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The impact of COVID-19 on African agriculture, trends, and policy proposals


[Translate to en:] Landwirte beurteilen die Merkmale von Weizensorten, Äthiopien
Farmers assess characteristics of wheat varieties, Ethiopia, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Bioversity International/J.van de Gevel, via Flickr

The effects of the coronavirus epidemic on African agricultural systems are still difficult to assess, but initial trends evince a critical picture: border closures could lead to food no longer reaching “land-locked countries” such as the Central African Republic or Chad in sufficient quantities. When Cameroon closed its borders, the country was quick to announce that trucks with food would be allowed through; the is true of South Africa and Mozambique. In many countries, either school meals or harvests from school gardens provide an important supplement to children’s diets. School closures are now preventing this essential service.

Andreas Bohne is a Senior Advisor for Southern and East Africa at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Berlin.                                                                                                                                 
Jan Urhahn is the director of the Food Sovereignty Programme at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Johannesburg. The authors thank Maha Ben Gadha and Fredson Guilengue for their advice and valuable criticism.

Due to (temporary) lock-downs and the closure of (informalized) markets, consumers and vendors cannot trade. This closure hits street vendors the hardest, according to recent reports from Zimbabwe or Tunisia. Fluctuating food prices are a further challenge: although prices for some products decreased in March in the wake of the corona crisis, there is still a need for action. This was particularly true for sugar or vegetable oil, while the decline for wheat was only slight. In contrast, prices for rice—one of Africa's staple foods—rose due to export bans in countries such as India and Vietnam.

Despite the complexity of the topic, this article tries to outline and illustrate potential effects and trends of the corona crisis on small-scale food producers on the African continent. Although they are the continent’s main suppliers of food, they are also one of the most vulnerable groups and face multiple forms of discrimination.

Effects of the Coronavirus on Small-Scale Food Producers

One might think that small-scale food producers in Africa would hardly be affected by COVID-19. Most African countries today are net agricultural importers, meaning they are dependent on global supply chains. Expected price increases would mainly affect African consumers, while the millions of small-scale producers who produce mainly for themselves would hardly be impaired/impacted. Nick Westcott, President of the British Royal African Society, wrote: “Those who depend on subsistence farming and live in rural communities are relatively well-placed to survive a global financial collapse and infection.” As much as it is to be welcomed that a picture of a resilient rather than a victimized continent is being drawn for a change, it falls far short.

Only very few small-scale food producers provide all of their income through their own cultivation on their mostly small plots. Virtually every rural household is dependent on sales of its produce. These provide additional income that is indispensable for a varied diet and meeting other basic needs, including the payment of school fees, buying mobile phone credits, or financing a visit to the doctor.

Lockdowns Hit Small-Scale Food Producers Hard

A large proportion of the goods from street hawkers or middlemen are supplied by small-scale food producers. This trade is now interrupted in many cases by lockdowns and local markets being closed. In Tunisia, the two largest sales markets were closed for three days, and all urban street markets and supermarkets for one week. As a result, the small-scale food producers were unable to sell their goods. In Johannesburg, an estimated 60 percent of the goods traded are sold in informalized township markets. All of South Africa has been put into a five-week lockdown, while small-scale food producers are directly affected by the closure of street trading and their incomes are dissolving. The lack of storage facilities proves to be another problem.

On the other hand, large chain supermarkets are among the winners during the pandemic. Big supermarket chains in many African countries are exempt from lockdowns and other restrictions and are even multiplying their revenue. Small-scale food producers are rarely among the suppliers for large supermarkets, sometimes because they are unable to meet their standards. Supermarkets generally obtain their products from large commercial farmers or even import them from the Global North.

Currently, besides South Africa, Rwanda and the Seychelles have also ordered total lockdowns. In South Africa it is reported that private and community gardens cannot be visited. From community areas it is also reported that small-scale food producers cannot herd their animals to grazing areas and water holes. The police even imposed fines of up to 5,000 rand (more than 300 euro) on people grazing their animals. In other countries such as Uganda, small-scale food producers can go to their fields but must have left them by 19:00. In Tunisia, at the beginning of the lockdown, small-scale food producers and workers were not allowed to enter their fields, with the consequence that fruits could not be picked in the current harvesting season and their distribution channels were interrupted. The Tunisian government has relaxed the rules a bit since.

