Agriculture is a dominant economic activity across Sub-Saharan Africa, except for a few resource-rich economies, such as South Africa, Botswana and Angola. Yet Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with high levels of food insecurity and the most acute levels of malnutrition compared to other regions in the world.
The major causes of malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa include adverse climatic conditions which normally lead to a decline in agricultural production and soaring staple food prices, conflict in some countries, lower levels of investment in agriculture, and fragmented agricultural markets.
Food security is key to Africa’s social and economic vitality. In the past, African countries benefited from the generosity of Western countries, especially the US, which has delivered food to fight hunger in Africa.
Perversely, the availability of US surplus produce has encouraged dependence and weakened resilience in the African continent. The outbreak of Covid-19 will exacerbate an already dire situation of food shortage in some African countries, which will bring a new cycle of dependence on humanitarian contributions from Western countries.
While this will assist in the near-term, it has shortcomings policymakers need to be mindful of. Chief among these is the general collapse in domestic agricultural commodity prices in various African countries, which disincentives production and leads to more dependence.
The main food challenge on the production side facing Western countries such as the US is a surplus of food since some restaurants, schools and hotels remain closed as a measure to control the spread of Covid-19. Consumption of the food-away-from-home market in the US market has declined, causing many farmers to destroy their produce to ease up storage capacity and to ensure that oversupply does not lead to depressed prices.
Meanwhile, food-insecure countries in the African continent have a different challenge of insufficient food for households due to weaknesses on the production side that were glaring even before Covid-19.
Within Southern Africa, countries such as Zimbabwe suffered from drought and floods in 2019, leading to falling production in staple crops by more than half, and started the 2020 production season on the back foot under similar conditions.
For Zimbabwe, this will be a second consecutive year of food shortages, further deepening poverty levels in that country. In East Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda lost part of their 2020 produce to locusts at the start of this year. This means malnutrition could become the next humanitarian challenge for Africa and the world during and post Covid-19.
If the world waits until the end of the pandemic, it may be too late since food insecurity, high levels of youth unemployment, and weakened public health infrastructure would constitute an explosive cocktail for Sub-Saharan Africa. Many African countries will be on a stampede for IMF and World Bank loans over and above those earmarked for national responses linked to Covid-19, and this will add to the already high debt burden. Social discontent may likely flare up in various parts of the African continent. This could be more so since lockdown regulations have been more severe for the poor than for the middle classes and the elites.
Constrained fiscal space, leading to inability of governments to meet basic needs and pay salaries for public servants could be another trigger point for discontent. Such conditions will signify reversals of gains that were notched since the beginning of the year 2000. That decade induced a sense of optimism about Africa’s rise on the back of macro-economic reforms and the youth bulge that was expected to yield an economic dividend. Such hopes are turning into nightmares.
Fundamentally, Africa’s current food insecurity position is caused by several factors. Failure of African governments to prioritise agricultural infrastructure, weak investment in modernisation and new technologies, weak land governance system, and lack of delivery of much-needed succour to improve crop quality and marketing capacity are now catching up with the African continent. Agricultural policies in the West over the past decades, including subsidies, have also indirectly contributed to Africa’s failure to break into global markets sustainably.
The spread of Covid-19 is likely to worsen Africa’s already disfigured socio-economic picture, and make it harder for the continent to jumpstart its economic growth and make progress on sustainable development goals, especially those that pertain to eliminating poverty, hunger, achieving universal health and well-being, and attaining decent work and economic growth. The current difficulties facing Africa are not just the age-old problems of debt, poverty, and corruption.
Yes, there are still governance and institutional weaknesses, but skewed global patterns of production and trade policies in richer economies have done much to frustrate the competitiveness of Africa’s agriculture. The global health pandemic has further constrained Africa’s ability to overcome structural challenges and put itself on a sound footing for international competitiveness.
Leaders will need to act with greater urgency. We set out various proposals for African leaders and external development partners. First, African leaders should place food security at the centre in their quest to mobilise resources from continental institutions and external development partners. Without receiving a sufficient quantum of resources to strengthen the resilience of Africa’s food systems, any isolated intervention will be undermined by deepening malnutrition and rising levels of poverty.
Second, support from the international financial institutions towards national response plans of various African countries should have dedicated resources that are targeted at improving food security. Third, continental institutions such as the African Union should mobilise rapidly, coordinate an inter-agency task team on food security, and constitute a sound platform to respond to food crises and multidimensional poverty that affect various regions in the continent.
Finally, the African continent should use this crisis to fix institutional and governance weaknesses and build up resources that will bolster the resilience of food systems in the continent. Crucially, African leaders should take seriously the role of agriculture in improving livelihoods and as an important economic sector that could be positioned for competitiveness in the global markets.
Mzukisi Qobo is head (designate) of Wits School of Governance. Wandile Sihlobo is Chief Economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa and the author of Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity, and Agriculture. Isaah Mhlanga is Chief Economist at Alexander Forbes.