Article by Cao Xi, policy & partnerships consultant for the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and Duncan Chando, South-South and triangular cooperation consultant for the International Labour Organization. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.
Although many African countries have been proactive in seeking to boost their agricultural production and enhance their food supply chains, it is clear that the novel coronavirus outbreak is hindering these efforts. The impact of the pandemic on food security is likely to be severe, especially for African countries that were already under strain due to conflict, natural disasters and the hosting of a large number of refugees.
The United Nations estimates that 73 million people in Africa face acute food insecurity. It has called for international solidarity to enhance food security in Africa.
The 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation underlined China’s commitment to work with African countries to improve the continent’s agricultural development and strengthen its food security. However, the pandemic has inevitably disrupted the global and regional trade in agricultural products, exchange visits between China and African agricultural professionals, and even the construction of agricultural demonstration sites. China’s expectations of promoting shared prosperity and supporting Africa in achieving general food security by 2030 are being challenged.
In the post-pandemic era, it will be important to build resilience and take radical measures to develop sustainable food systems. In this regard, Africa needs to improve its agro-meteorological forecasts. Africa’s early warning systems are inadequate due to a lack of qualified professionals, such as meteorologists and agro-meteorologists, weak institutional capacity and the limited investment in most African countries. Additionally, most early warning systems in Africa rely heavily on project-based international financial assistance, which is not sustainable. Africa-China cooperation offers a unique opportunity to establish a weather observation network, and ultimately make agro-meteorological data more reliable. The two sides can develop and strengthen food security information systems at the national and regional levels and work on improving the effectiveness of African countries’ agro-meteorological forecasting and emergency responses. Strengthening data-sharing and establishing a one-stop food security information hub accessible to different stakeholders would help enhance food security.
The shocks from the novel coronavirus outbreak have undoubtedly threatened food security on the continent, especially for the rural poor. Appropriate social protection interventions are necessary to prevent chronic poverty. With proper preparation, the depth and implications of the pandemic’s impacts can be reduced through policies such as public works, including food-for-work and cash-for-work programs, food aid, subsidies and the use of social funds. China’s grants and aid to African countries should focus on ensuring that the poor in particular the most vulnerable members within households, such as children, women, the elderly and the sick, do not lose access to social services. If well implemented and coordinated, social protection can increase agricultural growth in Africa, both directly and indirectly. A holistic approach is important to address food security by strengthening coordination between social protection, social services and productive sectors.
In order to address the impact of the pandemic on food security in the long term, Africa will need to build productive capacities to address underlying economic vulnerabilities, and strengthen the continent’s capabilities to better manage food, pandemic, and/or other health-related crises. Over the past 60 years, China has offered grants to provide practical agricultural technology and train agricultural technical and managerial personnel for Africa, provided loans to support agricultural infrastructure, and gradually shifted focus to agricultural trade and investment in Africa. In recent decades, it has helped build agricultural technology demonstration centers, supplied senior agricultural experts and technicians, and imparted best practices in management and practical techniques in agricultural production in Africa. Modern agricultural technologies are still the key to enhancing production capacities in Africa and the training provided by Chinese experts can be carried out in virtual formats such as webinars, online courses and virtual mentoring programs during the pandemic.
The Africa Union says nearly 20 million jobs in Africa will be threatened by the pandemic, mainly affecting the young and women, who comprise 50 percent of the agriculture labor in sub-Saharan Africa. China’s vast experience in promoting small and medium-sized enterprises in rural areas, especially youth-oriented and women-inclusive e-commerce and value chain development led by the private sector, if facilitated by governments, has the potential to greatly benefit agricultural SMEs in Africa. The eFounders Fellowship Initiative funded by Alibaba Business School and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and the associated Netpreneur Prize were established to support exemplary African business leaders.
The development of agriculture in African countries is hampered by the lack of infrastructure, including poor irrigation systems, weak value chains and intricate local politics. China has prioritized investing in infrastructure in its strategic cooperation framework with Africa, but much of the investment has been in manufacturing. To realize food security in Africa in the post-pandemic era, it is vitally important to improve the continent’s distribution infrastructure including roads, transport, warehouses, farms and agricultural extension centers along the agricultural value chain.
It is widely acknowledged that the pandemic has accelerated digital adoption worldwide, ranging from health information dissemination, to data collection, e-commerce and teleworking. Agricultural experts suggest that African countries should create digital data rooms to track and forecast food availability, pricing, and accessibility, both during and after the crisis. These could track trade flows, food pricing at the retail level and the availability of food in urban and rural shops.
China has comparative advantages in terms of digital infrastructure, technology and its established e-commerce model. In the post-pandemic era, China is in a good position to support efforts to speed up the development of Africa’s digital economy and expand exchanges and cooperation on digitization, information and communication technologies, especially telemedicine, tele-education, 5G, and big data.
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