COVID-19 virus spread prompts food insecurity fears in Africa

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

March 26, 2020

The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus is prompting food insecurity fears in Africa, with some countries already experiencing rising prices, panic-buying and import-export disruptions.

Ghana is among the African countries feeling the negative impact of the coronavirus on food security systems. More than 68 cases have been recorded so far, with at least three deaths in this nation of about 30 million people. President Akufo-Addo on Saturday announced the closure of Ghana’s air, land and sea borders. A week earlier, he directed the closure of all schools from the basic to the tertiary level and announced a US$100 million package to boost the economy.

Citizens have been panic buying food and basic supplies as they go into isolation in their homes. Food prices have soared, fueled by rumors last weekend that the government was preparing to announce a nationwide lockdown that would force everyone except essential workers to stay at home. That lockdown is yet to happen. An announcement that markets would be closed to allow for fumigation exercises added to the panic, resulting in a mad rush for vegetables, tubers, rice, frozen meat and other foods. Amidst long queues and heavy congestion in the markets, the state-owned Daily Graphic newspaper reported the price of some basic food products had risen between 20 and 33 percent.

Evans Okomeng of the Graduate Farmers Network and two other young scientists noted the panic buying and soaring food prices have “sent us all a clear warning that our food supply in these difficult times is in trouble… The situation will only get worse if the [virus] situation persists. The hard reality facing us all is that Ghana is virtually sitting on a food security time bomb that some attention needs to be paid to. Ghana has made a lot of progress in ensuring food for all over the last few years, but this virus threatens to erode the massive gains that have been made,” they said in a press statement issued in Accra.

The group called on the Ministry of Food and Agriculture to lay out a COVID-19 Emergency Food Security Preparedness Plan. “This plan should clearly spell out details of a strategy to release more food into the system based on needs in particular towns at specific points in time; a strategy to ensure prices of food do not spiral out of control and to avoid hoarding; and a strategy to ramp up food production in these times when some farmers are not going out to the fields to harvest and traders are not transporting products because people are staying home.”

The statement said the plan should include a “collaborative strategy among the different players in the food security value chain that ensures the food supply does not get cut even in times of a lock down, and that it would be possible to get food delivered to the homes of people even if they are forced into quarantine or isolation.” No such food handout systems exist currently as part of Ghana’s social intervention structures.

Ghanaian farmer and AfS Global Leadership Fellow Evans Okomeng is urging his government to address food security as COVID-19 spread.

They also called for  a long term “strategy to increase investments in local agriculture, commercial farming and greenhouse set-ups and operations for increased production, marketing and storage” as well as  “a clear policy direction on major agricultural innovations such as genetic engineering and genome editing, which has the potential of helping produce crops that are high-yielding, early-maturing, drought-tolerant, disease- and pest-resistant…for the benefit of Ghanaians.”

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also addressed the food security issue in an update on the impact of the virus on the global food supply chain.

“We know that border closures, quarantines, market supply chain and trade disruptions could restrict people’s access to sufficient/diverse nutritious sources of food especially in countries hit hard by the virus or already affected by high levels of food insecurity,” the report noted.

Ghana spends about US$100 million every month importing agricultural products from countries like China, the United States and Europe, which are struggling to export as the virus spreads.

“We are faced with a looming food crisis unless measures are taken fast to protect the most vulnerable, keep global food supply chains alive and mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food systems,” the FAO report continued.

“[A] shortage of labor could disrupt production and processing of food, notably for labor–intensive crops. Developing countries/Africa are particularly at risk as the disease can lead to a reduction in labor force and affect labor-intensive forms of [agricultural] production.”

Other Ghanaian farmers are concerned that the state’s disease preparedness efforts have not paid attention to the agricultural sector. Asare Robben, Ghana’s 2019 national best agroforestry farmer, observed the government has not announced any plans on how it intends to increase food production “in these hard times and as to whether we even have more food to feed the country if the pandemic travels beyond five months.”

“I call on the government to double or triple investment into agriculture now,” he told in an interview. “Let’s not forget 1982-1983, where Ghana experienced starvation as a result of drought.”

Meanwhile, local media in Ghana are reporting the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the National Buffer Stock Company, which manages the state’s bulk food storage, and the National Security Secretariat are preparing to make public a plan on how to keep the nation food secure even as the coronavirus spreads.

The COVID-19 virus spread is also negatively impacting cashew, a major export crop for Ghana that is grown by hundreds of thousands of farmers across the country. According to the Ghana Export Promotion Authority (GEPA), the country earned $981 million from the export of cashew in 2016, making it one of the leading agricultural export commodities after cocoa. Checks in Ghana’s cashew growing areas by the Business and Financial Times show the price at which farmers sell a 100kg bag of raw cashew nuts to processors has dropped by between 40 and 50 percent, reducing farmer income. The spread of the coronavirus has forced the world’s largest importers of cashew products including India, China and Vietnam, to cut imports as processing factories close due to lockdowns. This is causing a glut, forcing international market price of the commodity to slump by 63 percent between January 2020 and now.

Justice Mahama Ansomah, general secretary of the Cashew Buyers and Exporters Association of Ghana,  is praying the situation doesn’t persist for long. “No actor benefits from this current slump in prices; let’s hope that the situation will soon normalize to breathe life back into the cashew business. Most of the investors are locked up in their hotels; they are hesitant to buy cashew,” he explained.

“The free fall price has been an annual ritual but the current situation is seriously taking a huge toll on farmers’ income. Many are struggling to break even after contracting loans to maintain their farms,” Ansomah told the Business and Financial Times.