The differential effects of COVID-19 on food systems and livelihoods in Africa

Written by: John Thompson

The COVID-19 crisis has caused severe disruptions to agri-food systems across the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, where many people already suffer from shocks and stresses related to climate change, conflict and poverty, the pandemic further threatened the economic and nutritional status of tens of millions of people. With border closures and mobility restrictions imposed by governments to curb the spread of the virus, access to markets and trading were disrupted, thereby affecting the livelihoods and well-being of poor farming households across the region who rely on these activities to survive. In collaboration with a range of local and international partners, the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC), with support of the UK Foreign, Development and Commonwealth Officer/UKAid, conducted a series of studies over 2020-21 to track how responses to the crisis were affecting local food systems, value chains and rural livelihoods across the region.

Lessons from APRA research

On Wednesday 9 February 2022, APRA researchers presented the results from a ‘Multi-Phase Assessment of the Effects of COVID-19 on Local Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods’ spanning eight countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe). That research involved three rounds of telephone surveys with over 800 households and qualitative interviews with more than 65 local and regional key informants. Expert commentators engaged in complementary studies of COVID-19 and agri-food systems then offered reflections on the APRA work and highlighted implications for agricultural development and food and nutrition security in the future.

This event is part of the on-going e-Dialogue series on ‘Towards an Equitable and Sustainable Transformation of Food Systems, which is being convened by APRA in partnership with UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Foresight4Food. Because of the emphasis on equity, this e-Dialogue focused on how and why the effects of the pandemic have led to differentiated livelihood and food and nutrition outcomes for various households and communities, often to the detriment of the most vulnerable groups. After reviewing the evidence presented by the APRA team, the dialogue will also ask: what can we learn from this crisis to respond to major shocks in future?

Understanding equity mediating factors

In the APRA studies, researchers found that decisions made by many African governments to navigate and manage the COVID-19 crisis left deep marks on the region’s food systems, leading to inequitable livelihood and food and nutrition security outcomes for the most disadvantaged groups. The capacity of households and individuals to respond to those decisions was influenced by a range of equity mediating factors, including their social position in society, job status, socio-cultural beliefs, and the availability of local or external support structures. While neither uniform across countries nor among all social groups, these factors influenced the extent to which household livelihood security and well-being are compromised. Those with the least capacity to cope with the restrictions often faced higher care burdens, lower access to healthcare and inadequate diets.

Many of the people most affected were already facing intersecting vulnerabilities due to insecure livelihoods and other inequities. The barriers to movement and trade imposed by governments during the initial lockdown period in 2020-21 led to job and revenue losses and disruptions to the labour supply for many people. Further, those not reached by national support systems and official state aid were at a particularly high risk of loss of income and insecurity at a time of high unemployment and constricted incomes. Those groups include temporary and landless labourers, smallholder farmers, and women and girls, who are more likely to be at risk of long-term nutritional losses as the pandemic threatens their access to education and healthy meals.

Although formal support structures, such as social protection programmes and humanitarian assistance, are often seen as a protective (when they exist), APRA research observed that there was little COVID-19-specific support provided from governments, NGOs or the private sector. In many cases, community-based organisations were seen as the groups who could help those most in need, although this was not universal. This community mobilisation often built on pre-established local structures, e.g. religious organisations, traditional leaders, community support schemes created for previous public health crises, etc.

Preparing for future shocks

Together, as the e-Dialogue deliberations showed, the APRA studies highlight key lessons and priority actions that need to be taken to respond to the food and livelihood security challenges resulting from the pandemic in a way that addresses informality and the intersecting vulnerabilities of the most marginal groups.

To mitigate impacts of large natural and human-driven shocks, such as COVID-19, countries must meet the immediate food and income security needs of their vulnerable populations, keep agricultural markets open and trade flowing, and support smallholder farmers and small and medium enterprises to continue to operate.

Adaptive social protection measures can build the resilience of these households to the impacts of major shocks, such as pandemics, but structural inequalities must also be addressed to ensure these reach the poorest and most vulnerable populations. Local support structures can fill some of the gaps, but they are often localised and patchy and therefore insufficient to meet the needs of larger populations.

COVID-19 provides an opportunity to rethink policies for ensuring food and nutrition security and economic recovery that are aligned with the commitment of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ‘leave no one behind’. We are hopeful that the robust evidence and analysis provided by APRA researchers and our partners can inform those charged with the responsibility of charting that course, and help build more just and resilient food systems in future.

Read the latest blogs from our APRA country teams on their own COVID-19 research, here: