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A multi-phase assessment of the effects of COVID-19 on food systems and rural livelihoods in Ethiopia: The case of Fogera Plain

Written by: Dawit Alemu

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only led to the loss of human life and resulted in an unprecedented challenge to public health, but has also seriously affected food systems and work opportunities. Following the confirmation of the first COVID-19 case in Ethiopia on 13 March 2020, and concerns about the sharp increase in cases, the federal government put in place different measures to prevent and control the pandemic that have affected the food system and rural livelihoods. This blog reflects on the findings of APRA’s Multi-Phase Assessment of the Effects of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ethiopia: The Case of Fogera Plain, which presents the characteristics and awareness of the country’s different public measures, the responses to these measures, their effect on farming and marketing, food and nutritional security on smallholders, and perceived/self-assessed household level of poverty, drawing on primary data generated from three rounds of surveys and key informant interviews of rice farmers and other actors in the Fogera Plain of Ethiopia.


COVID-19 preventive and control measures and awareness

In general, the measures can be categorised into three phases: (i) the five-month State of Emergency, from April to September 2020; (ii) the period of implementation of the directive issued for the prevention and control of the COVID-19 pandemic in October 2020; and (iii) the period from November 2020 when some relaxation of the restrictions began. Overall, rice farmers from the study area were aware of COVID-19 threats, and prevention and control guidelines over the three rounds of the survey, specifically those measures related with the State of Emergency (April 2020), the enacted directive (October 2020), and the adjusted directive.

Responses to the threat of COVID-19

The results indicate that many respondents remained sceptical about the seriousness of the outbreak and compliance with government guidelines continued to be very limited – mainly due to a limited understanding of the danger of COVID-19, limited access and capacity to buy required inputs (sanitiser, masks), and a lack of regulatory measures to enforce the guidelines.

Effect of COVID-19 on farming, labour and marketing

The results indicate that agricultural activities continued to be minimally affected, whereas devastating floods, which occurred during the second round of surveys (October 2020), emerged as a more serious challenge and caused major disruption and displacement. Access to agricultural inputs remained a bottleneck, with the proportion of respondents reporting a decline in availability surging from 22% in the first round (July 2020), to 51% in the second (October 2020), and 71% in the third round (February 2021), while the number reporting an increase in input prices rose slightly from 71% to 74%, and to 87% over the three rounds.

The ability to sell produce at local and regional markets improved over time, with the proportion of respondents reporting a decline decreasing from 33% to only 6% (local markets) and from 32% to 8% (regional markets) between the first and third rounds, implying improvements in marketing opportunities linked with the relaxation of trading and movement restrictions.

Effect of COVID-19 on food and nutrition security

COVID-19’s impact on food and nutritional security was assessed in terms of availability of diverse food items, price trends, and the perceived level of household food and nutritional security. Accordingly, an increase in the proportion of respondents reporting reduced availability of foods over the three periods of the survey was observed for root crops, milk and milk products, meat and poultry, and dark green vegetables, which indicates that food availability continued to be directly or indirectly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For most food items, more than 50% of respondents reported an increase in food prices over the three surveys due to the direct or indirect effect of COVID-19, mainly for milk and milk products, pulses, and processed food, which indicates that the price of nutritious foods increased more than other types of food items, like cereals.

Food security seems to have improved over time, with the proportion of respondents reporting their worries about not having enough food to eat decreased from 64% in the first round to 30% in the third round. In addition, indications of consumption at levels below necessary intake decreased from 31% in the first round to 17% in the third.

Nutritional security also improved initially, with the proportion of respondents reporting an inability to eat healthy and nutritious food decreasing from 42% in the first round to 31% during the second round. This was primarily associated with emergency assistance provided by the government and non-governmental organisations in response to the flood in the Fogera Plain. However, the reduction of this emergency assistance saw this figure increase to 61% during the third round survey.

The self-assessed level of poverty

The self-assessed level of poverty indicated by male-headed households was on average better than that of female-headed households, with about a one-step difference based on the responses before COVID-19 and during the three rounds of survey. In addition, distribution of respondents by the perceived level of poverty indicates that there was a general increase in the proportion of respondents who rated themselves five and below (decline in perceived poverty), and a general decline in those who rated themselves six and above over the three rounds of surveys, compared to their rating before the COVID-19 pandemic (increase in perceived poverty).

Conclusion

Though COVID-19 prevention and control measures were put in place and rice farmers are aware of them, the results indicate limited compliance to them under the study area context. In general, agricultural activities were not affected by the pandemic, though access to agricultural inputs remained a bottleneck, and the ability to sell produce was a challenge especially during the initial period.

The effect of COVID-19 on food and nutritional security manifested in the reduced availability of food items such as root crops, milk and milk products, meat and poultry, and dark green vegetables. The extent of reported nutritional security impacts has declined over the survey periods. Similarly, the self-assessed household poverty indicates a decline, which shows the cumulative effect of COVID-19 under the rural context of Fogera Plain of Ethiopia.