This article presents insights gathered during the first six weeks of the Covid-19 Food/Future initiative. The initiative is piloted by TMG Research, under its SEWOH Lab project, and propelled by a team of young and dynamic voices based in nine African countries. It’s central aim is to shed light on how Sub-Saharan African societies are experiencing the effects of the pandemic, and navigate the resulting uncertainties around
jobs, income, and food production and supply spaces.
Reporting on a daily basis on Twitter
, young participants in Benin, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa, share their views on and highlight the salience of the
pandemic on their national and local food systems.
Word cloud highlighting the most prominent terms of the 951 tweets posted between 06 April and 18 May 2020
With close to 50 articles and 1000 tweets published between 06 April and 18 May, the wealth of information gathered provides a unique overview of how food systems have been disrupted by the health pandemic — as well as the ensuing control measures — and how a variety of local actors adapt to, and reconfigure, these systems.
Lockdown measures and their impacts on food systems
Challenges for food security
By the first day of reporting, all governing bodies across the nine countries had adopted measures to contain the spread of the virus. Thanks to our reporters’ timely updates on the local state of affairs, we learned that authorities had ruled out all non-essential productive
activities, and that an internal lockdown was further accompanied by international trade restrictions. In early April, Kenya closed down learning institutions and declared a ban of international travel for civil servants and of public gatherings. Authorities further added directives affecting mobility and food markets
. In late March, the Federal Government of Nigeria started by locking down major cities
to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
However, not every country introduced measures as stringent as the previous examples. In Malawi, for example, a 21-day lockdown
was blocked by court.
Across all countries, the weekly reports highlighted the devastating consequences for informal food markets
and other important links between producers and consumers. Diverse blogs shed light on the plight of vulnerable segments of the population,
such as informal workers
in Benin, where the informal sector is said to employ 70% of the youth population.
Information reported across the countries suggested that Covid-19 and its related measures would exacerbate existing inequalities across all aspects of food and nutritional security
. Our reporters stressed the looming impact of price hikes, as well as mitigation measures being taken by some governments, including sanctions for retailers involved in raising the prices
of basic necessities. Concurrently, the pandemic has reduced the
purchasing power of a considerable part of consumers, particularly in urban contexts, requiring interventions by States, and a range of other actors.
The rich output of #Covid19FoodFuture stories and social media activity have further amplified some of the tough choices between health safety and food security that ordinary citizens are increasingly forced to make. For example, unable to store food, some citizens in Burkina Faso were forced to continue frequenting small markets
or food stalls on a daily basis to ensure their subsistence. Such situation prompted actors to call for governments not to prioritise public health over food security
, outlining that the one is just as important as the other.
Disruption of supply chains
Through their writing reporters highlighted a second dimension of the pandemic’s impact on food systems: the disruption of supply chains. Increased post-harvest losses due to lockdown-related disruptions
in mobility and logistics were experienced by farmers in several countries. Our team noted, for example, the inability of farm workers in
Nigeria to access their fields, limited transport options for farm produce, and the shut-down of local markets. In Burkina Faso, the lockdown was reported to have visible effects on the ability of agri-food processing units
to access raw materials and to sell processed products. The same was true for Malawi, where our reporter highlighted challenges faced by farmers due to a combined lack of labourers, farming inputs and delayed harvests
and resulting increases in operating costs. With the arrival of the rainy season, the unavailability of farming inputs for smallholders represented a prominent issue in DRC
, a situation causing some to fear that the local production of food could be imperilled.
Our team also focused on consequences for regional and international trade flows, resulting in the strong disruption of export-led sectors, even as barriers to imports depleted the stocks of a range of staple foods. In Benin, the cashew industry
, an important strategic export, was reportedly facing important challenges due to trade restrictions and the lack of available buyers. Observers in Burkina Faso feared insufficient rice supply
to the markets of the country, while in Madagascar, insufficient rice stocks
were reported. Noting the vulnerability of trade dependent food systems, our reporters have strongly emphasised the need to strengthen domestic agriculture
Adaptation and reconfiguration of food systems
From the second week onwards, with social distancing quickly becoming a new reality, our team began to document some of the concrete steps being taken to address food supply and access challenges, and to build more resilient food systems.
