How will Africa ensure food security for its millions of poor citizens and smallholder farmers?
As the cropping season commences with the coming of the rains in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the world with the continent unfortunately not being left out – raises questions about food security for African countries.
While the food and agricultural sector should ordinarily be less affected than other sectors (since food is a basic need, with more or less inelastic demand), labour shortages due to viral infection, transport interruptions, quarantine measures limiting access to markets and supply chain disruptions resulting in food losses and wastage could affect supply.
African Farmers face a difficult year ahead as unprecedented quarantine measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus threaten to disrupt the food supply chains of most countries, leaving the farmers in limbo. Most countries have already initiated travel bans, to limit the number of people coming in from other regions in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus, but in addition to these measures, many countries are beginning to impose strict restrictions on the movement of people within the country; and farmers, are among the many groups adversely affected by these restrictions.
Most agricultural activities in SSA are carried out in rural communities, from where the crops and livestock are transported to urban areas. Agricultural inputs like animal feed, vaccines, improved seed varieties, crop fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides are transported from the wholesalers in the cities, to retailers and farmers in the rural areas. With strict travel restrictions in place, roads to cities and towns are blocked and rural farmers are cut-off from the major markets for their crops and animal products, as well as from agricultural inputs.
Smallholder livestock farmers of animals like poultry, fish and dairy products are expected to suffer the most, from the restriction on movement. Take Poultry, for example. Chickens have shorter life cycles than most other farm animals; Broilers can reach market weight, in as little as six weeks; so they have to be sold and replaced more often, or the farmer risks running at a loss since the birds consume a lot of food at maturity. But the COVID-19 pandemic can disrupt the supply chain, cut off sales channels and force farmers to keep birds far beyond the age when they should have been sold. Eggs are another product from chickens, which are supposed to be collected and sold off at frequent intervals (for large farms, daily; for smaller farms, every two or three days). Unfortunately, restrictions on the movement of people and goods may mean that farmers are not only unable to get chicken feed, but also find it difficult to dispose of their eggs, which can result in huge losses, since eggs have a short shelf-life. It may also result in environmental pollution, unless alternative uses can be found, for the produce.
The problem is not restricted to livestock farming either. Farmers of crops like fruits and vegetables with short shelf-life, face similar challenges. Even farmers of crops which can be processed to increase their shelf life, may not have access to processing and storage facilities. Thus, while food may be wasting in rural areas due to lack of access to markets, cities and towns may experience food shortages. These challenges, coupled with panic purchases of food — as is already happening in many countries around the world — could break the supply chain and cause localized price hikes. As always, the poorest people are expected to suffer the most from food price hikes, as a loss of purchasing power could result in a change in feeding patterns, as people prioritise quantity over quality and variety, resulting in poorer nutrition.
The way forward
African countries have to find a way around this impending local food production crisis or we may be forced to rely on imports from other regions to supply our food. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of food supply from these other regions, as the COVID-19 pandemic is a global one, causing every country to shore up its food supplies. The Federal, States and Local Government authorities have to make strong, concerted efforts to strengthen the domestic agriculture industry and prevent the pandemic from unnecessarily disrupting the agricultural production and market linkages. For a country like Nigeria, this may be a good time to resuscitate our agricultural commodity boards, to ensure price stability and efficient distribution of agricultural products.
Public-private-partnerships can also be arranged, to set up farmers’ markets and e-commerce platforms, linking farmers directly with consumers, real-time. Farmers can advertise their available products on the platforms, consumers place orders, and the products are delivered to their doorstep. This would, of course, require heavy investment in logistics social infrastructure, to ensure that farmers in rural communities have access to electricity and internet connectivity. There is also the need to encourage urban agriculture in cities and towns, to serve as a vital source of food, dietary diversity and income. During the crisis, small-scale gardening, vertical farming, hydroponics, etc., which can be carried out in cities, since they require less space, could be an important source of food, especially if incomes fall as a result of declining employment.
There is a need to take proactive steps to ensure that the economic consequences of the COVID-19 do not end up doing more harm to people, than the disease itself.