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Covid-19 pandemic threatens to reverse gains made on SDGs

April 2021: Researchers studying the effect of Covid-19 restrictions on food production among smallholder bean farmers in 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have revealed multiple food security threats.

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Direct effects of Covid-19 restrictions include farms and food businesses closing down; while indirect effects are linked to lockdown, border closures and social distancing, as well as restricted transportation and trade. African smallholder bean farmers have been significantly affected. Image: Davide Bonaldo/123rf

The study found that the restrictions significantly affect bean production. Border controls and high transport costs have led to drops in production of this key food security crop, threatening to reverse gains made in achieving Sustainable Development Goals One and Two, towards no poverty and zero hunger, respectively.

Even before the pandemic, 55 per cent of the world's hungry people and 70 per cent of the world's poorest inhabitants lived in Africa, according to the researchers. In addition, food systems across Africa were already affected by the adverse consequences of climate change, disease and pests, such as the worst desert locust outbreak in 70 years, negatively affecting food security in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and other countries in eastern Africa.

The study highlights other outcomes as being direct and indirect results of Covid-19 restrictions. Direct effects include farms and food businesses closing down; while indirect effects are linked to lockdown, border closures and social distancing, as well as restricted transportation and trade.

"The food system is already highly inefficient. What we've seen is that measures taken to control the virus led to wider food security restrictions and disruptions, exacerbating those already-existing insecurities," says author Eileen Nchanji, a gender researcher at The Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (The Alliance). "Pay cuts, job losses, and high food prices due to reduced food imports and closure of informal markets all disrupted food supplies, with poorer communities especially affected," she continues.

From border closures to national lockdowns, delayed cargo further exacerbated food shortages, say the researchers. For instance, 15 per cent of imported food in Kenya before the pandemic was sourced from countries that imposed export restrictions, affecting the availability and flow of crops and food. Restrictions also led to limited access to seed, farm inputs, hired labour, and agricultural finance for smallholder farmers, especially those in Uganda where planting was beginning.

The data, collected between March and April 2020, shows that most households in Eastern Africa ate only twice a day during the pandemic. Uganda was most affected, with all surveyed farmers eating only once a day. The research also found a 34 per cent decrease in access to labour attributed to the fear of getting the disease, the high cost of public transportation and social distancing measures. Farmers also noted difficulties in accessing finance, farm inputs, seed and extension information.

The research highlights that 36 per cent, 20 per cent, and 3 per cent of farmers in Burundi, Uganda, and Kenya respectively lost income during the pandemic, with knock-on effects on food security. The low number in Kenya is owing to the fact that crops were already planted, and farmers were relying on maize and other crops stored from the previous harvest for food and to generate income, while in Uganda and Burundi, planting was ongoing, so more money was spent on inputs, seed and food as prices and costs of transport increased.

In West Africa, challenges included insecurity, political instability, social conflicts and climate change, according to the report. It cites Food and Agriculture projections that 17 million people in the region will face severe food insecurity following measures to contain the virus.

Although governments across the continent have responded by offering economic stimulus packages, much needs to be done to enable the sub-sector to recover from ruins caused by the pandemic, the authors noted.

Cosmas Lutomia, at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation, said: "The pandemic has necessitated a much needed discussion around the complexity of our food systems. We can only achieve sustainable and resilient food systems through strengthening public-private partnerships. We implore governments across the region to strengthen the food systems' resilience to present and future shocks."

The authors call for an immediate transformation of food systems in all the sub-regions, adding that governments should invest directly in input supply systems and short food supply chains through digital access, mobile-based payments, credit and food delivery.

The study, Regional impact of Covid-19 on the production and food security of common bean smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implication for SDGs, is published in the Global Food Security edition of peer-reviewed platform Science Direct.

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