In This Article
- On March 16th Ecuador declared a health emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic
- This announcement generated a number of concerns, including how to guarantee food security during a national quarantine.
- During this time of confinement, Heifer Ecuador is helping small, sustainable farmers provide food to consumers who can no longer shop in open markets.
Story by Ela Zambrano
Photos by Heifer Ecuador
The countryside and the city have always moved at different rates. In times of emergency, things are no different. While quarantine has immersed Ecuador's cities in a mandatory stillness, in rural areas, small farmers have sped up their harvesting, never losing sight of the fact that farmers and people in the city are facing a common enemy.
“Our rate of work has changed; on the one hand, we can’t move around, but at the same time we are obliged to improve our production system to supply families in cities, who are worried about running out of food," said Rosa Mena, who farms outside of Quito, Ecuador's capital city. Rosa belongs to the Pamba Mikuna (or “food field”) group, a collection of farmers who plant and harvest in the vicinity of Calderón, Llano Grande, Guayllabamba and Ascazubí.
“This crisis has meant that now small farmers and organic produce are valued," said Margarita Haro of the El Marco Agricultural Cooperative. Margarita and other members of the co-op are filling food baskets that will be distributed to Conocoto and Sangolquí, some of Ecuador’s fast-growing urban areas. “When we deliver our products, people tell us we are just as important as doctors, who are working non-stop in hospitals while we deliver their food," Haro said.
In this time of emergency, Rosa, Margarita and thousands of other small farmers have one clear goal: to supply urban families with produce. Thanks to Heifer Ecuador’s Future of Food Project, they are able to do just that. A year and a half ago Heifer Ecuador began working to help rural farmers connect with consumers and open new markets where they can easily sell their harvests. This visionary endeavor has meant that now, when over 17 million Ecuadorians are quarantined at home, farmers can respond quickly to the new, increased demand for produce.
This increased demand means increased profits for farmers and cooperatives. Pamar Chacrin, a group of small-scale farmers, has grown into a small enterprise because of the growing demand driven by the confinement. “We are quite busy, working around the clock, preparing baskets filled with produce that will be delivered at people’s homes, and it’s a hard task. We help farmers sell their produce and we help supplying the city with produce," said Nelson Pamar, the President of Pamar Chacrin. Not only is this positive for consumers, but each member of the group has earned an additional 200 dollars each week, ensuring that they are financially stable, even during this pandemic.
Just 18 days ago, these farmers were still selling their produce at fairs and open-air marketplaces and the quarantine has raised challenges that the group has diligently worked to conquer. “When the health emergency was announced, we no longer had anywhere to sell our food, and we were worried, but we didn’t just cross our arms – immediately, we organized to deliver baskets containing grains and beans, vegetables, quinoa and bok choy at our customer’s homes," Pamar explained.
Heifer Ecuador’s business chain specialist, Esteban Ucho said, “in this southern zone of Ecuador, in the first two weeks, they (members of Pamar Chacrin) have delivered 200 baskets per week. This third week of quarantine, they have increased their capacity to 300 baskets and even then, they cannot cover the whole current demand.”
To attempt to bridge this gap, Heifer Ecuador is working to accelerate the design of a digital system for home delivery: “We partnered with PideUnDoMi – an app operating in Azuay – the consumer pays the cost of delivery, which goes directly to the person delivering; farmers sell their produce; and families in the city get healthy food,” said Ucho.
In Ecuador, 88 percent of farms are operated by small and medium-sized producers. Families in the city have learned to appreciate the value of these farmers and, through a digital culture, now have a way to get produce from the field to the table, truly achieving a fair trade between consumers and producers.
Rosa Mena reports she and the other farmers in her group had already developed good practices to safely handle produce, but when COVID-19 hit Ecuador, they received training on the Biosafety and Food Handling Protocol to apply during harvest, post-harvest, and packaging. For this, Heifer Ecuador, alongside Ecuador’s campus of the Simón Bolívar Andean University have prepared a guide that has been distributed nationally, both by local governments and the Ministry of Agriculture.
“We have always treated food carefully, but now we are even more careful with the details”, explains Rosa. Additionally, Heifer Ecuador has given farmers suits and gear for their personal protection. This protective gear includes organic fumigation equipment, disinfectants to spray food, and food containers and disinfectant to spray footwear and vehicles. In the countryside there is also concern about the risk of contagion. For this reason, farmers are safeguarding the health of their neighbors who go to town to deliver baskets. When they get back home, Rosa says, “we clean and disinfect the truck thoroughly where we take the baskets.”
In the Galapagos Achipelago, the situation is similar. Located 1000 kilometers from mainland Ecuador, the area is a UNESCO Natural Heritage site where Heifer Ecuador and the Ministry of Agriculture are working. Though actions are being taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 here, open-air markets remain open to prevent supply shortages in San Cristobal Island and to guarantee that urban areas will not go hungry. In this case, Heifer Ecuador has provided farmers living here with 40 kits of personal protection gear (overalls, special masks, and gloves) to protect them properly as they sell their harvests.
Agroecology Becomes The Answer
By 19 March, Ecuador had been in confinement for two days to keep COVID-19 from spreading. The quarantine closed many large market fairs and small farmers worried because their crops piled up in their homes. On that date, Heifer Ecuador distributed, a catalog made in collaboration with the Consortium of Provincial Autonomous Governments of Ecuador (CONGOPE) and various farmer organizations. Because of this catalog, 186 producers in nine provinces were and continue to be advertised to consumers: “This started because it became urgent to inform cities about the options for accessing nearby agroecological food baskets at home," says a producer in Quito.
Today, not only have many agroecological farmers have seen basket sales grow during the quarantine – some have even tripled their profits. And it’s positive for consumers as well who, often, aren’t sure when they can leave their homes to shop. “Consumers cannot move from their homes, restrictions on mobility were changed constantly, so the schedule of when one could go out was never clear," explained Silvana González, coordinator of the Network of Rural Entrepreneurship and Rural Innovation.
The world health crisis has challenged many routines, enabling solidary to spring up, and many cities have rediscovered the value of small family farms and their healthful produce. These difficulties have made the concept of food security especially tangible for us all. Furthermore, many farmers are cultivating long-term customer loyalty with their new buyers. “This is solidarity and pragmatism," said Silvana. “If you respond during an emergency, it will be hard for customers to turn away from you. You solved their food problem when they needed it the most. I think they will become loyal customers.”