Africa Agribusiness Opinions

How can Africa’s Covid-19 food insecurity challenge be tackled?

The Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated existing food security issues in Africa and given rise to some new challenges. With an economic downturn under way, efforts to combat hunger are being accelerated. While short-term measures are part of the solution, the crisis has also made a powerful case for long-term change.

The IMF projects that a worldwide recession will follow on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in a drop of around 4% in global GDP.

Due to climate change and political instability, parts of Africa were already grappling with food security issues, making a recession an unwelcome addition to the mix.

Net food exporters have been particularly affected by internal pressures, such as productivity slumps caused by lockdowns, and external pressures, including the disruption of international supply chains.

Some governments have been unable to guarantee sufficient food supplies, a situation that has the potential to lead to broader instability and, ultimately, conflict.

Nevertheless, Covid-19 is generating opportunities for meaningful change, and it is hoped that the pandemic will give rise to new approaches to food security.

“The opportunities for growth in Africa reflect resilience as a primary objective,” Driss Benomar, chair of the Atlantis Center for Geostrategic and Research Studies, told OBG. “This means smoothing supply chains into effective pan-African management schemes that include regulatory frameworks; expanding and sharing capacity in the health sector; systematically investing in infrastructure, sometimes across borders; and enhancing telecommunications.”

An ongoing food crisis

Prior to Covid-19 some 73m people on the continent were classified as acutely food insecure.

Lockdowns and travel restrictions have exacerbated this situation by weakening incomes, fracturing regional supply lines and sometimes halting production – leading to severe food price shocks in the process.

The African Union (AU) was quick to call attention to the impact the virus is having on food security.

On April 16 the ministers of agriculture of AU member states publicly committed to ensuring food security and nutrition for all their citizens. The ministers issued a statement urging governments to “prioritise the food and agriculture system as an essential service” and “recognise that all types of food systems – modern, traditional (open markets and small stores) and informal (street vendors) – play critical roles in serving different markets”.

Various countries exempted local markets from lockdowns, among other measures to safeguard food supplies. Food insecurity has nonetheless increased sharply.

The World Bank recently found that some 75% of adults in Nigeria had skipped a meal due to a lack of resources in 2020, nearly three times the proportion that reported doing so in 2018/19.

Central to this issue is African nations’ relative over-reliance on food imports. Despite having enormous resource potential, distribution hurdles, economic structures and a relative lack of value-added capacity mean that many countries are not self-sufficient in staple goods.

Prospects for continent-wide, systemic change

Recent approaches to food security have focused on increasing the quality of agricultural inputs to grow domestic stockpiles. (https://oxfordbusinessgroup.com/news/covid-19-and-food-security-challenges-and- opportunities-emerging-markets)

For example, in June the Nigerian government announced that more than 10,000 farmers across 13 states would receive deliveries of high-quality seeds to bolster crop production.

While building productive capacity is important, addressing long-standing vulnerabilities requires deeper- rooted change. At the Africa Security Forum 2019 held in Rabat in December last year, Tshilidzi Madzivhandila, the managing director of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis network, outlined various strategies that could increase food security.

On top of production-oriented measures, such as diversifying crops and introducing irrigation systems, he called for systemic changes such as an expansion of multi-risk insurance and the integration of new technologies.

In a report produced to accompany the meeting, Adam James McVie, a senior adviser to the UN’s World Food Programme, noted that large-scale development projects – which tend to focus more on providing training and materials, and less on long-term support – are not always well suited to the current environment.

Instead, he highlighted the importance of communication and mass involvement, citing the Ethiopian reforestation programme, for which 23m people were mobilised to plant 4bn trees in five months.

The holistic integration of new technologies, meanwhile, allows farmers to improve processes at various stage of production. A regional benchmark in this regard is the Climate Smart Agriculture Project in Kenya, which implements tech-oriented systems to increase agricultural productivity and build resilience to climate change. The initiative uses big data, among other tools, to develop climate-smart market information systems.

In addition to underscoring the importance of productivity improvements, the pandemic has called greater attention to the benefits of regional interconnectedness. Free trade links could be consolidated and expanded going forward, alongside the infrastructure necessary to sustain them.

On this note, it is hoped that one constructive outcome of the pandemic will be the rapid and enthusiastic implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which entered into force in May last year. This could mark a major step towards the broad-based food security needed to support the continent’s continued growth.