Opinion piece by Jean Senahoun, Senior Economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Regional Office for Africa and Cyril Ferrand, Resilience Team Leader at FAO’s Sub-regional Office for Eastern Africa.
It is no hyperbole to say that East Africa is the epicentre of several emergencies on the continent. The region remains mostly food insecure, with over 50 percent of the population moderately or acutely food insecure in 2019, according to the 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. While the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, East Africa is battling a quadruple nexus of crises: the pandemic, conflict, Desert Locust infestation, and climate change-driven weather variability causing floods and drought. With this perfect storm, one would expect a complete collapse of food systems and agricultural-based livelihoods, particularly in rural areas in the region, but that has not been the case. How has East Africa kept its agri-food systems alive?
Most African countries responded to the spread of the virus early with lockdowns, bans on mass gatherings, curfews, and market and border closures. With over 68 000 confirmed cases, East African countries have taken similar strict measures to curtail further spread of the virus. According to UNHCR, the region also hosts nearly twelve million refugees and internally displaced people, and cramped camp conditions are a potential risk for community transmission. This has occasioned the complete lockdown of most camps, with mandatory quarantine enforced for new entries to curb new infections.
The region has been the focus of short-to long-term programming by FAO, other UN agencies, governments, NGOs and community-based organisations to strengthen the economic foundations of communities, particularly for agropastoralists and smallholder farmers. These programmes work to improve the vulnerable population’s resilience to human-made and natural shocks such as drought, flood, disaster and conflict. While the region remains at high risk, its ability to withstand the myriad of threats to its food and livelihood security proves the importance of resilience programming.
The most vulnerable communities are now facing one of the most significant shocks they have faced in a century. Market closures have deeply impacted smallholders who depend on them for the sale of produce, livestock sales are all but stopped in rural settings, and cross border trade has mostly been curtailed. Food prices continue to increase as disposable income diminishes.
Programmes such as FAO and UNHCR’s partnership with the IKEA Foundation to increase the self-reliance of vulnerable populations must be the norm. The project seeks to lay the groundwork for increased agribusiness investment in displaced communities in Kenya and Uganda. This initiative provides much-needed economic activity for over 17 000 refugees and residents through the production of passionfruit and groundnuts. Cultivated by the displaced population and their host communities, the produce will be used by private sector companies in the two countries, further contributing to national economic growth and self-reliance of vulnerable households. Engaging in similar projects with donors, governments, the private sector and communities allows people to fend for themselves. It creates a trickle-up effect on the robustness of national and regional food and livelihood systems.
In the lower reaches of the Shabelle River in Somalia, a European Union-funded project, ProAct, is rehabilitating irrigation canals to substantially increase the resilience of vulnerable peoples’ livelihoods to food crises, which are mostly related to the climate emergency. This rehabilitation will provide reliable and sustainable water access to Somali farmers engaged in riverine agriculture across 30 300 hectares of farmland. Functioning irrigation canals are also vital to community resilience when drought hits to make the most of the scarce water available.
We must not wait for disasters to strike and then respond. Resilience programming not only prepares vulnerable communities and nations for human-made and natural shocks, but they also lift them out of vulnerability. The circumstances in East Africa could not be foreseen; however, governments and partner organisations have long championed the groundwork to minimise their impact. The strength of every society lies in its lowest common denominator. Until food and livelihood resilience becomes intrinsic in Africa’s pastoralist and smallholder farmer populations, the entire continent will remain vulnerable.
East Africa’s resilience to its perfect storm of crises is a call to action for governments and development actors across the continent to focus on resilience. When the most vulnerable are lifted out of a state of dependence, everyone wins, and the continent can prosper.
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