Towards a more resilient agriculture
Reports of the quarantined economies rapidly show how lockdown measures have
exposed the vulnerabilities of food systems in all nine countries. Reflecting on the situation, our reporters’ personal insights converge around the importance of improving the resilience of food systems to allow themselves to brace for shocks of comparable nature and magnitude in the future.
Measures aimed at improving farmers’ livelihoods through sustainable production were established in several countries. For example, Malagasy agriculture has shown positive signs of response to the crisis
, and benefitted from policy support
. Some of the country’s strategic crop exports, such as vanilla
and essential oils
, were able to sustain themselves and received support
in the form of facilitated access to savings and credit for producers.
Those measures go beyond the production cycle and are geared towards protecting biodiversity, among other benefits. On the market side, some retailers in Malawi have resorted to value addition strategies
to prolong the shelf life and promote localised production.
Some reporters also hinted at potential pathways to increase local food security. For example, our reporter in Benin observed that, with rice having gained prominence in the national diet, this staple could potentially contribute to ensure the food security of the 70% of the poor living in rural areas. He went on to suggest pathways to strengthen the country’s resilience by outlining a series of reforms
that could increase the competitiveness of domestic rice production. Our reporter in Nigeria mentioned that the Covid-19 crisis comes on top of a wide range of threats for smallholders and stressed the need to strengthen small scale food production efforts
Tapping into the potential of digital solutions
From the third week of reporting activities, the reporting team was drawing attention to some important challenges governments were facing in the delivery of relief measures, and the subsequent acceleration of digital services to fill certain gaps. On 17 April, one tweet revealed an agri-commerce platform
in Kenya that enables farmers to effectively reach consumers.
Meanwhile, Nigerians started using online platforms to share collective responses to the pandemic, with food banks, hunger relief programmes and extension support accessible on Beating Corona.ng
. Another social exchange platform reported on 21 April, Needs.fyi
is helping consumers get essential food items in Lagos, Nairobi, and Kigali. By the end of this reporting Phase (15 May), we had also learned of the Senegalese Jaayma Mburu platform, a government-sponsored bread booking system
aiming to reach vulnerable consumer groups in Senegal.
In early May, our reporter in Kenya announced that an innovative digital token, the “Bonga points’’, had been developed by Safaricom, the country’s largest mobile network operator. Accumulated loyalty tokens awarded to subscribers for data usage can now be redeemed into cash to purchase food and other essentials. Community organisers have tapped into this innovation
by collecting “Bonga Points” donations and distributing essential food
items to households in need. In terms of access to finance, reporters observed an increased reliance on software connecting farmers to markets
and financial services
. Microfinance services are called to apply data science to finance
in order to build software that increases access where most needed, all whilst contributing to mitigate future disruptions.
The first six weeks of the initiative have provided us with an overview of how this pandemic laid bare the vulnerabilities of supply chains in all nine countries. By the end of the reporting period on 18 May, many countries had started to loosen some of their more stringent measures, while trade blockages were partially being lifted. The effects of the
pandemic are, however, far from being over. There is still an urgent need to build resilient food systems that can comprehensively address the needs of the population.
Observations of our reporting team echo some of the insights shared by major organisations in the global food arena and identify common ground for reflection. The Covid-19 crisis has provided an evidence base and lessons learned that can support policy action — as echoed, for instance, by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD
) — on the pivotal role of smallholder farmers for a resilient food
future. Trade-offs between food security and health safety identified by our reporters reflect the information presented by the World Food Programme’s (WFP)’s Global Report on Food Crises
. By stressing the vital role of international flows
, our reporters further joined the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in their assessment.
Shocks of this nature need to inform future innovations, and evidence, observations and opinions from the ground can shed light on the way ahead amidst enduring disruptive effects. With the initiative still ongoing, we are looking forward to sharing more insights with you through our next six-week recap.