food security in Africa_covid19

How do you choose between hunger and a viral infection? In addition to the dilemma of a virus ravaging countries without regard for class, status or economic standing, African countries (and quite frankly, poor countries around the world) are also grappling with the realities of the requirement to stay indoors, limit movement and human-to-human contact as a critical step in reducing the spread of the virus. 

A cartoon comes to mind—a woman holding a basket of oranges, a man and a boy clutching her waist behind her, all three with frightened expressions caught in between angry coronavirus cells outside and a ghostly hunger with a scowl and squashy limbs inside.

820 million people around the world do not have enough to eat. And this figure is expected to double with the protectionist measures in place to stall the spread of the virus, particularly movement restrictions across the globe. 

Source: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

In Africa, where millions of people rely on day-to-day activities to feed and poverty levels are bound to skyrocket, concerns are growing about food security in the coming months.

“The risk of major interruptions to food supplies over the coming months is growing, especially for low-income, net food-importing countries, many of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa,” a letter from a coalition of global food and humanitarian organisations to world leaders, reads.

Most of the immediate impact to the food sector in Africa stem from global lockdowns that are affecting logistics at various levels although, as an essential, citizens are allowed to move around to restock food supplies, pharmaceuticals, and food imports and exports have continued. 

Tim Chambers, Co-founder and Managing Director of InspiraFarms, a first mile cooling technology distribution and financing company supporting fresh fruits and vegetables agribusinesses in east and southern Africa, says there has been an increase in freight costs in the last few weeks due to a shortage of containers and the reduction in frequency of commercial flights. 

Majority of fresh produce exports depend on commercial flights and growers are now having to seek alternative, more indirect and more expensive routes to export their produce. 

In Kenya, founder and Director of Operations, Apollo Agriculture, Benjamin Njenga, tells TechCabal that while they have previously not supported farmers with offtakes, with recent difficulties farmers are expressing about accessing markets (and an impending hike in loan defaults), they are piloting a product to support farmers with offtake. 

“Right now we are trying to run a pilot where we can support farmers to gain access to markets for their produce.” 

Apollo, a Kenya-based agritech business, supports farmers to transition from subsistence to commercial farming by providing agrotools like fertilizers, seeds, chemicals in addition to insurance and financing services. 

With technologies like machine learning and data analysis, the company has been able to scale components of the agriculture production process from  data collection and verification to accessing credit worthiness, customer onboarding, developing farmer-specific credit models and loan repayments/collections.

As a result of the lockdown, Njenga says a lot of the company’s operations including its customer service center has moved online and so far they have been able to maintain productivity levels and provide safety items like sanitisers and education to agro partners and field officers who still carry out some in-person activities. 

Last year, Njenga said the company locked prices and made more purchase of agro supplies in anticipation of some supply chain disruptions as is norm for the company, both of which are now proving useful in subverting some of the transport and logistics challenges the lockdown has posed.

Within Kenya where a curfew has been imposed, moving items like fertilizers from the ports to rural areas has been a challenge.

“The other thing is the workers who are going for repackaging, loading, they can’t move because there is a lockdown,” Njenga says. 

This is especially of concern in countries where there are unclear demarcations about what is essential or not, but also a failure to look at all the players that surround an essential service and thereby require passes to move freely.

“So it affected us in terms of sending lorries to the rural areas to deliver fertilizers in our warehouse,” Njenga says.

Its field events like training and on-ground meetings with farmer groups, agro dealer network meetings, marketing events have all been put on hold.

For Gricd, a Nigeria-based technology company which provides cooling solutions primarily for healthcare and medical supplies, the shutdown of businesses and a subsequent decline in volumes which shipping companies would naturally require to aggregate enough to marginally move items from one place to another, has become a crippling challenge.

“Customers have to have enough demand to cover logistics expenses to and fro and they don’t have it,” Founder, Oghenetega Iortim, told TechCabal. 

