Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: Lockdown Hits Farming Sector

Small-scale producers await emergency government measures.
By Tamuna Shonia
  • A farmer tending to his strawberry greenhouse, that's near the occupation line. (Photo: Tamuna Shonia)
    A farmer tending to his strawberry greenhouse, that's near the occupation line. (Photo: Tamuna Shonia)

Jambul Ekhvaia, 62, has been growing strawberries for many years on his farm in the village of Khurcha. He sold much of his crop in Gali and Sukhumi, on the other side of the river Enguri that marks the de facto border with the breakaway republic of Abkhazia. He even trained some farmers there in strawberry cultivation and supplied them with several hundred seedlings as part of a development programme.

But since all crossings into Abkhazia were closed due to lockdown measures to stop the spread of coronavirus, Ekhvaia he has no longer been able to sell his produce there.

The government, he said, needed to do more to help him and other local farmers, in particular explaining what aid they could access during the state of emergency.

“They [authorities] should have contacted us, all the farmers in the region, even if it was just online and should have explained to us about assistance provided to us during lockdown,” he continued. “I think that the farmers are doing the best job we can and if the authorities don't help us to sell our produce, we will face serious problems.”

Small producers in the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region say that they are facing serious difficulties in continuing to farm during lockdown. Restrictions on transport and market closures have seriously impacted local agriculture

Giorgi Gergedava, a Zugdidi cucumber farmer from the village Tsaishi, said that it was proving so hard to sell his produce that he was now giving away much of it to socially vulnerable people for free.

“It is difficult when you can't sell your produce because of the state of emergency, but I have found a solution and decided to give away a part of my crop,” he said. “Up until March, I used to supply restaurants and hotels. Cucumbers cost 12 GEL a kilo (3.70 dollars) at this time last year. Because of the pandemic, however, these facilities are now closed. I’d rather give the cucumbers to people who need them than throw them away.”

The authorities have created a crisis plan to help small producers, including a fund to provide 200 GEL (60 dollars) per hectare, for some 200,000 farmers with land up to ten hectares, that will launch on May 20.

Farmers will also receive 150 litres of diesel per hectare they own, which they will be able to buy for one GEL cheaper than market price, and be exempt from irrigation taxes in 2020. Various sectors, such as honey and milk producers, will have specific plans to help them through this period, including co-financing schemes.

The local authorities maintain that farmers should be able to continue growing and selling their produce, even in the current circumstances.

“The problems related to transportation, including during travel restrictions, are being solved instantly,” the local deputy governor, David Verava, said in a statement. “If farmers have problems, they call our administration via a hotline and the problem is solved in the shortest possible time. Strengthening agriculture is important for the government, because in the times of pandemic, the country must be able to meet the domestic demand for food.”

However, some producers, such as 71-year-old beekeeper Lamzira Rafava, said that the effects were yet to be felt by people like him.

“When a beekeeper cannot sell honey and has tonnes of it stored, it’s really awful,” he explained. “The government appears to be helping us, but so far we have not seen any results. If we had any support in terms of selling our honey, we would increase our production by two times or even more.”

Giorgi Kvaraia, the director of the agriculture consultancy centre of Samegrelo-Upper Svaneti, explained that the central government will be announcing a plan to include various projects and opportunities for farmers.

“The new action plan will give farmers preferential credit for agro-ventures, with loans from 5,000 to 100,000 GEL (1,500-30,000 dollars) being interest free in the first six-months. As for the problems that farmers had due to the pandemic restrictions, such as transportation, we are trying to solve those one by one.

“A few farmers are already starting to be able to sell their products; a big problem was that agricultural markets were closed but those are starting to open up,” he continued. “We have about 25 greenhouses registered in the Zugdidi area, all of which will be receiving assistance.”

Other organisations are also stepping in to provide innovative solutions.

Tea Anchabadze, project coordinator of the Association for Agricultural Development NGO said that they had started developing a platform to provide consultancy services as well as other forms of assistance to farmers.

“Currently we are helping farmers to advertise and sell their products online,” Anchabadze said. “On top of that, we’re also working on connecting farmers with distribution companies that have special permissions to travel and will help them distribute their produce.”

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.