Analysis: COVID-19, Desert Locust: The twin threats to Ethiopia’s agriculture, rural livelihoods

Kassahun K. Suleman, @DrKassahun &

Mulugeta F. Dinbabo

Addis Abeba, May 15/2020
– Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa with an estimated population of 109.2 Million in 2018 – is regarded as an agriculture-based economy. The agricultural sector plays a critical role in the national economy, employing two-thirds of the country’s workforce, ensuring food security, and generating revenue and foreign exchange. Smallholder farmers, who practice rain-fed mixed farming by employing traditional technology, adopting a low-input and low-output production system, account for 95% of the sector’s production whereas commercial farms account for the balance. 

Despite its importance to the economy, the agricultural sector is faced with the multiple challenges of supporting rural livelihoods and reducing farmer’s vulnerability to shocks, while contributing national economic objectives. Land fragmentation, fragile natural resource base, climatic uncertainty, weak market linkages, and inadequate use of improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, and institutional constraints such as land tenure system have been the principal factors affecting growth in the sector.

Agriculture, income diversification, and pastoralism have been the dominant livelihood strategies in the rural parts of Ethiopia. These activities support some of the most vulnerable people groups in the country which include women, youth, and indigenous people. However, the extreme vulnerability of these livelihoods to a wide variety of shocks and stresses has left millions of people in crisis. Today,  the WFP reports nearly 8.1 million people require emergency food assistance.

The impacts of Locust invasion and COVID-19 on Ethiopia’s agriculture and rural livelihoods

Ethiopia has now faced twin challenges of curbing the spread of the coronavirus and controlling the ongoing locust invasion. The combined impacts and implications of these crises are being felt in different sectors.

As far as locust invasion is concerned, Ethiopia is in the list of the hard-hit countries in the Horn of Africa, along with Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, and South Sudan. The locust crisis is posing a danger to many smallholder farmers in the South, South Eastern and North-Eastern part of the country. A recent joint assessment report by FAO and the Government of Ethiopia reveals that the locust infestation has worsened the food insecurity in Ethiopia with nearly 1 million suffering from hunger and malnutrition. It was also estimated that 3.8 million Quintals of crops were destroyed due to Locust infestation in more than 170 districts.

Ethiopia now faces an alarming second wave of desert locusts which will necessitate the continued application of ultra-low-volume pesticides and biopesticides. To this end, the prospects of agriculture, forestry, and rural livelihoods do not seem encouraging.

COVID-19 is another immediate danger to Ethiopia’s agriculture and rural development. In addition to its obvious impacts on health, the pandemic is having devastating effects on the livelihoods of rural men and women. In a recent webinar, Ethiopia’s Job Creation Commission Commissioner disclosed that 1.5 million jobs are threatened due to the coronavirus crisis. The rural informal economic sector with many small and micro businesses that create employment for most of the rural poor have been listed as those in danger of closing due to COVID-19. The coronavirus restrictions are also having a considerable impact on labor mobility within the country. As a result, seasonal migration in search of employment opportunities would no longer be viable livelihood option for many poor people. Research shows that women are highly likely to migrate and also to engage in vulnerable or informal employments such as domestic work and small roadside coffee shops. The crisis could, therefore, lead to more job losses for women affecting their standing in the national economy.

Although the manufacturing, textile, construction, and services are said to be the most affected economic sectors, agriculture and rural livelihoods are also equally affected by the crisis. The COVID-19 restrictions on movement or activity, although deemed necessary, have impacted agriculture in many ways. Farmers and pastoralists have faced challenges of working their land, caring for their animals, or accessing markets. Since this is a cropping season in Ethiopia, the restrictions on public transport are also disrupting agricultural inputs marketing and distribution. Access to credit is also a challenge as rural saving and credit associations are no longer providing financial service to their members. In this regard, rural women, who comprise the poorest of the poor, have become more vulnerable to facing significant barriers to accessing such services.

Despite the government’s claims that agriculture must continue even with COVID-19 restrictions on movement, the agricultural extension system is also facing difficulties. On the one hand, most extension workers do not have Personal Protective Equipment such as gloves, mask, and sanitizer to safeguard themselves and others the coronavirus. On the other hand, they are unable to gather people at Farmers Training Centers due to a State of Emergency which was declared in the first week of April 2020.

Overall, it can be argued that the combined impacts of COVID-19 and desert locust invasion has led to a considerable decline in agricultural production and productivity, worsening the food security situation in Ethiopia. According to the Sate Minster of Agriculture of Ethiopia, the combined effects of the fight against COVID-19 and the desert locust swarm could result in a loss of up to 8 percent of agricultural productivity in the country. Similarly, rural livelihoods will continue to be severely affected by the dual crisis if serious measures are not taken on time.

Moving forward in a time of dual crisis

During this time of dual crisis, a key challenge for Ethiopia is to increase agricultural production and productivity and secure livelihoods of the country’s poorest, of whom a majority depend on agriculture. 

Saving lives should be an absolute priority. In this regard, providing humanitarian support to the most vulnerable people is crucial. This can be done by adapting existing social protection systems such as the Rural Productive Safety Net Program.

Although evidence is lacking, it is expected that the COVID-19 and locust crisis will have a disproportionately negative impact on the economic wellbeing of women. Interventions should prioritize building the resilience and livelihoods of women as well as other most at-risk such as disabled people, children, elderly and indigenous people.

Since planting season is around the corner, availing quality seeds and other agricultural inputs for smallholder farmers is imperative. This can be done by supporting community seed banks and seed suppliers in the country.

Health and agricultural extension workers play a crucial role in the national response to both crises. In order to have smoothly functioning extension systems, there is a need to build the capacity of these groups and strengthen community-based surveillance and early warning and preparedness systems at the local level.

Adopting a comprehensive multisectoral approach is needed to minimize the future impacts of COVID-19 and locust invasion on rural livelihoods and agriculture. This approach is crucial for setting priorities, mapping resources, and coordinating efforts.

Multidisciplinary research on the implications and consequences of COVID-19 and locust infestation on Ethiopia’s key economic sectors is of paramount importance. The recommendations from such research could feed into the development of policy measures that are required to support formal and informal rural enterprises and stimulating the economy. AS


Editor’s note:

Lead Author: Kassahun K. Suleman (PhD) is an Independent Development Consultant based in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. he can be reached at:

Mulugeta F. Dinbabo is a Professor at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. He is the Chief Editor of the African Human Mobility Review (AHMR) Journal.

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