Up to now, a comparatively small number of small-scale food producers across Africa has been affected by the temporary lock-downs. However, the aforementioned examples could increase by a wide range of factors, depending on the course and management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Development Projects” Are Not Crisis-Proof

Many agricultural “development projects” such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) or approaches such as “development corridors” one-dimensionally promote input-oriented and resource-intensive agriculture. These are dependent on synthetic fertilizers and hybrid seeds. AGRA and other initiatives are to be criticized for many reasons, however, the current situation shows the deficits of this approach to industrial agriculture particularly well. Not only have the promised successes of this strategy in fighting hunger and increasing incomes failed to materialize, but many states, including Malawi, are now also in debt as a result of the measures recommended and applied by AGRA and others, including fertilizer companies.

The expansion of the use of synthetic fertilisers has been massively subsidised by many African states such as Zambia or Tanzania, and it is not uncommon for half the agricultural budget to be spent on these unsustainable subsidies. What is much worse, however, is that many small-scale food producers have been made dependent on external supplies of hybrid seed instead of breeding and propagating their own. In view of this crisis, there are already initial reports of small-scale food producers no longer receiving seed or other necessary inputs, or receiving them late. In extreme cases, this means that they cannot sow seeds and would therefore lose harvests in a few months. It is also to be expected that the prices of inputs will rise due to further supply difficulties or that states will have to reduce their expensive subsidy programmes, which would further exacerbate the situation.

Environmental and Climate Crises Do Not Rest during the Pandemic

In addition to coronavirus, Africa also faces ongoing environmental and climate crises. Several countries in East Africa and the Horn of Africa have been affected for weeks by an immense plague of locusts, which is now largely ignored by the media. The problems outlined above are not only affecting the countries themselves. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the flight restrictions associated with the pandemic are also hampering efforts to combat locust swarms in order to save some harvests in East Africa. Due to the restrictions, the supply of pesticides—the use of which seems necessary in the current situation, partly because biological means are not available in sufficient quantities—has been delayed. In Kenya, stocks will be exhausted within a few days at the current rate of spraying. The disaster could intensify as the next generation of locusts begins to hatch.

Farm Workers Suffer from Pandemic Restrictions

Farmworkers are also feeling the consequences of the pandemic. Commercial farms in South Africa are instructed to continue production as normally as possible. The people working and living on farms there are considered a “systemically relevant group”, but in some cases they and their families are no longer allowed to go into town to buy food because of the lockdown. Some of the commercial farmers have grocery stores on their farms where they sell their products, often at prices far above those in the city. Even before the corona crisis, more than 80 percent of seasonal farm workers in the Northern Cape Province suffered from severe hunger in the offseason from April to August. Now, even more farm workers are exposed to an increased risk of hunger.

Moreover, there is the army of mostly migrant seasonal workers who are needed at harvest time. If they cannot do their jobs due to border closures, both the harvests and the seasonal farm workers’ existences are threatened, because they cannot earn an income. Similar challenges face Tunisian farms due to closed borders to Spain, Italy, and Libya. Their export markets for fruit may collapse and farm workers may lose their jobs.


It is difficult to draw up detailed scenarios for the African agricultural sectors, but some trends—both for the coming months and beyond—are emerging.

Price developments are volatile. The temporary closure of markets in Tunis caused oversupply at reopening, with the consequence that prices of some agricultural goods have decreased, leading to loss of income for the producers. This may also apply to other countries.

In the medium term, however, because the fields cannot be cultivated as usual, this could lead to harvest losses and thus to higher food prices and to an increase in the number of hungry people among both producers and consumers. In many countries of the Global South, people spend a large part of their income—up to 95 percent in some cases—on food. Even a short-term increase in prices can have fatal consequences for them. The recessions last year alone were expected to increase the number of hungry people worldwide by 20 million. Developments similar to those in 2008/9, with hunger riots in various African countries, are conceivable. Most of the protests will certainly take place in urban areas, as they did then. The first “hunger riots” are already happening in South Africa.

It is very difficult to estimate how the processing and storage of agricultural products will change if freedom of movement and transport remain restricted for a longer period of time. The same applies to the supply of inputs such as hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers. Ideally, in the future farmer-managed seed will receive the government support it deserves because it is perfectly adapted to local conditions and available without global supply chains. The paradigm of seed sovereignty is becoming more and more important and is indispensable for small-scale food producers to be able to survive in the current context of a systemic crisis without being dependent on market-oriented production technologies.

