Africa’s Food Supply Challenges During COVID-19

Like, I suspect, many agriculturalists working in Africa, when the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic first became apparent I couldn’t suppress a gut reaction along the lines of: “Oh no, people here are going to go hungry”.  My mind sped through a series images of knock-on effects of a virus spreading to all corners of the continent, concluding that the biggest impact of the disease would probably not be due to the fatality rate, but on millions of people rendered unable to feed themselves because of lost income and multiple, unseen disruptions to Africa’s food systems.  Since then, it appears the World Food Program has come to the same conclusion, projecting “multiple famines of biblical proportions” as a result of COVID-19.

Clearly, we all need to be pro-active, from monitoring food price increases, to mobilizing food aid, to ensuring the continent’s farmers have every possible advantage they can be given to ensure the production of crops and livestock.  Initiatives by the World Food Program and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in these areas must be given top priority.

But what if this crisis could propel the international community to respond in a way that goes beyond dealing with the immediate needs of hungry people, to treat Africa’s lingering food shortages at their root cause?  What if, this time, we all really got serious about ending hunger across Africa? It is possible.  Recent, sustained turn-arounds in farmer productivity in a number of countries have proved it.  As always, giving farmers dependable access to improved, climate-resilient seed has been central to the progress.

Responding to chronic food shortages begins with identifying the most vulnerable people among us, and here the work that the small team I lead at Seed Systems Group carried out last year may prove useful. 

320 million of the continent’s people least able to avoid food shortages caused by the pandemic and other crises live in 15 African countries we surveyed as part of a drive to jump-start agricultural productivity among farmers that have been left behind in Africa’s recent advances in seed systems development.  Placing countries like Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, which have received ample assistance – and done well – into one column, we purposely set out for the other, least-assisted countries, to see what can be done to extend Africa’s emerging Seed Revolution to their farmers, as well.

During our visits, which took us deep into the agricultural zones of countries like Chad, Madagascar, Benin, DR Congo, Sierra Leone, and Eritrea, we moved through vast landscapes of farm families doing their best to eke out an existence on small patches of land using centuries-old technologies – and getting far less from their efforts than they could have if they had access to improved seed.  Today, as we work from our homes in Nairobi, Kenya, their mental images are my constant companion, and I wonder:  What does it feel like to be facing food crisis, and have no practical means of avoiding it?

Our tendency to be selective when giving assistance for seed systems development in Africa has resulted in an odd patchwork of national seed supply scenarios where farmers in one country are able to harvest 3 or 4 tons of grain per ha, while those sharing the same agro-ecology and cropping systems in a neighboring country are still struggling to produce the proverbial 1 ton per ha.  Our desire to appear astute in proposing (more) assistance to countries viewed as “worthy” of it has created a moral quandary that is unworthy of our original intentions. 

Now that improved seed has proven so effective at bending the yield curve upward in Africa, can we rationally ignore the needs of the estimated 38 million farmers living in the left-behind countries?

Even in normal times, the food situation in the left-behind countries of Africa is precarious.  The average rate of child malnutrition is 38%.  The percentage of people living in absolute poverty is over 50%.  Population growth, meanwhile, averages 2.8%, meaning their populations are doubling every 25 years. 

The low productivity rates of these farmers is not due to any inherent inability to produce more, but rather because of a collective failure on our part to give them access to the most basic technologies of a productive food system:  higher-yielding seed, fertilizers, and a basic knowledge of modern production practices.  Without access to improved, climate-resilient seed these farmers are locked into subsistence-level farming practices which leave them vulnerable to climatic, social, and health shocks and offer no surpluses to feed those who don’t farm.  Meanwhile, urban consumers in these countries have become more and more dependent on imported foods supplied by global food chains whose functioning is likewise under threat by the pandemic.

It is time to end the situation of the haves and have-nots when it comes to improved seed in Africa.  The government officials we met with on our missions have realized that there is no future for their farmers without high-yielding seed and fertilizers, and are eager to get started – not distributing them for free (i.e., not “seed aid”), and not depending on regular disbursements of assistance from developed countries – both of which they have tried before, and watched fail – but by tackling the harder job of establishing dependable supply chains for these technologies managed by local enterprises. 

The good news is that they now have plans for how to go about it.  Working with Cornell University, Seed Systems Group has created a plan for seed systems development in these countries that can be implemented for approximately $100 million over the coming five years.  The more daunting questions are whether now, under the cloud of uncertainty that is COVID-19, they will get the chance to implement these plans, and how to carry them out safely?

It can be done, even under the cloud of COVID-19.  The new rules of living under a pandemic are teaching us new ways of accomplishing tasks – perhaps not perfectly, but certainly good enough in a crisis: 

  • local technical staff and farmers can be guided through the basics via messages to their mobile phones, email, and video link;
  • lectures on how to produce seed and even manage seed enterprises can be delivered electronically;
  • funds can be transferred to institutions electronically and to individuals through digital technologies;
  • parent seed can be shipped via courier service;
  • self-employed, village-based agricultural advisors can also serve as messengers on how to avoid COVID.

This global disease is illustrating for all of us what are the true “essential services” in life, and improved seed is clearly one of them.  Our hope is that perhaps this time around millions of farmers who have never had the chance to increase their harvests through higher-yielding, climate-resilient seed could finally be given that opportunity.

We have moved to a new location

Shelter Court, 140 Manyani W road , Nairobi