Food insecurity exists in every community in the globally, however, people who live in rural communities face a greater risk. Paradoxically, in rural areas that grow most of our food, households face considerably deeper struggles with hunger than those in metropolitan areas.
Even before the pandemic, there were serious concerns about the food security situation in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2018, 239 million people went to bed hungry, and 65 million people suffered from acute food insecurity. Now the continent faces a health crisis that is adversely affecting a stubborn food security and nutrition situation, particularly for vulnerable populations, such as smallholder farmers, livestock keepers, artisanal fisherfolk, persons whose livelihoods depend on the informal economy, and migrants. Increasingly, scholars of food security, food systems, and poverty have come to realize that the hunger and malnutrition associated with COVID-19 may actually kill or debilitate more people than the disease itself, especially in regions of the world with weaker social safety nets.
Between 2016 to 2018, Africa imported around 85% of its food from outside the continent, making an annual food bill of $35 billion, which is projected to hit $110 billion by 2025. This heavy dependence on world markets is hazardous for food security, particularly in times of prolonged crisis. African regions, especially the Sahel and southern Africa, have been harshly affected by climate change and drought since 2019. The unprecedented locust outbreak in the Horn of Africa has put an additional pressure on regional food systems. Conflict hampers people’s access to food as farmers abandon their farms and do not bring their products to markets to avoid risking their lives. Hence, given the prevalence of conflict and political instability, the region is at great risk of food insecurity. Nine of the ten countries with the largest increases in food insecurity in 2020 are facing active conflict in Africa.
In 2019, food-insecure people were in countries affected by conflict (77 million people), climate change (34 million) and economic crises (24 million), with the 10 worst food crises in Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria and Haiti, a UN report noted.
The report further indicate that South Sudan had 61% of its population in a state of food crisis or worse, followed by Sudan, Yemen, Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Syrian Arab Republic and Haiti (at least 35%).
Most of 80 percent of the world’s poorest and most food insecure people live in rural areas. A recent United Nations University study warned that in a worst-case scenario, the economic impact of the pandemic could push a further half-billion people into poverty.
COVID-19 impacts have led to severe and widespread increases in global food insecurity, affecting vulnerable households in almost every country, with impacts expected to continue through 2021 and into 2022. These trends have major implications for economic growth and food security in Africa. About 23 percent of the continent’s GDP comes from agriculture, and 60 percent of its economically active population live on agriculture, according to a McKinsey report. As a result, COVID-19 has been felt acutely in the wallets and the stomachs of many Africans since the outbreak began.
Given the strong positive correlation between economic recession and food insecurity in Africa, COVID-19 threatens access to food mainly through losses of income and assets, thereby jeopardizing the possibilities and capacities to buy food. Impacts are also felt through disruptions to availability; shifts in consumer demand toward cheaper, less nutritious foods; and food price instability. For instance, Nigeria’s food insecurity and resulting malnutrition can also be attributed to poor funding for sustainable policies, limited mechanized farming, poor rural development, and prohibitive practices that disenfranchise women farmers. About 9 out of 10 Nigerians cannot afford a healthy diet. Nigeria has the second-highest burden of stunted children across the globe, and millions of children suffer from acute malnutrition.
People who live in rural areas often face hunger at higher rates, in part because of the unique challenges living remotely presents. These challenges include an increased likelihood of food deserts with the nearest food pantry or food bank potentially hours away, job opportunities that are more concentrated in low-wage industries and higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. This can make hunger in rural areas a unique challenge. Remittance flows, often a lifeline for rural families in the developing world, are projected to decline by about 20 per cent last year due to migrant workers’ loss of employment worldwide, and reduced access to transfer operators caused by the COVID-19 restrictions.
In African rural areas, access to food may be limited by financial constraints or other factors, such as transportation challenges. Rural shoppers may rely on more expensive and less nutritious food, such as the types available at gas station convenience stores, or face a long drive to a town with a supermarket or grocery store that stocks fresh produce, milk, eggs, and other staples.
Hunger and poverty are most severe among rural marginalized groups, including women and youth. It is currently unclear to what extent COVID-19 will take hold among rural populations. The effects of coronavirus food insecurity in rich and poor countries are two starkly different by connecting realities. Labour shortages could disrupt the production and processing of labour-intensive crops, especially in vulnerable countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Ways to improve access to food in Africa’s rural areas during Convid-19 pandemic
- Establishment of food pantries and other forms of direct food assistance, such as backpack food programs for children, can fill an important need for rural residents experiencing food insecurity. Food pantries can distribute nutritious food to low-income families and work with the local social services staff to give families information on nutrition and other social services in the community.
- Relevant stakeholders should provide inputs for production of crops, livestock and fisheries to small-scale producers so that they can weather the immediate effects of the economic crisis.
- Facilitating access to markets to support small-scale farmers to sell their products in conditions where restricted movement is interrupting the functioning of markets, including providing logistics and storage support by government.
- Authorities should establish targeted funds for rural financial services to ensure sufficient liquidity is available and to ease immediate loan repayment requirements to maintain services, markets and jobs for poor rural people.
- The use of digital services to share key information on production, weather, finance and markets should be encouraged by the agricultural ministry of various government farmers associations, data providers and technologists.
- Putting in place immediate policy measures to reduce the effect of COVID-19 pandemic on rural household’s food security through the provision of enough palliatives which should be monitored so that it gets to the targeted population.
- Rural households should also be educated on the nutritional implication of the various food items such as egg, milk, soybean and fish, especially for children to increase their protein intake and boost their immune system against COVID-19.