It is interesting to see how agricultural markets could be organized in the future. COVID-19 clearly shows that global supply chains are not crisis-proof. A stronger regionalization of markets could be the consequence. As a result, forms of urban gardening and agricultural production in urban and peripheral areas could increase, either to supply local markets in the cities with fresh produce or as a survival strategy to partially guarantee food supplies to individual households.

In the medium term, the pressure on producers, especially small-scale food producers, will continue to increase. Currently, more and more volatile capital is being withdrawn from the Global South, as can be seen, for example, in the development of the exchange rate between the euro and the South African rand. The exchange rate has literally exploded within a few weeks, from 1 to 16 to almost 1 to 21—an increase of around 30 percent. As soon as the crisis eases, a reversal in capital flows could take place. A renewed hunt for land by institutional investors like in 2008/9 can therefore not be ruled out in the coming years. After all, land continues to be a promising source of high profits. For many small-scale producers, this could mean being driven off their land.

State Intervention Is Vital. But What Kind?

Which state interventions in the agricultural and food sector are necessary in light of the corona crisis on the African continent?

Firstly, small-scale food producers and consumers in extreme situations are dependent on short-term measures such as emergency aid, direct financial support, or social grants. This is currently the case in Uganda for people living in poverty. South Africa has already pledged financial support for small-scale food producers totalling 1.2 billion Rand (equivalent to about 75 million euro). In addition, the school meals that are currently unavailable to children in need urgently need to be replaced, for example by distributing meals through local community facilities. Ideally, this food should come from local small-scale food producers and thus secure their income.

Secondly, small-scale food producers must be given state guarantees to buy up their products, which can be added to the reserves of basic foodstuffs. Côte d'Ivoire has already increased its stocks. According to the Ministry of Commerce, the country has enough rice for seven months, tomatoes for five months, and milk for four months among other products. These measures must, however, be coordinated at the regional level so that the restocking of supplies in one country does not lead to shortages in a neighbouring state.

Thirdly, it is essential that guarantees of movement are given to small-scale food producers. They must be able to cultivate their fields and at the same time have the opportunity to take their produce to collective distribution points that have yet to be established, from which the food is then distributed to local markets.

Fourthly, it is important to control the prices of food by the state—this applies to the revenues received by small-scale food producers, which must be sufficient to secure their livelihood, but also to consumer prices, which must not explode. Such measures can counteract price speculation. Rwanda and Morocco have already partially taken this path. In Tunisia, there are calls for state subsidies for inputs whose prices are now rising to be taken over by the state. Necessarily fixed prices for basic foodstuffs such as wheat, milk, or eggs, which are essential from a left-wing point of view, lead to a drop in the income of small-scale food producers when input prices rise. Producers and consumers being played off against each other must be prevented.

Fifthly, the protection of farm workers is important. Their labour rights must be fully guaranteed even during the pandemic. This includes providing guidance to workers involved in food production, handling, and processing on measures to reduce the risk of infection and spread. Furthermore, the interests of seasonal workers, including migrant workers, must be safeguarded by avoiding unnecessary restrictions on freedom of movement. Furthermore, adequate accommodation and hygiene measures must be ensured to protect farm workers. The corona crisis must not be used by employers to remove disagreeable farm workers from farms, and adequate wages must be paid.

Wishful thinking and action are often at odds with each other. Nevertheless, the pandemic can also act as a catalyst for the already necessary restructuring of African agricultural systems—even in times of crisis, this is an opportunity. The task now must be to herald the African agricultural turnaround. This includes moving away from expensive input- and export-oriented agriculture. To achieve this, African countries must immediately end cooperation with initiatives such as AGRA. State subsidies in the agricultural sector must also be redirected accordingly. Rather than their current focus on hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers, they must no longer serve the profit interests of the agribusiness, but must be used to build up locally based resilient agricultural systems. To this end, agricultural extension services must be rebuilt across the board, as they were destroyed in the course of structural adjustment programmes in recent decades.

Additionally, greater market regionalization is necessary. This requires the establishment of direct urban-rural relationships. This demands, for example, the supportive development of infrastructure for the transport of farm produce to the cities, the provision of storage capacities for fresh produce, and state support for the development of farmers’ markets there.

An orientation towards the concept of agroecology should guide action here. Agroecology is a human-centred system of sustainable agriculture that combines indigenous knowledge with state-of-the-art science, makes the best possible use of nature to create healthy communities, and strengthens a social movement that opposes the industrialization of agriculture.