Agriculture
is a dominant economic activity across Sub-Saharan Africa, except for a
few resource-rich economies, such as South Africa, Botswana and Angola. Yet
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with high levels of food insecurity and the most acute
levels of malnutrition compared to other regions in the world.

The
major causes of malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa include adverse climatic
conditions which normally lead to a decline in agricultural production and soaring
staple food prices, conflict in some countries, lower levels of investment in
agriculture, and fragmented agricultural markets.

Food
security is key to Africa’s social and economic vitality. In the past, African countries benefited from the generosity of
Western countries, especially the US, which has delivered food to fight hunger
in Africa.

Perversely,
the availability of US surplus produce has encouraged dependence and weakened
resilience in the African continent. The outbreak of Covid-19 will exacerbate
an already dire situation of food shortage in some African countries, which
will bring a new cycle of dependence on humanitarian contributions from Western
countries.

While
this will assist in the near-term, it has shortcomings policymakers need to be
mindful of. Chief among these is the general collapse in domestic agricultural
commodity prices in various African countries, which disincentives production
and leads to more dependence.

The
main food challenge on the production side facing Western countries such as the
US is a surplus of food since some restaurants, schools and
hotels remain closed as a measure to control the spread of Covid-19.
Consumption of the food-away-from-home market in the US market has declined,
causing many farmers to destroy their produce to ease up storage capacity and to
ensure that oversupply does not lead to depressed prices.

Meanwhile,
food-insecure countries in the African continent have a different challenge of insufficient
food for households due to weaknesses on the production side that were glaring
even before Covid-19.

Within
Southern Africa, countries such as Zimbabwe suffered from drought and floods in
2019, leading to falling production in staple crops by
more than half
, and
started the 2020 production season on the back foot under similar conditions.

For
Zimbabwe, this will be a second consecutive year of food shortages, further
deepening poverty levels in that country. In East Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia,
Somalia and Uganda lost part of their 2020 produce to locusts at the
start of this year. This means malnutrition could become the next humanitarian
challenge for Africa and the world during and post Covid-19.

If
the world waits until the end of the pandemic, it may be too late since food insecurity,
high levels of youth unemployment, and weakened public health infrastructure
would constitute an explosive cocktail for Sub-Saharan Africa. Many African
countries will be on a stampede for IMF and World Bank loans over and above
those earmarked for national responses linked to Covid-19, and this will add to
the already high debt burden. Social discontent may likely flare up
in various parts of the African continent. This could be more so since lockdown
regulations have been more severe for the poor than for the
middle classes and the elites
.

Constrained
fiscal space, leading to inability of governments to meet basic needs and pay
salaries for public servants could be another trigger point for discontent. Such
conditions will signify reversals of gains that were notched since the
beginning of the year 2000. That decade induced a sense of optimism about
Africa’s rise on the back of macro-economic reforms and the youth bulge that was
expected to yield an economic dividend. Such hopes are turning into nightmares.

Fundamentally,
Africa’s current food insecurity position is caused by several factors. Failure
of African governments to prioritise agricultural infrastructure, weak
investment in modernisation and new technologies, weak land governance system,
and lack of delivery of much-needed succour to improve crop quality and
marketing capacity are now catching up with the African continent. Agricultural
policies in the West over the past decades, including subsidies, have also indirectly
contributed to Africa’s failure to break into global markets sustainably.

The
spread of Covid-19 is likely to worsen Africa’s already disfigured
socio-economic picture, and make it harder for the continent to jumpstart its
economic growth and make progress on sustainable development goals, especially those that pertain to
eliminating poverty, hunger, achieving universal health and well-being, and
attaining decent work and economic growth. The current difficulties facing
Africa are not just the age-old problems of debt, poverty, and corruption.

Yes,
there are still governance and institutional weaknesses, but skewed global patterns
of production and trade policies in richer economies have done much to frustrate
the competitiveness of Africa’s agriculture. The global health pandemic has
further constrained Africa’s ability to overcome structural challenges and put
itself on a sound footing for international competitiveness.

Leaders
will need to act with greater urgency. We set out various proposals for African
leaders and external development partners. First, African leaders should place
food security at the centre in their quest to mobilise resources from
continental institutions and external development partners. Without receiving a
sufficient quantum of resources to strengthen the resilience of Africa’s food
systems, any isolated intervention will be undermined by deepening malnutrition
and rising levels of poverty.

Second,
support from the international financial institutions towards national response
plans of various African countries should have dedicated resources that are
targeted at improving food security. Third, continental institutions such as
the African Union should mobilise rapidly, coordinate an inter-agency task team
on food security, and constitute a sound platform to respond to food crises and
multidimensional poverty that affect various regions in the continent.

Finally,
the African continent should use this crisis to fix institutional and
governance weaknesses and build up resources that will bolster the resilience
of food systems in the continent. Crucially, African leaders should take
seriously the role of agriculture in improving livelihoods and as an important
economic sector that could be positioned for competitiveness in the global
markets.

Mzukisi
Qobo is head (designate) of Wits School of Governance.
Wandile Sihlobo
is Chief Economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa and the
author of
Finding Common Ground:
Land, Equity, and Agriculture
. Isaah Mhlanga is Chief Economist at Alexander
Forbes.

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