Overcoming crises, building resilience – the way to feed the Horn

By David Phiri

Food insecurity has been rising in Africa in the past decades and the continent is currently not on track to eliminate hunger by 2030. Today, over 256 million Africans, or 20 percent of the population, are undernourished. Of these, 239 million are living in sub-Saharan Africa.

Regrettably, the Eastern Africa subregion shouldered the largest portion of this burden. The nine countries – Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda – have a combined population of about 257 million, which constitutes about 25 percent of the total sub-Saharan Africa’s population that stands a little over 1 billion. Yet, the subregion is home of over 55 percent (about 133 million) of the sub-Sahara Africa’s food insecure people. Over 27 million people are already facing acute food insecurity (IPC Phase 3) or worse in the subregion.

Dr David Phiri Photo – David Phiri

From Fall Armyworm to the Rift Valley Fever, the subregion is confronted with several plant and animal diseases. Perpetual droughts, famines, floods and landslides are common incidents. Adding to these mishaps, the subregion is confronted with the Desert Locust, which affected over 11 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. A further 2.76 million people in South Sudan and 120,000 people in Uganda are under threat from expanding swarms, bringing the total number of the population at risk to nearly 14 million.

The latest addition to these calamities is the Covid-19, which has already cast its strongest shades on the the agricultural sector – the livelihood basis for over 80 percent of the population, contributing up to 40 percent of the national gross domestic product in some countries. The pandemic is feared to result in the first regional recession in nearly 25 years and pushing an estimated 23 million more people into extreme poverty.

Covid – 19 and the agriculture sector

Restrictions on movement within and across countries has presented an unprecedented challenge to food security and nutrition in the region. According to FAO, the pandemic is already creating a looming food crisis, especially for the most vulnerable populations.

The COVID-19 pandemic can affect all stages of agricultural food supply chain such as production, handling and storage, processing and packaging, distribution and marketing, and consumption. This could result in devastating impacts on food security. In the same vein, measures that reduce labour mobility as a way to contain the Covid-19 outbreak often result in inability of farmers, pastoralists, farm labourers, farm service providers, extension agents and input suppliers to perform their tasks. The operations of agro-industries, transporters and consumers can also be affected adversely. Communities, who work in the fishery and aquaculture sector are also prone to Covid-19 directly, or though measures put in place in contain its spread. The sector currently provides employment for over 2.5 million people, largely the youth and women, with the production capacity of about 1 million metric tonnes.

Particularly concerning is  the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable communities, which depend on daily wage or other income to source food, particularly in the urban areas. Social safety nets would need to be available for these communities to prevent succumbing to hunger in all its manifestations.

It is also worrisome to note that millions of children are missing out on the school meals they have come to rely upon. Many of them are left with no social protection. The suspension of the school meals programmes due to the pandemic puts vulnerable children’s food security and nutrition at risk whilst weakening their capacity to cope with diseases. Food crisis has a long-lasting impact on health and wellbeing, as well as on productivity and cognitive ability of children.

Overall, the impact of Covid-19 on agriculture has sent a warning signal that Africa Union’s and global dream of attaining an Africa without hunger remains elusive, unless tangible actions are taken quickly to limit the spread of the pandemic. Hence, preventing the current Covid-19 crisis from becoming a longer-term food emergency is a priority.

What needs to be done?

To reduce the impact of the combination of these crises, a substantial, immediate and sustained regional and national responses are indispensable. No country can overcome it alone. Governments and partner organisations  must strengthen the multilateral and multi-faceted responses to control the transmission of the pandemic. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is playing its part, in this regards.

In the short term, efforts must be invested in providing social protection to the vulnerable families, and preventing deepening disruptions to crop production and protection systems by loosening restrictions to the movements of persons, goods and services involved in the food and agriculture sector. For food supply chains to remain available in the future, no crop production season should be lost. Government policies and incentives will be key in ensuring that disruptions are reduced to the minimum. While supplying food to vulnerable communities, a timely delivery of agricultural inputs and extension support systems must be ensured.

In the medium term, local food systems need to be strengthened to withstand similar shocks in the future. Governments and partners must create a system that withstands shock and continues to develop. The participation of communities in decision making is also a key factor in making a resilient system work. While building the resilient system, all elements of crop production and protection systems should be assessed for their continuing provision of adequate and nutritious food. Value chain actors must be supported to build back better from the crises. Enhancing storage and distribution capacities, diversified products and markets, and putting in place quality control and monitoring systems are important measures to take.

In the long term, the ongoing development-mode work of governments must continue, targeting institutional and human capacities, as well as the enabling environments for the entire agricultural production and protection. Interventions must start from research and development that aim to produce well-adapted, nutritious, input use-efficient and resilient crop varieties.

Africa will get through these crises, but only if we act together, in solidarity.

Dr David Phiri is FAO Sub-regional Coordinator for Eastern Africa (SFE) and Representative to the African Union (AU) and to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)

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