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Double Pandemic: Covid-19 and Rising Food Insecurity in Madagascar

The big island of Madagascar is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Also the country is highly exposed to climate hazards. These natural disasters have brought in their wake food shortages and epidemics including malaria. In the current situation, one child out of two suffers from chronic malnutrition. Now, Madagascar faces dual challenges in food insecurity and public health.

Madagascar’s economy benefits from ecotourism, ecological research, and a growing agricultural sector, the unequal distribution of wealth has left nearly 80 percent of the country’s population living below the poverty line. The country is the world’s fourth largest island after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo. It is located on the western side of the Indian Ocean and is about 8,885 kilometres from Australia.

The nation has long been a global priority for conservation; most of the plant and animal species in Madagascar are found nowhere else on earth. Among these animals are lemurs, euplerid carnivorans, and tenrecs. Nearly 90% of all tenrecs, and 100% of all lemurs and euplerid carnivorans are only found in Madagascar. Lemurs are the most threatened group of primates on earth, and nearly all species (94%) are threatened with extinction because of habitat loss and unsustainable hunting.

Global trade and travel disruptions had a severe impact on previously high-performing sectors in Madagascar. This was reflected in a sharp contraction in export revenues, particularly from textiles, mining, and tourism, which were key sources of growth and job creation prior to the crisis.


While the country engaged in an ambitious transformation program designed to improve social, economic, and governance indicators between 2002 and 2008, a 2009 political crisis has thrown these improvements off-course. This political strife, in combination with the global financial downturn, led to a 4 percent decline in economic growth in 2009, according to World Bank. More than half of all children in Madagascar suffer from chronic malnutrition, and over half of the country’s population struggles with food insecurity.

Madagascar Food Security Outlook, August 2020 indicates that, between October 2020 and January 2021, area-level food security outcomes in the cassava, maize, and livestock rearing livelihood zone and in the cassava and small ruminants livelihood zone will likely deteriorate to Crisis. In the previously locked-down cities, Antananarivo, Toamasina, and Fianarantsoa, Stressed outcomes are likely as income-earning opportunities gradually improve. Elsewhere, Minimal acute food insecurity is expected, though some poor households who depend on tourism and producers who are affected by low farm-gate prices will likely be Stressed.

Climate change could thus have dramatic effects on agriculture, food security, and infrastructure in a country where 93% of the population lives on less than $3.10 a day (PPP), and close to 90% of those poor live off agriculture.

The populations in southern Madagascar live mainly from farming and stock rearing. Food insecurity is common in the south due to a generally dry environment as well as prolonged drought conditions. It is seasonal in the east due to flooding from cyclonic rain.

Food insecurity is usually most distinct just before the main harvest; from October to March. The southern region of Madagascar, which already suffers periodically from drought, will likely receive even less rain. Locust infestation also plays a significant role in the destruction of crops discouraging farmers from putting any more efforts into further production.

According to the Crop and Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM), an assessment by the Government of Madagascar, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP), the highest food insecurity rates are found in the island’s drought-hit southern regions of Androy, Anosy and Atsimo Andrefana where 380,000 people, totalling 30 percent of the population are severely affected.

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A leading food agency of the United Nations warned that:In southern Madagascar, “famine-like conditions” have doubled the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance compared with last year, to more than 1.3 million. Successive droughts and a lack of jobs linked to COVID-19 restrictions are to blame, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday.

“We have seen the doubling of the numbers of food-insecure between the data we had in July 2020 and November 2020; we moved from 700,000 people food-insecure in the Grand South or Grand Sud of Madagascar, to 1.3 million”, said Lola Castro, WFP Regional director for Southern Africa and Indian Ocean States.

The situation has forced people to eat “whatever they can find”, Ms. Castro continued. “Cactus mixed with mud, roots, whatever they can find, leaves, seeds, whatever is available. And the situation really is more dramatic because this year also the funds have not arrived enough on time to really be able to procure food or to provide cash transfers to these people.”

Children have been worst affected by the food crisis, WFP warned, with global acute malnutrition (GAM) in children under five, in the three most affected regions (Androy, Anôsy and Atsimo Andrefana), faced by 10.7 per cent of youngsters.

“This is the second highest rate in the East and Southern Africa region. The most recent projections put the number of children likely to suffer from acute malnutrition at more than 135,000, with more than 27,000 of these classified as severe”, the FAO said in a statement.

With markets closed because of COVID-19 restrictions and people forced to sell their possessions to survive, the UN agency warned that drought conditions are set to persist well into 2021, with many forced to leave their homes in search of food and work.

“In 2020 the population of the South relies on casual labour and goes to urban areas or to the fields to really have additional funds that will allow them to survive during the lean season, that is normally between November and April every year”, Ms. Castro explained. “But this year there was no labour, they moved around without finding any labour anywhere, both in urban areas or in the rural areas, due to the drought and due to the COVID lockdown.”

The direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 on livelihoods and food systems risk compromising the recovery of already food insecure populations as well as creating new food insecurity and malnutrition hotspots in both urban and rural areas by reducing access to affordable nutritious food. Vulnerable urban populations in the areas where containment measures are adopted are of immediate concern measures need to be taken to ensure continuous access to essential food and nutrition needs.

Building back better and stronger

Food security policies in many developing countries are in a state of transition. However, strategy to drive a strong and durable recovery will need to be based on an ambitious reforms strategy aimed at boosting market access and contestability, leapfrogging the digitalization of the economy, reinforcing the quality of public investments in infrastructure and human capital, and stimulating agricultural productivity and food security. The mobilization of additional domestic resources has become vital to support those priorities.

Although the extent of Madagascar’s arable land, the threats and the recurrence of natural disasters will continue to be a hindrance to the country’s ability to meet food and water needs of its people. This is why many more sustainable measures to adapt to these disasters are important.

The government should consider policies that promote long term disaster management and rehabilitation such as creating the atmosphere of preparedness, constant improvement of the quality of relief services and the model of addressing cross-sectoral management approaches. This could encourage quick relief for families and thus ensure constant labour supply in the production of food and survival from waterborne diseases.

The players in the sector are capable of bouncing back. Previous crises, in 2001 and 2009, have proved that. Their resilience lies in the diversification of farm production systems: commercial food crops or cereals, legume crops, fruit and vegetables, and non-agricultural activities. Many processors are capable of making several types of products (yoghurt, cheese, etc), and the various small operators in the chain, collectors and traders, also have other activities (farming, services, etc). This goes against the trend towards specialization and industrialization, and it is key to a capacity to withstand recurring crises and shocks that almost certainly should be taken into account in development policy.

Madagascar is one of the most targeted countries for land-based investments in Africa, with a total of 1.4 million hectares in concluded deals. Agricultural investments can create job opportunities, offer contracting or outgrower prospects, enable land rental markets, improve market access and stimulate infrastructure development. Such opportunities could play a role in reducing poverty and improving food security through increasing incomes and improving the distribution of food.

Developing new norms for irrigation schemes would better resist cyclones. These hydraulic infrastructure construction norms, that are flooding resistant, provide guidance on how to incorporate flood evacuation into irrigation plans and how to use materials adapted to the soil.

Improved agricultural technology diffusion seems the most effective means of improving agricultural productivity and reducing poverty and food insecurity in rural Madagascar; but improved rural transport infrastructure, improved irrigation systems, maintenance of livestock herds, improved physical security, increased literacy rates, secure land tenure and reasonable access to extension services all play a positive role in encouraging productivity growth and poverty reduction. These factors is easy to influence and all require a long-term commitment to agricultural and broader rural development.

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