The Covid-19 pandemic has led to greater hunger and food insecurity in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa more generally. It has also highlighted the lack of just and sustainable food systems, which are required to help us to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. With sustainable food systems on the international agenda, economists Wandile Sihlobo,Chief Economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz), and Gracelin Baskaran, a Bye-Fellow in Economics at the University of Cambridge, examine how evolving trends are reshaping the food system and how sustainability can be created in the face of pressures such as increased demand, higher food prices and demographic shifts, and crises like drought and the current pandemic.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many worried that sub-Saharan Africa would face an increase in food insecurity, particularly as a net importer of agricultural and food products. Concerns included the anticipated slowdown in economic activity and loss of income, potential delays in harvesting and other agricultural activity in the 2019/20 season, uncertainty about the sustainability of supply chains, and a ban on grain exports by major exporting countries like India, Russia, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
This article considers these factors and their impact on South Africa and the broader sub-Saharan African food security condition, as well as policy responses thereto. It also indicates how the sub- Saharan Africa region can strengthen its agriculture and food production against future shocks, as well as make room for business participation in the process.
Food security in times of a pandemic
The sub-Saharan Africa region is not endowed with favourable food security conditions. On average, the region imports about $45 billion worth of food commodities and products each year. There are four countries – Nigeria, Angola, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – that account for most of these imported agricultural and food commodities. Additionally, South Africa and Egypt rely heavily on grain imports such as wheat and rice. For this reason, when a temporary ban on exports by several grain exporters was announced at the start of the pandemic, there were concerns that sub- Saharan African countries would be among those that would suffer the consequences. The region’s dependence on imported staple grain also highlighted the fragility of its food system. A policy change in major grain-exporting countries such as Russia or India would affect the survival of many in the region, as that would directly affect the availability of staple foods such as rice and wheaten products.
Fortunately, by mid-2020, the concern about trade restrictions had waned as the G20 discouraged major grain- exporting countries from banning exports. Moreover, the evaluations of supplies by grain-exporting countries provided comfort for sufficient food supplies in the world market. Data from the International Grains Council showed that global maize production was well above the long- term average of a billion tonnes per year, at 1.13 billion tonnes in the 2020/21 production season. Meanwhile, global wheat and rice production were at record levels of 773 million tonnes and 499 million tonnes respectively in 2020/21.
When the trade tension had eased after countries had gone into lockdown from March 2020, a challenge that lingered was the disruption to supply chains. A case in point is the meat plants in parts of the United States, Brazil, Canada, and Ireland, which temporarily closed at various times last year as the pandemic spread among workers. As a result, in periods between May and July 2020, there were risks of meat shortages in the global market.
The adverse ripple effects in other parts of the food system linked to the meat sector implied that the food system remained highly vulnerable. The concerns of potential meat shortages at the time – and potential needs in other parts of the food system – put intense pressure on political leaders to respond more aggressively. In the US, then President Donald Trump ordered meat plants to reopen to avert an inevitable spin- off crisis.
Various shipping ports, including Cape Town, experienced temporary closures because of fears that the virus would spread. In these events, exportable products had to be transported to faraway ports such as Port Elizabeth or Durban. Such closures were costly to farmers who export products such as wine, deciduous fruit, and citrus. Importantly, when such entities are under financial strain, their workers and the food security conditions of their households are also at risk.
Fortunately, by the last quarter of 2020, most countries had adjusted to operating under strict health conditions, and global trade had also recovered. The global agricultural commodities and food trade only fell by 5% year on year in the second quarter of 2020 and had recovered by 2% in the third quarter and 6% in the fourth quarter of 2020. The latest estimates from the World Trade Organization suggest that world trade in merchandise, or goods, will grow 8% in volume in 2021, after falling 5.3% in 2020.
The slowdown in economic activity played out much as the International Monetary Fund expected, with sub-Saharan Africa’s economy contracting by 1.9% in 2020. This decline in the regional economy and, broadly, the global economy meant that remittance flows also fell. In addition, there were widespread job losses in the region, which resulted in a rise in food insecurity as feared at the start of the pandemic, especially in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Malawi. Notably, temporary school closures in all countries at the height of the pandemic helped to intensity food insecurity, since schoolchildren had limited access to school feeding programmes.
The South African picture
South Africa has been fortunate to have sufficient food supplies since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike the broader sub- Saharan Africa region, the country is a net exporter of agricultural and food products, and 2020 was one of its best seasons because favourable rainfall supported crop yields. There were bumper harvests of staple crops such as maize, soybeans, sugar, and major fruits such as citrus and deciduous fruits.
Nevertheless, there are essential imported agricultural and food products that South Africa is dependent on, such as rice (100% dependent on imports), wheat (50% dependent on imports), palm oil (100% dependent on imports), and a small share of poultry products and pork. The underlying factors that cause the stark difference between South Africa and other countries in the sub-Saharan Africa region are agricultural productivity, input products regulations, and investment levels in the sector.
