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Covid-19 Food/Future: How are food systems reconfiguring under the current pandemic?

This article presents insights gathered during the first six weeks of the Covid-19 Food/Future initiative by a team of young and dynamic voices based in nine African countries.

by Matteo Lattanzi, Bruno St-Jacques and Sarah D’haen | 2020-06-25

Covid-19 Food/Future: How are food systems reconfiguring under the current pandemic?

This article presents insights gathered during the first six weeks of the Covid-19 Food/Future initiative. The initiative is piloted by TMG Research, under its SEWOH Lab project, and propelled by a team of young and dynamic voices based in nine African countries. It’s central aim is to shed light on how Sub-Saharan African societies are experiencing the effects of the pandemic, and navigate the resulting uncertainties around jobs, income, and food production and supply spaces.

Reporting on a daily basis on Twitter and Medium, young participants in Benin, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa, share their views on and highlight the salience of the pandemic on their national and local food systems.

Word cloud highlighting the most prominent terms of the 951 tweets posted between 06 April and 18 May 2020

With close to 50 articles and 1000 tweets published between 06 April and 18 May, the wealth of information gathered provides a unique overview of how food systems have been disrupted by the health pandemic — as well as the ensuing control measures — and how a variety of local actors adapt to, and reconfigure, these systems.

Lockdown measures and their impacts on food systems

Challenges for food security By the first day of reporting, all governing bodies across the nine countries had adopted measures to contain the spread of the virus. Thanks to our reporters’ timely updates on the local state of affairs, we learned that authorities had ruled out all non-essential productive activities, and that an internal lockdown was further accompanied by international trade restrictions. In early April, Kenya closed down learning institutions and declared a ban of international travel for civil servants and of public gatherings. Authorities further added directives affecting mobility and food markets. In late March, the Federal Government of Nigeria started by locking down major cities to curtail the spread of COVID-19. However, not every country introduced measures as stringent as the previous examples. In Malawi, for example, a 21-day lockdown was blocked by court.

Across all countries, the weekly reports highlighted the devastating consequences for informal food markets and other important links between producers and consumers. Diverse blogs shed light on the plight of vulnerable segments of the population, such as informal workers in Benin, where the informal sector is said to employ 70% of the youth population.

Information reported across the countries suggested that Covid-19 and its related measures would exacerbate existing inequalities across all aspects of food and nutritional security. Our reporters stressed the looming impact of price hikes, as well as mitigation measures being taken by some governments, including sanctions for retailers involved in raising the prices of basic necessities. Concurrently, the pandemic has reduced the purchasing power of a considerable part of consumers, particularly in urban contexts, requiring interventions by States, and a range of other actors.

The rich output of #Covid19FoodFuture stories and social media activity have further amplified some of the tough choices between health safety and food security that ordinary citizens are increasingly forced to make. For example, unable to store food, some citizens in Burkina Faso were forced to continue frequenting small markets or food stalls on a daily basis to ensure their subsistence. Such situation prompted actors to call for governments not to prioritise public health over food security, outlining that the one is just as important as the other.

Disruption of supply chains Through their writing reporters highlighted a second dimension of the pandemic’s impact on food systems: the disruption of supply chains. Increased post-harvest losses due to lockdown-related disruptions in mobility and logistics were experienced by farmers in several countries. Our team noted, for example, the inability of farm workers in Nigeria to access their fields, limited transport options for farm produce, and the shut-down of local markets. In Burkina Faso, the lockdown was reported to have visible effects on the ability of agri-food processing units to access raw materials and to sell processed products. The same was true for Malawi, where our reporter highlighted challenges faced by farmers due to a combined lack of labourers, farming inputs and delayed harvests, and resulting increases in operating costs. With the arrival of the rainy season, the unavailability of farming inputs for smallholders represented a prominent issue in DRC, a situation causing some to fear that the local production of food could be imperilled.

In Kenya, it was reported that small-scale retailers suffered important economic losses. Insufficient storage facilities led to spoilage, with the poultry sector strongly affected by this shock, as reported in Nigeria, Madagascar and Benin. Meanwhile, with Kenyan small-scale fishermen and women working late in the night or in the wee hours of the morning, we highlighted advocacy for the easing restrictions.

Our team also focused on consequences for regional and international trade flows, resulting in the strong disruption of export-led sectors, even as barriers to imports depleted the stocks of a range of staple foods. In Benin, the cashew industry, an important strategic export, was reportedly facing important challenges due to trade restrictions and the lack of available buyers. Observers in Burkina Faso feared insufficient rice supply to the markets of the country, while in Madagascar, insufficient rice stocks were reported. Noting the vulnerability of trade dependent food systems, our reporters have strongly emphasised the need to strengthen domestic agriculture.

