African governments mobilize to keep people fed during COVID-19 lockdowns

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

April 9, 2020

As consumers in the Global North complain about grocery stores stripped of staples, African nations are mobilizing to get basic food supplies to their most vulnerable citizens during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Nigeria is distributing stocks from its National Grain Reserve, Uganda is handing out maize flour (posho) and beans and Kenya plans to import maize to stave off famine, among other measures rolled out in Africa to feed people who are unable to earn daily wages while confined to their homes to curtail spread of the virus.

More than 10,000 cases of the disease have been recorded in 52 African countries with about 500 deaths. Lockdowns have been imposed in a majority of the affected countries, forcing the closure of transportation systems, businesses, food markets and food distribution companies, among others. The result has been skyrocketing food prices in some countries as a result of panic buying. Some citizens are also struggling to buy food because they have lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown. Now the governments are responding.

The situation has been especially challenging in Kenya, which was already dealing with serious crop losses due to heavy rains, flooding and a locust invasion when the novel coronavirus hit. At least 17 counties, most of them in arid and semi-arid regions, will experience food shortages through at least May, according to the Famine Early Warning System Network quarterly food security outlook released this past March. The locust invasion continues to pose a threat to food security because the insects likely will damage the young maize crop in the field.

In response, the Kenyan government plans to import two million bags of white maize for human consumption and an additional two million bags of yellow maize to be processed as animal feed, according to Peter Munya, cabinet secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperative.

The government has also begun buying up surplus food from across the country to distribute to areas where people are struggling, with “targeted, acute food-insecure households” the ultimate beneficiaries of these foods.

Zimbabwe is also finding that COVID-19 is exacerbating current food shortages. The United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP) has appealed for support to raise some $21 million to help deal with food insecurity challenges exacerbated by the lockdown.

“In order to provide food assistance to almost four million vulnerable Zimbabweans, in the context of these new health and safety measures, WPF requires an additional $21 million for the next six months,” WFP spokeswoman Claire Nevill told VOANews in an interview. “This funding shortfall is on top of an existing gap of US$130 million faced by WFP Zimbabwe for the next six months.”

Uganda has launched a US$15 million relief effort to feed about 1.4 million poor, starting with some 600,000 residents of Kampala and the neighboring Wakiso district, according to a statement by Prime Minister Dr. Ruhukana Rugunda. Each person will receive 6kg of maize (posho flour) and another 3kg of beans, while nursing mothers and the sick will also get two tins of powdered milk and 2 kg of sugar. The country’s COVID-19 task force will work with local authorities to identify those who should receive relief food.

However, food has become a political issue in the country, with President Yoweri Museveni threatening to charge opposition party members with attempted murder if they launch food distribution efforts that cause people to gather in groups.

In Ghana, President Akufo–Addo announced the government has embarked on a US$40 million effort to distribute dry food packages and hot meals to more than 400,000 vulnerable individuals in areas that have been affected by lockdown. Another US$40 million has been allocated to the Ghana National Buffer Stock Co., an agency under the Ministry of Agriculture that buys food and releases it into the system when there are shortages and price hikes. Almost a third of Ghana’s population is under a 14-day lockdown.

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame authorized food relief from the country’s National Strategic Grain Reserve for those who live hand-to-mouth and cannot buy food because they are not working due to the lockdown. The door-to-door food delivery scheme is targeting some 20,000 households. Rwanda was the first African country to impose a lockdown to help contain Covid-19.

Nigeria is providing both financial and food support to some of its poorest citizens. President Muhammadu Buhari authorized a conditional cash transfer of two months wages to be paid to the most vulnerable in the society.

Additionally, he approved the release of 70,000 metric tonnes of grains from the National Grain Reserve, with some 60,000 tonnes to be distributed to vulnerable persons in the Federal Capital Territory, Lagos and Ogun states, which are presently on lockdown, and the remaining 10,000 metric tonnes shared with those in need in other frontline states across the country.

The president also decreed that 150 trucks of rice seized by the Nigeria Customs Service should be distributed to the 36 states of the federation.

Regional relief efforts are also under way, with most Nigerian states — especially those with Covid-19 cases — introducing various forms of relief to cushion the effects of the lockdown. Individual and corporate efforts are also aiding the effort.

Lagos State Gov. Babajide Sanwo-Olu announced an Emergency Food Response as a means of supporting indigenous and other vulnerable persons. Ekiti State Gov. Kayode Fayemi issued an executive order that included reactivating the state’s food bank and Cross-River State Gov. Ben Ayade said food items, such as rice, garri, plantain and yams, will be distributed to about 44,000 homes across the state to cushion the economic difficulties that people face due to the total lockdown of the territory.

In South Africa, Thoko Didiza, minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, announced a US$67 million stimulus package to support small scale farmers growing vegetable, fruits, poultry and other significant crops, with priority given to women and persons with disabilities.

The government has also set up an end-to-end value chain tracker to monitor food availability across the country so supply can be re-directed to places with extreme cases of food insecurity and steps can be taken if the availability of staple commodities is threatened.

Will these measures work?

The stop gap measures implemented by Africans governments were put together hurriedly, without careful planning or long-term strategizing, and they are not sustainable in the medium term. If the disease continues to spread and its attendant lockdown lingers on, other problems, such as restricted access to farm inputs, quality seeds, chemicals and machinery, will arise, impacting longterm food security.

This is already playing out in Kenya, where farmers have faced delays in planting due both to lockdowns and a shortage of farm inputs. The Kenyan government is addressing the issue through its extension services with such efforts  as issuing e-vouchers to ensure that farmers can access subsidized fertilizers across the country.

Urban areas throughout Africa also will struggle to cope if the transportation infrastructure remains locked down for a long time.  As is true in most of the world, much of the food that supplies urban Africa comes from rural areas, where transportation infrastructure is inadequate.

The lack of a coordinated approach to the food security challenge by the African Union and other sub-regional bodies is especially worrisome. Statements issued by continental organizations make no reference to the possible impact of COVID-19 on overall Africa’s food security.

To address the worsening situation, nations will need to adopt long-term strategies for tackling disaster-related food security challenges and coordinate their efforts across the continent.

Alliance for Science correspondents Nkechi Isaac, Verenardo Meeme and Christopher Bendana contributed to this report.

Image: UNOCHA/Giles Clarke