By Esther Ngumbi
ILLINOIS, United States, Jul 16 2020 (IPS)
African countries are beginning to reopen borders, and this is finally enabling many citizens to resume their normal life. However, there is still an urgent need for African countries to prioritize agriculture to tackle food insecurity issues that have been exacerbated by COVID and will continue to be an issue into the near future. According to the latest estimates by the United Nations World Food Programme, COVID-19’s compounding effects could drive 270 million people into food insecurity.
While re-opening is something we have all been looking forward to, the truth is, without a COVID-19 vaccine yet, and without implementing strict safety measures, new waves of COVID-19 may emerge, as has been seen in the United States, forcing countries to shut down again, and again, and go through new waves of hunger and food insecurity for many citizens.
Given this uncertainty, it is extremely important for countries to have well thought out actions, initiatives, strategies and articulated plans on how to address on-going and future COVID-19 related food insecurity challenges.
African countries have the potential to produce safe, abundant, and nutritious food to meet the continent’s food needs, especially, when food systems are disrupted. But to get there, there is need to invest and improve the agricultural production methods and post-harvest technologies that farmers are using
Doing so will result in improved food security and more efficient and resilient agricultural and food systems while allowing countries to implement these plans should the need arise to close countries because of COVID-19.
What are some of the actions that can be taken? Here are a few suggestions.
First, start building resilient social safety nets. Indeed, the presence of or lack of existing food banks and other social safety nets programs such as school feeding programs and social pensions was key during the shutdown as all countries grappled with finding immediate ways to provide food for their citizens. COVID19 has drawn the attention to the importance of these safety nets to ensure food security for all citizens and to reduce vulnerabilities of families.
According to a 2018 World Bank report, most African countries have recently established these social safety net initiatives as part of a broader strategy to protect the vulnerable and assist the poor. As the report reveals, these social safety net programs are reaching only 10 percent of the African population. Majority of these initiatives target children, orphans and the elderly, through school feeding, nutrition interventions and old-age social pensions.
Left out are the youth, women, people with disabilities and other groups that are equally vulnerable. Clearly, much more needs to be done, to ensure the existing programs can deliver, now and into the future.
Time is ripe for countries to scale up protective safety nets or to think of alternative approaches to meeting immediate and future food security needs. There is a need to rethink implementing equivalent of food banks across African countries.
Food banks, which are diverse-from small operations to large facilities act as food and grocery storage and distribution depots. Stored food is then distributed to people who need it through food pantries, and meal programs. In 2019, over 3.6 billion meals were distributed by Feeding America, a national network of foodbanks. A recent report suggests that because of COVID19, these numbers may have increased, by over 70 percent.
One way is to build food warehouses in cities and rural areas. These warehouses could in turn be used as foodbanks, where citizens can collect food when they need it. In the United States during the pandemic, foodbanks and government funded food programs have been main points through which Americans received food when they needed it.
Typically, food banks receive funding from several sources including government grants, donations from individuals, corporate and foundation grants. A similar model, can be implemented in African countries with modifications.
Another suggestion is to continue to invest in agriculture. African countries have the potential to produce safe, abundant, and nutritious food to meet the continent’s food needs, especially, when food systems are disrupted. But to get there, there is need to invest and improve the agricultural production methods and post-harvest technologies that farmers are using.
Accompanying improved methods is the need for farmers to easily access soil fertility assessment and management initiatives, improved seed varieties, agricultural inputs such as fertilizers to ensure that farmers make the most out of their farming enterprises for the rest of the 2020 year.
Equally, there is a need to focus on longer term investments to enable the over 500 million small holder farmers in developing countries to grow more food, thus increasing their incomes and resilience. These investments include improved access to water and water conservation technologies, financial services, better infrastructure such as roads, internet and cell phone technologies, and functioning markets
Undoubtedly, there is evidence that clearly shows that with the right knowledge, tools and resources, smallholder farmers based in the African continent can become dynamic players in agriculture. They have the potential to not only feed the world, but become the game changers of 21st century agriculture.
Accompanying the aforementioned initiatives is the need for continued surveillance, monitoring and evaluation of these food insecurity mitigating action plans and enhanced coordination among all food security stakeholders. Data driven surveillance and monitoring will continue to be key and invaluable in helping governments to predict food insecurity crisis while guiding their formulation of initiatives to tackle food insecurity.
Moving forward in these uncertain times, and learning from food insecurity challenges that have been exacerbated because of the pandemic, African countries should make it a priority to build and establish strong national food safety systems and assistance programs so as to ensure citizens are food secure.
Dr. Esther Ngumbi is an Assistant Professor at the Entomology Department and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She is a Senior Food security fellow with the Aspen Institute.