South Africa has higher levels of investment that enable access to better farming technologies – biotechnology and mechanical technology – and favourable trade policy, which ensures market access to various countries and encourages farmers to produce continuously. The gains of the higher agricultural production have also been illustrated in food security levels in South Africa. For example, the recently released Global Food Security Index designed and constructed by London- based Economist Impact and Corteva puts South Africa at a relatively higher position of 69 out of 113 countries surveyed (with one being the best and 113 being the worst). From a regional perspective, South Africa is the most food-secure country in the sub- Saharan Africa region.
However, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, while South Africa is viewed as food secure at a national level, the country experiences food insecurity at a household level. More than six million South Africans in low-income households are food insecure, primarily due to affordability. And the number of food insecure South Africans increased in 2020.
The ‘third wave’ of the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), published on 17 February 2021, pointed to a rise in hunger in 2020. The Covid-19 regulations, which limited mobility and led to business closures, exacerbated food insecurity in various communities. Food insecurity increased despite the South African Government’s effort to issue food vouchers and different social grant support systems. The challenge was not food scarcity or that South Africa’s food prices were rising too fast. It was that most people were out of work and had no buying power. Food price inflation in South Africa averaged 4.8% year on year in 2020, up from 3.1% in 2019. These are relatively comfortable levels compared with the drought-related surge of 2016, when South Africa’s food price inflation averaged 10.8% year on year.
There is a wide variation across the different provinces. Food insecurity is significantly more prevalent in Limpopo, KwaZulu- Natal and the Eastern Cape. The rising unemployment and the temporary and at times permanent closure of businesses in 2020 exacerbated already challenging conditions for these provinces. The July 2021 unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng also temporarily affected food availability due to interruptions in the supply chains. The disruptions had subsided by the end of July, yet the underlying food insecurity challenge persists. Several townships across the country have experienced a food insecurity challenge, as multiple studies published in 2020 and the beginning of 2021 have shown.
For South Africa to improve its food security conditions, household-targeted interventions are needed. These could include agriculture- related interventions like encouraging smallholder farming. In areas where land availability and environmental conditions permit, commercial production and other programmes that improve employment prospects should be encouraged and supported by the government, non-profit organisations (NPOs), and social partners. There is a space where corporate social investment could have high impact through improving food availability and also income generation in projects that would produce a surplus.
Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape, which are the most food- insecure provinces, also have vast tracts of under-utilised land. These provinces should be a priority in the Agriculture and Agro- processing Master Plan of the South African Government. With a commercial focus where conditions permit, agriculture improvement would help in job creation and, ultimately, household food security. Notably, the master plan’s actions are the responsibility of the government, the private sector, and all social partners. Such a multistakeholder approach holds promise for some level of success in implementation, as opposed to various policies and programmes that the South African Government has failed to implement.
When the Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan is released at the end of 2021 (an expected date at the time of writing), the private-sector roleplayers should assess the various commodity corridors and priorities, along with value chain development proposals, and thereafter strive to partner with government where business and social interests align. The private-sector role will be co-investing in various agriculture and agro-processing projects that are outlined in the master plan. In addition, the ‘know-how’ of the private sector will also help capacitate the government, and subsequently improve the implementation and the chances of success.
In 2006, the Sundays River Citrus Company (SRCC) realised the need for a project that would encourage emerging farmers, both established and developing, to invest in the Sundays River Valley. This was additionally important as the National Development Plan highlights the export-driven citrus sector as a priority focus area that can stimulate rural employment. Along with the Citrus Growers Association (CGA), the SRCC set out to empower black citrus farmers with funding, equipment, and business and technical support through the CGA Grower Development Company. Its BEE strategy focuses on land reform and prioritises the establishment of successful emerging farmers who can take up shareholding in the SRCC. The SRCC will become a transformed company capable of facilitating land reform in the Sundays River Valley.
Three farming enterprises – Luthando Farm, Mbuyiselo Farm and the Sundays River Farming Trust – are standout examples of how business can drive transformation. Luthando Farm is 75% owned by a workers’ trust and 25% owned by the SRCC, with management assistance provided by the SRCC. Mbuyiselo Farm is 100% owned by a workers’ trust, with management assistance from the SRCC. Finally, the Sundays River Farming Trust consists of five consolidated farms, of which most of the land is still owned by the government. What is required to ensure the success of these farms is ongoing training and skills transfer, significant buy- in from farmers, and realistic goals and timeframes.
