Lockdown measures have disrupted internal supply chains halting food production.
The continent is more dependent on food externally sourced, but countries are reducing exports, meaning Africa can’t import the supplies it needs.
As a result of the COVID-19 lockdown and lack of access to markets, farmers are experiencing massive post-harvest losses of fruits, vegetables, fresh products, and other perishables, Smallholder Women Farmers Organisation (SWOFON), raises an alarm.
They are particularly worried that they are unable to move their products from their farms to the markets or from their rural communities to semi-urban and urban markets, while also losing income from staple foods like Maize, Rice, Wheat, Potatoes, Cassava, Soybeans, Yams, Sorghum, and Plantain among others.
SWOFON also added that those engaged in livestock farming especially poultry, no longer have access to poultry feeds, just as Fisheries and aquaculture farmers are affected by the lockdown owing to low patronage by hotels and skeletal operations of restaurants.
ActionAid Country Director, Mrs. Ene Obi, and the President of SWOFON, Mrs. Mary Afan, said these during a joint virtual press conference, Monday, on COVID-19 and its implications on Food and Agriculture, Smallholder Women Farmers and averting the looming food crisis in Nigeria.
The farmers further decried that security agencies and task forces enforcing the lockdown in the states, at the local government and community levels are constantly harassing and extorting smallholder farmers, especially women.
Obi pointed out that prior to the emergence of COVID-19, smallholder women farmers were already faced with low and difficult access to credit, essential inputs, improved seeds and seedlings, organic and non-organic fertilizers, which are now completely frozen with the spread of the pandemic.
She said: “Being a planting season for farmers, it is pertinent to say that food crisis is already looming in Nigeria. In addition to the food price crisis across the country, the poor and vulnerable are facing hunger and malnutrition, and this includes smallholder women farmers.”
The group however called on the Federal Government to announce clear policy interventions during this pandemic, to ensure sustained local food production and supply, saying the period is an opportunity for Nigeria to become self-reliant in food production and completely wean itself from excessive food imports.
They also opined that special community local produce buying and transportation should be arranged to buy produce from smallholder women farmers to ensure food supply is maintained.
They also urged that Smallholder farmers especially women should be exempted from the movement restrictions while observing precautionary measures, so that they can go to their farms for work and transport their produce to the market.
The group also stressed the need for grants, credit, essential inputs, early maturing livestock, improved seeds and seedlings, and fertilizers preferably organic to be provided for smallholder farmers especially women to avert the looming food crisis.
They further stressed the need to exempt Agricultural extension agents from the movement restrictions, so they can provide extension services and support to farmers while maintaining physical distancing and other precautionary measures.
“Special palliatives targeted at smallholder farmers especially women should be designed to provide for the needs of farmers, as they are amongst the poor and vulnerable, also smallholder women farmers should be provided with agricultural insurance services.” they stated.
Food insecurity looms
In Nigeria’s Benue state, the food basket of the country, Mercy Yialase sits in front of her idle rice mill. Demand is high across the nation, but she already has mounds of paddy rice that are going nowhere amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I can’t mill because the marketers are not coming,” Yialase said, referring to wholesale buyers, as she sat at a market stall in the city of Makurdi with dozens of other millers.
Although food truck drivers are meant to be exempt from lockdown restrictions, many are afraid for their own safety, or fear they will be fined or arrested by overzealous police.
The situation in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is reflected across sub-Saharan Africa.
Trucking logistics firm Kobo360 said 30% of its fleet across Nigeria, Kenya, Togo, Ghana and Uganda was not operating as a result. Several farmers said crops were rotting in the fields or at the depots waiting for trucks that never arrive. And millers cannot get their milled rice to buyers.
“There is no clarity around what can move around … or what is essential transportation,” said Kobo360 co-founder Ife Oyedele, adding that truck bosses were afraid. “They’re scared to go out and have their drivers on the road.”
Millions of people in the region are at risk of not getting the food they need due to coronavirus disruptions, according to the United Nations and World Bank.
While domestic crops and capacity go to waste, the imports the region relies on have also dried up as major suppliers, including India, Vietnam and Cambodia, have reduced or even banned rice exports to make sure their countries have enough food to cope with the pandemic.
Meanwhile, scarcity has driven up prices of the main staple food beyond the reach of some people since lockdowns were announced in three states at the end of March to tame the spread of the virus.
Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s largest rice-importing region, could be heading from a health crisis straight into a food security crisis, the World Bank warns.
More widely, the United Nations says coronavirus disruptions could double the number of people globally without reliable access to nutritious food, to 265 million.
“There is no question about it that there is an imminent problem of food insecurity, not only in Nigeria, but also in nations all over the world,” Nigeria’s Agriculture Minister Muhammed Sabo Nanono told Reuters.
Nanono said Nigeria had at least 38,000 tonnes of grains in government-controlled strategic reserves. It is looking to replenish with 100,000 additional tonnes.
However the region has among the lowest inventories relative to consumption, so export restrictions mean rice shortages “could happen very quickly,” according to John Hurley, lead regional economist for west and central Africa for the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development.
Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in recent years. But figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show it still imports at least a third of what it consumes. Across sub-Saharan Africa, countries rely on imports for roughly 40% of rice consumption.
This puts these countries at particular risk.
Domestic movement restrictions and import delays are also hindering farmers, and some are warning that production will fall if governments do not act.
A survey by AFEX Commodities Exchange Limited, a Nigerian company that assists the agriculture sector with logistics and financing, found that Nigeria’s fertilizer stocks are currently 20% below normal levels. There are only enough seeds and other inputs to farm 1 million hectares out of the roughly 30 million typically farmed, the study showed.
Other farmers say the lockdowns are hindering farm inspections by banks, putting their financing at risk, and creating problems physically getting tractors – which are often hired – to fields. Planting rice would typically start in May.
“Most people in the industry I speak with are worried,” said Dimieari Von Kemedi, managing director of Alluvial Agriculture, a farm collective.
Nigeria’s government has created a task force to minimize the coronavirus’s impact on agriculture.
Nanono said it was creating ID cards for those in the agriculture sector, from farmhands to food truck drivers, to enable them to move freely.
He said the government was taking steps to make sure farmers, millers and marketers could operate. The agriculture ministry is working to increase locally produced fertilizers, while the central bank would look to expand financing for farmers, he added.
Help cannot come soon enough for Yialase in Benue, who is awaiting the day marketers return.
“When they start to come, I can mill everything here, and they will buy.”