Food security insights with Evans Brako Ntiamoah : COVID-19 and food and nutrition security in Africa


Impact assessment and mitigation measures

In December last year, a novel coronavirus was identified as the cause of a significant number of human cases of a respiratory disease in China.

The outbreak was on the 11th of March declared as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and was first detected in Wuhan city, which is a major domestic and international economic and transport hub in China.  Within six months, the deadly virus has brought the world to a standstill – and fear has spread faster than the virus.

Experts have voiced their concerns that the virus could have a much broader impact on the global economy. As of today expert’s opinions on this matter remain very cautious, and the only certainty is that nothing is certain at the moment.

The epidemic’s evolution during the coming days and weeks is very crucial, and its impact on the agricultural sector will very much depend on the time needed to stop the deadly virus’s spread. Therefore, assessing the effects of coronavirus on food and nutrition security and then identifying mitigation measures that can be employed to reduce challenges in the food demand and supply sector can make positive contributions in Africa.

Already, Africa is vulnerable to food insecurity. Against the adverse climatic conditions, economic shocks, and fast-rising population growth of the continent, food security is a national security issue to most countries in Africa.

Despite the continent having 60% of the world’s arable land, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported in 2018 that 33 countries in Africa were in severe food crises that required immediate action. Almost one in four people in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) were estimated to be undernourished in 2017, representing about one-third of the 821 million people suffering from chronic hunger globally. In addition to a high prevalence of chronic hunger in SSA, many more people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.

The majority of food in SSA is produced by smallholder farmers, while they are the most vulnerable to food insecurity and poverty. In Africa, traders travel daily to market centres on minibuses and through other forms of public transportation to work in very close proximity to each other, and do not have the ability to take time off work when they feel sick. All these challenges, coupled with our overdependence on imported goods, make Africa the most vulnerable in this difficult time.

The Situation

In the initial stage of the pandemic, little emphasis was placed on food security as analysts were more concerned about disruptions to manufacturing value chains, foreign direct investment and slowdown of economic figures.

The pandemic’s continuous threat to human life has brought about full and partial lockdowns globally. National lockdowns such as those in Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and city lockdowns in Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda presented a challenge to the nature of how food systems work in Africa.

Border closures, quarantines, and market supply chain and trade disruptions have restricted people’s access to sufficient sources of nutritious food, especially in countries already affected by high levels of food insecurity. Restrictions of movement impede farmers and food processors from processing. Closures of restaurants and less frequent grocery shopping diminish demand for fresh produce and fisheries products. All these challenges mostly affect the poorest and vulnerable segments of the population.

Impact Assessment

Food demand is generally inelastic, and its effect on overall consumption will likely be limited, although dietary patterns may change. There is possibility of an extremely larger decline in animal protein consumption. This is as a result of the non-science based theory that farm animals might be hosts of the virus. This has made higher value products like fish, fruit and vegetables to rise in prices. Food demand in poorer countries is more connected to income, and here loss of income-earning opportunities could impact on consumption.

Fear of infection can translate to reduced visits in food markets. Currently, there is a shift of how people buy and consume food. A number of countries have implemented policy measures such as border closures and others aimed at avoiding spread of the disease. Such measure might affect agricultural production and trade in both the short- and long-terms.

The food supply chain is a complex web that involves producers, consumers, agricultural and fishery inputs, processing and storage, transportation and marketing. As the virus spreads and cases increase, food systems at all levels will be tested and strained in the coming weeks. As of now, disruptions in terms of food demand and supply are minimal as food supply has been adequate and markets have been stable so far, though most countries have witnessed panic-buying and spikes in the price of certain products. The major challenge now is centred on logistics involving the movement of food, and failure to address this challenge might cause disruptions in the food supply chains.

Mitigation Measures                   

In recent studies, experts have advised governments to target the agricultural sector in their economic efforts to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. Previous studies have indicated that all sectors of most economies will suffer as a result of the pandemic, but the easy shot for governments will be the agricultural sector. This shows that immediate measures are needed to mitigate challenges confronting the agricultural sector and help revive the service and manufacturing industries.

Governments must work toward meeting the immediate food needs of their vulnerable populations. Immediate measures to ensure emergency food needs should be implemented. Though there is enough food production in the system, the lockdown in most countries bought about panic-buying and increase in food commodities’ prices. For instance, the prices of foodstuff went up during the three-week partial lockdown in Ghana. Due to this, the food component of the country’s inflation for April increased by 8 percent more than the non-food component – pushing the rate for April to 10.6 percent, from the 7.8 percent recorded in March 2020.

As the virus spreads and cases increase, government must put in place interventions to help regulate prices of food commodities. As indicated earlier, there is enough food in the farming communities and their prices are quite moderate, but food commodities are very expensive in urban areas. There must be proper mechanism for delivery of fresh food from local farmers and fish workers to affected areas, especially in urban centers.

Countries must boost their social protection programmes. While adhering to social distancing, social protection programmes must be expanded to ensure that citizens’ access to nutritious food is maintained. As massive layoffs and the fall in remittances continue to rise, governments must explore the use of district and regional food banks – not only through direct provision of food by government, but also support from individuals, solidarity networks and non-governmental organisations. More funds need to be injected into the agricultural sector to help food-producing entities stay afloat.

National authorities must provide transportation support that allows producers and distributors to deliver available crop harvests, livestock and fishery products to central distributing locations. Measures like green channels for critical agricultural products and production materials such as fruit and vegetables to minimise hurdles in transport should be encouraged.

Countries should gain efficiencies and try to reduce trade-related costs. National authorities must ensure that trans-border movement of food commodities is not hampered by border closures as a way of controlling the spread of COVID-19. Avoiding any trade restrictions would be beneficial to keep food and feed supplies from worsening local conditions already strained by COVID-19 response measures. In prioritising logistics to maintain and increase agricultural production and market access, government must allow the movement of seasonal workers and transport operators across domestic and international borders. Policymakers must monitor trends and take care to avoid accidentally tightening food-supply conditions.

To gather essential information that can aid policymakers in making informed decisions, governments should carry out national and regional assessments of food stocks and yield forecasts to identify any gaps or surpluses that can arise due to import bans or shortages. Governments must start planning with forecasting and simulation methods, and should be able to propose some mitigation pathways that can be adapted should border closures continue to exist for a longer time. We must consider decreasing agric-produce for non-food uses like biofuel to ensure food availability and avoid price spikes.

In a nutshell, Africa’s food security already faces challenges; and COVID-19, which is a health crisis, could also lead to a hunger pandemic if proper measures are not taken. Africa needs to learn from previous epidemics like Ebola since we do not have enough food reserves or boast vibrant value chains linking the domestic and international markets. Most countries are experiencing increases in food commodities prices, and this is likely to happen on a much larger scale if food trade and markets are not regulated well. Governments must take urgent actions to prevent food security issues from escalating. National governments must find innovative methods to feed their people.

The writer is an agricultural economist, a food security analyst and an agribusiness consultant. He is very passionate about food insecurity mitigation in Africa, and believes that ending hunger is too small a vision for Africa. His research interest includes: climate-smart agriculture, food security, agricultural innovation, and agribusiness management. You may contact him through e-mail: [email protected]

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