COVID-19 and agriculture: the challenges food heroes face

Like many things in 2020, this year’s World Food Day is unique. The COVID-19 pandemic has created bottlenecks and problems in food value chains, as well as quick and abnormal changes. It has exposed underlying vulnerabilities in their resilience. But despite all these, value chain actors are coming up with innovative solutions and opportunities. CORE-Africa’s ultimate aim is to support value chain actors’ response to the pandemic and their overall resilience. They are all food heroes, as our system only works as a whole. This World Food Day, we would like to contribute by helping understand the challenges food heroes face.

The challenge

The COVID-19 situation is unfolding, with impacts likely to build and shift over time. There are serious risks for food provision to consumers, for the viability of businesses, for employment and for farmers and their communities. In these unprecedented circumstances there is a need for quick learning and responses. We must collect information and data rapidly, integrate hygiene and operational health & safety measures, strengthen the resilience of food chains/systems and coping strategies of actors within them, and integrate relevant digital solutions.

What is CORE-Africa?

The COVID-19 Response and Resilience Initiative for Food Value Chains in Africa (CORE-Africa) aims to strengthen responses to the COVID-19 situation of nine DGIS-funded projects across Africa, and to capture lessons for interventions and policies more broadly. Launched on 1 July 2020, and through the nine lead projects, CORE focuses on nutritious food value chains including horticulture, dairy, oilseeds, pulses and livestock.

Understanding the challenges food heroes face

CORE-Africa aims to build understanding of, and thus appropriate responses to, the challenges that all value chain actors are facing. The first step is getting a lay of the land. Since inception, together with the nine lead projects, it has been exchanging information and ideas to build understanding.

Among other activities, CORE-Africa and WUR reviewed key impacts, issues and systemic shocks facing food value chain actors. The review provides an overview of literature and other online resources that are written and produced on COVID-19 and its impacts on agriculture. It includes a summary of the international discussions in five main areas, a selection of key resources; plus a long-list of interesting resources on 5 food system areas/dimensions.

Value chain actors are affected in all stages, from drivers to activities to outcomes. The key areas identified in the review are:

  • General food system value chain dynamics: This crisis is emphasizing where current food systems are robust and resilient to severe shocks and where there are structural weaknesses. The review points to differentiated impacts on mechanisms and activities in current food systems, as well as differences in kind and depth of impact for different actor groups. This area highlights the dynamics resulting from global and local interconnectedness, and points to a range of cause/effect ripples that are important to understand when considering where to act in addressing acute effects and shortterm or structural causes.

  • Agricultural food production: Initial indications of the impact of the COVID19 measures show travel restrictions are inhibiting extension services and labourers from reaching production sites, in some cases resulting in loss of harvests, particularly for perishables. The review points to the importance of ensuring that good use is made of critical production windows, by ensuring that essential production inputs are available on time for land preparation, sowing, etc. This crisis further highlights Africa’s dependency on imports for necessary inputs, such as fertilizer and seed. The impact on current and future seasons and yields is often unclear, but worrisome.

  • Food processing and provisioning: The impacts of COVID19 on the operational conditions of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) is part of what Reardon et al. (AGRA, 2019) call the “Hidden Middle” – massive numbers of small operators responding in a highly dynamic manner to each season’s needs and opportunities, but largely ‘hidden’ from public policy discussions and (formal) investors. Transport restrictions are negatively impacting business continuity, as closures of borders, shops and markets impede food provisioning services. Processors face reduced opening hours and an increased number of sick employees. Moreover, SMEs are facing financial hardship, as access to finance is insufficient and conditions for loan repayment have worsened. With an estimated 80% of food produced for local consumption sold by SMEs in Africa, the current crisis is revealing the importance of measures aimed at keeping these businesses alive and running.

  • Food availability, affordability and consumption: Across Africa, increased demand for nonperishables and decreased demand for perishables is seen as consumers prioritize staples, leading to price increases for staple products. Increased prices and decreased opportunities for economic activity – particularly in the informal sector – are threatening the ability for households to buy nutritious foods, leading to concerns that this global health crisis could lead to a global food and nutrition crisis in the months and years to come.

Only understanding the challenges all value chain actors face can we help to identify and support appropriate responses for a more robust and resilience food system.