Sep 8, 2021 | Blog

What can Africa’s agri-food sector learn from China’s response to COVID-19?

Speaking on Day 2 of the AGRF 2021 Summit, a stellar line up of agri-food experts from Africa and China convened to uncover what Africa can learn from China’s response to COVID-19 in building resilience within its agri-food sector.

Dr. Fadel Ndiame, Deputy President, AGRA, moderating the session, reminded us that in the last two years, the world has seen the emergence of a global pandemic with far-reaching impact. Dr. Ndiame talked about how the pandemic has already started to trigger a health, economic and food crisis.

“It amplifies all the challenges the world is already facing. It’s putting the lives and livelihoods of millions across the world in jeopardy,” he added. Of H.E. Mbelwa Kaikuri, Tanzania Ambassador to China – the session keynote speaker, as well as of the panel, Dr. Ndiame asked:

  • How does the pandemic materialise in different countries?
  • How is it being managed across the globe?
  • What are the best practices?
  • What can we (Africa) learn, especially from China, given the tradition of innovation and transformation of food systems over the last decade?

The deepening interdependency of African and Chinese food security

H.E. Mwelbe Kaikuri spoke passionately about the interdependency of Africa’s and China’s food security and the need for food security to be a priority agenda for both countries: “Our shared future dictates that we collaborate to ensure food security”.

As the country first severely hit by the pandemic, H.E. Mwelble Kaikuri highlighted the opportunity for Africa to learn from China’s proven competence and resilience in food and agriculture. From China’s Green Channel Policy, to the use of ecommerce and much more. He also highlighted Africa’s opportunity, with a young population and 60% of the world’s arable land, compared to factors perhaps threatening China’s food security, including their shrinking rural labour force and the reduction of available farmland.

With the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) on the horizon, H.E. Mwelbe Kaikuri mentioned the need to align Africa’s priorities with China’s development policies, as well as the need for China to widen its involvement in supporting agriculture in Africa beyond government and regional economic communities.

Ecommerce has the potential to help alleviate poverty

As the last stop before the UN Food Systems Summit (23rd September, 2021), COVID-19 has given Africa the opportunity to build sustainable food systems long term. Dr. Fengying Nie, Director General, Chinese Academy of Agriculture Science, agreed, citing ecommerce as a huge opportunity.

COVID-19 forced implementation of a strict policy for movement, which caused problems in transportation, rural incomes, and rural employment. Ecommerce played a very important role in increasing income – the individual consumer and the farmer really needed a channel to meet and connect. China introduced special channels on the roads to help ecommerce companies deliver products – the so-called Green Channel.

China already had the ecommerce platforms, the infrastructure, the cooperatives and the companies to help alleviate the shock of the pandemic, particularly among smallholder farmers.

Using ecommerce for rural revitalisation

For Africa, Dr. Nie recommended using ecommerce for rural revitalisation, by:

  1. Optimising supply chain
  2. Increasing added values of the ecommerce industry
  3. Cooperating with an ecommerce platform to build exclusive supply base for high-quality agricultural productions
  4. Avoiding homogenous competition – every rural community needs a special product, rather than everybody producing the same product
  5. Creating supportive policies for human capital and start-ups
  6. Creating an organisation for economic cooperation

Dr. Zhigang Chen, China Program Leader, International Food Policy Research Institute, agreed. Pointing out that COVID-19 is only one of many risks facing the agri-food sector, he confirmed that i     t’s also facing conflict and political instability, trade restrictions, climate change and more.

“COVID-19 is an example of a single event cascading into a coincidence of multiple risks. This means when you have all those risks together, it’s going to have a compounded effect on everyone involved in agri-food,” said Dr. Chen.

Six long-term efforts to promote food systems resilience

He discussed six long-term efforts to promote resilience, based on China’s experience:

  1. Give top priority to build resilient food systems over years, including the construction of high-yield cultivated land
  2. Ensure effective logistics for agricultural products and inputs, like China’s ‘Green Channel’
  3. Link farmers with markets by establishing a public service alliance on production and sales
  4. Support production and enterprises, financially and technologically
  5. Promote ecommerce, consumption and livelihoods with initiatives such as e-vouchers, contactless delivery and the promotion of local employment
  6. Monitor the market to avoid panic, including the regular provision of information to consumers

He was adamant that the key is really a public/private partnership – in which private sector businesses and local communities work together to ensure adequate food supply during the pandemic.

Dr Lixia Tang, Professor, China Agriculture University, agreed that ecommerce is critical, saying: “We use online channels, like WeChat, to open up the last mile.”    

As well as ecommerce, Dr. Tang, referenced China’s program to alleviate poverty by offering subsidised temporary work:

“To alleviate poverty, policies have been adopted to offer temporary work, like giving farmers work in public service roles, teaching them new skills in areas like construction and social care.”

“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most young labourers had moved out of villages to urban areas. So, we couldn’t find enough labourers. But farmers can’t move, they stay in their villages, so it’s a good opportunity to invest in the local infrastructure development.”

Open trade and investment critical for agri-food recovery from the pandemic

Dr. Chen added: “I recommend maintaining open trade and leveraging imports for domestic demand. China actually increased imports of some food products, which not only addressed domestic food demand but also helped to address the income issue in the exporting countries.”

Dr. Jiqin Han, Professor and Dean, Nanjing Agricultural University, agreed, saying that Africa’s food systems transformation needs to switch from self-sufficiency to market-driven economy, with focus on building social cohesion, providing a platform for global exports, and pulling farmers out of poverty.

Sharing her top three measures from efforts in Jiangsu Province, China, Dr. Han said Africa could focus on: 1) A simple approvals process for the approval of specific capital support 2) Concessional loan and agri-insurance from financial institutions 3) High quality information on investment and risks, and opportunities to exchange.

Calling on the private sector, Dr. Han talked about the need to engage the private sector for value chain development, for example by enabling private sectors to get access to finance and insurance to build resilience against shocks.

Syngenta Foundation takes very specific action post-COVID

Closing out the session, Dr. Yuan Zhou, Head of Agriculture Policy at Syngenta Foundation, said: “When COVID came, we took very specific and immediate actions to communicate and coordinate with local governments and partners in order to ensure farmers were subsidised despite challenges.”

Dr. Zhou discussed the challenges farmers faced at input level – access to inputs and transport disruption, and at production level – limitations in farmers training and technical support.

“Then, when farmers want to sell their products there are restrictions on open markets and low local demand due to closures of schools and restaurants. Our foundation took some interventions – like organising 30-day young farmer training programs and helping goji berry producers and local co-ops to set up online stores when they faced difficulties selling their products.”

Final takeaways for Africa, from China

Dr. Zhou’s possible takeaways for Africa, from China, included:

From a development perspective:

  1. Proactively facilitate interactions with local partners to ensure input supply and finance
  2. Leverage digital innovation e.g. ecommerce
  3. Think through the whole value chain and address key pain points

At policy level:

  1. Encourage multi-stakeholder collaboration and coordination – this is key
  2. Diversify distribution channels
  3. Promote more efficient urban-rural coordination
  4. Accelerate the digital economy to expand connectivity between farmers and consumers
  5. Invest in building a sustainable, reliable food system

COVID-19 has really challenged Africa to combine health preservation with economic development, and there is a lot that Africa and China can do together to build food security for all.

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