As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, the number of people living in food insecurity in East Africa could increase from 14 million to 23 million. In addition to emergency measures, this crisis has highlighted the need to improve the resilience of food systems, especially in the worst-affected towns and cities in Africa.
A city’s food system includes agricultural production, food processing, transportation and distribution. All of these links in the supply chain contribute to ensuring the food and nutritional security of people living in urban areas, which is measured against four key factors (availability, access, use and stability).
On average, households in sub-Saharan Africa spend 44% of their total budget on food. Consequently, the effects on the supply chain of the lockdown measures taken in response to the COVID-19 epidemic, have had a direct impact on these communities, particularly in West African towns and cities.
Food supply and distribution in the hardest-hit African towns and cities
The health crisis has had a significant impact on supply within and between African countries. The problems caused by this outbreak are not related to a shortage of agricultural products, as they are available, nor to a disruption in global trade, which has remained broadly stable. The issues that have arisen are mainly due to the constraints imposed on port freight, such as the quarantine measures in place for crews in Kenya, and, more importantly, because of the travel restrictions on moving within and between neighboring countries. The transport of cargo between Kenya and Uganda now takes ten days as opposed to four days, resulting in additional costs and loss of perishable goods.
For this reason, goods deliveries were less frequent and there were fewer smaller, informal-sector carriers available, at the height of the lockdown when measures were at their strictest and intercity transport was suspended in Cameroon, for example. Transport costs are still an issue, with an impact on the price of products on local markets.
Restrictions designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 have also affected distribution, with many markets shutting down or experiencing a drop in activity. Some countries simply chose to close their markets, as in Burkina Faso and Kenya, resulting in many traders and vulnerable “small” transporters losing their livelihoods.
This decision had a major impact on the food and nutritional security of the most vulnerable urban households, whose only access to food is often via these so-called traditional markets. This issue is compounded by significant food wastage due to a lack of storage and cold-chain facilities for perishable food products.
Essential emergency response measures to limit food insecurity
A number of emergency measures have been implemented, both at national level and by local governments, which are generally responsible for part of the food distribution chain (including the management of markets and school canteens). Therefore, local authorities have adopted new health measures for markets, with the improvement of standard hygiene measures (such as the distribution of hand sanitizer, donation of masks to traders in Burkina Faso and disinfection of premises in Cameroon), and the implementation of a rota system for traders, who are allotted a specific day and time to limit the number of stalls.
Other measures have been implemented to support employment and the economy, as in Burkina Faso, where rent and pitch fees have been temporarily suspended or reduced, and the government is covering water and electricity bills, as well as security fees.
In addition, both impromptu and government-regulated alternative solutions have been put forward to ensure the continuity of food distribution, such as temporary authorization for market stalls to operate in the street or in front of traders’ homes, a move that came about spontaneously in certain disadvantaged communities in Ouagadougou.
A new form of sales outlets could be opened in public spaces, such as on municipal land or in school yards that are made available. In order to meet the basic food needs of vulnerable communities, essential foodstuffs could also be distributed from closed markets and stations, or from points of sale with products at socially-responsible prices.
Finally, measures to support the other links in the food system have proven to be essential, such as facilitating storage by making additional space available, maintaining the circulation of goods to ensure delivery, and supporting agricultural production capacities.
Medium-term measures essential for the resilience of food systems
There are various strategic levers that local governments can apply to improve the sustainability of food systems and their resilience to crises.
Firstly, food hygiene, traceability and product control regulations for markets could be tightened. This may include, for example, improving the regulatory and monitoring procedures for the sale of live animals and meat from wild animals.
It may also involve drawing up rules for an action plan in the event of a health crisis, developing storage and conservation capacities, particularly for fresh products, by establishing specific areas for processing and packaging, or facilitating producers’ access to markets via dedicated sales areas.
Furthermore, local authorities could also promote the development or support of the urban and peri-urban agricultural sector. This would ensure greater diversity in the food supply by maintaining access to highly perishable fresh produce, particularly in the event of a crisis. By reinforcing short supply chains, urban and peri-urban agriculture also allows disadvantaged populations to produce some of their own food and sell any surplus, thereby generating income.
The need to establish local public policies for food security
Finally, developing a local public policy for food security will ensure that local governments are better prepared to respond to future crises, whether related to health, security, or climate change.
As the food system transcends the administrative boundaries of communities, defining and implementing this type of public policy requires coordination between a number of regional stakeholders, and, at the very least, knowledge of local production areas and supply flows, according to the type of products and companies involved. Territorial mapping tools to obtain more information on local production areas and supply flows, and tools for mapping the players involved in the transportation and production of goods, are useful for assessing the challenges faced, defining action plans and preparing emergency protocols to anticipate future crises and intervention strategies for the long term.
Improving the resilience of urban food systems in Africa calls for the reassessment of a regional and multi-sectoral approach that covers everything from agriculture to marketing. Therefore, local authorities have a key role to play in coordinating the strategic thinking and initiatives of public actors (ministries), and private stakeholders (e.g. producer, consumer, trader and transporter associations), provided they are granted the authority and resources to do so.
For more information, see Les systèmes agroalimentaires en Afrique : Repenser le rôle des marchés (French language – work jointly published by AFD and the World Bank).
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.