The UK’s panic buying and stockpiling in recent weeks has highlighted the fragility of our just-in-time food system. It has caused concern over potential food inflation, and how ‘food nationalism’ could potentially disrupt exports of staple grains such as rice, beans, and wheat from Asian and African continents (as host nations hold on to their supplies for their own people).
It is without doubt that the impacts of the virus will be felt widely and unevenly across the world. For example, many low and middle-income countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, and Angola, are now reporting cases of the virus and subsequently imposing rigorous lock down regulations in response. This allows us to question whether the supply chains in developing countries will be affected, and if so, to what extent.
The biggest issue is that African countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya are already fragile with food security. It has been reported that the World Food Programme was already feeding millions in Africa due to a myriad of disasters: floods, droughts, armed conflict, government failures, and most recently, a plague of locusts that have been traversing the continent. This coupled with the fact that lockdowns in at least 33 of Africa’s 54 countries have blocked farmers from getting food to markets, and threatened deliveries of food aid to those in rural areas.
The informal sector is the backbone of the economy, and the many informal markets are where millions of people buy their food every day. These have now been forced to shut, along with the closure of schools, which has meant that 65 million children on the continent are missing out on meals. This poses a significant threat to their health, as they are faced with the prospect of malnutrition and starvation - as long as lockdowns remain in tack.
The confluence of the locust invasion and coronavirus has caused food prices to rise significantly as demand for food outstrips supply. For example, the price for a kilogram of rice in Kenya now costs more than $1.25 compared to $0.87 before the locust crisis, and because of Covid-19 the price of a pack of potatoes in Zimbabwe is now $40 compared to $14 just a couple days ago. From the outset, this may not seem like much, but for those with no income, no food, and families to feed, this is a significant issue.
Ultimately, the organisation of food supply chains is strongly affected by levels of economic development, and factors such as urbanisation, and globalisation. Undoubtedly the coronavirus will have disproportionate impact in poorer countries that lack the basic infrastructure, compared to those in the western hemisphere. The immediate concern for the entire African continent is not the virus itself. Rather, it is the capacity to survive during this lockdown period, as food and water supplies run short. The question now is whether people will die from the virus, or from hunger itself.