The European Business Council for Africa

Africa south of the Sahara has so far escaped the direst health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, but short-term policy responses and the global slowdown have had major impacts on growth, value chains, incomes, trade, poverty, and consumption. The medium- to long-term impacts on nutrition and health will depend on the rate of recovery. To build greater resilience to future shocks, African countries will need to take a food systems approach to agrifood policy planning and implementation that includes better anticipation of risks and preparedness for shocks. They must also find ways to expand limited fiscal resources to make investments that embrace inclusion and promote good governance and accountability in all parts of the system.


The health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa south of the Sahara have been less severe than first anticipated given the region’s overall fragility. With 14 percent of the world’s population, Africa had reported less than 5 percent of global confirmed cases of COVID-19, and about 89,000 pandemic deaths as of the end of January 2021.1 Although there may be some underreporting of cases and deaths, there is growing evidence that the low death rate is largely explained by Africa’s sizable young population, along with other factors including climate, genetics, and behavioral differences.2 However, as in other regions, governments across Africa implemented a variety of lockdown policies in early 2020 to combat the spread of the virus. These policies varied in terms of their geographic coverage (many were restricted to outbreak-affected urban areas, but some applied nationwide), the types of socioeconomic activities that were restricted (based on essential versus nonessential classifications), the start of the lockdowns (mostly in March, with Rwanda being the first, but some, including Botswana, Eritrea, and Malawi, not until April), and their duration (ranging from two to three weeks in Malawi to nearly three months in South Africa). These measures had substantial impacts on economic growth, poverty, and other key socioeconomic indicators. In general, lockdown periods coincided with the agricultural seasons in central, eastern, and western Africa, but began at the end of the season in southern Africa. Protests over lockdowns broke out in a number of countries and hint at how the public perceived their respective governments’ motivations for the lockdown policies — for example, to prolong power or quash opposition (Malawi and Ethiopia) or to target certain social groups (Uganda). Public outcry over lack of evidence to support the policies, as well as violent attacks on citizens by security forces enforcing the lockdown policies, which led to deaths in countries including Kenya and South Africa, contributed to modification or reversal of the policies in a number of countries.3 Several ex ante analyses of the short-term impacts of Africa’s lockdown policies, conducted and updated throughout 2020, projected an economic recession, interrupting nearly 25 years of sustained economic growth in the region.4

Estimates of the contraction in 2020 GDP for Africa as a whole range from 1.7 percent under a baseline scenario (mild spread of the disease in the first half of 2020, with lockdowns ending by the middle of the year) to as much as 5.1 percent under a catastrophic scenario (severe spread of the disease with a high number of cases and lockdowns extending beyond the middle of 2020).5 The drop in GDP stems in part from the contraction of global demand for the primary commodities produced by African countries, as global production, travel, and trade were disrupted.6 76 Regional Developments Household incomes also fell as a result of reduced employment during lockdowns and reduced remittances from outside the region. Country-level economywide models show declines in household income in a number of countries, and GDP losses ranging from 9.7 percent in Mali to 38.0 percent in Rwanda (Figure 1).7 Phone surveys of households and firms in the food supply chain conducted in late 2020 in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Nigeria confirm these modeled impacts and pathways, for example, showing employment and income losses as firms closed their operations.8 In terms of food systems, disruptions in value chains and informal urban trade caused shortages and higher food prices, as observed, for example, in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.9 Overall, food shortages were caused by closure of wet markets, restrictions on street vendors, and buying frenzies and hoarding ahead of the lockdowns. Studies from Ethiopia show there have been differences in the impacts across value chains.

Although Ethiopia's food value chains in the aggregate may have been resilient to the pandemic shock,10 the dairy sector (especially raw milk vendors and small dairy shops) was hit hard as demand for its products slumped and prices of feed increased by 30 to 40 percent and those of veterinary services by 15 to 20 percent.11 Lockdown measures, lost income, and perceptions of disease risk have increased poverty and altered diets. Increases in poverty rates during the lockdown range from 3.8 percent in South Sudan to 15.0 percent in Senegal (Figure 1), and for the region as a whole, extreme poverty is expected to increase by up to 2.8 percent, representing an additional 37.5 million people.12 Phone surveys of households in Ethiopia show that consumption of raw or uncooked vegetables and dairy products declined due to fear of coronavirus transmission, but overall calorie consumption increased compared to pre-pandemic periods.13 Not surprisingly, the increase in calorie consumption was significantly greater among households that did not experience a loss in income than among those that did.

Source: IFPRI