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Ensuring that hunger does not kill more people than COVID-19 in Africa

By: By Ndidi Nwuneli
 Ndidi Nwuneli
Ndidi Nwuneli

With the global spread of the COVID-19, and gradual lockdown in cities and countries across Africa, I have new fears – that starvation and hunger are mounting threats for people across the continent.

These fears are hinged on the realisation that it is a planting season in most parts of the continent, and yet farmers are being asked to sit at home, the movement of seasonal workers is restricted, research institutes that provide seeds, fertiliser blending companies and agrodealers, processors and markets are all being shut down.

Our regional and national borders are closed, and trading is being restricted. These realities, if prolonged and not urgently addressed, will lead to short-term consequences of food shortages, price hikes and medium to long-term consequences of under-nutrition, mass starvation and eventually death, especially among our most vulnerable populations.

We have to act with urgency to stem the virus through social distancing and lockdowns. At the same time, we must recognise that farmers and workers in the food industry are essential to the fight against the pandemic and desperately need to be protected and supported.

Indeed, without nutritious food, the sick cannot recover and the healthy will eventually become unwell.

Global organisations’ fears
My fears are shared by a few stakeholders on the continent and around the world. The EU Farmer’s organisation – COPA-COGECA last week actively advocated support to ensure minimal disruptions to the food supply chain, worker protection and contingency plans.

The United Kingdom and the United States have already outlined comprehensive plans to provide intervention grants, loans and tax holidays for stakeholders in the food industry, including restaurant owners and retailers affected by the economic fallout of the pandemic. In Mexico, farmers who continue to plough their fields are being celebrated as heroes.

Sadly, there has been no coordinated action from industry groups, the private sector, civil society, or the public sector to raise awareness of the looming food crises on the African continent, linked to COVID-19.

Thankfully, it is not too late to act! We must take decisive and proactive steps to ensure that our people have access to affordable nutritious food in both our urban and rural communities.

"We must recognise that farmers and workers in the food industry are essential to the fight against the pandemic and desperately need to be protected and supported. "

This will require that:
1. Our governments at the federal, state, and local levels recognise key stakeholders in the food and agricultural landscape as essential workers and provide them with the protection and support they need to continue to work, following pre-stipulated safety and health protocols.

We must keep food markets and factories open with clear guidelines around limiting crowds, and widely publicized schedules for who can enter during what periods of time.

We can also learn from China’s example over the last few months, where government officials, especially the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and National Health Commission, repeatedly issued comprehensive notes to farmers on the control and prevention of the virus in rural areas, as well as recommendations and protocols for preparing for their planting season and sustaining the livestock and poultry sectors.

Beyond guidance and protocols, our governments must urgently partner with the financial services sector to develop comprehensive loan packages for farmers and entrepreneurs who are committed to working during the crisis and can demonstrate their capacity to fill critical gaps in the food ecosystem.

These interventions must actively engage women who play a critical role in the sector. In addition, our governments must assess the national strategic and emergency grain reserves to gauge what is available and how to effectively manage and deploy these reserves in a transparent and accountable manner to minimise price hikes and widespread shortages.

2. Our industry associations, fast-moving consumer goods companies, international trading companies, aggregators, wholesalers, and retailers must work together seamlessly to ensure the efficient and effective provision of affordable food to the masses of people.

Leveraging technology, raw material suppliers and processors can actively partner with logistics providers and retailers to ensure that food is moved to where it is needed most, and no community is left behind.

This is not a period for hoarding and price gouging, with a focus on profits and growth at all costs. Companies must rise to the higher ideal of shared corporate values, where they put the needs of their customers and the African people ahead of their own requirements for profits and shareholder value.

To ensure that this occurs, consumer protection and anti-competition agencies must closely monitor the activities of the largest actors in the food industry to ensure a level playing field.

In addition, the private sector can facilitate the introduction of drones, sensors and other precision agriculture and innovative technology solutions which will allow for active monitoring of commercial farm activity from a distance.

Companies such as Atlas AI have demonstrated the power of technology to manage farms and assess impact without direct human contact.

Our non-profit organisations and media organisations must provide thought-leadership, monitoring and guidance to the entire ecosystem. Organisations such as GAIN are already providing critical guidance during this period.

3. Finally, average citizens must invest in their own backyard and community gardens, while ensuring social distancing, manage their food budgets judiciously and share with their neighbours. Faith-based organisations must open soup kitchens, offering free meals and partner with logistics providers to coordinate drop-offs.

We must rebuild trust in our communities by caring for the most vulnerable at this exceedingly challenging time in our history as humanity!

As an eternal optimist, I am hopeful that as a people, we will survive the COVID-19 pandemic, emerging with some critical lessons and a more resilient, united and efficient food ecosystem. Now is the time for governments, stakeholders in the food ecosystem and citizens to act! Every minute counts!

Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli is the Managing Partner of Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition and the Co-Founder of AACE Foods which is located in Nigeria.
Ndidi is a member of the Transformation Leadership Panel (TLP), an initiative of the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET). This article was first published by Sahel Consulting Agriculture and Nutrition.