Sub-Saharan Africa has been one of the world’s regions suffering most from food insecurity, hunger, malnutrition and poverty over the past years. In 2018, Africa sub-Sahara’s total population was almost 1.1 billion inhabitants with a consistently high birth rate of 4.7. Although governments have been working on agricultural intensification policies to ensure adequate nutrition for their people, these policies have not been sufficient. While the slow agricultural development across the region can be attributed to several factors, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic poses an additional threat to the agricultural and food supply systems. This blog post offers some insights into the effects of COVID-19 on the agricultural systems across selected sub-Saharan African countries. Moreover, the authors advocate for strict and effective measures to promote resilience in the agricultural ecosystem services including crop yields, soil fertility, water regulation, and sustainable production systems.
Impacts of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly one of the most difficult periods in contemporary human history. National governments, regional agencies and international organizations have taken rapid measures since its outbreak, including different tiers of lockdown, social distancing, and wearing of face masks as ways to minimize the risk of spreading the disease. While these measures were promising to reduce the spread of the disease, in sub-Saharan Africa their implementation appeared to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, these measures were successful in containing the ravaging pandemic, while on the other hand there were negative implications for food supplies and national economies. This led to the early lifting of restrictive measures in most sub-Sahara African countries including Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Ghana, and Liberia. Despite the early suspension of the lockdown measures, their disruptive effects lingered on across the region, notably within the agricultural sector.
Restrictions on market access and its impact on agricultural production systems
Agriculture is the major source of livelihoods and food for millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. However, since COVID-19 broke out, prices of agricultural inputs and produces have been quite volatile, affecting the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and causing, supply-side disruptions. As reported by Laborde et al., (2020), one result of the Covid-19 policy interventions was that stakeholders involved in agribusiness including farmers have faced products overstock arising from lack of access to markets and difficulties in securing alternative retail outlets. This has resulted in a substantial waste of nutrient-rich foods and dairy products. There have also been instances of restricted access to farm inputs including fertilizers, seedlings, and farm labor. In addition, because of their inability to access large markets, farmers had no choice and no marketing advantage to trade competitively. A recent study by Bhalla and Wuilbercq (2020) shows that the closure of international airports and the ban on air freights has seriously disrupted the supply chains of specialized products such as high-value horticultural exports from Africa that rely on such mode of transportation. Farmers and actors in the agricultural value-chain system therefore had no choice but to sell their perishable goods at very low prices.
Cashew farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and Benin
Take, for example, the cashew cultivation sector which employs more than 1.5 million people, including 250,000 farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and more than 200,000 farmers in Benin. They faced serious economic setbacks as of April 14, 2020. The unit selling price of cashew which was previously 400 CFA (~ €0.7) per kilogram, dropped to between 200 and 100 FCFA (~ €0.3 – ~€0.2) in Côte d’Ivoire, thereby endangering the livelihood activities of many people working in the cashew value chain sector. In Benin, some farmers temporarily stocked their products in expectation of favourable prices at a later stage in order to gain higher prices for their farm produces. On the flip side, in the local markets the price of foodstuffs, vegetables, and fruits are on the rise, even though income sources were truncated or stagnated for the majority of the population. An interview with a smallholder vegetable farmer at Bingerville in Abidjan revealed that between April and June 2020, the wholesale price of tomatoes has risen from 400 to 1000 FCFA (~ €0.61 – ~€2.28) and for cucumber from 200 to 400 FCFA (~ €0.31 – ~€0.61).
Financial support for mitigating the effects of COVID-19 in the agricultural sector
The disruption of the agricultural production activities caused by COVID-19-related policies and measures has made governments, private sectors, and international organizations aware that it is necessary to promote sustainable agricultural production systems. The pandemic’s most severe impact on food security has been the loss of household incomes, which makes social safety-net policies particularly suited instruments to overcome this problem. By June 2020, no fewer than 195 countries had planned or introduced additional social protection measures in response to COVID-19, mostly entailing temporary (typically 3-month) but substantial enhancements of cash transfer programs. The African Development Bank Group, for instance, announced on April 8, 2020 the creation of the COVID-19 Response Facility ($10 billion support for governments and the private sector) to assist regional member countries in fighting the pandemic.
This initiative is the latest measure taken by the bank to respond to the pandemic and will be the bank’s primary channel for its efforts to address the crisis.
At the national level, for instance in Benin, government support includes seedling donations and financial aid. In addition, organisations such as Fédération Nationale des Producteurs d’Anacardes du Bénin (FENAPAB) put more emphasis on supporting farmers by providing storage facilities for their cashew nuts. In Ghana, the government has implemented programs such as the suspension of water bills, among others, as coping strategies. Of course, such actions to support farmers and the general public in the face of the pandemic are not wholly sustainable in the long run. But they will at least help boost the morale and financial standings of more farmers, thereby increasing agricultural productivity and food resilience in the short term.
COVID-19 and the chance for sustainable agro-ecological systems
The current crisis offers an opportunity for building sustainable agro-ecological systems across sub-Saharan Africa. The decade-long degradation of most agricultural lands and forests predominantly stemming from human footprints on ecological systems does not align with agricultural ecosystems’ sustainability. Already, high- consumption lifestyle in more developed economies, and the increasing logging of forests and clearing of land for wood and food products have been identified as the dominant factors driving land degradation. In sub-Saharan Africa farmers struggle to make profit thereby meeting national as well as international demand for cash crops. This sometimes leads to unsustainable land management practices and hence land degradation. A concrete example is the intensive cultivation of cotton in Benin, which is one of the main factors causing loss of organic matter through soil erosion and salinization. Therefore, there is a need for building an encouraging sustainable human-nature relationship within all ecosystems including agricultural systems. This will require concerted efforts at individual, national, and regional scales.
- First, there is a necessity for a transformational change of farmers from detrimental and unsustainable agronomic practices towards the adoption of sustainable farmland management practices within the agro-ecological scape of sub-Saharan Africa. A step in the right direction towards a sustainable agro-ecological system consists of awareness raising of the need for sustainable production and consumption of agricultural produces.
- Secondly, governments in sub-Saharan Africa should develop robust post-harvest processing and storage facilities in farming communities to help reduce post-harvest losses and food wastes. Moreover, the promotion of urban gardening is also desirable in order to ensure food security. Conterminously, governments can step up efforts in promoting sustainable agricultural practices such as diverse cropping on farmlands, agroforestry, and limiting the use of ecologically unfriendly plant protection products. This will help in the creation and promotion of agricultural practices that are both friendly to nature and humans, thereby leading to a decrease in biodiversity loss.
In an attempt to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a need for adopting a cross-sectoral approach that does not relegate the agricultural sectors in sub-Saharan Africa. The pandemic has its toll on the agricultural sector and this is affecting the livelihoods of many people directly and indirectly involved in the agricultural sector. More pragmatic measures such as financial aid and tax relief to farmers and agribusiness practitioners will mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the agricultural sector. In a long-term perspective, beyond building a COVID-19 resilient food system, there is a need for nature-based solutions to restore agricultural ecosystems. Sustainable land management practices and the landscape approach are to be promoted so the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals related to hunger, poverty, responsible production and consumption, and life on land can be achieved.
Source: Center for Development Research (ZEF), Blog, WABES, Christian T. Todota, Korotoum T. Soro, Queenette P. Johnson, 18.02.2021