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We are living through a unique period in human history in which we are forced to reevaluate just about every aspect of all our social and economic activities. Of these, perhaps the most basic and fundamental would be how we produce our food and get it to the consumers.

Agriculture in Africa has a massive social and economic footprint. Well over half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is composed of smallholder farmers, and about 23 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP comes from agriculture.

Agriculture is the bedrock of all African economies no matter how advanced they may be. Agriculture either forms the inputs for industries or it is the major output of many of these countries. More than that, even for the industrialized economies, workers still have to eat in order to perform at their best. So no matter whether we are talking about the new Silicon Valley in Rwanda or technological achievements of Ethiopia, the oil output of Nigeria or new mining techniques in South Africa, agriculture is still the critical foundation that makes all of them possible. So a disruption to our continent’s food supply will have serious consequences for all.

Prior to Covid-19, Africa had built up supply chains that were, for the most part, working out even though there were some fragilities. The appearance of the pandemic has threatened this supply chain by hitting its vulnerabilities and creating new issues to deal with.

Governments across the continent reacted fast by instituting lockdown measures and restricting movements. This was a crucial and necessary first step in containing the spread of the disease. However, it has been a double edged sword in that it has also affected every aspect of the food supply chain.

For farmers, these measures have meant reduced access or increased prices for farming inputs, drastic reduction in manpower available for farming activities and serious limitations to their access to markets. In some cases markets have evaporated altogether, for example with those whose products were destined for the tourist hotels and restaurants or for export.

Supply and distribution has also taken a hit in these times. With reduced movement, as well as fear among some transport workers, the transport sector has been hampered in its ability to collect agricultural produce and get it to markets in time with the unfortunate result that there are some perishable items going bad in fields while there are consumers who desperately need them. This problem with distribution is made worse in some countries by the fact that they have inadequate storage facilities that do not adequately meet the requirements for food storage.

On the demand side of the equation, the situation is just as dire. With fewer items reaching markets, demand is outstripping supply leading to increases in prices. Keeping in mind that many households on the continent live essentially day to day with little or no savings, they cannot keep up with these rising prices and so there is a danger they will fall into less healthy or inadequate diets and thus adversely affect their health and potentially also affect productivity in other economic sectors.

We are going through a health crisis and a good diet is a fundamental resource in ensuring good health. Farmers and their products are crucial now more than ever and need to be supported in order to assure food security during this perilous period. They need support that aids in their production, support that eases supply and distribution chains and builds market linkages. In spite of the many issues affecting food production going on right now, many farmers are still optimistic that the situation can be kept from becoming catastrophic and they are determined to do their part.

We need to think local, regional and continental in terms of food supply chains, with the full understanding that these changes will have profound implications for African citizens and the continent’s economic future.

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