A pandemic-driven food crisis in Africa can be prevented

African governments need to act now to ensure small-scale farming and food supply chains remain uninterrupted.

Rwanda farming
Local farmers work on the land just outside Volcanoes National Park, northern Rwanda on September 4, 2015 [File: AP/Ben Curtis]

We have only just begun to see the far-ranging consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world. Chief among those is the threat of a food crisis of unprecedented magnitude. 

Unless measures are taken fast to keep global food supply chains operational and to mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system, we will see rapid increases in hunger, particularly in low-income countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Last month, I returned to the United States from Rwanda, where the pandemic forced me to abandon my research with farmers on improving the availability and affordability of nutritious food. It may be months or even years before that and other promising agricultural research to combat hunger and malnutrition can resume.

In the meantime, those farmers and millions more in low-income countries are among those most at risk of not being able to work their land and produce food. They face the dual crisis of a deepening pandemic and already high levels of food insecurity. Of the 257 million hungry people in Africa, the majority live in rural areas.

As African leaders scramble to respond to the coronavirus outbreaks in their countries, they have to pay particular attention to farming communities and make sure that their food production remains unhindered.

Pandemic threats to the food supply

African countries are currently focusing their efforts on blocking the transmission of COVID-19, but they also need to think about how their actions affect food security today and in the future. This crisis is affecting workforces, transportation systems and supply chains – the very basis of how our food gets from field to fork.

Early signs show that the pandemic could severely disrupt both food supply and demand. Disruptions could occur as people who work in the food economy – from farmers to processors, to truck drivers and dock workers – are forced to stay home from work due to either quarantine or illness. This could result in greater food loss and waste, defaults on credit payments, and a rising cost of doing business.

If severe illness spreads widely in rural areas of Africa, where small-scale farmers produce 80 percent of the food consumed, food production may plummet. Farmers and rural communities are highly vulnerable to the disease. Many rural communities lack basic infrastructure for sanitation and shortages of clean water challenge the all-critical need for good hygiene. Underlying medical conditions, which in Africa may include prevalent tropical diseases and malnutrition, could increase vulnerability to the disease. 

During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, more than 40 percent of the agricultural land in affected countries went uncultivated. Small-scale farmers were unable to work their land, sell their products, or buy seeds and other essential inputs.

Today, food demand is suffering whiplash because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, the loss of jobs and income is weakening purchasing power, thereby limiting demand – a trend which is likely to accelerate.

On the other hand, panic purchases of food – like those recently witnessed in Rwanda, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and many other countries – are already causing localised price hikes. This kind of volatility and unpredictability in food demand could trigger shortages and uncontrolled food price inflation.

How to prevent a food crisis

When panic buying erupted in Rwanda, the government took action. On March 16, Rwanda became the first African country to regulate food prices. It set fixed prices for 17 food items, including rice, sugar and cooking oil. South Africa subsequently imposed regulations that will limit price hikes and product stockpiling.

The African Union should urge all governments to follow Rwanda and South Africa’s lead with price controls to reassure consumers and stop the spread of food price hikes. The extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic affects food markets is conditional upon countries staying calm, even in the face of shocks to the food supply chain.

Countries should avoid protective beggar-thy-neighbour food policies, such as trade barriers enacted through tariffs or quotas in these times of crisis.

Instead, they should focus on maintaining the market flow of agricultural inputs, food, and feed by reducing import tariffs and value-added taxes and allowing the cross-border transport of food to continue despite border closures.

Governments at all levels should recognise agricultural food system operations and research as essential and provide everyone involved with the protection and support that they need to continue to work, following safety and health protocols. Rwanda, for example, has designated agriculture an essential economic activity that must continue regardless of other restrictions on mobility or workplace activity.

As the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold in the world’s poorest countries, policy solutions and global assistance must align to support the most vulnerable countries and populations. The protection of food security is inseparable from actions to protect the health, family welfare, commerce and other sectors. It must be urgently integrated into all COVID-19 planning and policy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.