The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems: Experiences from Ghana and South Africa

Food systems in Africa were highly debated before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, with competing approaches to achieving the right to food security. The total number of hungry people  had already been rising in sub-Saharan Africa, even as some progress had been made in reducing the proportion of food insecure people. COVID-19 and responses to it are resulting in new and severe shocks to food systems. The impacts on demand and supply are not yet well understood. However, they almost certainly bring lasting changes, potentially leaving an additional 132 million people undernourished worldwide.

On the 8th of September 2021, a “Food Talks” webinar, the first in a series of webinars under the #FoodTalks umbrella, was held to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food systems in Africa, focusing on South Africa and Ghana.  Food Talks is a platform for discussions on how to make our food systems function more effectively. This platform is a partnership between FSNet-Africa and the Department of Science and Innovation at the National Research Foundation (DSI-NRF) Centre of Excellence in Food Security.

Dr Colleta Gandidzanwa, a senior postdoctoral research fellow with FSNet-Africa, facilitated the webinar. Two speakers were invited to share their research findings.  Dr Marc Wegerif, a lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Pretoria (UP), focuses on food systems, agrarian transformation and land rights. Prof. Akosua K. Darkwah is an associate professor and head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Ghana. Her research expertise is in innovation quality, focusing on how global economic policies and migration reconfigure women’s work and households in Ghana.

Dr Wegerif highlighted how the pre-COVID-19 context – including massive inequality, high levels of unemployment, poverty and food insecurity –  negatively shaped the impact of the pandemic on food systems. He noted that COVID-19 worsened the situation through big corporations’ high concentration of ownership in the food system. According to James Hodge (Chief Economists Competition Commission), big corporations can immunise themselves from the cost pressure associated with COVID-19. This, however, is at the expense of the small-scale, informal traders (many of whom are poor) and consumers. There has been an economic slowdown, with loss of jobs and incomes, food price increases. These negative outcomes have hit the poor the hardest.  For example,  small scale informal traders who service poor communities had their operations disrupted and had to struggle to effectively serve the vulnerable communities they operate in.,

Dr Wegeric highlighted vital areas that need to be addressed through the regulatory bodies in South Africa. He said there is a need to understand how big corporations have been operating post COVID-19 and how small-scale traders and consumers been affected by the pandemic. Prof Wegeric emphasised the importance of identifying mechanisms to protect local, small-scale and informal, farmers and traders.  He reaffirmed the right to land for small-scale producers and creating spaces that support small-scale traders, with a goal of the ’right to trade’ for small scale and informal traders.

Prof. Darkwah highlighted her interest in traders, a space she said was dominated by women in Ghana. However, her presentation in the webinar went beyond the traders to focus on small-scale farmers, transporters, and consumers. She drew similarities with South Africa, highlighting an increase in food prices due to COVID-19 and how this left informal traders more vulnerable. Small-scale producers experienced labour shortages, affecting their productivity. Transporters were affected by border restrictions and digitisation. For example, the increase in people utilising online shopping using Momo (a mobile money service in Ghana) has started to erase the need for informal traders.

She highlighted how government interventions to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, have been beneficial and, at the same time, a disadvantage. For example, mobile money has made it possible for traders to safely keep their money when travelling, reducing the chances of being robbed. However, mitigation measures to support small businesses have been ineffective. For example, it was difficult for small-scale and informal traders to access government social protection funds meant to protect small business in Ghana during the pandemic. She called for more inclusive support mechanisms from government that cater to the vulnerable groups within society—for example, addressing the needs of the small and informal traders, to ensure they have access to and benefit from support programmes.

Prof. Darkwah emphasised the importance of having a holistic approach to the food system in Ghana. She said that currently, there is much focus and support on production and less support of transportation, storage, and processing sectors within the food system in Ghana.

The webinar highlighted that to improve the food system and ensure that we leave no one behind, we need to understand the small-scale and informal systems and how they contribute to the food system. We must think of how we can support them to bounce back from current and future shocks.

The inputs for this webinar were based on a project led by PLAAS at the University of Western Cape (South Africa) and funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Project partners:  In Ghana, the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana is collaborating with the Network for Women’s Rights in Ghana (NETRIGHT). In Tanzania, Ardhi University is working with the Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers Forum (ESAFF) and the Environmental Management and Economic Development Organization (EMEDO) which works with small-scale fishers and traders. In South Africa, PLAAS at the University of the Western Cape is working with the University of Pretoria, and with Masifundise Development Trust which works with small-scale fishers and traders and the Association for Rural Advancement Land Rights Advocacy (AFRA) which works with small-scale farmers, farm workers and traders.