Safeguarding Africa’s Food Security in the Age of COVID-19

By Pritha Mitra and Seung Mo Choi
Jun 5 2020 (IPS)

Food security in sub-Saharan Africa is under threat. The ability
of many Africans to access sufficient, safe and nutritious food to
meet their dietary needs has been disrupted by successive natural
disasters and epidemics. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, locust
outbreaks in eastern Africa, and droughts in southern and eastern
Africa are some examples. The COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest
catastrophe to have swollen the ranks of 240 million people going
hungry in the region. In some countries, over 70 percent of the
population has problems accessing food.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s most food-insecure region,
and in the June 2020
sub-Saharan Africa Regional Economic Outlook
, we show that
climate change is increasing that insecurity.

The sub-Saharan is particularly vulnerable to the forces of
climate change. Almost half the population lives below the poverty
line and depends on rain-fed agriculture, herding, and fishing to
survive . With each climate shock, whether drought, flood or
cyclone, farmers suffer directly, while shortages elevate the price
of food for all.

Lives lost, increased vulnerability

Africans are easily pushed into food insecurity because their
ability to adapt is limited by many factors, including low savings
and access to finance and insurance. As a result, lives are lost,
malnutrition rises, health worsens, and school enrollment drops.
All this, ultimately damages the economy’s productive

During these times of COVID-19, we are seeing these challenges
play out.

Credit: International Monetary Fund

The measures to contain and manage the COVID-19 pandemic, while
critical to saving lives, risks exacerbating food insecurity.
Border closures, lockdowns, and curfews intended to slow the spread
of the disease are disrupting supply chains that, even under normal
circumstances, struggle to stock markets, and supply farmers with
seeds and other inputs.

Designing COVID-19–era measures to improve food

At this critical juncture, sub-Saharan Africa needs to
prioritize policies targeted at reducing risks to food security as
part of fiscal stimulus packages to counter the pandemic.
Our analysis
suggests these policies should focus on increasing
agricultural output, and strengthening households’ ability to
withstand shocks. This would have the added benefit of reducing
inequalities while boosting economic growth and jobs.

Boosting agricultural output

Even before the pandemic, many countries in the region were
proactive in protecting their food supply by raising crop
productivity and reducing their sensitivity to inclement weather.
For example, Mozambique is the location of a global pilot for
newly-developed, heat-tolerant bean seeds, while in Ethiopia, some
farmers’ yields rose by up to 40 percent after the development of
rust-resistant wheat varieties (rust is brought on by higher
temperatures and volatile rainfall).

Maintaining this momentum calls for continued progress in
improving irrigation, seeds, and erosion protection, all of which
would substantially boost production. Meanwhile raising farmers’
awareness would also accelerate implementation of these

Withstanding shocks: An outsized impact

Adapting to climate change is critical to safeguarding the
hard-earned progress in economic development sub-Saharan Africa has
achieved in recent decades. However, adaptation will be especially
challenging given countries’ limited capacity and financial

The priority then should be on making progress in select,
critical areas which could have an outsized impact in reducing the
chances of a family becoming food insecure when faced with shocks
from climate change or epidemics.

For instance, progress in finance, telecoms, housing, and health
care can reduce a family’s chance of facing food shortages by 30

• Higher incomes (from diverse sources), and
access to finance would help households buy food even when prices
rise, allow them to invest in resilience ahead of a shock, and
better cope afterwards.
• Access to mobile phone networks enables people to benefit from
early warning systems and gives farmers information on food prices
and weather—just a single text or voice message, could help them
decide when to plant or irrigate.
• Better-built homes and farm buildings would protect people and
food storage from climate shocks. Combined with good sanitation and
drainage systems, they would also preserve people’s earning
capacity by preventing injuries, and the spread of disease, while
ensuring safe drinking water.
• Improved health care helps people return to work quickly after
a shock; and, along with education, raises their income potential
and helps inform their decisions.

Social assistance also has a major impact as it is critical in
compensating people for lost income and purchasing power after a
shock hits. Insurance and disaster risk financing can be critical
too, but the success of these programs in sub-Saharan Africa often
relies on government subsidies and improvements in financial

Concentrating adaptation strategies in sub-Saharan Africa on
policies that have outsized impacts, including on food security,
will help reduce their costs. Implementation of these strategies
will be expensive—$30–50 billion (2–3 percent of regional
GDP) each year over the next decade, according to many experts.

But investment now will be far less costly than the price of
frequent disaster relief in the future, both for lives and
livelihoods. Our analysis finds that savings from reduced
post-disaster spending could be many times the cost of upfront
investment in building resilience and coping mechanisms.

Securing sources of financing is especially challenging against
the background of the pandemic and rising global risk aversion. But
by stepping up financial support for adaptation to climate change
in sub-Saharan Africa, development partners can make a tremendous
difference in helping Africans put food on the table and recover
from the pandemic.

Credit: International Monetary Fund

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Safeguarding Africa’s Food Security in the Age of COVID-19

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