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Food systems and food security in the time of lockdowns: insights from sub-Saharan Africa

July 8, 2021

Ten IDRC-funded projects are providing new insights into the impact of lockdowns on food systems in sub-Saharan Africa. From September 2020 to February 2021, the  IDRC-funded projects studied the impact of COVID-19-related control measures on Africa’s food systems and food security, both regionally and nationally. The findings from these initiatives will help inform future governmental strategies to safeguard local livelihoods and food security.  

Across Africa, lockdown restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19 have had a serious impact on regional food systems. By limiting the movement of people and agricultural goods, critical food systems have been disrupted or have ground to a halt. From production to consumption, access to agricultural inputs, hired labour, and markets have been disrupted—or stopped entirely—, impacting all food value-chain players, especially women. 

Smallholder farmers were the most impacted by the lockdown restrictions, particularly in low-income and women-headed households. Many were forced to use up personal savings or sell off key agricultural assets, such as animals and machinery, which will undoubtedly impact the production potential of subsequent seasons and lead to poverty traps. For food producers, another key issue of concern was reduced access to farms and fishing sites, as well as essential agricultural inputs and labour. The ripple effects included lower yields and incomes. For processors, the limited availability of fresh produce combined with an inability to travel to important agricultural markets also resulted in diminished livelihoods and incomes.  

In the informal food sector, which is dominated by women and youth operating as street food vendors and transporters of agricultural goods, for instance, pandemic restrictions exacerbated existing inequalities and created new challenges. Unable to access formal work permits, in some instances, these groups were faced with the dilemma of having to operate illegally or shutting down and earning no income. With school closures, women specifically faced the additional challenge of home-educating their children, as well as trying to provide food for their families with a reduced income.  

Overall, the pandemic and subsequent containment measures exposed the vulnerability of food systems, and the livelihoods of those working in them, in sub-Saharan Africa. Lockdown of the agricultural value chains led to higher food retail prices, which, combined with reduced incomes, meant that households had to cut down on the quantity and quality of their food consumption. And this, when many already faced food insecurity prior to the pandemic.  

Supply shocks and inflation affecting key agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and seeds, as well as prolonged labour shortages, reduced harvests and put jobs and livelihoods at risk. The loss of employment and income also hindered the operation and growth of agricultural businesses all along the value chain, from informal food processing and transportation across borders, to wholesale and international trade. Youth working in the agricultural sector suffered significant setbacks and struggled to keep their agri-enterprises afloat without mentorship.  

COVID-19 lockdown measures also magnified issues around women’s empowerment and gender relations. Women entrepreneurs and women-only cooperatives accessed more limited support structures than men and, with more women than men taking on informal work, were harder hit by permit and travel restriction measures. 

Based on the findings of their work, the project teams compiled the following list of nine key recommendations to mitigate the impact of future pandemics and bolster Africa’s food security and resilience:  

  • Governments should ensure that agricultural activities are not severely affected by the unintended consequences of containment measures, to allow for normal food production levels to be maintained. 
  • In the event of future pandemics, governments need to provide financial support to small-scale farmers, fishers, processors, and traders so they can continue their work, and to avoid/minimize significant value-chain disruptions.  
  • Enhancing food-system resilience under lockdown can help avoid disruptions to food-production processes. For example, the organized distribution of low-cost farm inputs to rural areas would enable farmers to continue to optimize yields. Provision of adequate food-storage facilities for harvests would also minimize post-harvest food losses.  
  • Social-distancing measures should be implemented at food markets to enable them to remain open, and to allow farmers and traders to access inputs and sell their produce.  
  • Cooperatives should be provided with greater governmental support during future pandemics so they can support local resilience – both during and after a shock – by providing members with incomes and food security.  
  • There is a general lack of recognition of the informal sector as part of the broader economy and food system in Africa. Policymakers need to recognize informal traders for the role they play in the food market and should engage with trade associations in future crises to advise on relevant challenges.  
  • The response strategy to pandemics should be revised to allow for community-wide mitigation, which would enable the continued movement of people and goods between countries. 
  • Mitigation measures for businesses should be put in place, including the waiving of business licenses. A shift of market locations to more open spaces would enable them to continue operating in future pandemics.  
  • Development partners, policymakers, and COVID-19 recovery teams should prioritize the needs of women in the informal sector to help them recover their businesses and reduce poverty gaps.