By Maya Demissie
The 2020 Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition reported increasing levels of food insecurity, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report was compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the African Union, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and argues that food insecurity in the continent is worsening. It outlines a five-step plan towards “rapid and effective transformation of food systems.”
“A common vision, strong political leadership, and effective cross-sectoral collaboration, including the private sector, are essential to agree on trade-offs and identify and implement sustainable solutions to transform food systems for healthy, affordable diets,” according to the report.
In 2019, the number of chronically undernourished people in Africa rose to nearly one-fifth of the population, with numbers continuing to rise today. The number of people affected by severe food insecurity is also increasing, hitting 73 million people in 2019, an increase of 6 million from the year before. 426 million people are moderately food insecure.
Nearly three quarters of Africans cannot afford a healthy diet, 51 percent cannot afford a nutrient-adequate diet, and 11.3 percent cannot afford an energy sufficient diet. An energy sufficient diet would cost about 50 percent of food expenditure budgets for the 430 million Africans living in extreme poverty.
COVID-19 regulations worsened the availability and accessibility of food in Africa. Africa depends on extra-regional food imports of basic products, such as cereals, vegetable oils, sugar, meat and dairy products. This dependence exposed the continent to the economic shocks of COVID-19. Travel bans affected aircrafts and railroads, limiting food movement and decreasing trade. World trade volumes were expected to fall by 13 to 32 percent in 2020.
Economic downturn and the consequential increased poverty rates in Africa account for a portion of the increased food insecurity this past year, the report argues. Real GDP in the continent fell by 2.1 percent in 2020. Tourism-dependent countries were hit harder, with an average GDP decrease of 11.5 percent.
The economic damage is expected to push 26 to 40 million people into extreme poverty. Additionally, unemployment is on the rise as labor jobs were sent home to quarantine. As more people fall into poverty or lose their jobs, they can no longer pay for sufficient food or a diverse diet, according to the report. In Africa, an additional 25 to 42 million people may be undernourished as a result of the economic shocks from COVID-19 pandemic, according to preliminary estimates.
The five-step plan includes performing comprehensive situation analysis, identifying cost drivers of healthy diets, addressing urgent needs of the most vulnerable, identifying policies and investments to leverage food systems transformation, and implementing policy recommendations and monitoring their impact.
Social protection could mitigate food insecurity, the report argues. While the impact on nutrition is weaker, social programs can help to increase overall food consumption and dietary diversity. According to the report, 26 African countries had introduced a social protection program in some form by mid-2020. Liberia, Nigeria, and Cape Verde, among other countries, have introduced delivery or pick-up school lunch initiatives while students learn from home. Taxes and subsidies can also be utilized to make food accessible to those living in poverty.
The report also emphasizes the threat of of maternal and child under nutrition, the leading factor in nutrition-caused diseases in Africa. In Kenya, a program ensured free maternity services for expecting mothers as part of the National Nutrition Action Plan (NNAP), encouraging mothers to deliver their babies in a health facility. During the program, the number of babies born in a health facility increased from 43 to 61 percent. In Ghana, the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative helped focus on care and counseling for pregnant mothers and feeding and care practices for infants and young children.
Focus on nutritional education is also suggested within the report. It is recommended that education includes both information on the importance of dietary diversity and specific ways to maintain a healthy diet with a tight budget.