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Pandemic of Hunger

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It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday, and dozens of children have begun to line up outside a home in a street in Delft, a working-class neighbourhood in Cape Town, South Africa. On a busy day, the queue will grow to be hundreds of metres long, sometimes snaking off into other streets. There is still an hour to go until the food is served—it’s chicken and vegetable curry with rice—but they are content to wait. They’re hungry.

The day has been warm, but it turns chilly as the Sun dips behind the single-storey houses. The children wait patiently, some dressed only in shorts and T-shirts. They keep their place in the queue and their distance from each other. From toddlers to teenagers, they all wear cloth masks over their mouths and noses. The older children look after the youngest.

“This community is like one big family,” says Marlene Jameson, who has been operating this food initiative from her driveway for four years. Plastic bags filled with fennel, herbs and peppers rest against the shoulder-height wall separating her property from her neighbour’s. Every room in her house is piled high with bags of maize (corn) meal, tins of pilchards and bottles of cold drinks.

The 56-year-old former bookkeeper set up her charity, called Khathalelana, which means ‘caring for one another’ in the Xhosa language, to help tackle some of the biggest challenges facing her community. Unemployment, poverty and gang crime are rife in Delft, which has had the highest number of murders in South Africa in the past year. As well as providing food, the charity used to run several activities, including an after-school programme that gave students a safe and quiet place to study and the opportunity to get involved in sports. But in March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit and many Delft residents were unable to make a living owing to the nationwide lockdown, demand for food soared.

“Then my day job became sourcing food because now the need was big,” Jameson says. Before the pandemic, about 100 people, mostly children, would line up in front of her house; now it’s closer to 300. And she sees the hunger on their faces. “You never know if it’s their first meal of the day.”

Life on the farm

About 20 kilometres away, Brandon Mubaiwa paces along rows of leafy greens. “I never used to grow a lot of spinach,” says the Zimbabwean farmer, who produces organic food on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. His crop grows quickly and now covers half a hectare—a sizable chunk of his land.

Stellenbosch lies at the heart of South Africa’s wine-growing district, and its plush vineyards are home to many top restaurants. Until March, Mubaiwa’s farm supplied some of those restaurants with speciality vegetables such as baby parsnips, golden beetroot and pak choi. But when the lockdowns started, the restaurants had to close.

Almost overnight, demand for Mubaiwa’s produce dried up. “When that happened, I wondered: how am I going to make money? I also thought I was going to lose all my vegetables. It was a big blow to me,” he says.

But Mubaiwa now has a new customer, a charity called FoodFlow that caters to low-income communities and that values bulk and nutritional content over flavour—hence the spinach. Each week, Mubaiwa makes 6,000 rand (US$355) from selling the popular staple to FoodFlow, as well as carrots, butternut squash, kale and other vegetables. It’s less than he earned growing speciality vegetables for restaurants, but it’s enough for him to pay his labourers and keep the farm going. “If it wasn’t for them, at this stage my income would not be all right,” he says. “I changed my way of farming because of the pandemic.”

FoodFlow was established just a week before South Africa’s shutdown took effect on 27 March. As well as buying produce from small-scale farmers such as Mubaiwa, it also purchases from other food producers, including fishers and bakers, who were dealt a harsh blow by the pandemic. The charity then distributes the food to initiatives such as the one run by Jameson in Delft.

Mubaiwa is one of millions of small-scale farmers across Africa who have had to change the way they plan, plant and harvest as a result of COVID-19. The pandemic has posed fresh challenges to food security in countries that were already battling multiple threats, including climate change and invasive pests.

In some African countries, COVID-19 restrictions severely affected transportation networks for produce. In others, lockdowns coincided with the planting season, leaving farmers with a difficult choice—either delay and risk missing the rains, or sow a smaller area of land than usual using the few seeds and fertilizers they still had access to. And restrictions on people’s ability to work, combined with a drop in the amount of money sent to Africa from citizens working abroad, made it more difficult for many Africans to buy food.

Factors such as these could lead to 130 million more people living with chronic hunger by the end of 2020 than had been expected, according to the United Nations—a 19% increase on its pre-pandemic estimate.

However, the challenges posed by the coronavirus have also created an opportunity to strengthen food systems and make them more resilient. “COVID-19 has provided a real-life innovation lab, a testing ground for big ideas,” says Corinna Hawkes, director of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London.

