The food situation in sub-Saharan countries has worsened. Several researchers explain how measures against Covid-19 have contributed to this weakening.
For more than a year now, we have been fed with anxiety-provoking information on the Covid and its various health, economic, social or psychological consequences. Relatively good news, however, has gone fairly unnoticed: so far, the pandemic has affected Africa little, with the exception of the north and far south of the continent, it has not been as deadly as elsewhere in Africa. the world. As of June 3, 2021, the balance sheet for the continent stood at 132 deaths and 000 million cases diagnosed.
However, many humanitarian aid or development organizations are warning of the worsening food and nutritional situation in African countries south of the Sahara, a worsening due in large part to the epidemic. the last report of the global network against food crises highlights the growing number of people in crisis, emergency or famine, especially on the African continent which, in 2020, had almost 100 million people in this case, against 60 million in 2016.
What exactly is it? To what extent is this degradation due to the various effects of the Covid-19 pandemic? It is not easy to answer with precision because there are a multitude of explanatory causes that act at different levels (poverty, weakness of public policies in favor of food systems, multiple conflicts, etc.). Our observations and those of our partners and colleagues in different African fields (see the special issue of Agriculture Notebooks on the issue, lead us to think that the Covid has a secondary role but nevertheless aggravates fragile situations, that it slows down growth and demand and affects relatively little agricultural production, which is maintained thanks to producers accustomed to managing multiple risks.
In March 2020, the governments of African countries are rapidly taking measures to limit the spread of the virus - closing borders, restricting movement, curfews, limiting gatherings, health monitoring at borders, etc. - and mobilizing, with their international partners, funds to establish prevention and care strategies.
After a few months of fear and uncertainty, even of withdrawal at home, "in the village" when possible, life gradually resumed its course as before or almost in the major cities of the continent, whether in Abidjan, Dakar, Yaoundé, Sikasso or Bobo Dioulasso. The epidemic has not flared so far in sub-Saharan Africa. The behavior of populations has changed a little - less social contacts, large family reunions, limitation of professional travel in administrations and companies at the national and international levels - but not too much. The inhabitants move around, often without a mask, and go about their usual business.
At the start of 2020, anti-Covid measures destabilize the perishable products sectors
Let's resume: from March 2020, fairly firm restriction measures have been put in place. Traders of perishable goods are hit hard: they can no longer sell their products to cities (where restaurants and, in some cases, markets have been closed) and, often, they can no longer cross land borders under -regional, which have been closed to prevent the virus from spreading.
However, cross-border trade is of great importance throughout West and Central Africa. In addition, the authorities demand that the buses or trucks which transport goods and people be less loaded (with people). This measure leads to an increase in the number of road checks, which increases the cost of transport per unit of goods, which in turn slows down and further limits the possibility of disposing of these valuable products to urban markets.
Cameroonian tomato producers can no longer sell in the country's major cities or export to Gabon. Guinea potato farmers are also stuck with stocks they cannot keep and are losing. The emerging dairy sectors are also affected across the continent and Madagascar, and the producers of these ultra fresh products totally affected.
In fact, small and micro-enterprises in the informal sector, which provide a great deal of employment linked to the processing and trading of perishable products, have had to reduce their activities, not renew many jobs, and have often become indebted.
Resistance of farms and input markets
However, the vast majority of farms in Africa are family farms used to managing multiple risks (climatic risks, human, plant or animal health risks, market risks) without recourse to any form of formal insurance. For this reason, they are very diversified, and for the most part, accustomed to growing basic food products (cereals, roots and tubers, bananas and plantains) in association with various vegetables or legumes (peas, beans) to cover at least the minimum. family food needs.
In addition, the start of the pandemic corresponds to the start of the rainy season and the start of the agricultural season. The peasants started the crops as usual. In some families, the return of students or older children who were in town at the time of confinement has sometimes even been a godsend because they took part in the work in the fields which are still lacking in labor.
Finally, African producers use for these staple food crops little improved seeds from the markets, little synthetic fertilizer and few phytosanitary products. Result: agricultural production for food for the year 2020 was not fundamentally disrupted by the Covid (few people were sick) or by the restrictions linked to the pandemic (thanks to the relative autonomy and the resilience of producers.
Regarding major export crops (cocoa, cotton, coffee, bananas), which are cultivated with more chemical inputs (phytosanitary products, chemical fertilizers), there was also no shock in 2020. particular related to Covid.
The channels for importing and distributing inputs (fertilizers, synthetic pesticides) were only disrupted over short periods and were preserved throughout the crisis (boats and ports continued to operate), same as the export channels.
Amplification of food insecurity
Nevertheless, the problems of food and nutritional insecurity persist and are even growing dramatically in several regions of Africa ... but the causes are rarely linked to a lack of production capacity or to Covid.
The latest report from the Global Network Against Food Crises, cited above, shows that conflicts and displacement of populations are the main cause of food crises in West and Central Africa, where the population in food crisis has doubled from from 12,7 million in 2019 to 24,5 million in 2020, and the situation is expected to worsen in 2021.
These conflicts and the displacement of populations weaken all the territories, sometimes over long distances because the refugees go to towns to find family help and work.
Finally, a large part of the resources of States are allocated to peacekeeping, that is to say to the army and special forces, and not to development. The 2020 pandemic and the need to mobilize state resources for health protection also reduced the resources available for agricultural development or social protection.
Most countries have experienced an economic recession. Sub-Saharan Africa recorded a 2020% drop in GDP in 1,9 according to the International Monetary Fund, while forecasts were rather upward in GDP. If we compare these figures to those of the population, the drop in GDP per capita is even more significant (-4,5%), and according to the IMF again, the fiscal recovery capacity of these States with limited resources will hamper the return to growth for many more years, and more than in other countries.
The sum of these crises (global economic slowdown, restriction of internal and cross-border travel, various precautionary measures against the spread of the Covid) has led to a slowdown in national growth which is reflected in a decrease in the supply of jobs and lower income. This phenomenon primarily affects urban populations but also, indirectly, rural populations who no longer find outlets.
The channels for the sale of quality food products (fresh, market gardeners or dairy products) from the countryside to the cities, which in normal times make it possible to generate attractive monetary income for producers and intermediaries, are very slow. The incomes of rural people and their consumption of processed products purchased on the markets are declining. This results in a deterioration of the food balance for already fragile populations. Indeed, it is the rural populations who suffer the most from undernourishment and the markets provide access to a variety of products from other regions or countries, most often from Africa. When these markets slow down, the food and nutritional situation becomes fragile.
Upgrading agriculture and all stakeholders in the food chain
The observation of farmers and food chain actors in Africa highlights their great capacity for resilience in the face of multiple shocks, but this resilience comes at the cost of a growing weakening of agricultural households and households that depend on multiple activities. trade and processing. This capacity for “resilience” or great resistance, if it makes it possible to avoid the worst, is not necessarily beneficial for countries and peoples. Indeed, it is often synonymous, in practice, with an almost total abandonment on the part of politicians.
Farmers and the millions of actors in the food chain are often overlooked by politicians. They are insufficiently involved in the definition of policies that directly concern them. This is reflected in the budgets devoted to food systems too often sacrificed.
Sandrine Dury, Doctor in economics of agricultural and agro-food development, specialist in food and food systems, CIRAD; Ludovic Temple, Searcher, CIRAD; Precillia Tata Ngome, Senior Socioeconomic Researcher, Agricultural Research Institute for Development (IRAD) et Syndhia Mathe, Researcher at the Center for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD) and at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), CIRAD