African unity could help free continent from hunger

In true African spirit, the continent has flocked together to manage the health crisis, but it remains to be seen if this will translate to preventing a food crisis, the writer says.
In true African spirit, the continent has flocked together to manage the health crisis, but it remains to be seen if this will translate to preventing a food crisis, the writer says.
Image: Michał Barański\123rf

Covid-19 is expected to almost double the number of starving people in the world.

The United Nations World Food Programme projects the 135-million people who face crisis levels of hunger will rise to 265-million. This is on top of the 821-million people who now suffer from hunger, 20% of whom live in Africa.

Africa needs to be conscious of the impact the pandemic could have on food security; the health crisis could quickly escalate into a food crisis. Food insecurity and malnutrition are not new to the continent. Millions of lives are lost each year because of hunger. Many of these are children.

Over the past 15 years, several African countries have reduced malnutrition significantly. Some by as much as 50%, says the International Food Policy Research Institute. However, Covid-19 threatens to reverse some of this.

Lockdowns have had a significant impact on food security. Many Africans depend on piece jobs and day-to-day earnings to survive. The lockdown has effectively halted these activities, and the resistance to them in some countries, like Malawi, has been driven by precisely this fear: how will we eat?

Food supply chains have been disrupted. Food production has been stalled. Limited movement of smallholder farmers, who rely on markets to sell their products, has also left many without income.

The Covid-19 pandemic has left many Africans reliant on government food parcels and grants. In SA, the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) system has eased access to the most needy.

Children are the most impacted by this crisis. Because of school closures, many children have lost the one opportunity they had to eat. Child malnutrition could result in learning challenges that impact their future potential. The implications are irreversible.

At a continental level, the African Union has shown commitment to food security by signing the Declaration on Food Security and Nutrition During the Covid-19 Pandemic.

It has also established a Covid-19 response fund, part of which is dedicated to mitigating the socioeconomic and humanitarian impact. Presumably, some of these funds will support efforts to alleviate food insecurity.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement could also cushion food security. Africa typically relies on food imports from other continents. Bans on the export of food in these countries increase the threat of a continental food crisis. The free trade agreement presents an opportunity for African countries to share food across borders.

To alleviate the crisis:

Protect children's access to nutritious food. This is not only a human right but is also enshrined in many African constitutions. The University of Pretoria's Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being has recommended how to secure this access, including by distributing electronic vouchers which target foods needed for children's growth;

Be transparent in how Covid-19 response funds are managed and disbursed; and

Think beyond the crisis. This is the responsibility of governments. How will people eat once the health crisis ends? The economic impact will have implications for people's ability to access food.

In true African spirit, the continent has flocked together to manage the health crisis, but it remains to be seen if this will translate to preventing a food crisis.

We can only hope that this unity results in a prosperous continent free from hunger and malnutrition.

*Dr Mkandawire is a post-doctoral fellow who coordinates the UN Academic Impact Hub (UNAI) on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 at the University of Pretoria

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