Repercussions of the pandemic in the Global South

I have been participating in some of the recent COVID-19 Open Online Briefings which reinforce my understanding of how the COVID pandemic is far from over and can have further repercussions in the countries in the Global South, especially in Africa. In the Briefings we often talk about the importance of involving community actors and decisions makers in the response. My recent article published as a column in the December 2020 issue of the Dutch magazine ‘Vork’ below dives into these issues.

Concerted efforts are required to mitigate the many consequences brought about by COVID-19. This piece enlightens particularly involving African youth and intellectuals as main drivers of sustainable agricultural transformation based on small-scale farming for poverty reduction, enhanced food and nutrition! security, resulting in “Global Health”.

Equal trade and resilient food systems for Africa –  Covid-19 driven shifts

This article was originally published on 18 of December 2020 in Dutch magazine, ’Vork’. 

Africa can develop herself

COVID-19 has revealed several cracks in the globe-spanning agri-food system. Lockdowns have restricted trade flows, compromised access to essential inputs such as quality seed and increased vulnerabilities to external shocks. In Africa, this situation has been  further exacerbated by the loss of earnings from migrant workers, due to unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The loss of these payments, which are often substantially higher than all development assistance budgets together, with the lack of local employment and massive crop losses due to locust attacks, has been a heavy blow. 

Over the years, many African countries have minimized the role of local food systems and sustainable family farming. Instead, various nations now deliberately prioritize the export-oriented production of industrial crops, especially as primary raw materials, to then draw upon the resulting foreign currency to meet primary food needs. In such agri-food systems that are geared towards exports and that extensively rely upon extractive farming practices, the steady degradation of natural capital and net outflows of nutrients have brought about a progressive loss of ecological resilience. COVID-19 has painfully revealed the weaknesses  of this production model and illuminated how Africa’s farmers are especially vulnerable to the vagaries of the international market. Indeed, multiple facets of today’s farming model increase the risks of food system collapse and full-blown social crises. 

Africa should take agricultural development into its own hands

The course of Africa’s food systems needs to be properly charted. Food production in Africa requires investment in technological development, innovation tailored to local (agro-ecological, socio-economic) contexts, and a deliberate focus on smallholder agriculture. If Africa wants to gain a strong position, it must shed its image as a marginal continent where western nations can easily source low-cost primary produce and dump their (subsidized) farm surpluses. One of Africa’s key assets is its young, dynamic and hard-working population,  many of whom live outside of urban areas, inhabiting fertile farmland and with boundless natural resources at their fingertips. Hence, Africa’s investments need to be tailored to   smallholder family farming and to agri-food systems that are protective of human and environmental health. 

It is high time to strengthen Africa’s agricultural and food self-reliance, improve food and nutrition security and mitigate the environmental footprint of agriculture. In addition, well-educated Africans, like the many tens of thousands of agronomists, deserve more respect, better paying jobs and a “hand at the helm”. They have unique insights into the relative strengths and weaknesses of local agriculture and are pre-eminently qualified to contribute to the formulation of a national agricultural policy, which should become the basis for investment plans. The experience of some Asian countries, e.g. China, Vietnam, Bangladesh or Indonesia, has shown how targeted investments, pro-poverty research and farmer empowerment can unlock sustainable economic growth while safeguarding the environment.

As such, agriculture in these countries was recognized as the “backbone of the economy”, steady flows of safe and nutritious farm produce were generated, and large sectors of the population were lifted out of poverty. Due attention to farmer education, ‘One Health’, and an ecological intensification of agriculture have proved to be essential in this regard.

The COVID-19 pandemic now provides the momentum to shape such transitions, giving a new impetus to Africa’s economic development. The traditional partners can act as co-financiers instead of direct benefactors. The ambitious youth – who all too often beckon to Europe – must be actively engaged. Their leadership is crucial to reduce hunger and malnutrition, build a dynamic agricultural sector and create a better future for millions of families. In addition to infrastructure investments, a migration pact could be considered to promote the return of skilled workers to Africa.

Setting sound priorities

Africa is a diverse continent with tremendous natural and human capital and endless possibilities. A flourishing agricultural sector (primarily geared to local and regional markets) can reduce the root causes of migration between rural areas, cities and Europe. Africa should not be further patronized by the North, for it can take matters into its own hands – with external technical and / or financial support, where and when demanded by the local experts. Let us stop  pretending  that westerners have all the expertise  for African agriculture.

Equal trade and tax relations between the EU and AU are essential preconditions for no longer misusing Africa just as a resource. Stable and fair world market prices for products such as coffee and cocoa can contribute to rural development and lift living standards of the rural poor. The role and responsibility of the African political class is central to this. In that context, it is also essential to take the recently launched “African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA)” as a serious starting point.

The UN Food Systems Summit 2021 can provide the right momentum for a new global agricultural policy based on regional self-reliance, equality and a preservation of Planetary Health. In Africa and across the globe, agriculture can and should become a regenerative force, with smallholder farmers as stewards of biodiversity and guardians of human health. The immense potential and socio-economic reach of Africa’s agricultural and food system should not be overlooked, and the aforementioned transition must be tackled as a matter of priority.

Thanks to Orlando de Ponti and Martin Smith

For more information, Ad can be contacted at: [email protected]

About this 4SD Reflection

This article is a reflection by Ad Spijkers following the COVID-19 Open Online Briefings of Dr David Nabarro.

Ad worked as Representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. He is part of a group of Wageningen development veterans with extensive experience in Africa and Asia.

Participants of the COVID-19 Open Online Briefings are invited to share their reflections on how they are navigating complexities from their own perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in these reflections are intended to inspire greater systems leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of 4SD as an organisation or it’s associated personnel. Any content provided by authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.