Linking energy, food security and health to face COVID-19
s COVID-19 continues to spread in developed and developing countries alike, not everyone has the privilege of applying basic prevention measures such as physical distancing. Almost 1 billion poor, oven living in cramped housing conditions, have little or no access to reliable, affordable energy to stay connected, or to remotely communicate with public services and one another.
Additionally, as the pandemic and associated lockdowns reduce mobility in the Global South, many households that rely on collected fuelwood to cook are not able to prepare food properly. This directly affects food quality and therefore health.
Water further illustrates the close link between energy, food and health under COVID-19. Energy is essential to pump water, which is fundamental to grow food but also to wash hands, which is imperative to limiting the spread of COVID-19.
Indeed, COVID-19 is forcing us to re-examine the global food system, especially for the most vulnerable communities in developing countries. The possible disruptions of food supply chains and surge in related unemployment would increase food insecurity, resulting in millions of people in rural areas unable to get adequate daily quality nutrition.
With great uncertainty about when, or even if, the global economy will reboot, governments and donors should be considering how to enable a “re-localisation” of food supply chains that is both equitable and sustainable, and that reduces higher greenhouse gas emissions related to the disruption of longer food chains.
This would require a number of policy redirections, involving both technology and financing, that balance globalisation with self-reliance.
Renewable energy has a critical role to play in achieving this balance. Improved access to energy for food production, processing and storage and, from a circular perspective, the use of agricultural residues from local food chains (for instance for bio-fertilizers and bioenergy), can strengthen local self-sufficiency in agricultural inputs, resulting in better resilience to future pandemics and other environmental and climate threats.
"Investing in local access to clean energy is therefore an investment in increased food security and health, both immediately and in the long term."
Moreover, renewable energy mini-grids being built in different parts of the Global South are not only powering food chains and improving nutrition but also energising rural health clinics that previously lacked power. For instance, using biogas to power milk refrigeration results in better quality food, reduced food loss and higher local incomes; it can also produce local bio-fertilizer that can improve soil carbon sequestration, and power a local clinic.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN-FAO), 80 percent of the 1.8 million dairy farms in Kenya are smallholdings with three to ten cows. About 7 percent of total milk production is lost, mainly due to spoilage of evening milk on-farm. In rural areas, 93 percent of the population does not have access to the rather unreliable electrical grid, and this creates challenges for cooling the milk on the farm. Diesel fuel is expensive and logistics difficult to deliver to small rural dairy farmers. Thus, there has not been an economical method available for on-farm milk chilling for the vast majority of smallholder dairy farmers in Kenya. In Rift Valley Province,, the Sustainable Design Group (SDG) deployed thesolar-powered PV “MilkPod”. It requires no grid power or generator and can chill and store 500–2,000 liters of milk on solar power alone.
Re-localisation of food supply can also bring environmental and economic benefits. For example, more local jobs are created with the introduction of renewable energy. Research released last year shows that private sector companies delivering solar solutions to rural communities are creating tens of thousands of direct jobs. According to the research, decentralised renewable energy companies in Kenya directly employ 10,000 formal workers, and that number is expected to grow 70% by 2022-23. In comparison, the state utility, KPLC, employs 11,000 workers today. In Nigeria, direct employment by the sector is expected to boom more than 10-fold by 2022-23 to 52,000 jobs, which would far outstrip the 10,000 currently employed by the gas, electricity and steam sectors.
There is also a 5-fold number of productive use jobs being created in the communities gaining access, and these jobs are largely agricultural. Increasing yields, productivity and prolonging food shelf life through better processing and storage, thanks to better access to energy, also result in greater income for farmers.
Environmental benefits from local sustainable bioenergy include reduced deforestation through sustainable woodfuel production and use, soil carbon sequestration through the use of biogas slurry and biochar, as well as mixed cropping systems that combine energy and food crops, and fewer emissions through the use of residues from food chains to produce bioenergy and other bioproducts.
Ensuring adequate supply of nutritious food is part of the immediate health response to COVID-19, and ensuring sufficient local access to energy is crucial to achieve it. Investing in local access to clean energy is therefore an investment in increased food security and health, both immediately and in the long term.
The views in this article are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation with which the author is associated. Similarly, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.