness, are expected to be among the least prepared to deal with the COVID 19 pandemic. Labor flows for harvesting seasons with hundreds of thousands migrating across regions will be at greater risk. Lack of access to medical care and information, and often sub-par quality of services and infrastructures to begin with, may create disruption at least as severe as in consumer countries of the global north. With demand predicted to drop somewhat, as supply chains alter and adapt, the farmers and rural laborers of the global south who supply world markets will likely see their livelihoods fall further below the already low levels.

If there is any reason for optimism in all of this, it is in the opportunity presented to businesses to support farmers now. Almost daily we read of corporations and philanthropies committing to address immediate impacts of the pandemic. It’s not yet clear how much of that, if any, will be directed to farmers. But the situation calls for more than philanthropy. These disruptions create the possibility of better understanding the challenges of farm communities and re-orienting global value chains to deliver some greater benefits to the most vulnerable. COSA has recommended to clients four ways in which they can help vulnerable populations and these may be valid for other businesses and NGOs to consider too.

  1. New approaches and free mobile time. With many face-to-face gatherings canceled, it means that training, farm visits by technicians, and other services will be delayed or foregone entirely this year. The lost opportunities may cost farmers in reduced yields and some system breakdowns and stalled progress. Replace face-to-face training with mobile platforms, and offer free mobile airtime to deliver technical assistance to farmers. Lutheran World Relief’s Cacao Movil platform and Mercy Corps DigiFarm are great functional examples for doing that at very low cost.
  2. Redirect funds. Start by redirecting already-committed resources intended for training, finance and other uses at origin. Rather than stalling efforts, companies can provide critical support for basic needs, such as healthcare and education, in the more vulnerable parts of their supply chains.
  3. Targeted aid. Consider providing micro-grants to farmers that address the most critical risk factors, such as improvements to worker housing and sanitary facilities or for use as emergency medical funds. Temporary harvest workers are already among the most vulnerable and they are at acute risk for COVID due to cramped living conditions, sub-standard sanitary facilities, intrinsic immune weakness related to long hours and poor diets, and limited access to basic health care. During the harvest, these migrant workers often travel in large groups, some even with families.
  4. Prepare for coming disruptions. The medical community makes it clear that more pandemics are coming. If we add increases in crop diseases and climate-related disruption, we can see the obvious value of monitoring resilience and the conditions of risk for producers and their communities.

Resilience is always important and now it is not difficult to apply. Consider the 11 simplest indicators of resilience (there are also more complete sets of 27 and 76 indicators). Even the most basic understanding will allow support or remediation actions to be properly targeted for better impact and few wasted resources. A brief article offers insights to understand the fundamental risks for a household or farming community.

Times of crisis require more from everyone. Investing in the resilience of valuable farming communities is both smart and caring. By doing things better and more compassionately, we can forge lasting bonds that have great human and business value. Doing so will increase your ability to be proactive about future risks and to have more secure supply relationships.

It is the right time to better know what most matters to the valuable people that may be at the heart of your supply chain.