How COVID19 has exposed limitations of colonial food systems in Africa

The majority of developing countries are still to tear themselves away from the colonial set up where major food markets were located in cities or towns in order to provide food for low income people working in formal industries. Under that arrangement food had to travel from rural areas most of which were 100km away to cities where the main distributors were pro-poor mass markets like Mbare market in Harare. While the majority of urban consumers depended on pro-poor mass markets for food, supermarkets were for the elite and middle class. With the emergence of COVID-19, international standards of dealing with the pandemic have compelled African countries to close mass food markets. However that has happened at the expense of the urban poor on depend on these markets.

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Disruption of natural remedies

COVID-19 has dealt a heavy blow on poor people’s access to natural remedies. Over the past few years, African mass markets have witnessed an increase in the supply and demand for seasonal indigenous fruits, tubers and herbs that have provided stiff competition to exotic colonial foods. The marked increase in the consumption of indigenous foods has revealed urban consumers’ preference for natural remedies. Since most of the indigenous foods and herbs are not sold through modern supermarkets, the closure of mass markets as part of combatting the spread of COVID-19 has denied urban people access to the natural foods and remedies they have become accustomed to over the years. Farmers and rural people who were earning income from harvesting indigenous fruits, herbs and edible insects for sale in mass markets have also been left in the cold by the closure of mass markets.

Urban dwellers who had become accustomed to consuming tsvubvu, matufu, nyii, nhengeni, nhunguru and other fruits that ripen at the same time as field crops have not been able to get such fruits due to COVID19-included lockdowns and restrictions in movement of people and commodities. According to many consumers, indigenous fruits and herbs have medicinal properties that cannot be substituted with pharmaceutical products that are also beyond the reach of the majority.

Towards resilient food supply chains

In the wake of challenges caused by COVID-19, many African countries no longer have money to waste on ill-conceived agribusiness models. That is why the government of Zimbabwe and its partners has started putting in place carefully thought-through food supply chain systems. Besides assisting to cope with immediate, medium term and long-term impacts of COVID19, a robust food supply chain system is envisaged to have meaningful benefits for several value chain players as explained below:

Food supply chain benefits for farmers – A resilient food supply chain will enhance production planning guided by market volumes and trends.  Most farmers do not know market trends and start looking for the market when commodities have ripened or already in the truck at the market.  That should be a thing of the past.  Information generated along the food supply chain is beginning to make farmers aware of the diversity and volumes of commodities consumed by each market, enabling farmers to plan their production in ways that minimize waste of inputs by producing what does not have a market. Aggregation centres are being set up in production zones so that farmers with smaller volumes of commodities sell closer home and do not have to incur losses by travelling to distant urban markets.

Benefits for seed companies – Seed companies in Africa currently compete to produce more seed than farmers can use. That is why a lot of seed is seen in retail shops well after the planting season is over.  Some seed companies end up persuading government to embed their seed volumes in government input programs. A clear supply chain will show the actual demand for seed and help seed companies to plan their seed production properly.

Benefits for nurseries – By showing quantities of food produced and consumed in different areas, the supply chain will assist nurseries to produce seedlings in the right quantities unlike producing more than is needed, leading to throwing away of some seedlings due to absence of demand.

Benefits for stock feed manufacturers – The supply chain will show statistics about livestock producers and their volumes, enabling stock feed manufacturers to produce and distribute stock feed to known potential buyers unlike sending stock feed to communities where demand is not clear. When smallholder farmers produce maize, their major priority is meeting household consumption. They do not plan for livestock unless they are contracted. By revealing volumes for human consumption in particular communities, the food supply chain is beginning to show volumes that can be set aside for livestock.  At community or ward level, the supply chain will soon enable people to plan for household consumption, livestock consumption and surplus for the market so that they do not run out of food.

Benefits for supermarkets, food processors and fast food chains – Most of these players have depended on middlemen for years.  If they put their needs and specifications on the supply chain they will get what they need on time.  Their volumes are often too low to the extent that it does not make economic sense for them to go and fetch commodities on their own from farmers in distant areas.

Benefits for financial institutions – The days of banks giving loans to agricultural clients based on bank statements are over. The supply chain will show statistics of each player’s participation and such evidence will be used as collateral.  In fact the supply chain itself will be a collateral for the entire food system.

Characterizing traders and flushing out unscrupulous ones – By separating genuine traders from the unscrupulous lot, the food supply chain has started eliminating inflation caused by middlemen who merely exchange commodities and increase prices before passing on the prices to the consumers. When negotiating with farmers most middlemen have become used to cite high transport costs as the reason why they should pay less to the farmer but a critical look at transport costs would show that they are not as high as claimed.  In any case, why should the farmer meet the trader’s transport costs?

Who says butternut, sweet potato, carrots, green beans, green pepper and many other bulky commodities should be sold in a 60-70kg bag called a semia or saseka?  In Zimbabwe such measurements have been  distorting value to the farmer’s expense for decades.  Instead of allowing traders to set rules of the commodity trading game, the supply chain will introduce proper standards and measurements starting at local aggregation centres. Most of the bad trading practices are not market-driven but introduced by cartels of traders. For how long are African farmers going to continue selling their commodities in big sacks some of which are over-filled in ways that disadvantage smallholder farmers? Introducing modern measurements like weighing scales at local aggregation centres will sweep bad trading practices away.

Time to build home-grown social safety nets

Among other knowledge and resource gaps, COVID19 has revealed the need for African countries to revisit colonial food policies that have continued to guide decisions about food production and supply without fully taking into account the important role of pro-poor mass food markets. To the extent COVID19 has first attacked donor countries and sources of food aid, low income countries have to urgently start building home-grown self-sustaining social safety nets and resilient food supply chains. Currently, smallholder farmers do not originate units of measurement because they lack a basis for doing so. Most elements for pricing and price determination come from the market. What policy, institutional or operational measures can governments put in place to transfer the power of originating units of measurement from traders to farmers?  This is a powerful avenue for building resilient food systems.  / /

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