OPINION: Extrusion - one of the solutions for the looming humanitarian food crisis during Covid-19

Food security will be our next challenge post-Covid-19, says the writers. (iStock).
Food security will be our next challenge post-Covid-19, says the writers. (iStock).

We are already experiencing a humanitarian food crisis due to Covid-19. It is therefore important that private-public partnerships be established to feed the people of South Africa and Africa, writes LJ Grobler and Theo Venter. 


Three months ago we did not know about Covid-19.

On 1 April 2020 the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that "the number of deaths has more than doubled in the past week. In the next few days we will reach 1 million confirmed cases, and 50 thousand deaths".

While relative low numbers of confirmed cases have been reported from Africa, and from Central and South America, it is realised that Covid-19 could have serious social, economic and draws closer political consequences for these regions, and may increase as winter in the southern Hemisphere. 

International experience during lockdowns are that the success is based on five key principals: 

  • Access to water 
  • Access to food 
  • Provision of basic sanitation services 
  • Availability of affordable electricity 
  • Law and order 

Unless these services are provided in unison, or the lack of these services, social unrest in vulnerable communities may be expected, which place more burdens on society and the state. 

Many countries are asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement, which can help to limit transmission of the virus. 

Unfortunately, this has unintended consequences for the poorest and most vulnerable people. 

Many of the poorest receive daily or weekly wages. 

A three-week lockdown for the poorest of the poor effectively means no money for food for the three weeks and in most cases losing a job, that may not be available again after the Covid-9 crisis. 

In African countries the humanitarian crisis at this stage is not related to people that are ill due to Covid-19. 

The humanitarian crisis is caused by shortage of money in the poorer communities to buy food.

People are mostly standing close to each other in long queues to obtain their monthly grants. The payments and grants will alleviate the pressure for these people, but what about the millions of workers that will not get paid at the end of April. 

Many of these workers have applied for UIF payments from the end of April. 

With indications from South Africa's Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize and growing concerns in the public that the lockdown will be extended, it is inevitable that the number of people without food is going to increase rapidly. 

The biggest concern is that the UIF payments will not be processed in time. 

It is therefore clear that first humanitarian crises due to Covid-19 is inadequate food supply. 

Communities in the Northern Cape have written on roads and walls that they are hungry. 

They wrote that they cannot stay at home without food. If they do not get food they will be forced to move to the streets to find food. This poses a huge risk for social unrest whereby communities start looting shops in their quest to get foods.

In South Africa we have an additional social threat and that is the ease of xenophobic attacks during social crisis. A large number of these small spaza shops are owned by foreigners.

Governments therefore will have to look at means to feed its people. 

In India, Prime Minister Modi has announced a $24 billion package, including free food rations for 800 million disadvantaged people, cash transfers to 204 million poor women and free cooking gas for 80 million households for the next three months.

Unfortunately due to financial constraints many countries in Africa will struggle to implement social welfare programmes of this nature.

There have been calls from WHO towards the World Bank and IMF for humanitarian debt to enable these countries to take care of their people and avoid economic collapse. 

The following questions are now prevailing: 

How can African countries feed their people given the economic and practical constraints? 

What type of foods are most suited? 

What needs and can be done to get to action immediately? 

As many countries also closed their ports, we have to look at ourselves for solutions.  What are our options? 

Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) are the levels of intake of essential nutrients that, on the basis of scientific knowledge, are judged by the Food and Nutrition Board to be adequate to meet the known nutrient needs of practically all healthy persons. 

Within the context of energy balance for health and weight maintenance, these recommendations provide guidance on the macronutrient such as carbohydrate, protein and fat, composition of diets for the prevention of chronic diseases such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer in healthy populations, while also ensuring adequate intake of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals and other beneficial compounds such as fibre, biologically active compounds e.g. flavonoids, phytoestrogens, etc. in foods.  

Since it is becoming more evident that Covid-19 will be with us for some time we have to look at longer term and also permanent solutions to feed the people of South Africa, and the world. 

This is especially true for the developing world. 

It is important that we do not try to reinvent the wheel during these difficult times. We should rather look at successful programmes that were rolled out previously to solve humanitarian crises.   

According to the World Food Programme (WFP) nearly half of the world’s school children, some 310 million, in low- and middle-income countries eat a daily meal at school. 

Evidence suggests that well-designed school feeding programmes can promote macronutrient and micronutrient adequacy in children's diets leading to enhanced nutrition and health, decreased morbidity, and increased learning capacities. 

The same can be applied to all age groups of the population. During lockdown a large portion of pupils in government schools would not get the single most important meal of the day, since they are at home. 

One of the most successful projects in Africa is Africa Improved Foods (AIF) in Rwanda. 

AIF manufactures high quality and nutritious complementary foods. These foods address the nutritional needs of different segments of the population, such as pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, older infants from six months, young children and every other member of the family.  

This project is a joint-venture between the Government of Rwanda and a consortium of Royal DSM, Dutch development bank (FMO), DFID Impact Acceleration Facility managed by CDC Group plc and International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. 

In collaboration with the Government of Rwanda, the objective is to address malnutrition and stunting in the country and the East-African region by manufacturing high-quality nutritious complementary foods. 

These foods are produced with locally grown maize and soy beans, which are then milled and blended with micro-nutrient pre-mix, skim milk powder and soy oil.  

Extrusion is the technology used by AIF to produce more than 50 000 tonnes of instant ready-to-eat foods per annum. 

This is equal to 1-billion meals per annum! 

Extrusion is a continuous high pressure and energy efficient technology that is ideally suited to produce instant ready-to-eat products produced from grains, cereals and pulses.   

The Centre for Advanced Manufacturing (CFAM) is the only company in Africa that produces twin-screw food extruders. 

The development of a South African twin-screw extruder started in 1998 as a research project at the Faculty of Engineering of the North-West University (NWU), Potchefstroom, South Africa. 

CFAM Technologies was established in 2007 as a spin-off company of the NWU. 

Since then CFAM Technologies designed, manufactured and installed more than 60 twin-screw extruders and processing plants with combined installed capacity of more than 300 000 tonnes per annum! 

Crisis such as Covid-19 provide unique opportunities for focused strategic attention. Extrusion provides a unique ability to convert basic products such as maize and soy into ready-to-eat products.

We are going to experience the ripple effects of Covid-19 for a number of years, especially the economic impact.  This will put significant strain on financial resources, health systems and food security.

We are already experiencing a humanitarian food crisis due to Covid-19. 

It will also be the last crisis to solve after the end of Covid-19.  It is therefore important that private-public partnerships be established to feed the people of South Africa and Africa. 

Extrusion is one of the technologies that are ideally suited to produce safe affordable nutritional foods from locally produced agricultural products. 

- Prof LJ Grobler is Professor in Mechanical Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering at the North-West University.  He is also founding director of CFAM Technologies. Theo Venter is a Political and Policy Specialist at the NWU Business School. 

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