OPINION: Is the Covid-19 pandemic a wake-up call for African agriculture?
JOHANNESBURG - The sudden, also surreptitious, exogenous shocks brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic on the global economy have resulted in varying global, regional and national policy responses.
It is now common knowledge that in order to contain the spread of the virus and mitigate its widespread impacts, countries have adopted unprecedented policy measures based on their capacities. These measures are can largely be grouped into two broad categories.
The first set of short-term interventions focuses on immediate response strategies to flatten the disease curve through therapeutic and non-therapeutic prevention and containment measures, mainly through enhancing personal hygiene, instituting social distancing, imposing border closures and activating lockdown of economic activity to various severity.
The second set takes the form of eased monetary and fiscal policies as well as provision of social safety nets targeted at helping citizens, businesses and public institutions to cope, especially the most vulnerable groups in society.
Due to existing vulnerabilities and market failures, Africa is likely to be severely hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in many ways and these include food availability and security.
The unprecedented and sudden impacts of Covid-19 on global value chains and food supply systems exposes many African countries that are reliant on food imports to feed their citizens, to greater risks of mortality than Covid-19 per see.
Before the onslaught of Covid-19, malnutrition, hunger and starvation were silent pandemics that killed multitudes of Africans annually. Furthermore, 135 million people were already experiencing hunger so severe that it threatened their lives and livelihood. Covid-19 has exacerbated an already precarious situation on the African continent.
According to the United Nations World Food Programme, it is estimated that with Covid-19, 135 million experiencing hunger is likely to double to more than 270 million people by the end of 2020.
It is estimated that about 9 million people die of hunger annually worldwide, mainly children in poorer countries. This dire and bleak picture begs the questions: Has Africa’s time to rise and realise the potential that is touted by so many come, and stop the continent looking outside itself for salvation?
The collapse of economies and loss of jobs, social distancing, lockdowns and border closures designed to flatten the Covid-19 disease curve is predicted likely to kill more than the virus in Africa.
It is purported that more than 70 percent of Africans depend on artisanal jobs in the informal sector where the main source of income for the daily sustenance is physical labour and informal trading, and for the lucky few, remittances from relatives living in bigger cities and abroad.
Lockdowns, necessary as they are, in both the developing and developed countries caused literal shutdown of the only sources of income for the most vulnerable majority in African countries. Even for those who have the wherewithal to buy food in the developing world, food prices have sky-rocketed due shortages created by border closures, panic buying and hoarding of food supplies by individuals and countries as a risk mitigation measure against uncertainties about Covid -19.
This has resulted in an artificial supply shock, which has increased staple food prices beyond the reach of more than 70 percent of Africans who live on less than $2 (R35) per day.
Up to 419 million additional people could fall into extreme poverty during 2020, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This situation is further compounded by the paucity of basic infrastructure in most Africans nations, which increases the cost, and complexity of doing business.
Agriculture is especially affected by the lack of proper infrastructure given the perish-ability of most agricultural products where the first and the last mile to market are extremely important. Moreover, getting the required inputs to the farm on time and in a cost-effective manner is dependent on the state of infrastructure.
The Covid-19 pandemic should be used by African countries as a wake-up call and a reminder that each country should take the issue of ensuring food security for its citizens in its own hands rather than look elsewhere for donations. Each country should strive to be at least self-sufficient in staples and maintain a positive trade balance in agriculture and foodstuffs.
Food is an essential and universal basic need for all human beings, a right which when denied, affects all aspects of the human experience and risks the security of nations, economies and communities.
It remains a paradox and a contraction in terms that Africa, the continent that holds more than 60 percent of the remaining arable land on earth, spends more than $135 billion of its scarce foreign exchange earning on importing food to feed its citizens.
With reduced incomes for poorer households, protectionist measures, panic buying and hoarding driving food prices, exchange rate volatility arising from the easing of fiscal and monetary policy and other exogenous shocks, disruptions in agricultural production and supply chains, and lack of capacity in many African countries, the knock-on effects of Covid-19 response measures on food systems and agricultural market value chains will likely kill millions of Africans.
The state of food insecurity and hunger exacerbated by the pandemic is likely to lead to hunger pandemics and social unrest in many African countries, if the current lockdowns across countries persist.
This will create longer-term impacts in many countries through loss of lives of citizens, permanent cognitive damage for children who may survive the hunger pandemic, and by exacerbating negative food export balance that would exert unbearable pressure on already limited fiscal balance for countries.
African countries, more than handouts, need to invest commensurately in knowledge generation and technology to position themselves to fortify their agri-food systems and build resilience. The importance of the state, in partnership with the private sector, investing in infrastructure cannot be overemphasised, and such provides the necessary enabling environment for the agricultural sector to flourish.
Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is the group executive: impact & partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council