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Urgent food help to Africa strained

As Covid-19 adds to hunger.
Volunteers wearing protective face masks unload parcels of food aid in Finetown, south of Johannesburg. Image: Waldo Swiegers, Bloomberg
Fatou Fofana used to be able to support herself, her baby daughter and two other children by selling spices and stock cubes on the outskirts of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s biggest city. But measures to contain the coronavirus have reduced her earnings to about $2 a day, leaving her reliant on local food aid to survive.

The 39-year-old’s market stall was closed by authorities enforcing the country’s lockdown in late March, and trading hours remain restricted more than two months later.

“At the end of the month, my pockets are empty,” she says outside her home on a narrow dirt road in the eastern suburb of Bingerville. A recent package of rice from a non-governmental organization means she has food for a week, “but I still don’t know for next week, or the weeks to come,” she adds.

Fofana is one of millions of Africans joining the list of those struggling to afford basic foodstuffs as efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19 upend livelihoods from Ivory Coast to Kenya, Nigeria to South Africa. The United Nations’ World Food Programme estimates the number of people globally classed as acutely food insecure will double this year to about 265 million as the pandemic batters economies. The majority of them are likely to be in Africa.

Efforts are underway by state authorities, NGOs and international agencies such as the WFP to provide food across the continent, in the knowledge that weaker government-support systems may increase the risk of a poverty boom when compared with Europe and North America. Yet the huge demand means the push is already showing signs of strain.

The coronavirus crisis could put a third of Africa’s 300 million informal jobs in jeopardy as countries impose lockdowns, with an associated ban on work deemed by governments to be non-essential, according to McKinsey & Co. Between 9 million and 18 million formal jobs could also be lost, the U.S. consultancy said in a report published in April. Restrictions on the transportation of goods have depleted stocks and increased the price of food in many urban areas, while school closures have meant that millions of children who typically rely on state feeding plans are left at risk of malnutrition.

“African people are missing income to buy food,” said David Laborde, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. “We are dealing with a size of the number of poor people in Africa that we’ve never seen before. You are losing your income if you are urban poor and the price of food is increasing, so you are trapped between the rock and the hard place.”

In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari has approved the distribution of smuggled rice seized at the country’s land borders, while in Kenya, thousands of vulnerable households have been granted weekly cash stipends to sustain them during the pandemic.

In West Africa, which accounts for more than a third of all coronavirus cases in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of those in need of food assistance may double to 43 million in the next six months, the WFP has warned. In Ghana, the region’s second-largest economy, there have been widespread reports of food packages of such poor quality they have been left uneaten.

“Many, including myself, could not use the rice because there were stones in it and the beans had insects in them too,” said Grace Kai Ashong, 61, who lives with her four children and eight grandchildren in the poor and densely populated community of Bukom, a coastal suburb of the capital, Accra.

“This is all we had from government for the three-week lockdown period,” she said. “We did not crave for more as many of us felt insulted by the type of food they brought to us.”

The South African government is distributing hundreds of thousands of food parcels containing staples including corn, cooking oil and beans to help mitigate one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, which is now nine weeks long. But that may not be nearly enough, according to Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of the Gift of the Givers Foundation, which has dispensed packages to dozens of communities across the country.

“People like plumbers, electricians and waiters don’t have reserves and are going hungry,” he said. “There could be 30 million hungry people in this country. Divide that by families of five, and you get 6 million food parcels you have to deliver.”

After President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged that food distribution can’t keep up with demand, authorities have been deploying aid through vouchers and cash transfers. But initiatives have been dogged by corruption allegations and claims of stolen parcels both in South Africa and elsewhere. In Uganda, officials handling food purchases have been charged in court for inflating prices.

As part of Ivory Coast’s lockdown measures, it was suggested that drivers weren’t allowed to leave or enter Abidjan without a valid Covid-19 test. That pushed up prices of corn, rice, fish and vegetable oil, the WFP found, while staples like yams are becoming scarce in some markets, according to traders.

The government estimates a total of 45,000 Abidjan households have received food assistance, out of 206,000 eligible for social welfare.

“The needs are enormous,” said Yves Adjani, an outreach worker with Apopoli, an NGO in Abidjan, which has been distributing food parcels to families like Fofana’s. “Even if we help as many as we can, there’s always more to be done.”

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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