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Keeping Africa’s food supplies strong during COVID-19: Lessons from past crises

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Claude has been a cheesemonger since 2010. He works at a dairy farm in Masisi, in Eastern DRC. Claude has been a cheesemonger since 2010. He works at a dairy farm in Masisi, in Eastern DRC.

Esperance Belau, a farmer and agri-entrepreneur from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), hopes something can be done quickly to make sure food security does not decline rapidly as her country faces the coronavirus (COVID-19).  Reached by phone, she said a large portion of her rice production is accumulating by the side of the road, deteriorating in quality without buyers or transport.  At the same time, she says people in the capital, Kinshasa, are getting anxious about rising food prices in city markets due to disruptions caused by the lockdown to control the outbreak. 

Esperance’s farm is near Masimanimba, in Kwilu Province, 380 km from the capital.  She says that there used to be two checkpoints (barrières in French) between her farm and the city market in Kinshasa, but now there are eight.  Some of the additional checkpoints are informal, some are managed by the military and others by the police.  The main goal is to implement the lockdown orders to control and reduce the circulation of people to contain the virus, but in her view their proliferation has given rise to new informal fees and bribes (locally known as tracasseries) when commercial trucks or vehicles need to get through.  Esperance produces and trades several food products, including yams.  In more than 20 years in the business, she has never seen the prices spike so much: an 86 kg bag of yams has gone from US$45 to US$80 overnight due to the increase in transport costs.  This is unheard of, in particular because there’s no problem producing food in DRC at present.  The harvest was a good one.  In her mind, the price spikes puts good food out of reach of consumers and are solely due to a disruption in agricultural logistics.

This case in DRC is just one anecdote out of many ongoing disruptions in food systems and food markets across Africa.  Recent World Food Program (WFP) estimates show that an increase in food insecurity in this region could be more devastating than the health impacts of the COVID-19 virus itself.  But a food crisis is not inevitable. One doesn’t need to look too far back to learn from how food system policies were handled in other crises.  The last food price crisis (2007-08), the avian flu outbreak (2008), and the Ebola crisis (2015) show what worked and what didn’t. The table below summarizes some of the main lessons learned from investments, public policies and advisory work that were implemented during these crises.   

Keeping Africa?s food supplies strong during COVID-19: Lessons from past crises

Some key lessons for Africa in the current COVID-19 pandemic are:

  1. Go beyond budget support: Short-term budgetary supports can overcome fiscal constraints to ensuring food availability, but they are not enough by themselves to ensure food security and food supplies for the short to medium term.
  2. Open markets and open borders: Keeping local agriculture input and food markets and borders open, while prioritizing the safety of everyone in the food supply chain, ensures food supply and stable prices.  This also supports health surveillance and information dissemination in areas were communications are difficult.

In African countries such as the DRC, governments are trying to ensure food supply continuity during the pandemic following some of these lessons learned.  If governments can stay ahead of the curve, quickly implementing policies and programs by monitoring food trade, food supplies, food prices, as well as looking after the next cropping season to ensure that the hunger gap (periode de soudure) is avoided/shortened, the risk of a food crisis may be reduced. 

In the medium to longer term African countries will need to implement economic development policies and investments to restart businesses, because even rural households that depend on their own agriculture production to feed their family can be net food consumers, and thus depend on other supplementary sources of income. Esperance is hoping that DRC will be able to stabilize the unfolding situation of food disruption, reopen food supply chains during the pandemic, and then go back to focusing on medium- to longer-term investments, such as the National Agriculture Development Program, which is under preparation and includes the Kwilu Province in an initial phase.


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