COVID-19 – A triple threat to food security

Food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa is not news – the region is widely recognised as the world’s most food insecure. And, as participants to last week’s webinar highlighted, the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest of three threats in as many years to the region’s food systems, following as it does the devastating fall armyworm and desert locust invasions in 2018 and 2019. Such destruction comes over and above the ongoing instability caused by drought and climate change.

Of course, the situation has been compounded by COVID-19 containment measures such as border closures, lockdowns and curfews – all of which, somewhat ironically, are intended to prevent the loss of life, but which have radically disrupted food supply chains.

In addition, massive job losses and the contractions of economies have meant that, according to IMF statistics quoted by webinar moderator Professor Paul Zeleza, 240 million people are going hungry in the region and in some countries, over 70% of the population have problems accessing food.

This regional vulnerability is something that African countries deal with on a regular basis. In his contribution to the discussion on “The economic, food security, and livelihood impacts of COVID-19 in Africa: Lessons learned and policy responses”, Professor Samba Mbaye, who heads the department of plant biology at Cheikh Anta Diop University, said the food system in Senegal has long been affected by the “vagaries of climate”, but COVID-19 had brought physical limitations on imports and exports, and disruptions to the food supply chain.

Food sovereignty

While he conceded that COVID-19 was causing suffering, he said it was also an opportunity for the country to explore, among other things, a greater emphasis on food sovereignty, self-reliance and to explore diversification of crop production activities and underutilised crop species. There was also an opportunity for greater emphasis on women and youth empowerment, he said, and for the university to improve its contributions to local communities and strengthen higher education and stakeholder relationships in Senegal.

Dr Godfrey Bahiigwa, director of the department of rural economy and agriculture in the African Union Commission (AUC), also had a message for universities, which he referred to as “powerhouses of knowledge…which share their views unhindered without political considerations”.

Universities, he said, need to “work with their governments to design policies and strategies that will then help those countries to recover and come out stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Bahiigwa said while Africa’s food and agricultural systems are vulnerable to COVID-19, the pandemic cannot be blamed for such weakness. “It has simply aggravated those weaknesses,” he said.

This meant that any recovery measures both in medium and long term, should be informed not only by the impacts of COVID-19 but by underlying weaknesses already in the systems.

Bahiigwa said while it was obviously important to focus on short-term measures aimed at saving lives and feeding vulnerable people, it was equally important in the medium and long term to take actions to build more resilient food systems.

Continental response

The AUC was leading efforts to respond to the impact of COVID-19 on Africa’s food systems by mobilising member states across the continent. He said the eight regional economic communities were working with international development partners to put together a systematic and coordinated response to the pandemic, which includes responses to short-term needs of populations, as well as longer-term strategies aimed at building resilient food systems in Africa when the current pandemic is over.

A landmark meeting organised by the AUC and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in mid-April was attended (virtually) by over 45 ministers of agriculture from across the content.

It resulted in a ministerial declaration and the establishment of a high-level task force comprising a number of regional and international organisations including the AUC, FAO, European Union, African Development Bank, World Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development, World Food Programme and the African Union Development Agency.

Bahiigwa said the ministers discussed short-term responses and social support, how to support farmers to plant for the current season so there can be adequate food in the next few months; measures to keep domestic markets operating as well as trade between countries; the need to ensure agricultural supply chains remain operational and support for small scale farmers, including fish and livestock farmers.

A key task was to ensure that responses to the COVID-19 situation are not “misaligned” to ongoing efforts – “in other words, we should not be creating new things or approaches when we have existing ones that we have not exhausted”, said Bahiigwa. To this end the meeting called for alignment of interventions to the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Limited fiscal space

Bahiigwa said the meeting discussed resource mobilisation for member state interventions.

“We all know … there is limited fiscal space at country level to address the various measures countries are putting in place … and therefore a need to mobilise additional resources from external sources to support the implementation of the ministerial declaration.” He said the aim was to achieve “coordinated and systematic support” for hotspots of food insecurity. This included areas still affected by threats such as armyworm and desert locusts as well as those affected by COVID-19.

While setting out in detail the impact of COVID-19 on food systems and food corridors in the region, Associate Professor Agnes Mwangwela, dean and acting principal of Bunda campus, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), also noted that the pandemic presented an opportunity for countries and their universities to re-evaluate their approaches. Among her suggestions was a greater focus on entrepreneurship, agribusiness and value-addition programmes, specifically targeting women and youth.

Like Mbaye, she suggested that the pandemic was a chance to build local food systems by focusing on underutilised local crop species. “Not to undermine global trade, but we are in a situation whereby self-reliance and resilience within nations needs strengthening,” she said.

She said the promotion of home food gardens and production within households was important, “especially since in Africa we have the luxury of space,” she said.

Rising food costs

At the moment, however, measures implemented to control the COVID-19 pandemic have affected both production and marketing of food, raising the cost of food in urban areas and increasing the transport costs to market.

“For most of the Southern African countries, the measures come at a point at which farmers are harvesting their crops, towards the end of season, but it is also the peak time for marketing of agricultural produce. So when measures to restrict movement and gatherings and the operation of markets were implemented, farmers are left with produce without people to buy it,” she said.

This had led to lower prices in the producer market, but at the same time had reduced supply in urban centres.

She said border closures and restrictions on movement were affecting importation of foods, agricultural inputs and processing aids, as well as exportation of commodities.

“All this is going to affect the general food security situation in a country. Most countries in the region are agriculturally based, relying on exports of agricultural commodities and value-added produce … With the closures it means there is no movement of commodities and that reduces the foreign exchange countries earn, as well as the number of people that are working.”

She said it was important for universities to conduct research to generate data to support policy. “We need data about markets, how they are operating. At harvest time, the general trend would be for food prices to go down, but now they are going up. So we need to understand what is happening – apart from rising transport costs. People have lost jobs, they are not earning, but prices are rising.”

She called for more scientific data to inform the possible implementation of subsidies and social cash transfers targeting society’s vulnerable groups – a measure that would ensure adequate nutrition even in the absence of earned income.

The department of nutrition at LUANAR was working with government to study and collect data around the impact of COVID-19 measures on nutrition programmes and to ensure nutrition status is monitored and fortification can continue, she said.
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