Currently, 35 million people worldwide are experiencing critical food insecurity according to data from the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Therefore, without urgent coordinated action to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on food production and supply, an upwards of 265 million people could be on the brink of starvation globally, almost double the current rate of crisis-level food insecurity.
According to a report after an AfDB’s webinar titled Building Resilience in Food Systems and Agricultural Value Chains: Agricultural Policy Responses to COVID-19 in Africa children under five years who survive the hunger pandemic during COVID-19 lockdown may suffer stunting and reduced brain development. This is a condition that could limit their intelligence quotient capacity.
African countries have therefore been called upon to urgently expand food reserves, keep food supply flowing and boost their agriculture budgets to avert a possible hunger pandemic, partly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, delegates at a two-day webinar hosted by the African Development Institute (ADI) urged.
Currently, Africa relies on more than $47 billion worth of food imports to supplement domestic supply to feed its citizens, and this could increase to $110 billion by 2025. Every $1 billion spent on food imports is equivalent to 670,000 on-farm jobs and 200,000 off–farm jobs exported elsewhere, while millions of Africa’s teeming youth remains unemployed. More than 218 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished – a number that has increased by 44 million in the past 25 years.
In Africa’s fragile economies, existing social insecurity, economic fragilities, residual health shocks such as Ebola in eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, armyworms and the new generation of locusts in Eastern Africa, and extreme weather events caused by climate change have left citizens more vulnerable to COVID-19, the experts noted.
However, COVID-19 is not to blame for Africa’s challenges. “Africa has 20% of the world’s natural gold reserves, 56% of natural diamond reserves, 21% of natural phosphate rocks, 69.4% of natural platinum reserves, 60% of cobalt, 9% copper reserves, 60% of arable land, 13% of the global population, abundant energy potentials, many smart and innovative people, and many friends globally. Therefore, Africa must now, more than ever, adopt policies to enhance resilience capacity to compete in agricultural production, processing, trade and industry.
The seminar proffered several policy options to address the hunger pandemic during and after the COVID-19 lockdown and build more resilient food systems and agricultural value chains in Africa. They include:
Prioritise food systems and agricultural value chains as a national security emergency: Governments must establish green corridors and keep the domestic food systems and inter–regional food supply chains open during the pandemic. It was noted that selective border closures may be ill-advised in Africa as agricultural trade is not always exclusive and most intra-regional food supply chains are informal.
Implement social safety net policies: During the period of lockdowns and social distancing, governments should develop evidence-based traditional social safety net type policies that target vulnerable populations, especially the youth and women, business start-ups including SMEs and MSMEs.
Inter-ministerial and inter-regional coordination: While COVID-19 is primarily a health pandemic, the impact transmission pathways are primarily sociological (human behaviours), economic (the ability of individuals and governments to respond), and political (the ability of national governments to take prompt evidence-based response actions); and geo-political (the capacity of international governance to take prompt actions to safeguard our global commonalities).
Digitisation of food systems and supply chains: It was noted that COVID-19 has fast-tracked the transition to the 4th Industrial Revolution era – one in which most routine economic activities are performed by technologies (from accelerated e-markets to drones for input distribution, pest and disease surveillance, and food delivery from farm-gate to customers; to robot-operated mechanisation of farming, food processing and logistics; to mobile phone-based applications for extension services; artificial intelligence guided farm and agri-business management; and block-chain assisted agricultural finance and product markets.
Targeted support to smallholder farmers and urban farming: Over 60% of Africans make their living from agriculture with 80% of them in small scale farming. To a large part, small scale farming supplies more than half of Africa’s food needs. COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing policy have created “choke-points” for this local food supply system in Africa. Farmers are not able to go to their farms to plant or harvest their crops and consumers are afraid to buy food from local food markets for fear of contamination. Countries should ensure the free movement of farmers and trading in farmer’s markets with adequate support systems to guarantee food safety standards and the safety of the farmers and produce marketers. Provision of personal protection equipment (PPEs) such as face masks and hand sanitisers would help.
Re-stock food reserves and stock-piles at the global, regional, national and local levels: The traditional style food buffer system—notably food storage and stock-piling during good times remain as effective as they were in ancient times. Governments should create facilities for food reserves at state and local levels and implement contract farming systems that create incentives for farmers to stockpile excess produce during harvest seasons.
The delegation also highlighted some of the long term remedies to cushion the continent against the anticipated food shortage. They included investing in special food processing zones (SFPZs) and national agricultural innovation parks (NAIPs).
There were also discussions of re-introducing and revamping farmer cooperatives, marketing boards and commodity exchanges to stabilize supply chains and enhance market competitiveness.
Nations were also called upon to implement agricultural trade policy reforms – domesticate the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and strengthen inter-regional trade in agricultural produce.
It is also important to digitize customs governance to simplify Customs duties and trade tariffs to facilitate trade effectiveness and diversify agricultural production and value chains with a focus on boosting productivity and competitiveness in crop and fish production; digitization of food processing, storage and marketing in all sectors.
The delegation also called on African countries to invest in agricultural research and development and smart technology development and deployment: Governments are encouraged to enforce the implementation of the Maputo Page Declaration – 10% of GDP to be invested in agriculture.
The food challenges facing Africa today are not new. For a long time, the continent has been grappling with several factors hampering food access by the poor, including the locust outbreak in the Horn of Africa, fall armyworm, insecurity and conflict, climate change and extreme weather events, droughts and floods and cyclones before the outbreak of COVID-19.
Participants noted that food insecurity had been a problem prior to the pandemic, as many African countries lack adequate strategic food reserves. Other dynamics include climate change, water scarcity, and poorly developed agricultural markets. Factors driving extreme hunger could kill far more than the corona virus pandemic if lockdowns persist without clearing the “choke-points” in the food supply chains to the vulnerable.
Without COVID-19, many of our people were already hungry but the pandemic has worsened the situation. Let’s call this an emergency for food production and let this crisis not waste, they noted.
Speakers likened this to “a silent war without guns on the most vulnerable populations.”
The webinar, organized in partnership with African Association of Agricultural Economists (AAAE), featured speakers from the World Bank, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), universities of agriculture, and agricultural policy research institutions and networks.
The African Development Institute (ADI) is the African Development Bank’s focal point for Capacity Development. Its goal is to lead efforts at building sustainable capacity for development effectiveness in the Bank’s regional member countries.