A deepening hunger crisis

Globally, hunger was already on the rise before the pandemic hit. After decades of sustained decline, the number of undernourished people has been growing since 2015. Last year, an estimated 688 million people were not getting enough to eat. In its latest report on food security, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that its target of eliminating hunger by 2030 is slipping out of reach. Even without COVID-19, it was predicting that the number of people around the world going hungry would reach 840 million by 2030—more than at any time since 2005.

Africa is especially vulnerable. One in five people there are undernourished—a greater prevalence than in any other region of the world. By 2030, the UN had projected that this could rise to one in four, even without the pandemic. Africa’s population is also growing faster than that of any other continent, meaning that by 2030 more than half of the world’s hungry are expected to reside there.

Predicting the long-term impact of COVID-19 on food security is difficult, not least because of the lack of clarity about what the world economy will look like going forwards. In June, when the FAO published its report, it was clear that the pandemic was having a substantial effect on both the supply and the demand side of the food system. Acknowledging the inherent uncertainty in making projections at this moment, the report explores several scenarios for how the pandemic might affect the world economy, and estimates the impact on hunger. Some are worse than others, but none makes for pleasant reading (see ‘A hungrier future’).

The best-case scenario for the global economy would cause the number of undernourished people to increase by 83 million in 2020. In future years, numbers would stick closer to earlier predictions.

The most pessimistic scenario sees a deeper, longer, economic contraction. It would result in an extra 132 million hungry people this year. By 2030, 909 million people would be undernourished.

Such forecasts are alarming, but they still might not capture the full impact of a global recession. Because they focus on supply, and do not take into account inequalities in access to food, the FAO notes that they might underestimate the harm.

Continental impact

Not all the food-security problems caused by the pandemic are linked to food production. Lockdowns will hamper access to food, for example, and countries that rely heavily on imported food are likely to be hit hard by economic slowdown. But farmers across Africa are undoubtedly being affected by the pandemic.

Many have seen their incomes dwindle. In Uganda, chicken farmers lost out on an anticipated boom in demand in April, when Easter celebrations were muted by bans on gatherings. Festivities in May for Eid were also subdued, hitting producers again.

In Ethiopia, lockdowns have disrupted distribution chains for both dairy products and vegetables, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which has a regional office in Addis Ababa. The pandemic has also strained household budgets, so families have had to cut back on their consumption of expensive sources of nutrients, such as vegetables.

Ethiopia was already reeling from the effects of an onslaught of voracious desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria)—its worst infestation in a quarter of a century. COVID-19 made things worse. By June, the Ethiopian government had announced that 16.5 million people—about 15% of the population—were in need of food and other humanitarian assistance. Nearly 10 million people were in that situation because of COVID-19, the government said.

These effects have probably hit rural communities the hardest, says Kalle Hirvonen, a development economist at the IFPRI in Addis Ababa. It has been difficult to track impact in these regions, however, because coronavirus restrictions have stopped researchers from carrying out field surveys. Some research organizations have switched to phone surveys, but this means that they can only reach people who own mobile phones, which Hirvonen says excludes 60% of rural households. As a result, he says, “we have a pretty limited understanding of how this pandemic is affecting the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the Ethiopian population”.

Although the overall picture is murky, data collected in May show that many Ethiopian vegetable farmers are seeing a drop in their income as a result of COVID-19. Scientists who surveyed farmers in the central East Shewa region found that many had struggled to access fertilizers and to employ migrant labourers since the pandemic struck. Around half of farmers reported making less money this year than last.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and largest economy, income in the agricultural sector dropped by 13% during the country’s lockdown. This is despite farming being classified as an essential service and therefore exempt from many of the restrictions.

The coronavirus crisis has, however, led to innovation—especially in the distribution of food. As in many other parts of the world, there has been an increase in online food ordering and delivery services, says Kwaw Andam, a food-security specialist with the IFPRI in Nigeria. Before the pandemic, Nigeria’s markets—where most people buy groceries and other goods—were open every day. During lockdown, stall holders were restricted to trading on specific days of the week. This made many farmers turn to social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to sell their produce straight to consumers.

