08 May COVID-19 impacts on food security in Africa: some agenda for quick action
April 2020 – The Covid-19 pandemic has been ravaging the global economy since its outbreak in December 2019. Although Africa initially has had a slower rate of infections compared to other regions, recent evidence has shown a spike in the number of cases – especially in large cities such as Lagos, Johannesburg, Cairo, Rabat and Algiers. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently warned that Africa could soon become the new epicentre of the virus. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa reported in April 2020 that without adequate protection measures, over 300 000 people in Africa could die of the virus. Anecdotal evidence suggests community transmissions are increasing, with the virus also potentially moving to rural communities. With most countries easing their lockdowns, this could potentially increase the risk of transmission. So, what does this mean for food security?
Although March and April 2020 have seen a spike in transmissions across the continent, there is no evidence that suggests the pandemic caused food shortages in SSA. In fact, shortages- scenarios were due to factors around panic buying which caused occasional price increases. It is therefore important to note that several key drivers increased the challenge of food insecurity in Africa which were coincidentally exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Climate change, conflict/ insecurity, economic shocks and desert locusts are just some of the factors which made a few countries more food insecure than others. For instance, Zimbabwe experienced shortages of maize as a result of supply side constraints linked to macroeconomic instability. Kenya’s poor rainfall season resulted in increased imports of maize in March as a food security measure. As the pandemic grows, the DRC food security crises could potentially worsen because of the current conflict and export limitations by some countries.
However, COVID-19 resulted in agricultural distribution challenges. The lockdowns led to delays for trucking/logistics companies in turn resulting in agricultural produce going to waste. Vague rules on movement meant that some deliveries have not been operated normally due to virus fears between cities, provinces and countries. On a larger scale, the global value supply chain has been disrupted due to some stockpiling.
In recent weeks, some countries have imposed export bans on the supply chains, a pattern that could potentially destabilise food trade and availability. Russia recently imposed a ban on wheat, Vietnam imposed export bans on its rice. Pakistan and Cambodia have also limited their rice exports. These measures could affect prices particularly for Sub- Saharan Africa, as the region imports the largest amount of rice globally. For example, in Abuja and Lagos, the price of imported rice increased by 7.5 percent from the third week of March to early April 2020.
Domestic movement restriction and import delays have also affected the delivery of farming inputs such as fertilizer and seed, hiring tractors, wastage of agro-processing such as milk and the commencement of farming seasons such as rice which begins in May for some regions. The lockdowns have also delayed in the transporting of chemicals aimed at fighting desert locust invasion in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and some parts of Uganda. As the pandemic spreads with global increases reaching more than 3.5 million infections worldwide, the threat of food insecurity seems more imminent as means of food production and access become reconfigured.
Government must have three pillar intervention models in place based on immediate, medium-term and long-term strategic intervention measures to avoid a looming crisis. For example, immediate interventions by government are the implementation of disaster funding provisions to sustain production and supply chains given to small- scale farmers, agricultural entrepreneurs, farm workers and aid to commercial farmers. But it is crucial that the stipulated thresholds for funding beneficiaries is adequate to benefit the bottom of the pyramid agricultural producers.
Further measures should include the prioritised testing of individuals in the agricultural and food supply chains to protect farmers, agricultural workers, drivers, delivery people, supermarket workers, informal sector food suppliers in order to avoid transmission of the disease and agricultural produce contamination. Factors which could bring the agricultural sector to a standstill.
African countries should work together to ensure that food systems and food supply chains remain open. This involves clarification from regional bodies such as SADC, ECOWAS on new policies that affect transport systems to avoid food insecurity in the regions.
Medium term measures should include the supply of cash transfers for a period of four- six months to vulnerable populations to enable the purchase of food, as well as the re-stocking of staple food crops. Monetary, fiscal as well as industrial policies need to be revisited to prepare the economy to return to long-term growth and sustainable development.
As a long-term strategic goal, governments should move forward on locally producing their own fertilizers, the introduction of seed purchase schemes to facilitate its own agricultural food production. Countries with large populations should increase their production of staples and small-scale local farmers across Africa should be boosted with capacity to ensure sustained food provision and increasing inter- regional trade. Moreover, the encouragement of climate smart agriculture should remain a top priority in order to protect the sector from the challenges of climate change.