Post-Covid-19 in Africa: The challenges of food supply

More than 10 years after the 2007-2008 food crisis, the current pandemic and its potential impact on food and nutrition security ask the same questions, with a few received ideas implicitly which it is useful to deconstruct again on June 15 , world day against hunger: will food circuits be broken? Will the crisis deprive Africa of rice? Is this proof that production must be relocated to secure supplies or is it a false good idea?

In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, there is no shortage of affordable food, as the chief economist of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) insists.

In addition, the errors that worsened the food crisis in 2008 have not been reproduced: many governments have implemented cash transfers to support the poorest and export restrictions remain very limited compared to those that had prevailed in 2008.

Food supply available, international trade maintained, demand supported by governments … Is there therefore no risk of food and nutritional insecurity in Africa in these times disrupted by the pandemic? Certainly not.

But, beyond the rise in poverty, the risks lie above all in the lack of food supply and in the potential inadequacy of national public policies to remedy it. Our analysis allows us to present five avenues to counter misconceptions and guarantee a better quality of exchanges within the continent.

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Colossal risks persist

Post-2008 research has reaffirmed that food crises are not always linked to falls in production, but also to consumer poverty or trade barriers.

Mapping work makes it possible to identify the countries and areas of the continent currently most at risk with regard to food insecurity (Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mauritania, etc.).

Food insecurity mapping.
© Fews.net/

Today, it is above all the lack of money to buy food that weakens the situation of the 820 million undernourished people in the world.

Thousands of people have lost their jobs as a result of measures to limit the spread of the virus. Whether in the formal or informal sector, from the retailer of bananas to the large exporters of Kenyan roses and tea, the economic and job losses are enormous.

Urban consumers, already particularly vulnerable to food insecurity, are strongly affected, without being able, for the most part, to go into exile in the countryside and find an agricultural plot. Monetary transfers from states will not be enough and those sent by the diaspora are strongly affected by the crisis.

Following a directive from the President of Uganda to limit the spread of the coronavirus, vendors were forced to sleep on the market with their stocks. (Kampala, April 7).
© BADRU KATUMBA / AFP

What is lacking then is the logistics infrastructure to transport food from the port, or from the field, to consumers: the international trade circuits are not broken, but the supply and distribution circuits national and intra-African, they are much less robust and resilient (Sudan, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo …).

This fragility has been known for a long time, but the crisis amplifies the problems at the borders and the delivery times once on the intra-African corridors.

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Smooth exchanges

According to the World Bank, food remains the main item of expenditure for African households today. Improving access is therefore crucial for food security and health, but also for the fight against poverty.

The food economy is also the main source of jobs in Africa. It goes far beyond just agricultural production activities. It is estimated that it will represent a trillion-dollar market by 2030.

However, without the possibility of trading fluidly, there will be no access to markets for producers, no agglomeration economy or economies of scale, no diversification of activities in the sector nor competitiveness of African economies and cities.

We are currently seeing it: it is partly because of the difficulties of movement of transporters and traders, curfews, border congestion and travel bans that economic opportunities and jobs are disappearing.

The current crisis throws a harsh light on the need to improve supply chains. At the continental level, this is the case of the African free trade area, scheduled for the 1er January 2021. But, at the national level, it is the business of governments and cities.

However, this field has been largely neglected in recent decades. The collective work published by the French Development Agency and the World Bank, which is based on analytical work from the Toulouse School of Economics and field analyzes carried out in particular by the Center for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD ), suggests five ways to remedy this.

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Act without destabilizing

First, it becomes crucial to understand the factors that motivate producers to serve such and such a market, and consumers to go to such and such a point of sale. These factors are central to understanding the forces of attraction (centripetal) or dispersion (centrifugal) that the city exerts on agricultural production areas. Otherwise, public policies could have the opposite effect.

Let us take the example of an improvement in the conditions of consumer access to a market by subsidizing public transport. This could increase prices in this market if the influx of consumers is not followed by an increase in supply.

Another example: investing in reducing the perishability of products (cold chain, primary processing plants) could scare consumers away if it drives up prices they are not ready to bear.

Moving away from or closer to cities? Force at work for agricultural production.
© Authors

Secondly, it is necessary to identify the loss of competitiveness of products throughout the chain: beyond production, are producers able to pool their harvests to benefit from economies of scale in transport? Can we encourage food processing to limit these post-harvest losses? Should we rather improve storage conditions and the cold chain? It also depends on consumer preferences.

Third, light infrastructure such as access to information and confidence in sales, credit and quality contracts remain essential.

Without a precise diagnosis, public policies risk destabilizing interpersonal trust systems, family distribution networks, or credit management between suppliers and buyers. For example, the quality attributed to a product by consumers is often based on the reputation of sellers. Establishing quality labels must take these habits into account.

Fourth, political intervention often remains hampered by the diversity of actors involved in the food sector, with vague mandates and limited means. However, taking them into account is essential, failing which attempts to regulate and improve governance will fail.

Finally, and perhaps we must start there, it is a question of fighting against certain preconceived ideas on the food of African cities. Indeed, a fragmented vision of the agrifood sector implies public policies concentrated either upstream or downstream.

However, only taking into account the sector as a whole and its complexity will allow the deployment of more “systemic” projects and public policies capable of resolving food issues in African cities.

* Gaëlle Balineau is a development economist at the French Development Agency (AFD).

** Nicole Madariaga is a development economist with the French Development Agency (AFD).

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