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Countries around the world are struggling with the health and economic impacts of COVID-19, but for tackling hunger in Africa, the challenges are even greater – and far more complicated.
Different African countries have so far experienced different levels of outbreak and enacted different containment strategies. All countries, except Benin, have closed schools; more than 80 percent have some kind of government restriction on movement; the majority have shut down borders, airports, and seaports.
As these lockdown measures come into effect, a cascade of problems for farmers, food processors, and consumers are coming to the fore, says Scott Newman, delivery manager for the African Regional Initiative on Sustainable Production and Value Chain Development for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the U.N. (FAO).
“I believe that the COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to think in advance about what food systems transformations look like for Africa,” says Newman.
“If you’re a leader in Africa, you’re between a rock and hard place in trying to balance the COVID-19 health and transmission dynamics versus the food insecurity, nutritional insecurity, and poverty levels,” he says.
Indeed, according to its recent report, FAO is “particularly concerned about the potential impacts of the virus and related containment efforts on food security and livelihoods in contexts of high vulnerability and where populations are already experiencing food crises.”
The continent provides at least two problematic contexts. One is its outsize dependence on food imports, with some countries importing more than 90 percent of basic foodstuffs like cereals, dairy products and meat, from abroad. With seaports and airports closed, inland movement restricted, and the workers who process, store, and transport the food products under lockdown, that food is either no longer arriving at or getting sent on to its ultimate destination.
This serves to exacerbate Africa’s high levels of poverty and food insecurity. A fifth of the continent’s population is undernourished, according to a 2018 FAO report; 413 million Africans live in extreme poverty; and African countries – particularly those in the eastern Horn of Africa – contribute heavily to the 20 million people displaced globally as a result of climate change.
“And,” Newman adds, “these lockdown measures don’t necessarily facilitate people getting out on a day-to-day basis to earn a little bit of money to buy food for themselves and their families for that given day.”
Africa’s small-holding and subsistence farmers are a primary demographic within the continent’s vulnerable populations. Along with all their pre-existing livelihood challenges, they’re facing new problems. From imported inputs for their crops to extra manpower at harvest time to market access, restrictions on movement mean they could see food production plummet and perishable items spoil before they can get to market.
Meanwhile, the diets of the poor rely heavily on the kinds of local rural markets at which these products are often sold.
“Most people don’t go to a supermarket to get food,” says Newman. “They go to open markets, to food stalls, to places on the side of the road, informal markets.” Food is often cheaper here, but with anywhere from hundreds to thousands of people concentrated in these spaces, social distancing is almost impossible.
As some countries are starting to take more flexible approaches to food-related value chains within their broader lockdown measures, they need to think about how to create social distancing procedures and improve the way people interact amongst each other in the marketplace as well. “That’s a challenge,” he says. “But we need to figure out some more innovative approaches to allow them to remain open, to allow people to have access to healthy and nutritious food, but not increase, or to at least mitigate, the risk of them getting the disease when they go out to buy food.”
In both the short and the long term, however, the unique problems thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic make all too clear Africa’s need to transition to more home-grown and sustainable food supplies.
“There’s a lot of arable land, and a lot more could be produced here,” says Newman. “So what we’re talking about is more efficient production that doesn’t result in detriment to the environment, to biodiversity and to ecosystems.” Sustainable farming techniques, such as agroecological approaches and climate-smart agriculture, could not only improve crop yields and reduce the need for imported chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but also enhance soil health. With these kinds of ecological concepts and principles, he says, it would also be possible to “build in social elements for sustainable and fair food systems and food production.”
The Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect last year, could also help reduce the continent’s reliance on imports, with it signatories selling food, animal fodder, and agricultural inputs to their neighbours instead of exporting them to international destinations.
The COVID-19 crisis “is really forcing us now to come to terms with what the future of Africa looks like from an agriculture standpoint,” says Newman, “looking at inputs to agricultural production for all the different sectors, livestock, crops, fish and aquaculture, and also non-wood forest products.
“We’re talking about what a food-systems transformation looks like, about moving towards sustainable approaches, about the continent becoming more independent and self-sufficient. This is really the way of the future.”