On 13 July, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, together with four other UN agencies, launched its 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report. The report makes clear that we are far from being on track to hit the UN’s 2030 target for “zero hunger”. After decades of slow decline, the number of hungry people worldwide started rising again in 2014, and will increase dramatically in 2020. The report projects that between 83 million and 132 million more people could become severely undernourished this year.
The warnings are clear: A food crisis is emerging, and the world needs to pay attention. New estimates from the World Food Programme suggest that 270 million more people in the 83 countries in which the agency works could require food assistance by the end of 2020. Hunger has a negative effect on people’s short- and long-term productive capacity, but also on their mental health and their risk of contracting diseases, including coronavirus. In Africa, 33 million more children could be pushed into poverty this year, increasing hunger among the most vulnerable and threatening their lifelong prospects.
Beyond these projections, the pandemic is already taking its toll on food security in Africa. In Sierra Leone, 30 per cent of households have reported having to reduce meals every day, compared to 5 per cent at the same time last year. In Kenya, 70 per cent of informal settlement dwellers surveyed reported that food was their biggest unmet need, while in Nigeria, 75 per cent of adults surveyed in April and May reported skipping a meal. According to Oxfam, hunger linked to Covid-19 could kill more people than the disease itself.
The current rise in hunger seems to be fuelled mainly by reduced income, a demand shock caused by the Covid-19 crisis. The link between economic downturns and rising hunger is well documented, and the Covid-19 pandemic has delivered an unprecedented economic shock to Africa. The IMF projects a 3.2 per cent contraction of economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa, and even that number is considered optimistic by many. In Ghana, almost half of survey respondents had to deplete their savings to pay for food, health care or other expenses since the beginning of the crisis.
Africans have less money to buy food, and this in turn affects agricultural producers and processors, who have seen demand for their products fall. Farmers who produce for export have been severely affected by the global reduction in demand and global disruptions in logistics in the first half of the year. The impact is especially difficult for rural areas, which have also been affected by supply-side constraints like access to agri-inputs and labour as movements are restricted due to Covid-19. An outbreak of locusts in East Africa and security issues in the Sahel in West Africa have only added to the challenges facing areas relying on agriculture. According to an unpublished study by FAO and IFPRI, 451 million people could lose their jobs in agri-food systems of developing countries, which equates to 35 percent of formal employment.
These disruptions are having varying impacts on food prices. Where food imports have been disrupted, such as eggs in Kenya or rice in Ethiopia, prices for local products have increased, benefitting farmers but affecting poor urban residents who were already struggling due to restrictions on movement. Elsewhere, prices have increased due to disruptions in logistics and in markets, but these increases have not necessarily benefitted farmers because local production could not always step up, as was the case for maize in Nigeria. Elsewhere still, prices have decreased due to reduced demand, as is the case for food prices overall in Cameroon, benefitting the urban poor but not farmers or food traders.
For urban residents, farmers and traders – a large proportion of whom are poor – these market disruptions are likely to have a devastating impact on food security. A survey in Kenya showed that 86 per cent of farmers reported difficulties in buying food due to market changes, and half had to reduce the size or number of meals for the household.
Understanding the channels through which hunger is increasing in Africa is key to developing policy responses. An important factor is reduced income from the global economic crisis, affecting consumers and producers in urban and rural areas. Governments and their partners should ensure they can protect the most vulnerable, cushioning the economic shock. Cash transfers are a widely used tool, representing half of social-protection measures globally, while in-kind/food-voucher schemes represent 22 per cent of measures. Looking ahead, governments need to drive economic recovery through an aggressive rethinking of their agriculture systems, ensuring a market-based approach to industrialisation of the sector.
The FAO report makes clear that rising hunger, before and during the Covid-19 crisis, is due to flawed food systems, exacerbated by social and economic inequalities existing on global, national and individual levels. Deeply transforming these food systems through market-based agricultural industrialisation will be necessary to hit the “zero hunger” target and ensure livelihoods are resilient to shocks. We lay out recommendations to governments and their partners in our report on strengthening African food systems.