Blog: Impact of COVID-19 on Food and Nutrition Security in West and Central Africa

Contributors: Caroline Makamto Sobgui; Hippolyte Affognon; Ousmane Ndoye; Fidélia Bohissou; Abdulai Jalloh; David Akana

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread in West and Central Africa, a region already known for its pervasive food and nutrition security challenges. Despite some improvements, food and nutrition insecurity with malnutrition, as a result, are major structural challenges that the West and Central Africa sub-region has been grappling with for decades. The succession of natural disasters, conflicts, and epidemics affecting the region has undermined the populations’ capacity to obtain rich, nutritious, and diversified foods to meet their nutritional needs. The impact of COVID-19 would thus add to the pre-existing situation to aggravate food and nutrition insecurity in the region and threaten the most vulnerable livelihoods by reducing the availability and accessibility of basic foodstuffs.

What is the situation?

Forecasts made before the occurrence of COVID-19 in the region estimated that during the lean season (July-August 2020), 21 million people would suffer severe food shortages. These predictions made before the first cases of COVID-19 could be greatly exceeded. According to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), the COVID-19 pandemic could double or triple the number of people in food and nutritional crises and emergencies, from the 21 million initially expected to reach nearly 59 million by August 2020 in West and Central Africa.

The occurrence of the pandemic at COVID-19 and all the mitigation measures taken to slow the rate of infections in the sub-region could seriously impact the food and nutritional security of the populations.

Indeed, the reduction in purchasing power of households and States, the increase in food prices, difficulties in the food supply, and difficulties in implementing food security and nutrition programs could greatly impact the food and nutrition security of households in the region.

Tuber market

Reduction in purchasing power

About 50 percent of West and Central Africa live below the poverty line (based on the national thresholds of the countries in the region). Invariably, the poor and vulnerable populations are mostly found in rural areas and urban slums. They are primarily dependent on agricultural income, the informal sector, and day-to-day income to survive.

As a result, these populations are and will be severely affected by travel restrictions and quarantines that affect the access of sellers and consumers to markets, leading to disruptions in the supply chain and disrupting access to seasonal agricultural labor. Restrictions on market access will affect the marketing of agricultural inputs needed for the current crop year and the sale and purchase of food.

Due to overcrowding, the spread of the disease will be higher in West and Central African cities, where 50-90 percent of the population depend on the informal economy. These low-skilled urban populations, surviving on odd jobs and whose daily earnings are often barely enough to afford the daily meal and therefore cannot save, will be significantly affected by the reduction in economic activities attributable to COVID-19. Indeed, technical unemployment mass layoffs, and reduced income, especially for sectors directly or indirectly linked to tourism and catering, will greatly reduce the purchasing power of vulnerable households and their ability to procure food. Besides, these slum dwellers generally have a compromised immune status due to various endemic infectious diseases and malnutrition, making them vulnerable to infectious diseases.

Fruit and Vegetable Market

Impact on markets and food prices

It is important to note that the lifting of travel restrictions by most countries have eased the transportation of food and necessities. However, farmers had difficulties during March to June 2020 to access the various national and cross-border markets to sell their products. Difficulties were especially noticeable for highly perishable products such as fruits and vegetables. The period from March to June was the period when certain markets were closed, and the restrictive measures adopted were stringent. In Cameroon, for example, tomato growers used to selling their produce both on the local market and in other countries of the sub-region found themselves with surpluses that could not be absorbed by local consumers, and some were left abandoned in the fields. Difficulties in crossing borders have made it virtually impossible to transport agricultural produce to neighboring countries such as Gabon, Congo, and Equatorial Guinea.

Also, road haulers have seen an increase in police and customs harassment and payment of informal taxes, thus increasing the cost of transporting foodstuffs; these increases will inevitably be passed on to the consumer in the purchase price of foods. In addition, harassments have also increased the time taken to transport foodstuffs from port areas to consumption areas leading to additional costs that have been passed on to consumers.

In addition, the various restrictive measures adopted at the national and international level will have repercussions on the supply corridors for imported foodstuffs and, consequently, the food price paid by consumers. Indeed, West and Central African countries have a food production deficit and are dependent on food imports to feed their population, especially rice, with local production covering only slightly more than 50 percent of regional needs. Therefore, import and export restrictions are major concerns, as Sub-Saharan Africa is already experiencing short-term reductions in rice exports. Local food supply chains are being disrupted in many countries around the world. Border closures and travel restrictions have impacted farmers’ ability in different exporting countries to distribute their products nationally and internationally. The likelihood that countries exporting commodities such as rice (China, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, etc.) will withhold production to supply their domestic market is a more than sure possibility due to reduced production. This could harm access to essential foods by vulnerable households.