Prior to the lockdowns down here in Africa, Iortim says the effect of the lockdowns in Europe and US were already impacting movement up until now. 

The second most pressing concern around food security with the current health crisis is around food preservation and storage especially as offtake has slowed down and the demand for certain food produce has considerably decreased as a result. 

“We are seeing, in East Africa, a reduction in demand and export of what we would call more luxury goods,” says Tim Chambers. 

These luxury fruits and/or vegetables which include berries, avocados, etc. are often part of the menus at restaurants and eat-outs many of which have been shut for business or are operating lean businesses at the moment.

According to Chambers, there has been a general increase in demand for fruits and vegetables from local formal retailers (up to 40% increase in demand in Nairobi) and consumers.

He says this may not necessarily indicate a net increase or decrease in demand for everyday fruits and vegetables but may just be a signal that people are turning away from roadside vendors and moving to formal retailers, reflecting a more acute awareness to maintain the highest degrees of hygiene possible in line with WHO recommendations.

This is a positive element for small scale and commercial growers in Kenya and in other African countries, Chambers agrees, but it is more difficult to say at the moment how small scale farmers and growers will be affected in the long term. 

As a company which provides a range of cooling solutions to agribusinesses across Africa and South Asia, deploying first mile cold storage, in other words, providing farmers with small scale cold chain pre-cooling units that allow them store produce immediately after harvest before they transport it, is the first vital step in ensuring fresh food preservation as food insecurity mounts.

Source: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

A third of global food production is lost annually to poor post-harvest storage systems and with fractured supply chains, this number could double in a short period of time. 

“This is the avocado season in Kenya and exports are down 50%,” Chambers says, and there will be financial consequences for small scale and commercial growers.

Food preservation on the side of growers and consumers post-harvest across the continent is often compounded by irregular power supply. Accessing alternative power sources can also be very costly especially for subsistence farmers in rural communities who make up a considerable percentage of nationwide food supply chains.

With solutions like InspiraFarms, not only do small scale farmers receive energy-saving, solar technology tools and facilities to preserve fresh food produce, there is also on-demand financing available that allows farmers who are part of an organised supply chain to be able to manage their inventory at the point of production, and sell when offtakers are ready to purchase. 

“You need to refrigerate the produce from the moment that it is picked in order to maximise its shelf life,” Chambers says, but ultimately, every fresh food comes with its own shelf life and can only be preserved for so long if not consumed or converted into other products. 

In countries like Nigeria, where power supply seems to have worsened since the lockdown, for those who can afford to, stocking food supplies is dicey if there are no alternative power provisions to keep them refrigerated.

One of such recent alternatives that was lauded on social media is this DIY technology that converts a regular air conditioner into a cold room which ReelFruits, a dry fruit snack company in Nigeria has resorted to in order to preserve their fruit snack supply. 

The last couple of weeks and those ahead will prove challenging for many small and large scale businesses with the uncertainties of the pandemic still unravelling and keeping things in a state of flux.

Gricd, which originally shelved the cold chain logistics of agricultural produce in the past, is now looking to partner with voluminous agribusinesses for intrastate deliveries to keep food supply going to retailers and consumers who can still move around and grocery-shop. They are also in talks to partner with the NCDC and biotesting labs to move swab samples from high-risk patients to laboratories and shave off the movement of high-risk individuals in their bid to get tested.

Chambers says while InspiraFarms has mulled over the idea of providing specific COVID-19 support in the countries where they operate in east and southern Africa, ensuring that fresh food produce moves from the farms to the retailers and consumers in good condition remains the focus at the moment. 

“We are best positioned to help our clients [farmers] to supply fresh produce so that people can have access to good quality and healthy food,” Chambers says adding that carrying out any ventures outside of their capabilities needs to be done well if at all possible.

“We’ve seen instances where people have tried to help but haven’t necessarily been able to contribute. We feel this is where our focus is and where we can have the biggest impact and it is a significant and substantial component of the need of the global population at the moment.”

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