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COVID-19: assessing the impacts on food systems and livelihoods in Africa

No community, industry or nation has avoided the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic has altered many of the processes through which society previously functioned. Since the onset of the virus, WRENmedia has worked with a number of clients on projects relating to the pandemic’s impact on various sectors.

Sanitation is key to containing the spread of COVID-19, and many sectors and organisations have implemented new initiatives to incorporate it into daily procedures. © UNICEF Ethiopia. 2020. Nahom Tesfaye.

In 2020, COVID-19 affected every aspect of life. Nearly a year on, coronavirus is still firmly with us, but the aim of researchers, academics and industry professionals is to now better understand the impact these unprecedented circumstances. This is a complex issue, and there is no one answer; the consequences of coronavirus have been as varied as they have been vast.

Reporting research

In September 2020, as part of our ongoing communications support for the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme, we were asked to edit and design three synthesis reports and a series of 2-page country reports (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe) on the impacts of COVID-19 on agriculture in Africa. These reports highlight the evaluation of data from surveys of rural households and key food system actors to understand the impact of COVID-19 on rural livelihoods and food systems in the months following the onset of the virus. The first of the three survey rounds was conducted in June-July 2020, followed by the second round in October 2020; the final round is planned for February 2021. The continuity of these surveys and subsequent publications is allowing APRA researchers, donors and policymakers to gain an insight into the pandemic’s effects on food systems since the restrictions imposed by governments were brought in to control COVID-19.

Initial shocks

The first synthesis report surveyed 751 households across seven African countries and reported those initial experiences. The study found that the pandemic “had differential, but largely negative effects on food systems and rural livelihoods.” Movement restrictions, reductions in farming, business and household enterprises, and worsened food and nutrition security characterised the pandemic for many. Overall, respondents in six of the seven surveyed countries “perceived a lower level of control over their own lives following the outbreak of COVID-19.”

Food systems were threatened, as buyers and traders were unable to travel due to government-mandated lockdowns and restrictions in many countries. This left farmers with unsold products and households without the food they needed to provide adequate nutrition to their families. As such, the health effects of the virus were actually often overshadowed by the threat posed by a lack of access to food. For example, the first round of this assessment showed that “responses by a sizeable number of households in Kenya (16%), Malawi (30.7%) and Nigeria (18%) indicate that they ‘went without eating for a whole day because of a lack of money or other resources’ after the COVID-19 crisis began.” This is compared to responses indicating that 0%, 4.4% and 12.6% of respondents in these countries, respectively, knew anyone in their village that had presented with coronavirus symptoms.

Lingering disruptions

For the second synthesis report, 846 households were surveyed across the original seven countries, with the addition of Zambia. The second synthesis report published in December 2020 highlighted that “the COVID-19 crisis continues to have differential, but disruptive impacts on food systems and rural livelihoods,” and that it has “resulted not so much in a food production crisis as an income-nutrition-livelihood crisis in some communities and households.” That is to say that the effects of the pandemic have continued to wreak havoc on the food systems that provide nutrition security to rural households. Many of these negative impacts have coincided with other environmental and social crises, including flooding, locust infestations and conflict in Ethiopia. These issues have amplified production and distribution challenges in food systems, threatening the already precarious food and nutrition security reported by many.

However, for several food items, respondents reported improved availability in local markets and there were fewer changes in the general availability of foods in many of the surveyed countries than had been observed in Round 1. The second synthesis report goes on to say that COVID-19’s effects have not all been negative, and that “some households have innovated to survive, shifting towards more local production, shorter value chains and diversifying the range of their off-farm livelihood activities.” This development shows that, despite the problems COVID has presented, there have been efforts to combat the challenges numerous people have faced since its onset.

Looking to local producers for a food secure future

The increased focus on local production, specifically, is a developing trend in many sectors. In a recent webinar entitled ‘Africa Fertilizer – Where next in a post-COVID era?’ a panel of experts in the African fertiliser industry highlighted that the pandemic has actually served as a form of ‘wake-up call’ for many African governments to start addressing food security. The discussion proposed that as exports became less viable due to movement and travel restrictions, many nations became more aware of their dependence on international goods and have resolved to support greater local production.

The impacts of COVID-19 overwhelmingly defined 2020, and will likely continue to impact daily lives for much of the near future, particularly as cases begin to rise again in many countries and restrictions may be re-imposed. The final round of rapid assessment surveys will show how the pandemic continues to impact on lives in 2021. Funding may be provided for additional rounds as it is clear that this kind of research, as conducted by APRA and others, will be key to providing essential insights for how COVID-19 will continue to affect lives and livelihoods in the months and years to come.

Alice Mutimer

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