Africa: Food Crisis Looms Amid COVID-19 Crisis

29 April 2020

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) recently released a report, warning of potential doubling in the number of people that would face food insecurity due to the ongoing COVID19 pandemic.  In a continent with over 1.3 billion citizens, over 265 million of these citizens face COVID19 food insecurity.

Clearly, for Africans, if COVID19 does not kill them, hunger may. According to the WFP director, without urgent and immediate actions, over 300,000 million Africans could die of starvation.

While COVID19 exacerbated the issues surrounding food because of national lockdowns orders which have disrupted existing food supply chains, caused major reductions in tourism and further reduced remittances sent home by migrant works, many African countries have repeatedly faced food insecurity challenges before. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, some of the key drivers to food insecurity across Africa are climate change, conflict, and economic downtowns and political instability. Moreover, the African region is still recovering from the worst locust invasion, with another locust wave expected in the near futures.

We have seen the indicators that, unless urgent action, it may get worse. Troubling videos of citizens clashing with police in Nairobi, in South Africa and India, have already happened. Because many African citizens live below the poverty line, meaning they live from hand to mouth, we can expect more food-relate clashes as long as they cannot easily access food.

Worrying is the fact that most of the approaches and strategies African countries would use to fight previous food insecurity challenges such as seeking help from donor countries such as US and Europe will certainly not work.  Every developed country including the US is currently dealing with COVID19-related challenges, including food insecurity challenges. Furthermore, the US, already announced that it will cut its budget allocation to WHO. Most likely, it will also cut down on other form of aid that it has traditionally allocated to countries.

Urgently, African Governments, the African Union and other stakeholders that have been involved in helping the continent attain food security, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, must step up to prevent the looming food crises.

What then is the way forward?

First, countries must lay immediate short-term measures. Right now, it is starve, or possibly die of the coronavirus situation. Citizens need immediate help with food. As such, countries need to strategically find ways in which they can distribute food aid. Rising up to the challenge, several countries have taken immediate short-term measures including governments paying closer attention to food prices, so that retailers do not over price products  and  cash transfers to the most vulnerable citizens. Because, everyone is suffering, African governments should make cash transfers to all its citizens including women, and youth. It should also consider passing emergency aid for its entrepreneur’s including those in the agriculture sector. To promote transparency and accountability, countries need to make this information available, so that citizens can verify that, indeed, their governments have taken action.

Secondly, medium-term measures including creating favorable immediate environments for smallholder’s farmers to continue to produce food must be laid out. According to data, smallholder farmers produce about 70 percent of the food. Previous challenges like depending on rain fed agriculture, lack of agricultural inputs have always hindered the ability of African farmers to produce the food. It’s time to address these challenges. From providing rural farmers with inputs to drilling water wells to ramping up agricultural extension. By doing these, African countries, will be able to lay the foundation to ensure that citizens are food secure, now and into the future.

Alongside developing rural areas, African countries must get creative in finding ways to feed its densely populated urban areas. Doing so will take innovation, investment and collaboration. Vertical farms offer one promising option for meeting these challenges, and we already see modest versions in some African cities including sack gardens, rooftop gardens in South Africa and crate farms in Uganda. More than ever, urban farming enterprises must be supported.

But an integrated approach, based on data evidence would be key in helping avoid the hunger crisis. The rapid infiltration of cellphone technologies should be used to ensure that government gets real time data on every aspect of the food. Real time data about the citizens who are producing food, the inputs available at the markets, the number of people who are trading food and the food items they are trading and so forth. Such data, would allow the governments to them work on improving logistics of food distribution in their countries.

Complimenting country initiatives should be regional and Africa wide initiatives. The African Union, in conjunction with UN agencies that are involved in food and rural development and the African Development Bank, are better placed to coordinate region wise initiatives, aimed at redistribution food from African countries that have excess to moving it to countries that do not have excess.

Importantly, African countries must freeze unnecessary spending including stopping repaying interest accrued on its development loans. We know that African countries are heavily in debt. As of October 2019, Kenyan National debt was $57 Billion, with most of the loans being made by China. That narrative is already making its wave across Africa. Tanzania President recently called on International creditors to cancel debts owed by African Nations. Many more countries should support this move. However, because African countries are known for their corruption, citizens must demand for accountability by their leaders. This is the time to rebuild the continent.

Of course, all of these efforts would be in vain, if African countries do not ramp up their ability to test its citizens.

Stopping the looming hunger crisis in Africa should be a concern for all. If the African continent is not able to mitigate and stop this looming hunger crisis - our ever more interconnected global world will suffer. Time is of essence.

Dr. Esther Ngumbi is an Assistant Professor at the Entomology Department, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She is a Senior Food Security Fellow with the Aspen Institute and has written opinion pieces for various outlets including NPR, CNN, Los Angeles Times, Aljazeera and New York Times

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