Effect of climatic shocks on sub-Saharan African food production
The sub-Saharan Africa region, and more precisely southern Africa, suffered from compounding shocks in recent years. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the government of Lesotho declared a national disaster because of drought, which left a quarter of its population facing severe food insecurity. Zambia and Zimbabwe were hit with the worst drought in nearly 40 years. Namibia was hit with its worst drought in 90 years and declared a state of emergency, the second in three years. Botswana declared 2018/19 a drought year and commenced large-scale distribution of relief food packages in drought-affected parts of the country.
Three-quarters of the world’s worst droughts over the last decade were in Africa and the frequency and severity of climatic shocks are set to increase in the coming years. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, temperatures in southern Africa are rising at twice the global average. This will likely translate to unfavourable agricultural production conditions and, in turn, a decline in the food supply, as we have already seen in the region.
Given these challenges, policymakers have turned their eye towards strengthening the sustainability and resilience of food systems. Historically, except for South Africa, most of Africa and the European Union have largely opposed the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops, while the US, Australia, Brazil, and Argentina, among others, have embraced them.
Opponents to GE crops have cited a range of reasons, including biodiversity concerns, doubts about the safety of such food, disadvantaging smallholder farmers, and food sovereignty. However, the European Commission released a study in April 2021 that points to a loosening restriction on GE crops and a recognition of their benefits to the sustainability of the agricultural sector.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s response
Several sub-Saharan African governments’ response to rising food insecurity during the pandemic has been to increase grain imports, which was done in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Malawi. Some of these countries also rolled out farmer input support schemes to assist farmers ahead of the 2020/21 production season, which began in October 2020 in most countries. Direct income support to vulnerable households was limited to South Africa within the sub-Saharan Africa region, but household food insecurity rose even there.
The government interventions to support farmers with inputs such as seeds and fertilisers in some African countries have paid off in 2021. However, concerns remain that corruption, poor farmer targeting, and bureaucratic inefficiencies might have led to late input deliveries in some countries, as has been observed in previous farm input subsidy programmes. Another significant positive development is that most of the African continent, specifically the southern and eastern regions, received higher rainfall during the 2020/21 summer. This allowed for increased plantings and improved crop production conditions, and subsequently the harvests.
Estimates from the United States Department of Agriculture point to prospects of increased maize production in several southern and east African countries. For example, Zambia’s 2020/21 maize production could reach 3.4 million tonnes (up 69% year on year), Malawi’s maize harvest is estimated at 3.8 million tonnes (up 25%), Mozambique’s maize crop is estimated at 2.1 million tonnes (up 8%), Kenya’s maize harvest is forecast at 4.0 million tonnes (up 5%), Tanzania’s maize harvest is estimated at 6.3 million tonnes (up 8%), and Zimbabwe’s maize harvest production is set to reach its largest volume since 1984, estimated at 2.7 million tonnes (up by 199%).
These numbers suggest a good harvest, not only for grains but also for other crops and improved livestock conditions in the southern and east Africa region. While such improved agricultural conditions cannot fully compensate for job losses due to the pandemic, they might cushion households from severe and long-term food insecurity that many had feared the sub-Saharan Africa region would face from 2020.
How to strengthen sub- Saharan Africa’s food production
The rising threat from climate change and more frequent occurrences of pandemics and other shocks in the coming years demand that sub-Saharan African policymakers get serious about effective policies that will cushion agricultural production and increase productivity.
The adoption of GE seeds is the first step the African countries will have to embrace. Moreover, the strengthening of rural economies through supporting agriculture and improving infrastructure to help link farmers to markets will have to be a priority, not only on policy papers and government documents, but importantly through implementation. Here again, corporate social investment has a role to play through capacitating the farmers and linking them with formal value chains when the broad infrastructure inadequacies have been addressed by the government.
Take the current 2020/21 production season, where sub-Saharan African countries have abundant grain supplies. Had efficient roads and storage infrastructure existed in many African countries, the expected large grain harvests would find a marketplace, and income from sales would improve household incomes. But the opposite is likely to happen – in villages with large grain surpluses and poor infrastructure, high post-harvest losses effectively reduce potential revenues from the sale of the produce.
If the pandemic is prolonged for another couple of years, due to the slow pace of vaccination in the continent, it is plausible that the fears of rising food insecurity could become a reality, especially if the coming summers are not as rainy as 2020/21.
Additionally, the government-led input support to farmers for the 2021/22 planting season will be constrained by reduced fiscal space. The rural areas of the sub- Saharan Africa region might experience an improvement in food availability in 2021 compared to 2020. However, this is temporary and at the mercy of weather conditions and government support going into 2022, both of which are highly uncertain and not within countries’ control.
South Africa also has a long way to go to address food insecurities. Intentional commercialisation of agriculture and increased investment in agro-processing should be an avenue for the country. There are, however, distinct challenges that policymakers will have to weigh in on, such as suggestions of widespread expropriation without compensation, increasing rural crime and rising protectionism, all of which could threaten even the national food-secure position the country currently enjoys.
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