As outbreak closes schools, Kenyan farming families welcome help on the land from young people - and plan to use the money saved for their education
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By Wesley Langat
NAIROBI, April 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At the start of the planting season, Lily Langat, 41, was busy sowing maize with her husband and four of their six children on their family farm in the remote Kenyan village of Kaptich.
As cases of COVID-19 rise in the East African country - now at about 250 with 11 deaths - the government has taken measures to control the spread of the new coronavirus by closing schools and universities, and restricting people's movements.
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"Though my children aren't in school, they are really very resourceful during this time, mostly helping us on the farm," Langat said in a phone interview
The area where they live in west-central Nakuru County belongs to the productive Great Rift Valley, which has fertile soil and generally reliable rainfall that favours agriculture.
The family depend for their income on farming maize, potatoes, beans and vegetables on their 5 acres (2 hectares) of land, as well as livestock rearing.
In the short growing season, Langat earns a profit of 40,000-50,000 Kenyan shillings ($400-500) from selling her produce, with which she pays high-school fees for her four daughters.
UNESCO, the U.N. agency in charge of education, has estimated that more than nine out of 10 enrolled learners, from schools to universities, in 192 countries have seen their establishments closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
For now, many parents in this Kenyan farming community welcome the additional help from their children lending a hand on the land.
Daniel Langat, Lily's husband, said this year's maize planting had been a success as it was done quickly and they didn't need to spend much on labour, thanks to their children.
Each season, he pays out 10,000 shillings per acre for additional labour - but this time he plans to use that money to buy books and other items for his children when schools reopen.
Gilbert F. Houngbo, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, said that in Africa's rural areas, children tend to help their parents with farming activities - and it could be seen as positive in the current circumstances.
But he warned such practices may increase child labour, and harm young people's education if they continue longer term.
"The danger is that once the (COVID-19) crisis is behind us, the risk of some of the children not going back to school becomes higher," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
NO FREE LUNCH
So far, the COVID-19 control measures imposed by the government are mostly affecting urban areas, residents said.
Dorothy Achieng, a mother of four boys who is a casual domestic worker living in Kibera slum in the capital Nairobi, said her daily hustle for chores was badly affected.
"I'm so worried about how life is treating us now - getting food is a challenge," she said in a telephone interview.
Staying at home with her children out of school makes daily life more expensive, as she has to give them lunch, stretching her budget. She also worries they have little to occupy them.
"It is very difficult to contain them indoors, so I fear they might be exposed to anti-social behaviours such as drug abuse," she added.
Alexander Owino, a Nairobi-based independent financial analyst, said severe disruptions to transport and supply chains from the coronavirus restrictions would deal a blow to economically fragile city populations such as street vendors.
"COVID-19 will hit the incomes of the informal sector with a demand-side shock arising from the near-collapse of purchases from customers," he said.
Back in rural Kenya, Langat explained how her family is following government directives to combat the virus. Her husband has installed containers for hand-washing around the farm.
And learning has not stopped for her children, who work on the land until 2 pm, then go indoors to listen to educational programmes broadcast on the radio and study, she added.
"In the evening hours, I ensure that the children also have time to study (and) do their school assignments," she said, adding the family has solar panels to provide light and power.
According to a report this month from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which highlighted the key role of rural farming in tackling hunger, over 60% of people in low-income countries are employed in agriculture and more than 70% of farm units in sub-Saharan Africa are smallholdings.
James Thurlow, a senior research fellow at IFPRI, said family farms become even more important for workers in Africa in hard times, both as a source of employment and a safety net.
"Agriculture is less directly affected by (coronavirus) lockdown policies, thus acting as a means of avoiding higher food insecurity and poverty," Thurlow told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.
Most African countries have exempted agricultural production from lockdown. In Kenya, for instance, the government has encouraged farmers to carry on with their work and keep food supply chains functioning.
Peter Munya, cabinet secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, said the supply of staple commodities must be maintained, and produce transported to where it is needed most
"As we commence the planting season, I appeal to our farmers to continue with their farming activities," he said in remarks to journalists. "The government will facilitate access of affordable inputs and extension support," he added.
Munya said his ministry was working closely with health officials, county governments, the transport sector and business to strike a balance between keeping up production and protecting the health of participants in the agricultural value chain.
But Thurlow warned rural households and their farms would not be immune from economic shocks in major cities and towns, because they depend on urban consumers.
"We are seeing urban incomes fall dramatically in many African countries where the effects of lockdowns are concentrated - this is reducing demand for food products grown in rural areas," he added.
(Reporting by Wesley Langat; additional reporting by Megan Rowling in Barcelona; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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