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Food security in the face of COVID-19: Evidence from Africa

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Food security in sub-Saharan Africa

Food security has been a significant concern for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), even before the onslaught of challenges brought about by COVID-19. As the pandemic started spreading to the region, one concern has been that of its possible impacts on food security, as the crisis has the potential to exacerbate an already fragile food security environment. Data from a series of high-frequency phone surveys (HFPS), collected with support from the World Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS) and the Poverty and Equity Global Practice, allow for the analysis of food security challenges in the midst of the COVID-19 environment. The HFPS data used here, a selection of countries with HFPS data, have been collected primarily by national statistics offices in five SSA countries, each of which is a part of the LSMS-Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA) project that fields longitudinal, multi-topic household surveys with a focus on agriculture. The results presented here reflect the following survey rounds, unless otherwise indicated: Burkina Faso – Round 2 (August); Uganda – Round 1 (June 2020); Nigeria – Round 2 (June 2020); Malawi – Round 1 (May/June 2020); Ethiopia – Round 3 (June 2020).

The analysis from the HFPS shows that over 105 million adults are affected by moderate or severe food insecurity across Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, estimated using the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), the methodology for measuring SDG Indicator 2.1.2. Over 70% of adults in Nigeria and Malawi are impacted by moderate or severe food insecurity, as well as 47% in Ethiopia, 42% in Burkina Faso, and 43% in Uganda. Over 30% of adults in Nigeria and Malawi are plagued by severe food insecurity, as well as 9% of Ugandan adults, 8% of Burkinabe adults, and 13% of Ethiopian adults.

prevalence of food insecurity by country

The HFPS data also reveal a relationship between food insecurity and well-being across all countries. Leveraging the consumption indices of the pre-COVID-19 LSMS-ISA surveys, we find that households in the lower end of the consumption distribution experience a higher rate of both moderate and severe food insecurity, particularly in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Malawi, and Uganda.

Prevalence of food insecurity by consumption quintile

What exactly does food insecurity look like on a daily basis? Food consumption was a source of worry for the majority of households in all countries, with as many as 71% of households having at least one member worrying they would not have enough food to eat (Burkina Faso – 69%; Ethiopia – 57%; Malawi – 71%; Nigeria – 71%; Uganda – 58%). The majority of households also had a member that was forced to skip at least one meal in Malawi and Nigeria, while approximately 36% of households had at least one member going at least a whole day without eating in those two countries. Eleven percent of households in Ethiopia, 11% of households in Uganda, and 20% of households in Burkina Faso also had a member that went at least one whole day without eating.

Food insecurity concerns pre-date the COVID-19 crisis, so how much of the food insecurity observed today can be attributed to the current crisis? Leveraging the panel nature of the HFPS data, and the consistent FIES questionnaire implementation in Nigeria, we compare the food insecurity rates before COVID-19 (from the 2018-19 General Household Survey (GHS-Panel)) and after the onset of the pandemic (from the HFPS). Data from the 2018-19 GHS-Panel suggest that 48.5% of the Nigerian adult population suffered from moderate or severe food insecurity, while data from HFPS suggest this rate has increased to 75.5%.

Household-level transitions from a food insecure to a food secure status, and vice versa, for both moderate or severe and severe food insecurity in Nigeria are depicted below. For the purposes of comparing food insecurity status over time, households were assigned to a food insecurity class based on the probability that adult members are food insecure. The data show that 43% of households that were not severely food insecure in 2018 were estimated to be severely food insecure in June 2020, representing a dramatic increase likely attributable at least in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. The incidence of moderate or severe food insecurity among the sample also increased significantly, with 71% of households that were considered as food secure in July 2018 were moderately or severely food insecure in June 2020.

Tracking household food insecurity over time in Uganda



  • Read the full brief for more on the mechanisms behind these changes in food security, including food price shocks and household coping strategies.


Sydney Gourlay

Economist, Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS), World Bank

Akuffo Amankwah

Economist, Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS), World Bank

Alberto Zezza

Program Manager, Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS), World Bank

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