Sub-Saharan Africa’s food security has turned out better than feared. But risks remain – Africa Environment Weekly, 04 May 2021

Widespread job losses led to rise in food insecurity, most pronounced in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi.

By Wandile Sihlobo
Published: Tuesday 04 May 2021

When the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit, concern immediately arose that sub-Saharan Africa faced a potential worsening in food insecurity. The concerns were due to the anticipated slowdown in economic activity, job losses accompanied by loss of income, and a ban on grain exports by major exporting countries, including India, Russia, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Sub-Saharan Africa is a net importer of food.

The bans, along with other pandemic-related disruptions to food supply chains, were expected to add to food security challenges in the region. The World Bank was among the first multilateral institutions to sound the alarm. The bank estimated that an additional 26 million people would fall into extreme poverty, defined as those living under $1.90 per day, in 2020.

The slowdown in economic activity played out as expected, with sub-Saharan Africa’s economy contracting by 1.9 per cent in 2020, according to International Monetary Fund estimates. The economic slowdown resulted in job losses.

The widespread job losses in the region subsequently led to a rise in food insecurity. This was most pronounced in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi, the countries for which data is available.

More than a year since the onset of the pandemic, a great many uncertainties about the economic future of the region linger on. However, sub-Saharan Africa’s food security situation appears to have, thus far, turned out better than some of the more pessimistic expectations.

The increase in staple grain imports in various African countries, by both governments and private sector players, combined with slightly better domestic grain production conditions in some, such as Zambia, South Africa and Tanzania, to name a few, has slightly shielded the region.

Specific interventions

One positive development was that the G20 discouraged major grain-exporting countries from banning exports. Domestic evaluations of supplies by food-exporting countries also provided comfort for sufficient food supplies in the world market. As a result, India, Russia, Cambodia and Vietnam lifted the ban on exports, enabling a smooth flow of grain to the sub-Saharan Africa region.

Various governments also took action. This was primarily through increasing grain imports. The major importers have been Zimbabwe, Zambia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi. Some of these countries also rolled out farmer input support schemes to assist farmers ahead of the 2020/21 production season, which began in October 2020 for most countries. Only South Africa responded with direct income support to vulnerable households, but still household food insecurity rose.

Governments also supported farmers with inputs. This could pay off during the 2021 harvest. There remain concerns though that some of support might have been late in getting to some farmers because of corruption, poor farmer targeting and bureaucratic inefficiencies. This has been the experience with previous farm input subsidies programmes.

That said, another important positive development was that most of the African continent, specifically southern and eastern regions, received higher rainfall during the 2020-21 summer. This allowed for increased plantings and improved crop production conditions. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates already point to prospects of increased maize production in several southern and east Africa countries.

For example:

  • Zambia’s 2020/21 maize production could reach 3.4 million tonnes (up 69 per cent on 2019/20);
  • Malawi’s maize harvest is estimated at 3.8 million tonnes (up 25 per cent y/y),

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