By Orville Williams
High on the list of objectives for the Ministry of Agriculture’s Extension Division, over the coming months, is improving the social welfare of farmers, many of whom have become destitute due to the absence of substantial arrangements.
The concerns were raised recently by Senior Extension Officer in the Ministry Owolabi Elabanjo, while speaking to Observer on the sidelines of a crop-planting workshop.
“What I have noticed is that many of the old folks – especially in agriculture – who did not work for the government or anywhere at all, they have never contributed to Social Security [or] Medical Benefits. Most of them have [not] engaged themselves in any insurance policy programme, hence, what we have seen in this current period is that when they retire due to old age or sickness, they have nothing to fall back on.
“Thank God some of them might have been able to educate their children, but we have seen [a lot] also, everybody [has moved abroad], so most of these old folks are just there [without assistance],” Elabanjo explained.
He pointed out that many of the farmers who find themselves in these situations, were actually doing well during the time they were actively working. With the absence of their farming income and no immediate family to assist in some cases, they have been left to rely, for example, on fellow farmers assisting through the gifting of produce or other resources.
The difference between employed individuals – whose social welfare or personal insurance contributions are mandatorily deducted – and the self-employed, like farmers – who are responsible for paying in their own contributions – is another factor that contributes to the dire situations, Elabanjo added.
“It’s not that our farmers don’t make money or they don’t have the opportunity/resources to make money, it’s just the atmosphere that binds them in their daily activities. [However], if something is pegged on them – even if the ‘insurance man’ has to go and collect it – that will be helpful.”
The ministry is not expecting the farmers to figure out the situation on their own; Elabanjo spoke on the plans they have to assist in closing the gap.
“Our plan is to encourage our farmers in the first [instance], to make sure [they] start contributing to Social Security and Medical Benefits. That is one of the steps we are going to be pushing from next year. The second step is, we want to discuss – in fact, I have been discussing – with the insurance companies like State Insurance, what new programmes they can bring onboard that can [exclusively] accommodate farmers.”
He also encouraged the farmers to make the change in attitude, “not even for [just] yourselves [but] anybody working for you full time, you must encourage them to contribute to [the social welfare programmes], because at the end of the day if they don’t do it now, by the time they realize, they will not be able to get any benefits.”
Accepting that it will require great effort to make a change, Elabanjo added that, “I don’t think this [task] is for the government alone…I think every person in Antigua and Barbuda that works in social welfare and finance, [as well] as everybody that lives or has family in as farmers, it’s time for us to put our heads together to [see] what we can put together that will benefit our farmers moving forward.”
He noted that the problem has long been observed within the farming community, but said the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for farmers to safeguard their future and adequately prepare for unforeseen circumstances.