COVID-19 reviving Africa’s confidence in locally produced food

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

August 18, 2020

Restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have prompted a revival of locally produced food in Africa.

As border closures make imported foods more expensive and harder to get, and political leaders rally support for the local agricultural economy, African consumers are showing renewed interest in local foods.

“I wish the farmers could go and stay in their farms so that we can produce what we need sufficiently so that we don’t have to import,” Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari told the media in Abuja. “In any case, we don’t have money to import so we must produce what we have to eat.”

Although Africa has more than 60 percent of the globe’s arable uncultivated land, it spends about US$50 billion annually on food imports, the majority of which could be produced on the continent. Local rice and poultry products, for example, are usually shunned in favor of imports from the United States and Thailand. Consumers claim that imported rice has a better aroma and imported chicken is cheaper. Meanwhile, local producers have no market for their products.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC), a sub-regional block of 13 countries in the southern part of Africa, published a report last month recommending steps to ensure food security in light of COVID-19. It called on member states to “encourage crop diversity through the promotion of diversified diets, including indigenous foods.”

In a recent national broadcast, Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo urged Ghanaians to take an interest in local goods. “We have to make the things we use and grow the foods we eat,” he said. “We have to come out of this crisis better, stronger and more united than before. Ghana — free, united, socially just, self-reliant and productive — that is the Ghana we are going to create together after we have defeated this virus.”

Almost half of Ghana’s annual US$1.5 billion food import costs go toward rice, even though rice is produced in all 16 regions of the country. Much of it hardly gets to market as consumers rush for imported brands, but things are starting to change.

“With the issue of promoting the patronage of Ghana rice, current advocacy involving the president has made good impact,” Samuel Abroquah, a Ghanaian farmer and founder of Agro Impact Africa, told the Alliance for Science. “Aside from arousing interest in eating Ghana rice, it has considerably increased the number of rice farmers.”

Ghana has started a campaign to encourage consumption of locally grown rice.

Nana Adjei Ayeh, a rice farmer and president of the Ghana Rice Interprofessional Body (GRIB), said the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions are a wakeup call to Ghanaians on the need to choose local foods, which he insisted are better, over imports.

“I think COVID-19 has taught us a very big lesson that we must invest in our local production,” he said. “Our rice is fresh. We produce the rice and within a year, we consume everything. The rice from Thailand, some of it you see is five years, six years old.

“If we start consuming local rice, we are creating jobs,” Ayeh continued. “I am a rice farmer. Since last year, I have doubled the laborers on my field. All because of the Eat Ghana Rice Campaign. So, I have employed more people.”

Ayeh wants the government to build on the progress it’s made so far by completely banning the importation of foods that can be grown in-country, insisting the local agricultural sector can feed the country.

“If I had power, I would put restrictions on importation of foods that we can grow in Ghana, especially rice,” he said. “Let me cite an example. When we ran out of facemasks (for fighting COVID-19), what did we do? We started producing them locally. So why can’t we do the same thing with food?”

Abroquah of Agro Impact Africa argues in favor of restrictions instead of a complete ban. “There should be a quota on the number of tonnes of rice that can be imported,” he said. “There should be increased tariffs on imported rice that will be channeled to support local production. Government should equally look at innovative ways to support farmers to produce more efficiently at a lower cost of production.”

Abroquah cautioned that “our uncontrollable taste for foreign foods is a disincentive to farmers and takes a significant toll on economic growth. Indirectly, this will crush our food systems and consequently raise a generation which doesn’t really know how to eat most of what we grow. This could inevitably bring us to the table of the colonial barter trade where we must exchange our range of resources for food even though we are living with numerous agricultural resources that can produce what we eat.”

When Ghana first recorded cases of COVID-19, Minister for Food and Agriculture Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie assured citizens that the government would take advantage of the pandemic and related lockdown to make the nation food secure.

“The COVID-19 pandemic provides a golden opportunity for Ghana to optimize our potential for food production to meet domestic needs, grow our agricultural exports and create jobs for the youth of this country,” he told a media briefing in the capital Accra.

“In the wake of export bans in countries from where we import a large chunk of our food items, like rice and poultry, it provides a compelling situation for us to put strategic measures in place to ramp up production for all our key staples,” the minister added. “It also gives us the opportunity to intensify agro-processing, thus reducing post-harvest losses, and ensure year-round food availability while creating the needed jobs.”

Just as he predicted, COVID-19 is opening up the local agro-processing sector and creating jobs for the masses. The cash crop of cashew nuts — whose export earned Ghana US$381 in 2019 — has been the biggest beneficiary.

“Because of the stiff competition of the raw cashew nuts being borne by the expatriates, our local processing companies could not compete with them,” John Manu, Ashanti regional director of crop services at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, told Alliance for Science. “When COVID-19 came, because of travel restrictions, these expatriates could not come in. And government encouraged the local companies by supporting them financially to aggregate and buy these raw cashew nuts and start their [processing] businesses. Some seven industries had closed down. But because of this intervention, they are now working. And we think with COVID-19, despite its negative effect, on the other side it has really helped us locally by reviving our industries,” he said.

“So, it is a wakeup call for us as a nation that we should look at our local industry and promote what we grow,” Manu added. “We should eat what we grow too. We should encourage the citizenry that it is high time we look at what we are producing and patronize it. Because the more we patronize what we grow, the more it energizes the farmers to do more.”