COVID-19 response must target African agriculture and the rural poor

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Africa has so far escaped the worst health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the continent looks like it could be the worst hit from the economic fallout of the crisis: 80 million Africans could be pushed into extreme poverty if action is not taken. And disruptions in food systems raise the prospect of more Africans falling into hunger. Rural people, many of whom work on small-scale farms, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the crisis. It is therefore vital that the COVID-19 response addresses food security and target the rural poor.

At this time, the international development agenda is prioritizing health, economies, and infrastructure. But there must also be a focus on food security, agribusiness, and rural development. This is especially important on the African continent.

Agriculture contributes 65 percent of Africa’s employment and 75 percent of its domestic trade. However, the rich potential of agriculture as a tool to promote food security and fight poverty is at risk from the effects of COVID-19.

In March, the UN Economic Commission for Africa predicted growth in Africa would drop from 3.2 percent to 1.8 percent in 2020. Within the continent, lockdowns are disrupting inter-regional trade. The effect of restrictive measures on food trade is especially worrying, in particular for food-importing countries, but also because of shrinking export markets for the continent’s farmers.

Across the European Union (the largest export market for Africa’s fresh fruits and vegetables), demand has dropped for popular produce such as Kenyan avocados, South African citruses, and Moroccan vegetables. Kenya has also recorded an 8.5 percent decline for tea exports to destinations like Iran, Pakistan, and UAE. Within countries, we are already seeing that interruptions to transport and distribution systems are impeding small-scale farmers from accessing essential inputs – like seeds and fertilizer – and from getting their food to markets.

African governments have defined stimulus measures to mitigate national and regional economic impacts of COVID-19. As they do, they must remember that investments in agriculture can be up to five times more poverty-reducing than investments in other sectors. Investments in rural, small-scale agriculture are particularly important for the region’s food security, for safeguarding the livelihoods of some of its most vulnerable people and for sustaining the gains in poverty alleviation and wealth creation.

Small farms everywhere traditionally make a huge contribution to global food security. Around the world, small-farm dominated systems produce 50 percent of all food calories on 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, the role of small-scale farms is even more significant: 80 percent of farms are small in most of these countries.

Even before the current crisis, globally more than 820 million people were going hungry daily. And the majority of the world’s poor and hungry people live in the rural areas of developing countries. In Africa, reliance on food imports, and lack of services and infrastructure to enable small-scale farmers to produce and market food, along with the shocks of climate change, have all increased the fragility of food access.

In April, the World Bank projected the pandemic would hit Africa the hardest of any region, pushing 23 million people into poverty. This raises the question of how small producers in Africa can get access to inputs and finance to grow and sell the food needed to ensure food security and support livelihoods. African leaders must be in the vanguard of funding solution