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effects of covid on local food communities

How COVID-19 interventions affected food systems

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When COVID-19 shook the world in March 2020, the main focus was on ensuring that people stayed safe from infection. However, the pandemic had far reaching effects than the disease itself – and nowhere was this more evident than in sub-Saharan Africa.

Restrictions enforced to help curb the pandemic created more problems for a region already facing challenges from climate change and malnutrition, political unrest and inflation. Many parts of society went through struggles, none more so than the agricultural sector.

Thus, researchers of the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) program, with expert commentators, recently met for a two-hour e-Dialogue to discuss the effects of COVID-related interventions. They especially looked at these effects on rural livelihoods and local food systems in the region and what can be done to support their recovery.

Though households in Africa demonstrated impressive resilience and defied the United Nations World Food Program’s prediction that the number of those experiencing hunger would double, families did not go unscathed – and “an intersecting crisis between food and livelihood has been noted,” highlighted Amrita Saha, APRA researcher and Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies.

Effects of lockdowns

The lockdown restrictions, which varied between countries, posed one of the biggest challenges. Movement restrictions halted in-country and cross-border trading, causing huge financial losses. Unable to match their usual trading levels, households saw decreases in income and experienced higher food insecurity and lower living standards.

The movement limitations also affected those (such as farmers) working elsewhere in the production process. Huge labour shortages and breaks in supply chains further contributed to reduced food supplies and incomes. Thus, the APRA findings suggest that the shock of COVID-19 has resulted not so much in a “food production crisis” as an “income-nutrition-livelihood crisis” for many communities.

Worsening inequalities

The lack of State aid and humanitarian relief created issues in many countries. Social support payments for individuals in sub-Saharan countries totaled to less than US$5 per person, and a lack of communication and accessibility saw many unable to obtain even this small amount. There were also discrepancies between support measures for urban and rural communities, with the latter receiving less attention.

In these cases, households relied on aid from local religious organizations and traditional leaders rather than the state or other outside agencies. But, according to John Thompson, CEO of APRA and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, this was “very piecemeal”. While there was evidence of the emergence of a “COVID economy” in some places, where people were able to adapt the restrictions by shortening supply chains, producing and selling masks and soaps, and so on, this was also patchy.

Gender matters

The pandemic also exacerbated and highlighted existing issues such as gender imbalance and bias. “Women have borne the brunt of COVID-19 related impacts,” stated Akosua Darkwah, associate professor of sociology at the University of Ghana. Women in agriculture have always struggled to access resources but COVID-19 exacerbated this issue, shared Aida Isinika, Professor at Sokoine University of Agriculture and Country Lead for APRA Tanzania.

Government measures and policies created to assist families during the pandemic also rarely took women into account, said Sandra Gagnon, Program Officer at Canada’s International Development Research Centre. “Policies aimed at formal businesses excluded low-income women engaged in production and informal trading,” she added. Furthermore, with schools closed and children at home, women were tasked with childcare and home-schooling responsibilities – leaving them with less time and energy to dedicate to their own work and pursuits.

Building resilience

A number of recommendations were made on what households, communities and governments can do to be more resilient to future shocks.

Digital innovation:

Digital innovation was a key suggestion, as this “will create opportunities for extension, remote education and trade,” suggested Matsautso Chimombo, Lecturer in Rural Sociology at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources and APRA Malawi researcher. Greater access to the web will allow for online trading when it is not possible to do so in-person and, in some instances, this is already occurring. Darkwah revealed that traders in Ghana began engaging in deals virtually, following the introduction of movement restrictions. Providing better internet and telecommunications access would also serve to enhance the flow of information to all actors across food chains, which is critical so that “individuals can make more informed decisions,” said Isinika.

More inclusive policies

Governments also need to ensure their policies and support measures are more inclusive, encompassing both genders, all age groups – youths were particularly affected by the pandemic – and communities. “While it was positive to see that social protection was ramped up,” noted Steve Wiggins, Senior Agricultural Economist at the Overseas Development Institute and APRA researcher, “there was no reason why they could not have increased even further.”

While richer countries in the North didn’t hesitate to run-up large budget deficits during the pandemic, most African countries were constrained in their spending as a percentage of GDP. However, it seems that some lessons have been learned by those in power and positive changes are occurring as a result – with ministers in Malawi dedicating more funding to hospitals and medical supplies, for instance.

Importance of farmer organisations for households

Finally, it’s important for people to recognize the value of community. While “community support efforts rose to new levels,” explained Adebayo Aromolaran, Professor at Adekunle Ajasin University and APRA Nigeria researcher, households should better utilise farmer organizations – as these provide an invaluable support in many areas, including loans of otherwise costly agricultural equipment.

Maximising resilience

The agricultural sector needs to be viewed more broadly and emphasis put on more than just a few primary areas – such as imports and exports, economic growth, and environmental impact. Only then can resilience be maximized and guarantees put in place to ensure that no-one is left behind in the face of evermore frequent shocks and stresses.

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