The impact of COVID-19 on food security in Ethiopia

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The impact of COVID-19 on food security in Ethiopia

Gedion G. Jalata

Messay Mulugeta

10 Jun 2020

4min min read
  • Agriculture and Food Policy
  • Public health

his article examines the food security situation in Ethiopia during the COVID-19 pandemic and attempts to glimpse into the future. According to United Nations, food security means that "all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life". Ethiopia is a country with a population of over 110 million, of which about 80% is engaged in subsistence farming in rural areas. Poverty and food insecurity are still significant challenges in the country. Undoubtedly, the current health pandemic might aggravate the already precarious food security situation, both now and going forward. As noted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the most vulnerable communities may face "a crisis within a crisis" due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ethiopia there are various traditions that could potentially contribute to the spread of the virus. Greeting habits (such as handshaking, kissing on the cheeks and hugging), chat/khat chewing traditions, cultural coffee, meal gatherings, crowds of street vendors, religious congregations, traditional collective farming and harvesting practices (such as debo and walfala) may exacerbate the prevalence of COVID-19 in the country. To mitigate this, an estimated 7.5 million employees in government offices, non-governmental organisations, international organisations and private companies are forced to stay home or work from home. However, this is not possible for all workers.

According to the FAO, even before COVID-19, 113 million people on the planet were already struggling with severe food insecurity. Ethiopia was already one of the most food-insecure countries in the world, even though it has made remarkable development gains over the past two decades by reducing poverty and expanding investments in essential social services. According to the 2020 Humanitarian Development Plan (HRP), an estimated eight million people require food assistance in the country. This figure includes internally displaced persons (IDPs), who had to leave their homes due to unrest or natural shocks.

The COVID-19 pandemic may result in enormous job cuts in developmental projects to mitigate the spread of the virus through social distancing. Presently, the National Planning Commission (NPC) of Ethiopia is forecasting the economy to shrink by 2.8% to 3.8% due to the pandemic, exacerbating extreme poverty and food insecurity.

Another impact of COVID-19 relates to informal sector workers, including street vendors, petty traders, lottery sellers, shoe-shiners and taxi driver assistants. During the past few decades, the informal sector has been growing quickly in urban centres of the country, due to the influx of youth from rural areas. The informal economy has played an important role in improving food security, providing jobs, reducing unemployment, bolstering economic activity, and alleviating poverty.

There are approximately 1.9 million informal sector workers in the country, the majority of whom live on daily subsistence income. They are also at risk of COVID-19, since the nature of their work makes it almost impossible to maintain social distancing. Informal workers may have nothing to eat and be unable to feed their families. That was one of the reasons why Ethiopia did not impose a lockdown, like many others in Africa and globally. Yet the workers may be vulnerable to the virus unless they make adequate precautions as they continue working. For many in the informal sector, COVID-19 may therefore either their health, food security or even both.

The food insecurity impact of COVID-19 may continue beyond the pandemic if the poor and vulnerable are not supported to at least access food. They have very little to fall back on financially. As noted by the FAO, they could find themselves forced to abandon their livelihoods, sell off their assets or livestock during or after the pandemic to buy food. Farming households may eat all their seeds instead of saving some to replant, and once a rural farming family does that, becoming self-reliant again will be difficult. Some might have no choice than to leave their homes and possibly be subjected to trafficking, in search of subsistence elsewhere.

Conclusion and recommendations

Compared to its origins (China), the outbreak of the COVID-19 in Ethiopia was different in that it started with imported cases. Hence, the containment strategy to fight against the disease could be different as well. Currently, it seems riskier for Ethiopia to completely shut down external and internal economic activities. Furthermore, the country heavily relies on imports. A complete lockdown of economic activity might imply the risk of social unrest as people’s livelihoods and food security could be significantly affected. This could, in return, hinder the efforts on fighting the COVID-19. Mass community transmission of the virus is not underway, and most of the confirmed cases are travelers from abroad. As of 4 June, Ethiopia has 1 486 confirmed cases. This indicates that the country’s strategy of not implementing a hard lockdown is effective.

Stampedes among crowds of hungry people collecting food aid in the Kibera slum of Nairobi (10 April 2020) and the food protests in Cape Town and Mumbai (14 April 2020) are testimonies to the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. This shows that thorough preparations must be put into place to safeguard those most affected by COVID-19 restrictions. Scaling up of the ‘food bank’ to all cities/towns (already started by Addis Ababa City Administration) is a good strategy. The Ethiopian government has also taken measures to mitigate the spread of the virus. In order to minimise the overcrowding of public transportation, all vehicles have been forced to only board half of their usual capacity. The government of Ethiopia also enforced wearing masks in marketplaces, in transport and all public places. Similar measures should be adopted by other African countries, which have not yet done so.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.

(Main image: A worker of the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI) measures a passenger's temperature at a control point at the Bole International Airport, in Addis Ababa, on 17 March 2020. African countries have been among the last to be hit by the global COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic but as cases rise, many nations are now taking strict measures to block the deadly illness. - Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)