Africa: Food immunity in the shadow of Covid-19

• The African continent has been a net food importing economy. In 2019, they had net imports in food and beverages worth of US$ 15.61 billion, which was a pre-pandemic period.
• The World Bank predicts a 2.6-7% decline in agricultural production due to COVID-19 across Sub-Saharan Africa. If this decline in production cannot be avoided, imports may need to be increased to cover the shortfall.
• East African countries are already dealing with issues, including recent desert locust swarms, destruction of crops and the resulting increase in food insecurity for affected populations. COVID-19 is also likely to affect food systems directly through impacts on food supply and demand.
• The immediate thing these African countries have to do is to reduce import tariff rates. A number of African countries impose strict quotas or high tariffs on food imports.

Africa

Food security is becoming a major challenge during the current pandemic across countries and especially in net food importing economies. The African continent has been a net food importing economy, and in 2019, they registered net imports of food and beverages worth US$ 15.61 billion, which was a pre-pandemic period. No doubt it is expected that during the pandemic period, the situation of food availability in most of the developing and underdeveloped economies of Africa is going to exacerbate. As the Coronavirus crisis unfolds, disruptions in food supply chains are emerging as a pressing issue in African countries. Labor shortages have started to impact processors, traders, trucking/logistics companies in food supply chains.

Alarmed by a potential rise in food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, many African countries and organizations are making earnest efforts to keep agriculture safely running as an essential business, but the results are modest and insufficient to shield large section of the gigantic continent.

According to the World Bank, Food security “hot spots” where food availability is a major challenge are those areas where following situation arises:

I. Fragile and conflict-affected states, where logistics and distribution are difficult, even without morbidity and social distancing.
II. Affected by multiple crises resulting from more frequent extreme weather events and pests. For example, the current pandemic, which seems to be the worst in decades is severely impacting food security in 23 African countries including Ghana and Kenya.
III. The poor and vulnerable, including the 820 million people who were already food insecure before the COVID-19 crisis impacted movement and incomes.
IV. Countries with significant currency depreciation, driving up the cost of food imports.

The World Bank predicts a 2.6% to 7% decline in agricultural production due to COVID-19 across Sub-Saharan Africa. If this decline in production cannot be avoided, imports may need to be increased to cover the shortfall, or an increase in production (e.g. cassava crops on imperfect land). This will even be the case for households and regions that were previously self-sufficient or surplus in key crops.

Just to explain this in a detailed manner, as per FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization), Kenya faces the maximum challenge and struggles to feed its citizens. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics estimates that nearly 12 million people are food poor. These are people whose income doesn’t enable them to consume enough calories for a healthy lifestyle. Out of these 12 million, two-thirds of the food poor individuals are found in rural areas. Kenya depends heavily on imports of maize, wheat, rice and Irish potatoes. On an average, Kenya imports about 90% of the total rice demand and about 75% of the total wheat demand.

Another point to highlight here is that currently, East African countries are already dealing with issues, including recent desert locust swarms, destruction of crops and the resulting increase in food insecurity for affected populations. COVID-19 is likely to also affect food systems directly through impacts on food supply and demand, and indirectly through decrease in purchasing power and in the capacity to produce and distribute food, which will have varying degrees of impact, and will disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable. Thus, it can only be observed that their situation is going to get aggravate.

Due to all these facts put together, COVID-19 is prompting food insecurity fears in Africans, with some countries already experiencing rising prices, panic-buying and import-export disruptions. The immediate thing these African countries have to do is to reduce import tariff rates. A number of African countries impose strict quotas or high tariffs on food imports. For example, the East African Community which includes Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, imposes a tariff of at least 50% on maize imports and 35%, or at least US$ 200/tonne, on rice (whatever is higher). These measures have been adopted to raise revenue or protect local farmers under normal market conditions.  However, in the event of regional shortages like at present these measures need to be temporarily relaxed, with assurances to farmers given, and governments flexible with their trade policy.

Apart from that, the government may need to start issuing food rations, either from its own stocks or purchased from private traders or the provision of coupons. In the short term these food coupons may be necessary during the crisis, especially if lockdowns are implemented and incomes are disrupted to ensure food security.

How India can Help?

Given the fact that many net food exporting countries are banning/curbing F&B exports, there is a demand of wheat and rice, mainly in African countries. India has a significant 20% stock of world rice, which can be exported as India’s buffer to meet domestic demand is almost 21 MT and there is a current stock of 77 MT with Food Corporation of India.

Additionally, Rabi cultivation was healthy, so there is a scope of releasing excess rice for exports. India may focus on supples to those economies which are currently facing a threat of food security, after resolving domestic food availability. But this help from India is only possible if African countries provide relaxations on imports including zero import duty and less stringent non-tariff barriers (NTBs). After all, this supply is not as much f0r the commercial gain as it is to help the African countries to fight against food insecurity. Since production and cultivation will be lesser than demand, import tariff will not have any significance as survival is more important.

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