Although the level of food security fluctuates both geographically and from year to year, the overall trend had been one of improvement over several decades. However, new conflicts and climate change have seen the situation deteriorate over large parts of the continent in recent years and now the Covid pandemic has reversed some of the hard-won gains. Report by Neil Ford.
Many African governments closed borders for months at a time to prevent the spread of Covid, while others prevented foreign truck drivers from crossing their borders. By interrupting road transport, lockdown measures have prevented food from being transported for regional distribution or international export, or even being moved more locally to ensure adequate access to food. Some international grain producers also introduced export restrictions in the face of Covid concerns.
This all severely hampered the transport of food from areas of surplus to regions enduring shortages. In February, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies calculated that acute food insecurity in Africa had increased by more than 60% to more than 100m people over the 12 months since Covid-19 first emerged, as the pandemic exacerbated the impact of conflict and political mismanagement.
The Africa Center calculated that the number of people facing food crises in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger had increased massively from 3.2m in 2019 to 12.7m in 2020, including 1.7m people who were displaced and so required direct food assistance.
The impact of Covid had been compounded by growing security problems in the Sahel, where the frequency of attacks by militant Islamist groups increased by 44% last year. The number facing acute food insecurity in Mali jumped from 600,000 in 2019 to 6.8m last year, with a similarly stark rise in Chad from 600,000 to 5.9m over the same period.
Indeed, West Africa as a whole is particularly badly affected. The Africa Center forecasts that 23.6m people in the region will face crisis level food insecurity this year, a 40% increase on the 2020 level, which was a record in itself. The impact of conflict and Covid is particularly obvious given that most harvests were above average in West Africa last year.
Conflicts cause famine
Perhaps even ahead of Covid, conflict is the biggest single cause of food insecurity, with famine currently or expected in parts of South Sudan, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, particularly in Tigray, while 4m people in north-eastern Nigeria face food shortages because of Boko Haram attacks.
Conflict prevents food from being transported from rural areas to cities, including at present, Bangui in the Central African Republic. Peace and stability are necessary for increased food security, both to encourage farmers to plant crops in the knowledge that they will be able to harvest them, and to enable food to be transported safely and reliably.
Climate change takes its toll
Flooding and locusts have affected a third of the cultivated land in Africa over the past year, with 1.1m tonnes of grain destroyed. Locust activity, which was particularly pronounced in East Africa, was the worst in Africa for several decades, while floods affecting South Sudan and Sudan were the worst for a century.
Macroeconomic problems have also had an impact, with Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe all experiencing hyperinflation and currency depreciation, leaving households with less money with which to buy food.
The Seventh Session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development, which was organised by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the African Union, in Addis Ababa in early March, focused on resilient and green development in the face of the triple C threat to African food security: conflict, climate and Covid.
The three threats compound the impact of each other. Climate change drives resource-based conflict, for instance, while the Covid-19 pandemic further aggravated competition for water, pasture and land. There is a real threat that they could wipe out the gains on food security and nutrition that have been made in recent years.
It is vital that efforts to promote both food security and production volumes are inclusive, as Africa’s smallholders hold the key to both. They have been remarkably durable given the challenges posed by climate change, locusts and other pests, plus the pandemic and associated lockdown restrictions. As the World Bank reports: “If farmers are experiencing acute hunger, they may also prioritise consuming seeds as food today over planting seeds for tomorrow, raising the threat of food shortages later on.”
As ever, the complexity of so many challenges requires a variety of solutions. In the short term, a great deal of effort has been put into maintaining production and distribution systems that are well-established and generally efficient but which need support to survive the pandemic.
It is far simpler to maintain otherwise viable farmers, businesses and supply chains in the short-term than to allow them to collapse and seek to rebuild them at a later date.
In Kenya, for instance, the World Bank is working with 15 agricultural technology start-ups to improve the delivery of inputs, soil testing, crop insurance and credit – to help farmers overcome temporary Covid-related constraints.
On the opposite side of the continent, a $150m International Development Association (IDA) credit to Senegal will encourage higher groundnut yields and more efficient production.
IDA support for both new relief and development projects in Africa designed to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on food security totalled $5.3bn in the six months to the end of September 2020.
It is vital that long-term security complements short-term relief programmes. For instance, the government of Liberia has worked to meet the immediate food needs of vulnerable people, while seeking to improve longer term food security. The centrepiece of this strategy is the Liberia Inland Storage Facility, which will be the country’s first open-access commercial warehousing centre.
The 4,600m² facility is being built 10km from the Port of Monrovia, with flexible storage space, the latest inventory management systems and commodity handling equipment. It is being developed by InfraCo Africa, part of the Private Infrastructure Development Group (PIDG), Global Logistics Services Inc (GLS) and Liberia’s own BMC Group. Such modern facilities are necessary to minimise stock losses.
Eroding trade barriers, including through the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) will play a huge role in easing and encouraging the movement of food products around the continent.
Most of Africa’s roads and railways were developed during the colonial era and were designed to transport commodities to the nearest port for export rather than within the continent. Some progress has been made on correcting this imbalance and there has been something of an African railway renaissance over the past few years, with new lines built or planned in Eastern Africa in particular.
To take one example, the construction of the Armando Emilio Guebuza Bridge across the Zambezi resulted in a big fall in maize prices over a wide swath of Mozambique as it enabled farmers in the north of the country to move maize to the main centres of demand in the south.
The bridge was particularly important because Mozambique only has a single north-south road and there was previously a bottleneck where it reached the Zambezi and goods had to be loaded on to an inefficient and often out-of-action ferry. The bridge therefore made it is feasible for farmers and traders to focus on southern markets.