Large impact of COVID-19 in sesame sector in Ethiopia

Health and income of seasonal labourers in the sesame sector in Ethiopia are at immediate risk, due to COVID-19 and measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus. This year, sesame production will be much lower, resulting in a loss of millions of dollars in export revenues. These are some of the outcomes of rapid sector assessments by Wageningen University & Research, carried out with stakeholders in Ethiopia. The assessments point to the need for urgent action, which may help to prevent the situation becoming worse.

The sesame sector is of major importance for Ethiopia, raising revenues from export and providing income for about half a million seasonal farm labourers, who come from the highlands each season to plant, weed and harvest the sesame in the lowland farms.

A recent rapid assessment shows that the health of many of these labourers is at risk due to the COVID crisis. During transport to the fields, social distancing and health measures are inadequate. Also, hygiene products such as masks, sanitiser and soap are either not available or not affordable for labourers who face the double burden of high transport costs and lower wages. Transport costs have increased, as buses are allowed to carry only half their capacity.

Joint approach

The assessment is the result of a joint approach by Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI), part of WUR, together with over 80 Ethiopian experts involved in the sesame sector. This assessment was the second in a series of three. In May, a first rapid sector assessment was carried out, shortly after the first outbreak of COVID-19. The main insight obtained then was that sesame farmers planted only two-thirds of the normal acreage with sesame, and instead sowed more sorghum. Sesame is a very labour-intensive crop, and farmers foresaw that labourers would not be able to come to the lowlands, due to the lockdown in place at the time.

Missed income

Ted Schrader, senior advisor rural economic development at WCDI: “Whereas there were indeed labour shortages at the beginning of the season, labourers did come to the lowlands when mobility restrictions became less stringent. In addition to the seasonal labourers from the highland areas of Amhara and Tigray, jobless urban labourers also went to the sesame zone. The reduced sesame acreage and the influx of labourers led to lower wages. As a consequence many labourers earned little, while they faced high transport costs”

Many small businesses, which normally thrive during the busy production season, were strongly affected. Schrader: “Female and young street vendors selling food and drinks, taxi-bus services, commercial sex workers and landlords are losing income, as the labourers have less money to spend.”

Covid responses to prevent the situation becoming worse

The insights from the rapid assessment were widely communicated by means of easy-to-read alerts, bi-weekly updates and radio programmes. The rapid assessments contributed to increased cooperation among stakeholders in the sector. This was apparent in a televised forum discussion by regional experts. This helped to put the alert topics on the agenda of many stakeholders. Labour and Social Affairs offices used the outcomes of the alerts to improve their planning of response activities. A lot of attention was paid to the situation of labourers in particular to raise COVID awareness.

Another outcome of the first assessment is that at least one commercial bank continued to finance unions and cooperatives. Ensuring credit for family farms, which proved to be the most resilient, and for farmer cooperatives is one of the urgent actions suggested by the assessments. Farmers are running out of cash, jeopardising timely harvesting and payment of labourers. ​

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