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By David Phiri - 14 Sep 2020

Op-ed: Pathways to food security and nutrition in Eastern Africa amidst COVID-19

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has carried out a rigorous assessment on the impact of COVID-19 on food security and nutrition in Eastern Africa. The findings of this assessment illuminate the critical issues that the East Africa subregion is confronted with and the directions that policymakers should pursue.

Primarily, the assessment reinforces the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic, desert locust invasion and floods have adversely affected food security, nutrition, and rural livelihoods significantly in the subregion. It further reveals the constraints that many farmers, fisher-folks and pastoralists have encountered in accessing agricultural inputs, extension support and markets. It then stresses that policies and programmes need to be boosted to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of these segments of communities as well as build the resilience of food systems.

Impact of COVID-19 at different levels

The pandemic came at a time when food security and food systems were already under strain. The impacts of droughts, severe flooding, and desert locusts preceded COVID-19 and were already undermining food security. The pandemic will further jeopardize the situation in East Africa, which is already home to over 55 per cent (about 133 million people) of total sub-Saharan Africa’s food insecure population, of which nearly 28 million are in acute food shortage. In addition, conflict- and climate-induced displacements are prominent, with more than 7 million displaced people in settlements in only four countries: Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia and Uganda. The cumulative effects of these shocks have eroded the resilience of large segments of the population and strained the capacities of governments and humanitarian agencies.

The assessment has identified the three levels, where COVID-19 has threatened livelihoods and could worsen the already precarious food insecurity situation:

At farm-level, disruptions to the access of agricultural inputs (seed, fertilizer, veterinary inputs, fish fingerlings and feed), have impacted yields. The limitations in the delivery of agricultural extension services have reduced farmers’ access to vital supports. Human movement restrictions have also resulted in farm-labour shortages, especially for high-value crops. In pastoral regions, households have been prevented from cross-border movements to reach grazing lands and watering points.

At agri-food value chain level, logistical, processing and market activities have been disrupted because of restraints on transportation along commodity routes. While all governments have declared agricultural products as essential to ensure movements, the “stay-at-home” advice and travel restrictions have caused delays in supplies and post-harvest losses.

At the household level, farmers, casual labourers, transport operators, petty traders, market vendors, and village-based loan and credit operators have experienced livelihoods disruptions. Countrywide lockdowns have spawned job losses, negatively affecting the income-earning opportunities of the poor. The suspension of school feeding programmes has also affected millions of children.

Recommended policy measures

Policies should maintain an open border for the trade of agriculture and food-related goods and services (including agricultural inputs), while ensuring essential health inspections. Policies that minimize face-to-face transactions through improving access to digital technologies and services need to be enforced.

Scaling up social protection measures is indispensable to enable vulnerable households to mitigate the health, social and economic shocks of COVID-19. Interventions should be inclusive of the rural poor, informal workers, migrants and other vulnerable groups. Furthermore, supporting micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises and farmers’ organizations and cooperatives through dedicated financial facilities and other forms is essential to ensuring that these institutions are functional and efficient. Policies should also promote both the public and private sectors, and the civil society to sustain agricultural production and marketing activities while limiting the transmission of the virus in food supply chains.

Countries should revisit their national and regional trade policies to ensure alignment with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement to advance regional cooperation and cross-border coordination. This includes the exploration of opportunities for digital cross border trades and services.

Priority areas for programming

The key priority for the subregion should address the deteriorating food security situation that is compounded by multiple crises. To this effect, the continuous monitoring of, and effective response to, COVID-19 and locust invasion, as well as extreme weather events are imperative. Scaling up the distribution of agricultural inputs and services will safeguard the livelihoods of the most vulnerable populations. Smallholder farmers need to be incentivised for good agricultural practices and value addition. In this regard, cash transfers can be an effective way to boost purchasing power and prevent affected families from selling off their assets. Home-based food production, among farming and displaced populations in refugee camps, can be nurtured to improve access to food and healthy diets, while keeping local food markets functional.

FAO, the Member States in Eastern Africa, the African Union, UNECA, Regional Economic Communities and partner institutions, in their recent joint planning meeting, have also stressed the need to strengthen youth engagement in agriculture, increase agricultural production and productivity through value addition and use of modern technologies, accelerate climate change adaptation, and boost agricultural financing. Nutrition-sensitive agriculture, irrigation and water management, agricultural mechanization, stronger intra and inter-regional investments, as well as disease management through a one-health approach, are also among the priorities that were agreed.

COVID-19 is already exacerbating the burden of food insecurity and malnutrition, particularly among vulnerable groups, in Eastern Africa. In light of the recommended policy measures, implementing the priority areas will provide pathways to lessen the burden and fully recover from the crises. The full text of the policy brief can be found at the FAO Website.

By David Phiri is FAO Subregional Coordinator for Eastern Africa (SFE) and Representative to the African Union (AU) and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

The views expressed in ‘opinion’ articles published by Radio Tamazuj are solely those of the writer. The veracity of any claims made are the responsibility of the author, not Radio Tamazuj.