COVID-19: Strengthening West Africa’s fragile food ecosystems!
It has only been a few weeks since governments across West Africa ordered partial or complete lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and already the region’s fragile food ecosystems are suffering. There are disruptions of supply chains, challenges transporting produce from farms to markets, restrictions in movements between states and countries, rising unemployment, and reductions in remittances from the diaspora. Food prices have risen by 10 to 50 percent in Nigeria and other countries have faced similar trends.
Despite the efforts of government agencies, private sector, faith-based, community and non-profit organisations to feed the most vulnerable, many families remain hungry. In fact, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) estimates that the number of people at risk of food insecurity and malnutrition will rise from 17 million to 50 million between June and August 2020.
Many global experts have underscored that this pandemic is a 12-18-month battle and that the world should expect future pandemics and shocks linked to climate change and other crises. As a result, there is an urgent need to transform and strengthen our food ecosystems so that we are better prepared to keep people nourished going forward.
We can start by taking these four critical steps.
First, we urgently need reliable and credible data. Just like the medical community is instituting systems and structures for effectively allocating ICU beds and ventilators, we must leverage technology to accurately track the supply and demand for food in our cities and our countries. In addition, we need to collate data on the activities of input providers, urban and rural farmers, importers, aggregators, processors, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, cooks, caterers, restaurants, and food banks. We also urgently need to register and monitor our vulnerable populations, especially those under 5 and over 60 years-old, leveraging the vast branch networks of our financial institutions, post offices, community health care centres and faith-based organisations. Understanding where there is an abundance or shortage of food, and who needs it most will enable actors to design and implement rapid and effective interventions to meet the urgent needs. It will also compel our policy makers to continue to recognise stakeholders across the sector as essential workers and enable the free flow of inputs, produce and processed food.
Second, all actors in the food ecosystem need to collaborate by sharing information across value chains and between sectors. This is especially critical during times of crises, given the irrational behaviour of actors around hoarding and price gouging that is often fostered by fear or misinformation. Similarly, data on the excess capacity in restaurants and catering facilities will enable a more coordinated and cost-effective response towards the distribution of food to the most vulnerable populations. In addition, we need centralised databases that match the numerous interventions attempting to feed the masses, with the biggest pockets of need. This would significantly address the mass movement of the unemployed to higher income communities where they believe they can find food and minimise the rising rates of unrest and crime. BeatingCorona.ng is one exciting attempt to address the information asymmetry. It outlines the different public, private, and non-profit COVID-19 initiatives being deployed across Nigeria and where needs still exist. Clearly, we must strengthen our industry and sector associations and encourage them to leverage technology and create incentives for collaboration and widespread information sharing.
Third, we need to re-organize the places where people go to buy and eat food. Currently, the food distribution mechanisms in cities and towns do not allow for social distancing and even foster the quick spread of diseases. Addressing this major challenge will require the establishment of clear guidelines and protocols by governments, working in close collaboration with the leadership of market, retail, and food service associations. These protocols must stipulate the mandatory use of face masks, the provision of automatic handwash facilities at the entrance points, clear schedules to control crowds and mechanisms for managing waste. In addition, we must invest in extensive consumer education to ensure behavioural change and to foster compliance.
Finally, we must support small and medium-sized enterprises in the agriculture and food landscapes to redesign their business models to ensure resilience to shocks. This will require that they leverage technology, innovations, and data to enhance their productivity and agility. Nourishingafrica.com has stepped up to help SMEs across Africa during this tough time, by providing access to financing, data, training, and support to ensure that they reposition themselves to create value and fill critical gaps in the food ecosystem. In addition, these SMEs need an enabling policy environment, and strategic and tailored financial support to enable them to survive and thrive beyond COVID-19.
This pandemic is an urgent wake-up call for the West African food and agriculture landscape – to invest in data, collaborate, re-organise, and rebuild! While I recognise that fixing our food ecosystems will be difficult, given the complexity, and largely informal nature of operations within the sector, I am convinced that none of us will survive the fall out of COVID-19 if we continue to ignore this urgent need.
Nwuneli is a social entrepreneur based in Lagos Nigeria. She is the managing partner of Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition Ltd, Co-Founder of AACE Foods and Founder of LEAP Africa. She is currently a fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School where she is writing a book on “African Entrepreneurs Nourishing the World.”