By Nyaguthii Maina, Francine Picard, Sophia Murphy, and Carin Smaller
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, governments across the board have taken costly, wide-ranging measures to combat the pandemic’s health and economic impacts. For some, this challenge has been further exacerbated by the looming threat of food insecurity. It’s estimated that 265 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020, up from 130 million prior to the pandemic. “Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults,” said the UN Secretary-General, as he recently called on the global community to immediately act to avert a hunger crisis.
Across the African continent, this threat is very real, given the triple burden of addressing the worst locust infestation seen in decades, changing weather patterns, and severe disruptions to food supply chains. Countries dependent on food imports are hit especially hard as they try to navigate the compounded challenges of export restrictions in some major grain-producing countries that threaten a decline in food availability; falling foreign currency reserves causing surges in importing bills that make importation harder; and border restrictions that impact trade flows. In this light, Africa’s Ministers for Agriculture recently released a joint political declaration on protecting food security and nutrition during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the declaration, the ministers committed to a number of actions aimed at supporting food security and nutrition for all, especially for the most vulnerable populations.
Ceres2030 virtual dialogue with African ministers
As these efforts to avert a COVID-19 hunger crisis advance, a joint research project between the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Cornell University, and the International Food Policy Research Institute called Ceres2030 convened a virtual meeting with African Ministers of Agriculture and Trade on June 10, 2020, to reflect on their responses. The Ceres2030 project team is pioneering an approach to agricultural development that combines the ability to synthesize and quantify evidence with the support of machine learning tools in order to inform an economic cost model that projects the investments needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2): end hunger sustainably by 2030.
The virtual meeting included ministers from the republics of Uganda, Togo, Chad, Niger, and The Gambia, as well as the African Union’s Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture. Throughout the discussions, it was evident that states are ramping up their efforts both individually and concertedly to ensure that borders remain open to allow the movement of food, and so that farmers—especially women, who grow an estimated 70% of Africa’s food— have access to farm inputs and social protection. “People who are more well-nourished are more resilient than those who aren’t,” said H.E Josefa Sacko of the African Union, as she reflected on the region’s food systems strategies.
In Togo, Chad, and The Gambia, for instance, women are central to governments’ response plans, given their role both in households and as the majority of small-holder farmers. According to H. E Madjidian Padja Ruth, Minister of Production, Irrigation and Agricultural Equipment of Chad, this is because “women are very vulnerable in this situation, all economic activities have declined, and if we are not able to produce enough we will have some bad surprises.” All governments represented were adopting digital technologies and providing cash transfers (often distributed on mobile phone networks), e-extension services, and e-vouchers for seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, tractors, and irrigation. Local production has come to the forefront in enhancing countries’ resilience to the pandemic.
While these responses are cushioning production systems in the interim, food loss from poor storage facilities, losses of income, and decreased remittances are causing starvation to soar. In response, the Minister of Trade and Private Sector Promotion, H. E. Sadou Seydou, highlighted the Economic Community of West African States’ strategy to prioritize the external trade of goods while calibrating their restrictions on market closures and transport of food from rural to urban areas. Along with these comments, H. E. Amie Fabureh, Minister of Agriculture of The Gambia, insisted, “Our country is so vulnerable at the moment, we need a lot of support for agriculture.”
“The funding gap is obvious,” echoed H. E. Vincent Ssempijja, Minister of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, Uganda, as he reflected on their government’s engagement with multiple stakeholders. In Uganda, agri-businesses are listed as essential services, and the state is looking to boost its engagement with the private sector to develop its food reserve systems and commodity value chains. These actions are aimed at building back better as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, and its known and unknown long-term effects proliferate.
The Ceres2030 project team was due to publish its findings in June 2020 but has now delayed the launch until October. Much of the research was done before the pandemic, but the effects of COVID-19 had an abrupt and immediate effect on hunger, raising levels of food insecurity alarmingly high. This is especially true for countries—many of which are in Africa—that depend heavily on commodity exports for their foreign exchange revenue and the informal economy for a large share of their employment. The virtual meeting of the Ministers of Agriculture and Trade and the African Union Commission was an invaluable opportunity to hear from African leaders on what needs to happen now to protect important gains in reducing hunger globally while continuing to protect the policy space for investments in achieving SDG 2—and indeed, all of the SDGs in the United Nations 2030 Agenda.