COVID-19 is having a huge impact on the world, and especially on Africa, disrupting value chains, including the food-related ones, which might lead to an acute food crisis. How is the continent dealing with this challenge? What are the immediate measures that need to be taken? Will this pandemic change the food sector’s performance and structure in Africa?
Our team at International Economics Consulting, Paul Baker (Chief Executive), Pablo Quiles (Manager of Trade Consultancy) and Veepin Bhowon (Senior Associate), join a roundtable discussion on the question of food security, self-sufficiency and the agricultural sector in Africa in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How is COVID-19 impacting food security in Africa?
Veepin Bhowon: There are a large number of countries in Africa that are already being affected by a food security risk and COVID-19 is adding to that. The UN World Food Programme has estimated that by the end of 2020, the pandemic might increase the number of food insecure people by 135 million, bringing the total to 265 million people in Africa.
If we look at the situation on the continent, COVID-19 is restricting the movement of people, which affects farmers and the food supply chains. With the borders closed or operating at a lower rhythm, delays in delivery are common. At the same time the major suppliers are also restricting exports: if we look at rice, some of the biggest exporters have reduced their outputs because they fear a shortage in their own countries, which decreases the food availability for Africa. All this is leading to a surge in prices. On the other side, the activities that bring revenue to Africa – tourism, trade, farming – have all been brought to a halt, which means low or no revenue. With the surge in prices, this will create more pressure on the food system as well as on the economy of the countries, as it represents a significant part of their GDP.
Will the impact of this food crisis be the same across the continent?
Paul Baker: Africa is not homogeneous, so countries will be impacted differently. From a food supply perspective, countries with a monocrop structure are very dependent on imports and trade to be able to survive, and COVID-19 may put them in a very difficult situation.
On the other side, countries with a more diversified agricultural base might be impacted by lower productivity, with less farm workers able to access production sites, as well as a weak infrastructure. Without the proper supply chains, logistical systems and cold storage facilities across many African countries, the food cannot get to market quickly enough and can perish.
Overall, even if the factors are different, there is great concern for many African countries to be able to secure the access they need to the food supply.
What immediate measures are required?
Paul Baker: As many countries in Africa depend on imports from outside the continent, the first thing would be securing those food supplies. That would mean ensuring that air freight or sea freight, for example, are still operating, even though passenger transportation has been closed. The borders should be kept open to allow for trade so that goods can come in and reach consumers quickly. At the moment, though, border processes have been slowed down by measures taken by the different countries to contain the pandemic and these are making the food situation worse.
In the longer term, it is important for countries to support their agricultural sector, diversifying their agricultural base. This can be done through subsidies, which would allow the sector to stay afloat in these difficult times. Some countries are also exploring stockpiling to ensure that they have supplies for a longer period of time.
Veepin Bhowon: With regards to immediate measures, there is a lot of work to be done in terms of coordinating all regional food programmes that are in place. Regional Economic Communities (RECs), like SADC, COMESA, the EAC, or ECOWAS, should work together to keep trade open and ensure that these food programmes reach the areas that are most affected.
With COVID-19 impacting the world at large, how will that affect the food programmes in Africa?
Veepin Bhowon: Although it is a global crisis, African countries are the ones most affected by a food crisis. You have countries like South Sudan or Zimbabwe where half the population is affected by food insecurity, as well as some Central African countries. Compared to other regions of the world, Africa is the one hit the hardest. There are already mechanisms in place to help African countries and priority should be given to them. But that said, RECs should work with the countries that have the food production, processing and storage capacities to help the other countries, get the food circulating on the continental network instead of relying on imports from outside the continent.
What are the challenges the food sector has been facing on the continent?
Veepin Bhowon: Whilst these are multiple, research and academia tend to highlight the same key challenges. The first one is low productivity, which is almost half compared to Asia’s. There is also a lack of coordination in terms of regional agricultural policies, as well as a lack of investment both in infrastructure and technology. For years, we have also been talking of a lack of access to funds for farmers and companies involved in agriculture. If these issues are tackled, that would be a step towards getting the sector to grow.
Is anything being done currently to improve food security in Africa?
Pablo Quiles: We are working together with the African Green Revolution Alliance (AGRA) on a large-scale project across the continent focused on the agricultural sector. The aim of the project is to identify those agricultural value chains with greater potential for trade and food security, proposing a set of actions to improve their productivity and sustainability.
The typical African farmer exploits about a hectare of land, and uses 60% to 70% of the production to feed themselves and their family. Through this programme, we are trying to identify the needs of these farmers. We try to understand why productivity is low, identifying the multiple causes as there is no single root cause. This can be, for example, due to poor quality seeds used, which lead to a low yield. Most of these farmers don’t have the means to implement proper irrigation systems, depending instead on rainwater. Even if, somehow, they manage to scale up and increase their production, they would face a lot of problems to even just get the produce to the market – how to deal with the middle man, create cooperatives to represent them, weak trade corridors, unreliable transport networks, etc. Post-harvest losses also have a significant impact, with 20% or more of production being lost due to the lack of access to cold-storage or even simple warehousing. With AGRA, we are trying to identify those needs and establish the specific interventions required to tackle those issues.
Veepin Bhowon: Studies on the topic come to the same conclusion: Africa needs more commitment from its political leaders and greater leadership at the regional level to be able to implement regional policies more efficiently.
Countries that have been talking about developing agriculture on a regional scale should come together and make it happen now. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is coming up as well, so maybe it’s time to use the RECs as catalysts to be able to boost regional agriculture and tackle Africa’s food security issues.
Can Africa achieve self-sufficiency in terms of food?
Pablo Quiles: The potential for Africa to achieve self-sufficiency is there. It is largely said that 60% of all uncultivated arable land is on the continent. The Democratic Republic of Congo alone has the potential to feed over 2 billion people.
Implementing measures that ensure that trade, especially intra-African trade, is not restricted, obtaining political commitment to avoid conflicts and export restrictions, and promoting best practices to increase productivity will be critical to allow Africa to reach its true potential in terms of food security and self-sufficiency.
Paul Baker: To be totally self-sufficient means to invest in producing different types of more processed goods. At the moment, a lot of the agricultural production is being exported and processed elsewhere. What is holding Africa back is not just investment and capital but also some of the policies which are not sufficiently supportive for industrialisation. So until major reforms are undertaken, it is very difficult to imagine an Africa totally industrialised and self-sufficient. It is probably at least a lifetime away.