More-formal online food ordering and delivery services have also become more popular. A Nigerian company that has done well out of the pandemic is Hills Harvest, which collects fresh food from multiple farms and connects farmers to corporate buyers in a bid to reduce post-harvest losses. It has been around for almost a decade, but saw a hike in demand when COVID-19 hit. Abu Market, a subsidiary of Hills Harvest in Lagos, started a donor-funded delivery service of essential food to low-income consumers during lockdown.

Farmers have also been using digital technologies more to access information on seeds, pricing, credit, innovative farming practices and the weather. “COVID-19 served as a catalyst for wider adoption of innovations in agriculture that were starting to take off before the pandemic,” explains Andam.

In Ghana, too, digital technologies matching farmers to consumers have flourished, says Samuel Abroquah, an agriculture entrepreneur based in Kumasi. Developed by young Ghanaians, these platforms became a major business during the lockdown, he says.

Even though many of these applications require access to the Internet, the cost of accessing these digital tools is not prohibitive, says John Agboola, an agricultural economist based in Lagos. “Nigeria has one of the lowest data rates in the world,” he says. “If you manage your data well, US$2 can last you a month.”

A moment for change

Both Abroquah and Andam think that the digital food technologies are here to stay. They help everyone by cutting down on cumbersome delivery mechanisms that drive up costs, Abroquah says. Elsewhere, however, the innovative practices might not be as easy to hold on to.

In South Africa, the crisis has highlighted some of the deep injustices that underpin the country’s food-production system. Overall, food production there is much more mechanized than in many other African nations. But most of that technology is concentrated on the large commercial farms that supply the country’s supermarkets. There are about two million small-scale or household farmers in South Africa, who trade mainly at informal markets. The lockdown in March shut down this trade, and the farmers lost what little market access they had. The large commercial farmers, by contrast, continued to operate profitably because they supplied the supermarkets, which were still allowed to open.

The highlighting of such injustices has provided an opportunity for scientists, policymakers and community-based organizations to re-imagine the broken systems. In Cape Town, this includes addressing the nutrient exodus, in which produce grown by farmers such as Mubaiwa flows from the low-income farming areas, where nutritious food is sorely needed, to more affluent areas, either on restaurant plates or in vegetable boxes marketed at the middle classes.

Before COVID-19, it was not profitable for most small-scale farmers around Cape Town to grow for their own communities. But initiatives such as FoodFlow have changed that.

However, maintaining these gains as the pandemic progresses, and hopefully passes, is a growing challenge for these initiatives, says FoodFlow co-founder Ashley Newell. At the height of lockdown, donations were high. “It was a real opportunity for people to do something,” she says. In its first 5 months, FoodFlow supported 400 food producers across South Africa, and provided an estimated 160,000 meals.

But FoodFlow’s donations have dropped with every loosening of the restrictions. “With that in mind, we’ve been starting the process of figuring out a more sustainable model,” Newell says. The problem is how to ensure small-scale farmers can make money while also supplying very price-sensitive customers.

To reconfigure the food systems in Africa, producers and communities need “much greater political and financial support” than they had before the pandemic, according to Helena Shilomboleni, a food-security scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi. “Most African governments are not investing nearly as much resources to support their farmers or agricultural sectors as they should,” she says.

For South Africa’s food systems to change, community voices such as Jameson’s and Mubaiwa’s need to be amplified, says Scott Drimie, director of the Southern Africa Food Lab at Stellenbosch University. He agrees that the pandemic has created an “opportunity for recalibration”, but points out that people have a choice as to what form this takes—it can either mimic old power systems or be something more equitable and resilient. “To end hunger, we need to navigate the rapid changes under way whilst keeping issues of power and voice in stark focus,” he says.

Jameson, a marathon runner in her spare time, intends to go the distance. Despite the misery that COVID-19 has caused her community, it has also allowed people like her to help more than they ever thought possible. “This pandemic has just opened more doors. There’s more connections, there’s more networking,” she says. “I know these connections will be lifelong.”

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on October 12 2020.

Author Linda Nordling

Design Mohamed Ashour, Chris Ryan

Original photography Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville / Panos Pictures for Nature

Photo editor Madeline Hutchinson

Original video Shaun Swingler

Video editor Shamini Bundell

Fact checking Jenny Rooke

Project management Rebecca Jones

Editor Richard Hodson

Source: Pandemic of Hunger