BY Joshua Uzu
Until 14 February 2020, when the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Africa, the world wondered how Africa seemed to be spared from the global viral outbreak. That has since changed with the virus now in over 46 African countries and the World Health Organization advising Africa to prepare for the worst. As African nations scramble to curtail the spread of this virus and limit its negative impact on their economy, special efforts must be made towards ameliorating the potential impact of COVID-19 on the continent’s agricultural landscape.
The 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak demonstrated the devastating impact a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease can have on the agricultural landscape in Africa. According to a 2016 Reuters article on the impact of the Ebola epidemic, “many farmers in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia were unable to grow or sell their crops because of measures to contain the virus, including travel restrictions, border closures and quarantines, as well as fear of infection. Rice, cassava, and other crops went unharvested. Food production in Sierra Leone’s breadbasket and epicentre of the epidemic stalled, and weekly markets ceased trading because there was nothing to sell, according to the World Bank.”
While the estimated fatality rate of COVID-19 is much lower than Ebola’s, the coronavirus infection seems to spread much faster than Ebola. Hence a much larger proportion of the population is at risk of being infected, with repercussions ranging from a few weeks of illness to death. Even in the best-case scenario of having no additional deaths, the preventive measures being proposed for the containment of the COVID-19 spread such as self-isolation and quarantizations has the potential to adversely affect food production. This is because many African nations just commenced the planting season of their major crops and if farmers abandon their farmlands indiscriminately, in line with the general self-isolation calls, agricultural production will be adversely affected. The repercussion of such abandonment will be felt towards the end of the year when current food supplies must have been largely depleted without adequate replacement from new harvests, leading to food shortages, price hikes and starvation among vulnerable members of society.
On the other hand, even if farmers are permitted to engage in production, it will still be very challenging for farms to source adequate agricultural labour as these would be affected by the lockdowns and thus unavailable to render required input. Unfortunately, current mechanisation levels on farms across Africa is low, with farmers having to depend on manual agricultural labour to meet crucial productivity targets. For instance, while the number of tractors per square kilometres in India and Brazil are 128 and 116 respectively, Rwanda and Nigeria boast only 1.3 and 2.7 tractors per square kilometres. Thus, any scarcity of agricultural labour in most African countries is likely to result in an overall dip in farm productivity which will lead to food shortages and attendant food price hikes. The effect of the food price hikes may be further exacerbated by the decline in consumers’ purchasing power due the projected COVID-19 Pandemic-induced global recession, resulting in widespread hunger and starvation across the continent.
Typically, the effect of low production volumes is supposed to be cushioned by preserved food in storage facilities, which will be released to markets in periods of low production, preventing food shortages. However, in many African countries, the storage facilities are either not enough or in many cases defunct/outdated. Hence, the food products stored in these reserves are inadequate to meet the projected food deficits.
Beyond the threat to food production in Africa, the spread of coronavirus may also negatively impact international agricultural trade. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many nations have closed their borders and reduced the quantity of their imports, including agricultural products. This could have grave implications for the agricultural sectors of nations that are very export oriented. For instance, according to the Agricultural Business Center, South Africa could suffer $2.5 billion export losses as a result of the coronavirus dampening demand from Asian countries. This projected decline in demand for agricultural produce from Asian countries across Africa, could lead to food waste, reduce farmers’ income, lead to job losses and could limit countries’ ability to generate foreign revenue, which would have an overall negative impact on the African economy.
In combatting against the food production and international agricultural trade threats highlighted above, African nations must take both short and long-term approaches.
• Food Production Threat: In the short term, African governments should designate agriculture as an essential service and provide safety guidelines for stakeholders in the agricultural sector involved in on-farm production, processing, and logistics to operate amidst the lockdown of the general population. This will all but guarantee a steady supply of food across the region and prevent future food shortages, whilst reducing the risk of the potential spread of COVID-19 in the continent. Countries like the United States, Australia, Denmark and New Zealand have deemed their entire food supply chain as an essential service, which is exempted from the current lockdowns, whilst adhering to strict protocols to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. In addition, the approved agencies in charge of price regulations should provide oversight and ensure that private individuals and organisations do not take advantage of the pandemic to engage in indiscriminate price hikes and exploitation. Also, grains and stored products in the silos of African nations should be quantified and strategically released to markets according to need at regulated prices. Both private and government-owned facilities must cooperate to make this possible.
In the long term however, African governments should provide subsidies to smallholder farmers for the rental of mechanized equipment to help them cope with fluctuations in agricultural labour, save time and massively boost productivity. Also, large commercial farms should invest more in precision agriculture technologies such as agricultural drones that can reduce costs linked to agricultural labour and inputs. Farmers cooperatives across the continent should also enter into long-term partnerships with private companies that provide agricultural drones and other cutting-edge technologies and innovation in the agricultural space to boost their productivity and reduce cost. In addition, African nations should invest in the modernisation of defunct and under-performing silos as well as establishment of new ones in strategic regions to provide food buffers in times of scarcity. Finally, national stored food products research institutes should be well funded to enable researchers to come up with novel ways of storing key food products of each country, which can be implemented by the available facilities.
•International Trade Threat: To guard against the potential loss of revenue from international trade of agricultural products, African nations should adopt the recommendations of a 2016 study by the Food and Agriculture (FAO) on the Ebola viral outbreak in West Africa, which highlighted the need for countries that close their borders for health reasons to consider the option of maintaining cross-border trade corridors in order to maintain agricultural trade flows. Leveraging the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), African nations that have ratified the agreement can explore the markets of other member nations to replace agricultural markets that they have lost due to the viral outbreak.
In conclusion, the drive for continental food security will be useless without a well-functioning agriculture value chain that will guarantee the flow of agricultural products from the farm to the final consumer. Left unchecked, the COVID-19 outbreak could have devastating impacts across the entire agriculture value chain in Africa, undermining the food security target in the continent. African leaders and relevant stakeholders need to give serious thought on appropriate measures that must be put into place to ensure that the recent gains in the food security drive on the continent are not eroded by this deadly pandemic and the time for action is now.
Joshua Uzu, Consultant at Sahel Consulting Agriculture and Nutrition Limited