Africa: Food Insecurity An Evolving Concern in Covid-19-Hit Sub-Saharan Africa

A general food distribution point in Afar, Ethiopia (file photo).
23 March 2022

Harare — As the world marks the second anniversary of the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the health, economic, and social disruptions caused by this global crisis continue to evolve.

A new report by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UNHABITAT) and the World Food Programme (WFP) shows that the socio-economic situation of the urban poor in Sub-Saharan Africa has worsened following the pandemic, with millions of people facing acute food insecurity and malnutrition.

"Hunger and malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa have long been associated with rural areas. But the pandemic is revealing the changing face of hunger, exposing vulnerabilities of the urban poor," said Chris Nikoi, WFP's Regional Director for Southern Africa.

"This report is a wake-up call for us all to boost urban food security, sustainable livelihoods, including social protection, in order to empower the urban poor and make them more resilient to shocks," he added.

The impacts of the pandemic are prolonged and likely to endure for years to come, with poor, marginalized, and vulnerable groups the most affected.

With food and nutrition security on a global scale having been undermined, estimates suggest that in 2020 alone, an additional 62 million people fell into extreme poverty and more that 124 million additional people faced food insecurity.

Government support and exemptions from Covid-19 restrictions helped protect the agriculture food sector from the worst of the pandemic, but agricultural production still suffered in some cases.

But it didn't end there, as health and nutrition services across the continent heightened risks for young children, pregnant women, and other vulnerable groups.

At the start of the pandemic, hard lockdowns and declining consumer demand, reduced prices and disrupted markets for fruits, vegetables and animal-source foods, among others.

When the global demand began to recover in 2021, food prices surged to their highest levels since the global food price crises of 2007 to 2008 as well as 2010 to 2011.

In an exclusive briefing for journalists, researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) answered questions and provided analysis on lessons learnt over two years of the global pandemic related to food security, poverty, health, supply chains, as well as how government responses helped and hindered recovery, and how this pandemic experience can inform both recovery and longer-term efforts to build more resilient food systems.

Like other existing studies, their findings indicate that a significant number of developing countries are at the brink of experiencing food insecurity in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic as the vast majority of their populations live in extreme poverty. While measures have being implemented to avert the spread of of the disease, little is known about how Covid-19 policy measures impacted food insecurity in these countries.

This IFPRI study addresses this gap by exploring the implications of Covid-19 policy measures on food insecurity in low-income areas.

In a study titled Resilience of urban value chains during the Covid-19 pandemic: Evidence from dairy and vegetable chains in Ethiopia, the findings indicate that at the beginning of the pandemic, many researchers and international organizations voiced concerns about the resilience of food value chains amid lockdowns and border closures, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

It concluded that the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in these important food value chains in Ethiopia were relatively short-term. By May 2020, the main vegetable value chain supplying consumers in Addis Ababa was already functioning relatively well. In mid-2021, the impacts of the pandemic on both dairy and vegetable value chains were minimal. These findings are corroborated by results from a representative longitudinal survey conducted by IFPRI in Addis Ababa before and during the pandemic.

The pandemic also brought many challenges for development, but it has also highlighted opportunities for positive change as the disruptions it caused have illuminated the close connections between almost all aspects of society, including linkages between food systems, health, and other sectors.

New ways of thinking and taking action will be required going forward. As Covid-19 continues to evolve, it will intersect with other food system challenges related to the economy, environment, climate change, inequity, and conflict. To address these broader implications of the pandemic, smarter policies and investments will be needed that steer the recovery toward a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive development path.

There has been a lot of gradual progress on reducing the number of food insecure people in the world and that has been slowed down, but the pandemic has exposed some weaknesses and things we thought were relatively well handled before, the IFPRI said during a briefing.

This has been done by the world's humanitarian organizations, by saving lives in emergencies and using food assistance to build a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity for people recovering from conflict, disasters and the impact of climate change.

IFPRI says their study exposed some new opportunities where governments have responded in smart ways whereas in some cases private sector has evolved and adapted agribusiness.

"There's some lessons there including a lot of digital innovations etc. and as far as our research we learned a lot about how to put together information in a challenging environment so we felt it was important to get this evidence out to policymakers to help them manage these challenges".

But who felt the greatest impact from falling incomes and food system disruptions caused by the pandemic?

The pandemic along with climate change have exposed and multiplied the vulnerability of food systems across the globe, increasing food prices and food insecurity, but especially in African countries who are least equipped to handle the multiple, ongoing crises. One-in-four people globally - 1.9 billion - are moderately or severely food insecure, a number that is on the rise.

Another crucial question would be how countries can find an effective balance among health, economic, and social policies in the face of crisis.

On the health front, many countries have adopted differentiated territorial approaches, for example on policies surrounding masks or lockdowns. This means regions have not been affected in the same way and the medium- and long-term impact will vary significantly across them. African economies remain informal and very extroverted and vulnerable to external shocks.

On the socio-economic front, governments have provided massive fiscal support to protect firms, households and vulnerable populations. Many countries have reallocated public funding to crisis priorities, supporting health care, SMEs, vulnerable populations and regions particularly hit by the crisis. Many governments announced large investment recovery packages focusing on public investment. These investment recovery packages prioritise strengthening health systems, digitalisation and accelerating the transition to carbon neutral economies.

Some counties had hard and very restrictive types of lockdown whereas others had almost no restrictions other than some export and travel restrictions. So both in terms of the food system and the political and regulatory responses by government, there's quite a spectrum of experiences to learn from.

Research shows very clearly that these different responses have really impacted on the flow of food sold to local, regional and international markets, affected the prices of food and the supply chains with some people managing to keep within the system and even benefiting and others being locked out.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has only made it worse for Africa which is still reeling from Covid-19 impacts.

It has reminded us that in terms of global supply chain risk, Africa is still vulnerable where it matters most - that's our food. As both Russia and Ukraine play a significant role in global agricultural markets and world food supply, especially in Africa, countries are already feeling the heat.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, the price of a bushel of wheat rose by 5.7% following the escalation of the war. The FAO also warned about the possible implications of the crisis for food security beyond the region, including countries that rely to varying degrees on wheat sourced from that region.

Russia accounts for 10% of global wheat production and Ukraine accounts for 4%. In 2020, African countries imported roughly U.S.$4 billion in agricultural products from Russia with wheat making up nearly 90% of these imports. Over the same period, Africa imported agricultural products worth U.S.$2.9 billion from Ukraine and 48% of this was wheat and 31% was maize.

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