The continuous spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world means that people’s ability to access safe and nutritious diets is at risk, further leading to an even wider global health crisis of the century.
Coronavirus has disrupted production, transportation, storage and sale of food and food items. Consequently, hunger and malnutrition levels have increased considerably especially because of the virus, even though many were already struggling with these issues prior to the pandemic.
According to a 2019 report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, over the past three years, the number of those suffering world hunger has been growing, only reflecting levels that were recorded almost a decade ago.
The report concludes that: “Hunger is on the rise in almost all African sub–regions, making Africa the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment, with a growing number suffering from malnourishment”
The report which was jointly prepared by United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), shows that globally, up to 821 million people in 2017 were in need of food, which represents, one in every nine people.
The spread of the virus at this time only compounds an issue that has continued to threaten the livelihoods of the world’s poorest, who majorly depend on agriculture.
“The effect of the virus goes far beyond immediate health and economic impacts. We are seeing a fragmentation of food systems which could have serious long-term implications for food security, nutrition, diets and the environment, particularly in lower income countries,” says Shenggen Fan, Global Panel Member and Chair Professor of China Agricultural University in a report titled COVID-19: safeguarding food systems and promoting healthy diets.
The report concurs with findings from several other reports which conclude that besides losses of income, “fluctuations in the price of nutrient-rich, usually perishable foods” risk escalating the number of those who could not afford healthy diets (1.58 billion people before the pandemic).
Triple disasters in East Africa
A policy brief by United Nations (The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition) records that East African nations experienced abundant rainfall between the months of March to May 2020. Prior to this, October to December 2019 also recorded high rainfall period. As expected, the onset of rains meant land preparations for agricultural activities across the region (Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi and neighboring areas).
These rains brought about unexpected mudslides, flooding and flashfloods leaving a trail of losses including displacement of persons, infrastructure and crop damages in most parts of the region. Moreover, the rains provided ground for breeding of Desert Locusts which further led to the destruction of seasonal crops and forage, making it difficult to achieve goals set towards food security and poverty alleviation.
The world trade trajectory was already declining prior to the current health crisis, and measures put in place by most governments to fight the novel Coronavirus only continues to derail economic growth.
In efforts to counter these challenges and provide better solutions for the future, a few guidelines are being implemented by various organization in efforts to ensure farmers keep producing and markets remain open.
Leveraging digital technologies
In April, the World Bank called on governments across the globe to “keep food trade flowing between countries”. Keeping the food trade open has ripple effects not only on the food producers, but also the consumers. By ensuring that both perishable and non-perishable foods get to the market, farmers in turn can thus access resources to purchase farm inputs such as seeds, fertilizers and labour, while consumers get food.
The World Bank is working with 15 Kenyan agri-tech startups to ensure that farmers can easily access the necessary information, skills and other resources such as “soil testing, crop insurance, credit, extension advice and market linkages;” this will “enable farmers to overcome temporary COVID-related constraints and ensure better targeting and more effective service delivery especially in remote areas in the long run.”
World Bank is working with the local government in Rwanda to ensure that the current levels of exports are maintained while supporting “cooperatives of horticulture growers to meet increased airfreight and other logistics costs due to COVID-19 lockdowns.”
Shifting trade models
To beat the logistical bottlenecks, and to keep abreast with the new social distancing measures in place, businesses must establish innovative ways to interact as well as trade. In the recent past more food markets are shifting to open-air locations with others adopting new models altogether. In Kenya and Uganda for example, livestock trading has “largely moved out of large markets and to on-farm sales,” an article by McKinsey & Company observes. By so doing, such markets remain active albeit with some local challenges brought about by the lockdown, curfews and other restrictions.
Already, most people in Africa suffer hunger. With the loss of jobs experienced during this period, reduced production and trade, many more people are at risk, if nothing is done. Decisive measures such as availability of open data across the region could prove beneficial in addressing the food crisis now and in the future. With information from the open data, economies can monitor, prepare and respond to disasters including COVID-19. Failure to employ these and many other measures means that a large global food crisis is looming and could result in severe consequences for health and nutrition. Governments and other stakeholders in East Africa and across the globe must act now and adopt “more sustainable food systems that are in better balance with nature and that support healthy diets – and thus better health prospects – for all,” the 2020 United Nation’s policy brief concludes.