Promoting agriculture during COVID19: bravery of IITA Rwanda field technicians during lockdown

Deus Kayibanda feels the field in his veins. The Research Assistant at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Rwanda spends almost 90 % of his work on field duties. He is familiar with field activities but working during the lockdown due to COVID-19 was unfamiliar modus operandi.

COVID-19 has shaken all spheres of life, cutting growth predications in almost all sectors globally. The United Nations World Food Programme has warned that an estimated 265 million people could face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020, up from 135 million people before the crisis, because of the pandemic. Billions of people were asked to stay at home and only essential  workers could move to their offices or to field work.  In Rwanda, agriculture activities were given greenlight to continue during the lockdown.

During the three months of the lockdown in Rwanda, from March to June 2020, many staff of IITA Rwanda worked from home but some whose field work was identified as essential, continued while carefully observing protective and preventive measures.  It is indeed not easy going like in the normalcy, but the professionalism and the determination to promoting food safety was the motivation to carry on.

Mr Deus Kayibanda using a tablet to collect data for cassava trials

“As a field technician, I am always comfortable being in the field even if the rest are working from office or home. This time, the difference was to manage the risk.  Being out there when others are taking precaution measures at home is a risk but I was motivated by my duties and CIALCA work which I needed to implement.”

“We had to secure car travel clearance before moving to the field. Hygiene and social distancing measures were respected at the maximum,” Deus adds.

IITA Rwanda office made sure measures stated by government are well respected. Drafting protocols that demonstrate how social distancing, hygiene and other covid-19 preventive measures are to be respected, was a prerequisite to get approval for field work from the Country Director. Before the lockdown the approval was simple and done by direct managers.

“Protecting lives of our staff and those of partners and farmers is core in our operations during the Covid-19 pandemic. We ensure that protective and preventive measures are fully adhered to all the time,” says Dr. Marc Schut, IITA Country Representative for Rwanda.

When Rwanda imposed lockdown in March 2020, it coincided with pick time for some agriculture activities. Activities of agronomic field trials are entirely implemented on the field apart from analysis of their results which is done at the end after harvest. It was a period to apply fertilizers and taking data on cassava diseases and morphological parameters. Field trials are composed of different activities which happen or implemented at given period that is well set before the beginning of the trial and highly depending on agriculture rain season. “Not performing a given activity at its right time, it means trial failure. I can say that it went as planned because we managed to do the intended work despite of challenges,” explains Deus Kayibanda.

Deus Kayibanda shares his experience on working during the lockdown

New way of working, achieving same results

Kayibanda’s experience of working during the lockdown reflects unexpected new way of working dictated by the pandemic. IITA staff, drivers, RAB staff and farmers/workers had masks on their faces. “By respecting social distance, we didn’t carry workers at the back of vehicle as we used to do before the pandemic and we met them on the field. Hand sanitizer was used before giving them a bucket of fertilizer and during application, “Deus explains.

Only one person was allowed to apply fertilizer per individual plot for respecting social distancing which was not the case before the outbreak. Payment of wages was also done through mobile money system as opposed to giving them cash. Covid-19 preventive measures were highly respected during the work in lockdown.

Even though essential field activities went on, working in lockdown and pandemic situation delayed work to some extent, because few workers could attend compared to normal period. Before leaving for the field, there are some materials which most of the time needed for the preparation. It was difficult to get them in the town and, when found in some shops, the cost was very high compared to their normal price.

Despite the tough time, IITA staff are driven by social and moral responsibility to uplift agriculture, a sector that accounts for 30% of the GDP in Rwanda. “It is our moral and citizen obligations for us all to respect government measures mostly during special and abnormal periods like these, which are meant to save lives. Taking our work seriously as employees and thinking how it impacts positively our beneficiaries -farmers- should also be our motivation.” Deus says.