Ensuring food security in Southern Africa during COVID-19: 6 recommendations for the SADC
uring the lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) were placed at risk of greater exclusion as a result of the restrictions on movement and limited access to communication platforms due to data requirements and costs.
Prior to the pandemic, according the Africa Development Bank, compared with other regions in Africa, this region has the highest unemployment levels, averaging 12.5% between 2011 and 2019, followed by North Africa averaging 11.8% over the same period. Poverty and inequality are twin challenges affecting the Southern Africa region. Seven countries had about or more than half of their population living below the national poverty line between 2007 and 2018 (Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, São Tomé and Príncipe, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe).
In response to the urgent need to connect communities with an aim of informing, engaging, and sharing experiences with the broader society, the Southern Africa Trust recently launched a series of webinars titled Society Talks, aimed at highlighting the plight of poor communities within the SADC region during the pandemic.
One pertinent area of discussion has been food security and how the restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 outbreak have negatively affected particularly women and youth engaged in agriculture and informal trade. Food security was a problem prior to the pandemic – according to the SADC Food and Nutrition Security Strategy, the highest food and nutrition insecurity in the SADC was reported for 2008/09 period when the Region experienced its most acute drought during the decade with over 22 million food insecure people. The current situation has thrown a spotlight on how the discourse around the sector has been managed by the various governments across Africa, underscoring a need for urgent improvement.
While smallholder farmers add significant value to food security, operating as informal traders at a micro-level means they are often excluded from the value chain. More emphasis needs to be placed around creating inclusive spaces within these value chains to acknowledge and encourage the smallholder farmer contributions, supporting local economies.
Numerous participants agreed that Africa has the capacity to produce healthy food for its people, even in times of a pandemic or natural disaster. The need for food sovereignty is obvious, along with a focus on reducing imports like rice, oil, and wheat. To solve hunger problems, there needs to be a move away from global commodity chains and re-localise food systems.
The direct impact that the pandemic has had on informal traders, mostly women, has been dire. Women in cross border trading constitutes 70 % and the value of trade in the SDCA region is approximately US$20 billion annually. With no market access and no cross-border trade permitted, smallholder farmers were unable to sell their product, and women traders unable to get food staples in exchange for fresh produce. The knock-on effect also is the possibility of wasted growing seasons due to the lack of access to seeds.
A recurring theme in the webinars is the need for sharing of knowledge and collaboration on response strategies. As a direct result of the Society Talks, 12 organisations, initiated by the Southern Africa Trust, Graça Machel Trust, Mandela Institute for Development Studies and the Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment, have formed a call to action, directed to SADC Secretariat, that outlines the belief that regional intergovernmental coordination and democratised engagement with community and social actors in neglected sectors is a priority. By focusing on the goal of food security in the region, equality and human rights will be strengthened, while opportunities across the food chain for rural and urban youth will be created.
To respond to the immediate socio-economic hardships caused by the pandemic, as well as building a new foundation for a sustainable and resilient recovery, the document presented to SADC makes the following policy recommendations (in summary):
- Strengthen the ecosystem of support for smallholder, family, and subsistence farmers
To do this, agricultural policies must support the smallholder, family and subsistence farming sector, with particular emphasis on climate resilient agro-ecology methods, while strengthening indigenous farming knowledge; expand access to land and support land redistribution programmes; offer public financial support programmes; strengthen local value chains; promote and protect the rights of rural women food producers; and crack down on exploitative and anti-competitive business practices.
2. Invest in the role of women in food security
Women and children must be put in the centre of recovery efforts in the agricultural sector, involving them in policy dialogue and decision-making; adopt a gender-based right to food and nutrition frameworks; involve rural women in the mitigation and adaptation development strategies in relation to climate change; eliminate gender, racial and ethnicity, and class discrimination in the allocation of agricultural resources; and eliminate the discrimination, violence and harassment of women cross-border informal traders.
3. Involve youth in agriculture
Establish support programmes for rural youth that provide access, such as land loans, quality seeds and technical support; expand free vocational training and education in agriculture, targeting the large proportion of unemployed young people; support the development of youth farming organisations and co-operations; expand and improve internet connectivity services to rural areas to enable access to information and markets; create job funds at national levels to encourage local businesses and farming enterprises to hire and upskill young people.
4. Rebuild sustainable indigenous food systems
Defend seed sovereignty and rebuild sustainable indigenous food systems that eliminate the waste of natural resources; prioritise the use of agro-ecology approaches; value and expand on the indigenous knowledge systems, including the teaching of this at schools; and reallocate land to sustainable farming to transition out of intensive monocropping industrial agriculture, in favour of models that are climate resilient, support biodiversity, reduce scarce water consumption and prioritise local food needs.
5. Provide public financing for food security
SADC should halt the net capital outflows of gains from natural resources and urgently operationalise the Agricultural Development Fund. This fund should support smallholder, family and subsistence farmers, by establishing a dedicated food sovereignty and nutrition fund that supports the sustainable production of diverse foods; the fund should be open and accessible, with transparent monitoring and reporting frameworks; increase the overall national budget allocations to meet existing Malabo Declaration commitments.
6. Strengthen institutional frameworks and regional cooperation
The right to food, food security and nutrition should be recognised by SADC Member States in all national legislative frameworks, strengthening the emergency and long-term policy and programme co-ordination. A centralised multi-stakeholder food security and nutrition information system should be established. SADC should fast track the implementation of a universal protection floor, consisting of “basic social security guarantees which secure protection aimed at preventing or alleviating poverty, vulnerability and social exclusion. These guarantees should ensure at a minimum that, over the life cycle, all in need have access to essential health care and basic income security” as per the UN definition.
The time is ripe for change – a new regional strategic development plan by SADC could be the instrument to transform food systems towards models of food security that end hunger and secure citizen’s rights to development and self-determination.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.