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How is coronavirus affecting food security in sub-Saharan Africa?

Since the start of the pandemic, more people in sub-Saharan Africa are struggling to access a safe and stable supply of food. Low incomes and high food prices have reduced the ability of an average household to enjoy a nutritious diet.

Food insecurity refers to a situation in which households do not have physical or economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

One important outcome of food insecurity is malnutrition. Estimates for Africa by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggest that around 256 million (20% of Africans) were undernourished in 2019, with most of them (239 million) in sub-Saharan Africa (FAO, 2019). This suggests a high level of food insecurity in the region.

Food insecurity arises for four main reasons: a lack of availability of food; a lack of accessibility; a lack of nutritious foods; and a lack of security of supply of food in the immediate future. Some of the factors that have driven food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa include climate shocks, conflicts, political instability and economic shocks.

The pandemic has exacerbated the food crisis in the region because lockdowns and restrictions on free movement have led to a decline in agricultural production and food imports. In addition, a fall in global demand for natural resources (such as crude oil and gold) driven by the global downturn has fed through to a reduction in household incomes and a rise in food prices.

How has the pandemic affected the availability of food?

Covid-19 restrictions, such as lockdowns, will reduce the availability of food in sub-Saharan Africa both now and in the near future. Food in the region comes from local farms, reserves and food imports. More than 60% of the population are small-scale farmers, and agriculture contributes 23% to the region’s GDP (McKinsey, 2019).

But most countries in sub-Saharan Africa are not self-sufficient in food. Data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD, 2020) show that from 2016 to 2018, Africa imported about 85% of its food from other continents.

The initial lockdown period fell within the planting season of most staple crops in sub-Saharan Africa (March to April). Lockdowns were ‘brutally’ enforced (The Economist, 2020) leading to restrictions on farming activities, which are likely to translate into cuts in agricultural production.

Most agricultural activities are dependent on rain, so skipping a planting season will reduce future food supply. Relief Web (2020) reports that farmers in some countries in the region, such as Ghana and Mali, are already experiencing loss of income as a result of large losses on perishable food.

Empirical evidence from Bandiera et al (2020) suggests an increase in the number of teenage pregnancies following school closures. Such unwanted pregnancies, especially in low-income households, will add further pressure to households’ food baskets as well as reducing the number of hands to work in local farms. Consequently, there will be less food available for household members.

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The pandemic has also had an impact on countries’ ability to import food. Travel restrictions make it more difficult to get imports from exporting countries such as India. Neighbouring countries that once traded food items have now closed their borders. For example, Sudan announced a sorghum export ban on 15 April to ensure availability of the crop for its own population (AllAfrica, 2020).

These trade restrictions may eventually lead to greater self-sufficiency in food (The Guardian, 2020), but it is not clear yet how realistic this is. In the short term, local food production will not be able to compensate for lower imports, leading to increased food scarcity and insecurity.

Overall, less food is available for the people of sub-Saharan Africa as a result of Covid-19-related restrictions, making them more food insecure.

Is it also more difficult to access food because of the pandemic?

Scarcity of food arising both from reduced production and reduced imports, as well as panic buying, has led to rising food prices in the region (International Monetary Fund, 2020). Local markets are stressed because demand is high but food supply is scarce and expensive.

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In addition, the cost of transport has risen dramatically in many African cities due to social distancing measures (Mogaji, 2020). This hike in transport fares has both increased the cost of transporting food products from point of production to market, and the cost for shoppers of travelling to market. These increased costs reduce the accessibility of what food is available.

While food prices appear to be stable at the global level, they are rising at local levels (World Bank, 2020). Rising food prices mean rising food insecurity.

Increases in wholesale prices seem to be passed on to consumers in higher food prices – see Figure 1.

Figure 1: Price changes in staple food

Figure showing price changes in staple food

Source: IFPRI (2020)

Poverty has increased because of layoffs and redundancies from lockdowns, and there has not been the level of government support for workers seen in richer countries such as the UK. Average household income in sub-Saharan Africa is likely to decline due to job losses and reduced economic activity, leading to further difficulties in accessing food.

Difficulty in accessing food may lead households to resort to some fairly extreme coping strategies – those behaviours might now become more entrenched in other parts of the year as a result of the crisis.

Falling government revenues, coupled with concerns over leakage, mean that it is unlikely that the needed interventions to stabilise food prices or subsidise household incomes will be implemented effectively. For example, Voice of America (VOA) reported on 27 October 2020 that several warehouses were discovered in Nigeria with large amounts of Covid-19 relief aid meant for the citizens that had not yet been disbursed.

Will the crisis affect how healthy is the food that people eat?

Low income and high food prices have reduced the ability of an average household to enjoy a nutritious diet. There is a shift in consumption patterns towards cheaper and less nutritious staple foods, leading to declines in the quantity and quality of nutrients obtained from food consumption.

The absence of good feeding practices and food preparation could worsen an already bad situation. Hence, the World Health Organization (WHO, 2020) warns that hunger and malnutrition may deepen in several parts of Africa.

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The closures of schools in many parts of the region where government feed children have also increased the number of mouths to feed at home. While children remain at home, the pressure on food increases and may lead to child malnutrition and undernourishment. Although there is no evidence or report on how school closures in Africa affect children, the general opinion from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF, 2020) is that it will lead to an increase in the number of children who will die from malnutrition in poorer countries.

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Will food supply become less stable due to the pandemic?

There is great uncertainty about the availability and accessibility of food in sub-Saharan Africa today, let alone tomorrow. Even when a person has food to eat today, they are still food insecure if they are unsure of future supply and accessibility. A great deal of uncertainty has been generated following the pandemic, which the region is struggling with. These uncertainties, among other factors, have created food instability.

Overall, given the low Covid-19 case counts recorded in the region, it may be that even more people are suffering from the spillover effects of the pandemic than from the virus directly (New York Times, 2020). Current food insecurity in the region has been driven by shortages in local food production, import restrictions, falling incomes and food price inflation. Acute hunger may motivate farmers to eat what they were previously planning to cultivate, which will reduce the next season’s planting capacity.

While there are several calls for governments to intervene, many sub-Saharan Africa economies are also struggling to survive. In the face of crippled economies, and staggering national and foreign debts, it may be very difficult for national and local governments to alleviate the suffering of their people without some form of external interventions – for example, from international organisations, and richer and food-exporting countries.

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To conclude, one lesson from the 2015 Ebola epidemic is that some sub-Saharan African economies, such as Sierra Leone, bounced back rather quickly after the crisis (Rasul et al, 2020) and food security was maintained (Glennerster et al, 2016). Will this be the case in the current crisis?

While there is not enough evidence to ascertain what the situation will look like post-Covid-19, it is conceivable to think that the aftermath will prove worse because of the attendant aggregate global shock and the current precarious financial position of many countries in the region.

Where can I find out more?

  • The Brookings Institution blog provides insights into the economic impacts on Covid-19, with a focus on Africa’s food system.
  • The World Bank Brief details how the pandemic is affecting global food markets.
  • The International Growth Centre (IGC) is addressing the economic challenges of Covid-19 in developing countries.
  • Data from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, 2020) indicate that most food prices have increased during the pandemic.

Who are experts on this issue?

Author: Lotanna Emediegwu 
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