Adaptation and reconfiguration of food systems

From the second week onwards, with social distancing quickly becoming a new reality, our team began to document some of the concrete steps being taken to address food supply and access challenges, and to build more resilient food systems.

Towards a more resilient agriculture Reports of the quarantined economies rapidly show how lockdown measures have exposed the vulnerabilities of food systems in all nine countries. Reflecting on the situation, our reporters’ personal insights converge around the importance of improving the resilience of food systems to allow themselves to brace for shocks of comparable nature and magnitude in the future.

On 6 May, the Mayor of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, signalled his intention to promote urban agriculture by announcing that the city would assign land for urban farming initiatives and sustain food demand in the face of the effects of droughts and Covid-19 closures. Strategies adopted by different actors for urban farming as well as its benefits were also echoed by reporters in South Africa on 21 April and in Kenya on 07 May.

Measures aimed at improving farmers’ livelihoods through sustainable production were established in several countries. For example, Malagasy agriculture has shown positive signs of response to the crisis, and benefitted from policy support. Some of the country’s strategic crop exports, such as vanilla and essential oils, were able to sustain themselves and received support in the form of facilitated access to savings and credit for producers. Those measures go beyond the production cycle and are geared towards protecting biodiversity, among other benefits. On the market side, some retailers in Malawi have resorted to value addition strategies to prolong the shelf life and promote localised production.

Some reporters also hinted at potential pathways to increase local food security. For example, our reporter in Benin observed that, with rice having gained prominence in the national diet, this staple could potentially contribute to ensure the food security of the 70% of the poor living in rural areas. He went on to suggest pathways to strengthen the country’s resilience by outlining a series of reforms that could increase the competitiveness of domestic rice production. Our reporter in Nigeria mentioned that the Covid-19 crisis comes on top of a wide range of threats for smallholders and stressed the need to strengthen small scale food production efforts.

Tapping into the potential of digital solutions From the third week of reporting activities, the reporting team was drawing attention to some important challenges governments were facing in the delivery of relief measures, and the subsequent acceleration of digital services to fill certain gaps. On 17 April, one tweet revealed an agri-commerce platform in Kenya that enables farmers to effectively reach consumers.

Meanwhile, Nigerians started using online platforms to share collective responses to the pandemic, with food banks, hunger relief programmes and extension support accessible on Beating Another social exchange platform reported on 21 April,, is helping consumers get essential food items in Lagos, Nairobi, and Kigali. By the end of this reporting Phase (15 May), we had also learned of the Senegalese Jaayma Mburu platform, a government-sponsored bread booking system aiming to reach vulnerable consumer groups in Senegal.

Unsurprisingly, online food delivery services expanded and were adopted by larger segments of the population in several countries. A comprehensive example of enabling consumers’ access through digital platforms is found in DRC, where a tech company has helped farmers structure into cooperatives and is striving to reach low-income citizens. It is offering a virtual food market with traceability of goods and payments by debit card or mobile money. It also integrates USSD technology for commands via SMS for those who are not connected to the internet. In Kenya, at least four types of delivery platforms connecting supply and demand were signalled.

In early May, our reporter in Kenya announced that an innovative digital token, the “Bonga points’’, had been developed by Safaricom, the country’s largest mobile network operator. Accumulated loyalty tokens awarded to subscribers for data usage can now be redeemed into cash to purchase food and other essentials. Community organisers have tapped into this innovation by collecting “Bonga Points” donations and distributing essential food items to households in need. In terms of access to finance, reporters observed an increased reliance on software connecting farmers to markets and financial services. Microfinance services are called to apply data science to finance in order to build software that increases access where most needed, all whilst contributing to mitigate future disruptions.

Looking ahead

The first six weeks of the initiative have provided us with an overview of how this pandemic laid bare the vulnerabilities of supply chains in all nine countries. By the end of the reporting period on 18 May, many countries had started to loosen some of their more stringent measures, while trade blockages were partially being lifted. The effects of the pandemic are, however, far from being over. There is still an urgent need to build resilient food systems that can comprehensively address the needs of the population.

Observations of our reporting team echo some of the insights shared by major organisations in the global food arena and identify common ground for reflection. The Covid-19 crisis has provided an evidence base and lessons learned that can support policy action — as echoed, for instance, by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) — on the pivotal role of smallholder farmers for a resilient food future. Trade-offs between food security and health safety identified by our reporters reflect the information presented by the World Food Programme’s (WFP)’s Global Report on Food Crises. By stressing the vital role of international flows, our reporters further joined the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in their assessment.

Shocks of this nature need to inform future innovations, and evidence, observations and opinions from the ground can shed light on the way ahead amidst enduring disruptive effects. With the initiative still ongoing, we are looking forward to sharing more insights with you through our next six-week recap.

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