Livestock farming of cattle

According to the OECD, the livestock sector, which accounts for about 40% of the Sahelian countries’ agricultural GDP, is not spared at all. These pastoral systems account for 50 percent of meat production and 70 percent of milk production. However, restrictions of movement and border closures seriously affect traditional transhumant livestock farming practices in the region. Generally, annual transhumance for grazing begin in March, unfortunately coinciding with the growing COVID-19 health crisis in West Africa. Consequently, some pastoralists, who should be seeking pasture and water in the border countries at that time, were blocked due to the closure of land borders. These restrictions impact not only pasture and feed but also access to markets for the sale of livestock and the return to villages of origin for those who were able to move prior to the movement restrictions and border closures. Pastoralists encountered difficulties in crossing borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions despite existing transhumance agreements between countries. This situation will undoubtedly impact on meat prices in the coming months.

Moreover, most of the region’s economies depend on the export of raw materials such as oil, cocoa, coffee, gold, etc. for trade balance. The reduction in the price of raw materials on international prices following the COVID-19 will lead to a drastic reduction in the revenues of the countries in the region and affect their ability to import food. Besides, due to restrictions on the movement of people and border closures, countries whose tourism industry is one of the primary sources of foreign exchange will see a reduction in their income. This decline in revenue comes when there is a concomitant increase in spending on health care and the implementation of social measures to counteract the adverse effects of COVID-19 on the disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

Impact on emergency nutrition programs

Emergency nutrition programs existed in at least ten countries in the region well before the occurrence of the COVID-19 crisis because of the humanitarian and nutritional situation in the West and Central African region, to help combat famine and malnutrition. These programs, which focus on preventing malnutrition and famine among women and young children, together with COVID-19, run the risk of budget cuts as a result of the reduction in the budgets of donor countries and organizations, the recession in the global economy and the diversion of scarce resources to health and disease control services.

Restrictions of movement and closure of borders also hamper the mobility of humanitarian assistance and personnel. Therefore, this food and nutrition insecurity will greatly aggravate the situation of millions of school-age children who, as a result of the cessation of classes, will no longer benefit from the free and nutritious daily meals offered by the school feeding programs in many countries in the region.


General measures to be taken to mitigate the negative impact of COVID-19

With the COVID-19 crisis, the countries of the region are experiencing increased food and nutrition security challenges. However, this crisis offers the countries and organizations an opportunity to rethink national and regional agricultural and nutritional policies to develop a more resilient food system to address the endemic problems of famine and malnutrition in the region in a sustainable manner and to better prepare for future crises. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to rebuild sustainable, healthy, and nutritious food systems that focus on the availability and accessibility of nutritious and rich foods while improving the livelihoods of farmers and lifting them out of poverty. To achieve this, several measures could be taken in the short, medium, and long term.

 In the short term 

  • Combat police and customs harassment making it difficult to operate the corridors that are supposed to facilitate the free movement of food and agricultural inputs;
  • Foster the use of quality agricultural inputs (fertilizers, seeds, and agrochemicals) through smart subsidies to farmers;
  • Encourage nutrition-sensitive farming practices to improve the diversity of food supply.
  • Promote and support the adoption of promising, nutritious, high-yielding, drought-resistant, short-cycle, and disease-resistant varieties;
  • Adopt measures to prevent increases in food prices;
  • Strengthen emergency nutrition and food security programs for the most vulnerable areas.

In the medium and long term

  • Reduce dependency on food imports through the implementation of agricultural recovery programs aimed at strengthening all the key players in the food chain from production to consumption through processing and preservation;
  • Reduce post-harvest losses by improving post-harvest practices and food preservation;
  • Adopt nutrition-sensitive approaches to agriculture by focusing on farming systems that use existing agricultural species diversity as a means of access to more diverse foods;
  • Review subsidy programs to encourage the production of diverse foods, not just cash crops and cereals;
  • Promote sustainable farming methods and more efficient use of early warning systems for monitoring food and nutrition security;
  • Encourage the diversification of income sources for agricultural producers;
  • Adopt food safety and traceability policies;
  • Promote the use of digital technologies in agricultural advisory services;
  • Facilitate access to agricultural credit and insurance for farmers.

To sustainably eradicate food and nutrition insecurity in West and Central Africa, governments, research structures, the private sector,  intergovernmental agencies, farmers’ organizations and consumer associations must work together. An integrated and multisectoral approach will make it possible to assist those affected by COVID-19 today and those vulnerable to malnutrition and famine and prevent future crises.

The pandemic caused by COVID-19 offers an excellent opportunity for all the actors mentioned above to rethink how to collectively transform the food and nutrition security situation in West and Central Africa. It is against this background that CORAF’s stakeholders have developed a regional nutrition strategy. This plan aims to ensure that current and future agricultural programs contribute to achieving the second sustainable development goal — “Eradicate hunger, ensure food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” Specifically, the aim will be to help CORAF member countries develop a framework for intervention on nutrition and food security issues within a sustainable food system approach. This intervention framework aims at “improving food and nutrition security in West and Central Africa while empowering women and promoting the resilience of the most vulnerable through sustainable food systems that are drivers of economic development.”

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