by Gaetano Ladisa, PhD (CIHEAM-IAMB)

At the dawn of 2020, the number of hungry and malnourished people around the world was on the rise due to an increase in violent conflicts and climate change impacts.
Today, over 800 million people face chronic undernourishment and over 100 million people need lifesaving food assistance. The novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, risks undermining the efforts of humanitarian and food security organizations seeking to reverse these trends (Sova C., 2020).
An impact of the pandemic is that it has the potential to distract stakeholders from addressing pre-existing threats, such as climate change, deterioration of natural resources and change in ecological dynamics.

From health to food crisis

Besides the health crisis, the COVID-19 is triggering the most severe economic crisis since the World War II threatening food security, particularly in countries with low income and poor healthcare infrastructure. Economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to decline from 2.4 percent in 2019 to – 2.1 to -5.1% in 2020 (World Bank, 2020).

Africa’s 1.2 billion people face the highest percentage of undernourishment on the planet, affecting over 20 percent of the population. The COVID-19 virus proved its lethality especially among elderly people or those with underlying medical conditions. This group is likely to include people suffering from malnourishment. COVID-19 may cause breaks in food supply chains, food shortages and food price spikes.
Countries that rely heavily on the import of food to meet domestic demand, including sub-Saharan Africa, may face disproportionate risk due to supply chain failures, mainly due to the closure of border crossings. Finally, it is the impacts caused by small farmers that leave their fields fallow (or facing delays in planting and harvesting) because of sickness and breakdowns in the supply chain of non-food products (such as fertilizers and other critical inputs), that may ultimately most impact the economies of developing countries (WFP, 2020)

COVID-19 is linked with environment and food systems

The increasing pressure on ecosystems involves, in a directly proportional way, greater risks for the health of plants, animals, and humans. The disruption and destruction of natural ecosystems and biodiversity has brought humans much closer to wild animals and their viruses.

Scientific evidence allows linking environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and the emergence of zoonoses, such as COVID-19. In the past, low population density in remote areas and limited exchanges used to prevent the spread of epidemic (Li et al., 2018). With the growth of global population, increasing exchanges and the rise of urbanization, interfaces of humans and forests and wildlife are increasing (forest or mining extraction, wildlife consumption, reduced distance between settlements and wildlife). These factors create new opportunities for viral transmission and multiply the risk of pathogens spill over from animals to humans.
Our globalized food system is a strong driver that contributes to increasing pressure on natural resources, which in turn are contributing to the emergence of zoonosis.

COVID-19 impacts all the sustainability dimensions

As seen above, the current pandemic due to COVID 19 as well as the other epidemics (SARS, Ebola, malaria), together with other stress for African agriculture (e.g. locusts in East Africa and drought in South Africa) are putting the entire African agricultural sector in crisis, biasing the efforts made so far by the various countries to combat poverty and hunger.
These effects are expected to be even stronger in countries affected by compounded food crisis drivers, including conflict, extreme weather events, pest infestation, etc.
In the following scheme, an attempt is made to explain some possible impacts that COVID-19 can have on the agri-food sector. To outline the cause-effect relationships, impacts were grouped according to the four dimensions of sustainability (environmental, social, economic and governance) (Figure 1).

Conceptual map depicting impacts of COVID-19 on the whole sustainability of the agri-food sector

Figure 1 – Conceptual map depicting impacts of COVID-19 on the whole sustainability of the agri-food sector.

Far from being an exhaustive representation of all the possible effects that the pandemic has on the four dimensions of the agri-food sector and agriculture, Figure 1 can help understand how the effects of the pandemic influence the achievement of sustainability, calling for the need of adopting a systemic and holistic approach to mitigate impacts.

The Role of FNSSA Research and Innovation in mitigating COVID-19 impacts

This experience has highlighted the weakness of the food value chain in most of the African countries as well as the gaps in our knowledge of our understanding of the effects of a pandemic on food systems. While COVID19 is not an agricultural pandemic, it involves the humans within the agricultural system, which is not a traditional scenario of disaster preparedness in the agricultural sector. Thus, policymakers, agricultural value chain actors, and small-scale producers alike have been affected by unprecedented challenges. However, this triggers the development and use of new tools, instruments, methods and processes under an renewed system of governance, which involve and actively engage stakeholders (especially youth) in the search and application of innovative solutions.

To prevent the recurrence of food crisis caused by pandemics like this, one of the priorities is to identify the worst affected food products and help stakeholders store, process, and preserve their products. Capacity building is of paramount importance: up to 50% of plant products are lost in the post-harvest phase due to lack of knowledge or poor capacity in the use of good storage management techniques. Interventions should focus on technologies for fast-tracking mitigation of food shortages and extending storability of food commodities that are easy to use and transfer.
Logistics is critical for a globalized food sector (FAO, 2020). Logistics in food value chains include all activities that enable the flow of agriculture inputs, outputs, and agriculture-related services, such as transportation, warehousing, procurement, packaging, and inventory management. To shorten logistical chains and develop decentralized regional markets, maintaining a functioning input system in agriculture is critical for the smooth functioning of the food supply chain from “farm to fork”.
There is an urgent need to keep food systems working through multi-sectoral and integrated approaches combined with finance, technology, science, human resources, policy, and partnerships.
The scheme below (Figure 2) shows some possible FNSSA Research and Innovation (R&I) topics, for each of the Key Areas of Investment (EU, 2019) which are considered potential solutions for mitigating pandemic’s impacts in the agri-food sector.

Figure 2 – Examples of how FNSSA R&I can mitigate COVID-19 impacts. Categories are related to 6 Key Areas of Investment and to Topics of R&I in FNSSA suggested by the EU Report of 2019 “An Africa-Europe agenda for rural transformation”.

Figure 2 – Examples of how FNSSA R&I can mitigate COVID-19 impacts. Categories are related to 6 Key Areas of Investment and to Topics of R&I in FNSSA suggested by the EU Report of 2019 “An Africa-Europe agenda for rural transformation”.

Fostering Research and Innovation in FNSSA

In response to the challenges described above, agribusinesses have demonstrated the ability to innovate by relying and promoting e-commerce platforms for handling supply orders, packaging essential food items for delivery or pick-up. This reflect the organizational flexibility of agricultural enterprises to adapt to changing environments and highlight their capability to adopt innovative approaches to keep the supply chains operational.
LEAP4FNSSA project, in line with the current trends, is looking for innovative solutions to mitigate the socio-economic and environmental impacts of pandemics, with particular attention to the climatic dimension.

In this context, importance will be given to the following topics:

  1. Innovation and digitalization in agriculture: developing innovative ideas helping small farmers make informed decisions to improve agricultural production and the overall sustainability of food systems, “from farm to fork”.
  2. Short value chains: developing innovations supporting circular agricultural practices while strengthening the relationship between agricultural production and local food consumption.
  3. Agroecological transitions of food systems: developing innovative ideas that link the health of agroecosystems, animals and humans to food production and consumption.

LEAP4FNSSA is looking for young innovators, start-ups and entrepreneurs using evidence-based research results and applying digital solutions to the agriculture and food sector. Start-ups working along value chains in agriculture and food production, including digital products or services that help mitigate the impact of COVID-19, are encouraged to apply to the LEAP4FNSSA “Call for Innovative ideas” before 15th of August.

Selected “idea-carriers” will be invited to participate in the West Africa Workshop: Dialogue for Action and Brokerage – Fostering Knowledge, Communication & Innovation Hubs, virtual meeting on 28th – 29th October 2020.

Please contact for any further information.