Helping Africa’s Food Systems Respond to Covid-19

Kindra Halvorson, Chief Transformation Officer at TechnoServe, explores how Covid-19 is affecting farmers, food processors and other small businesses within Africa’s complex food systems and how these can be strengthened through coordinated support.

 Phillip Nderitu’s small corner store in Kenya is far removed from any Covid-19 hotspots, but he is still feeling the impact of the global crisis.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has been a blow to our shop,” he explains. “Sales have reduced significantly. Prices of items have skyrocketed, reducing customers’ purchasing power. Some items like sugar have also gone out of stock. The curfew has also affected my business since I am serving fewer customers.”

Shops like Phillip’s are often the final link in the long, complex value chains working to get food from farmers’ fields onto family tables. But across Africa, those value chains are under threat from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Social distancing and restrictions on movement are making it more difficult to grow, transport, process, distribute and sell food. The World Food Programme estimates that millions more people could be pushed into hunger, while a poll taken across 12 African countries found that 80 per cent of respondents were worried about having enough to eat.

The impacts of the crisis are far-reaching, with the situation threatening food security and livelihoods in both urban and rural areas. And as the crisis exacerbates underlying gender inequalities in accessing resources, earning and controlling income, and the amount of time spent on unpaid household responsibilities, women are being disproportionately impacted. 

However, by working across the value chain and supporting the small-and-medium sized businesses that comprise each vital link, we still have the chance to mitigate this food crisis.

A worker at a food processing plant in Kenya.

Strengthening food processors and aggregators

Food processors and other agricultural intermediaries are the lynchpin in food systems, delivering safe, nutritious food to consumers, sustaining incomes and aiding in economic recovery, by providing stable markets for smallholder farmers and traders as well as jobs for workers. Yet Covid-19 is creating new challenges for which these firms are unprepared – from disrupted distribution and employee safety concerns, to difficulties sourcing materials and maintaining sales.

These challenges require creative and nimble problem-solving. Companies must adapt how they manage their teams and operations – including sourcing, marketing and distribution – if they are to survive the crisis, continue to get food from farmers to consumers and contribute to the economic recovery. TechnoServe is therefore providing tailored advice to help food processors think through the implications of the crisis, evaluate their finances and plan for various scenarios.

Supporting smallholder farmers to keep growing

The pandemic has, in many cases, made it difficult for smallholder farmers to access markets, inputs, and the agronomy information they need to grow and sell their crops. With further restrictions on other income-generating activities also significantly impacting their livelihoods, if smallholders do not receive timely support, the consequences could ripple across food systems.

As the pandemic evolves, women and men farmers need reliable health and safety information, access to markets, inputs, labour and working capital, and tailored advice for growing their current crops as well as diversifying their incomes to increase resilience.

Shopkeepers in Kenya view information on a smartphone.

Helping micro-retailers to reach the base of the pyramid 

Micro-retailers are essential for getting food into the hands of base-of-the-pyramid consumers. Small shops like Phillip Nderitu’s in Kenya supply 80 per cent of basic goods to consumers, with 96 per cent of retail in Kenya conducted by enterprises that sell less than $150 worth of goods per day.

However, these shops face their own challenges during the crisis. Our surveys and interviews with micro-retailers found significant drops in shopper numbers, as well as concerns about maintaining supplies and implementing new health and safety measures.

In response, TechnoServe’s programmes are providing tailored support to micro-retailers. While working to address the gender gap in internet access, we are using digital tools like WhatsApp to share advice and interactive training materials, as well as to facilitate information-sharing and problem-solving among entrepreneurs. As a result, shop owners have been able to improve their financial management, identify new suppliers, and change their product mix and marketing approaches to meet shifting demand.

The unprecedented scope of the Covid-19 pandemic requires an unprecedented response, and focusing on just one part of the food system is not sufficient. Food processors and small businesses across the entire value chain require immediate financial and technical support. If they receive that, Africa’s food systems can emerge from the current pandemic more inclusive and more resilient to future crises.

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