What COVID-19 can teach us about the importance of resilient food systems

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has brought the fragility of food systems in Africa even more sharply into focus. All 12 RFS country projects are already seeing the negative impacts of income insecurity, restricted food access, and threats to human health within smallholder farming communities.

Last week, the 9th of April marked 100 days since the first case of COVID-19 was reported to the World Health Organisation. According to data compiled by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, African countries have over 10,500 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, with more than 500 deaths. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic is testing the limits of societies and economies across the world, and African countries are likely to be hit particularly hard,” said Hafez Ghanem, World Bank Vice President for Africa, in the latest Africa’s Pulse, the World Bank’s twice-yearly economic update for the region. 

As government policies restrict people’s movements through travel bans, road closures, social-distancing regulations and community quarantine measures, economic activity across business sectors has plummeted. Such measures are leading to disruptions across agri-food chains and restrictions to the informal food markets that many Africans rely on. The impact on food security and nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa threatens to be as devastating as the virus itself.

The impact on African food systems

Is there money in my pocket for food for my next meal? Does my village or city have food for sale today? Do I have seeds to grow food for the next season? With schools closed, how will my child get her meal for the day? While political and media voices amplify the public health messaging around quarantine, curfews, handwashing and mask-wearing, many civilians in sub-Saharan Africa are asking these questions around basic food security and survival. 

The local availability of food has already been impacted by farm and food-processing labour shortages, the disruption of domestic distribution channels, traditional market closures and street vendor restrictions, and morbidity linked to the COVID-19 disease. Further, people’s ability to buy what’s on the shelves or in markets is becoming increasingly limited due to the loss of income resulting from sweeping business closures and mass unemployment. And Africa has yet to reach the apex of the virus’s curve. 

All 12 RFS country projects are already seeing the negative impacts of income insecurity, restricted food access, and threats to human health within their project sites. “Most of the Resilience Food Systems beneficiaries are smallholder farmers living in Africa’s drylands and dependent on natural resources,” says RFS Task Manager, Jonky Tenou. “COVID-19 is obviously affecting their livelihoods by reducing extension services as well as trainings and cross-learnings needed for scaling-up integrated practices that help to sustain their food production systems and increase their resilience.” 

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has brought the fragility of food systems, already under severe strain from climate change, even more into relief. It shows how low- and middle-income countries are particularly vulnerable to shocks that affect health and food supply systems, threatening individual livelihoods as well as businesses and economies. 

Even before the current global crisis, Africa’s food systems were struggling to ensure a healthy diet for millions of people but now, serious hunger threatens to strike. And it’s the most vulnerable who will suffer most. Certain economic impacts will persist beyond the height of the pandemic. These may include increased disabilities in human and cognitive development due to an extended lean season and other caloric shortages, particularly among those who are already food insecure or lack empowerment within their communities, such as women and children.  

Resilient food systems and managing pandemics

Right now, governments need to do everything in their power to keep trade routes open and supply chains alive. Wealthy countries should support resource-constrained countries wherever they can to protect and enhance diets of lowest income consumers. The stimulus packages in high-income countries should be used in part to promote greater access to nutritious foods for all. 

Policymakers should convene food industry and farmer representatives to identify bottlenecks and work out ways to smooth them out. They must decide which categories of farmers should be designated as critical staff and – while in no way undermining due protective measures – allow them to continue moving and working as needed. 

While every country faces its own challenges, collaboration — between governments and all sectors and stakeholders — is vital. The current COVID-19-generated food environment disruption poses a huge challenge in sub-Saharan Africa, but also an opportunity. Mitigating its consequences with collaborative solutions and reinforcement of local food systems – building on the work that has already been done in the 12 RFS country projects - may open up and lead the way towards a sustainable transformation to resilient food systems, even in the event of a pandemic.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter to receive updates on stories directly from the field across all our projects, upcoming events, new resources, and more.