OPINION: Can the COVID-19 crisis help reboot urban food in Africa?

by Geoffrey Makhubo & Mark Watts | City of Johannesburg
Friday, 25 September 2020 09:14 GMT

A street vendor waits for customers as she sits in front of her fruit and vegetabes stall in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 15, 2017. Picture taken May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Food security is growing with the pandemic - but there are ways to fight back

Geoffrey Makhubo is the Mayor of Johannesburg, South Africa, and Mark Watts is executive director of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global health crisis, but for millions of people it is also a local food crisis.

City lockdowns, stalled supply chains and closed borders have all limited the flow of food from farms to consumers. School closures and rising unemployment mean millions of people are missing out on sufficient, healthy and nutritious meals.

The African Union projects that 20 million jobs are at risk on the continent as a result of the pandemic. The Department of Statistics South Africa estimates that food insecurity will double, mirroring the World Food Program’s projection that acute hunger is set to double this year due to the COVID crisis.

Food security is a common challenge throughout the world, particularly among vulnerable groups and the poor. Yet the great cities of Africa face a serious threat of hunger and malnutrition.

Undernutrition and its resultant effects of suppressed immune systems can heighten the severity and duration of illnesses and delay the recovery process. In the context of a global pandemic, these threats to the health of our citizens become even more severe.

The precarious food security situation facing several parts of the African continent is made even worse by the impacts of climate change.

Many in the region are experiencing frequent anomalies such as intense flooding and drought. Massive invasions of desert locusts are ravaging crops and destroying livelihoods across parts of Africa.

It is clear that the harm caused by COVID-19 has not been equitable, just as the impacts of climate change are not fair. It is the poorest and most vulnerable that are at greatest risk.

Our ambition should not be a return to ‘normal’ but to build a more sustainable, resilient and fairer society out of the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. That means guaranteeing that all citizens have access to adequate and nutritious food.

In the city of Johannesburg, we have been distributing emergency food parcels, procured from local markets, on a daily basis. We reached more than 150 000 vulnerable households in the first four months of the national lockdown and the City aims to reach 1 million households during the course of the pandemic.

The Department of Social Development also provides shelter and meals to over 800 homeless persons daily. In addition. As the fight against COVID-19 continues, Johannesburg is open to partnerships all international bodies that share the same vision in mitigating food insecurity.

The long-term sustainability of interventions is key to mitigate food insecurity. Johannesburg has been providing technical and business training, including seeds and tools, as well as organizing cooperatives to improve their access to markets.

The City has also begun converting dumping areas into useable land. Unused land in schools, clinics and parks is being converted to establish communal gardens for the poor. These efforts will enable citizens to produce their own food.

Regrettably, nine million South African children might have missed out on daily government-sponsored meals due to school closures during the lockdown period between March and July 2020.

Food programmes in schools have resumed as the country re-opened and we recognize the importance of making sure young people get the right food to position them for better health, cognitive development and lifelong success. Johannesburg will continue to make such investments for its future.

Johannesburg is not alone in this fight. Other African mayors are taking similar bold actions.

In Lagos, closed schools have been repurposed to serve as makeshift food markets, to allow residents to access food without traveling long distances. Accra ramped up its home gardening program by distributing seedlings and is slowly creating an  urban farming movement.

Freetown is providing informal settlements with equipment and training to grow vegetables, helping people to comply with lockdown rules and improve their food security.

The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the threat that climate change and environmental degradation pose to public health and our collective ability to feed ourselves.

Research by C40, Arup and Leeds University revealed that globally food systems were responsible for roughly 13% of emissions in cities. That is why mayors are committed to act in shaping how food is produced, procured, distributed and waste is managed. Working through C40 Cities we’re collaborating with our global peers to deploy locally relevant solutions.

For African cities, this means creating a food system that provides adequate and nutritious food to prevent malnourishment. It also means dissuading the growing middle-class in African cities from adopting the same unsustainable and unhealthy diets seen in many higher income cities.

We’re also committed to reducing food waste, preventing organic waste ending up in landfills - a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Where our food comes from, how people access it, and what they are eating are all central to the COVID-19 response and recovery strategy for African cities. We need to ensure that all citizens have easy access to adequate, affordable, diverse and culturally appropriate food.

We also need to make sure that low-emission foods, locally sourced and predominantly plant-based are the easiest and the cheapest option. This work was important before COVID-19 struck, now it is essential. The time to act is now!