Acute Food Insecurity Rising: 2020 GRFC Mid-Year Update

By: Sara Gustafson

In 2019, as many as 135 million people across 55 countries required urgent food, nutrition, and livelihood assistance, according to the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises . This was the highest global number of acutely food-insecure people on record. The GRFC’s mid-year update , released in early October, takes a look at recent data for 26 of those countries (plus Togo) and specifically examines the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the 27 countries examined by the mid-year update, an estimated 97.6 million people faced “crisis-level or higher” food insecurity (IPC/CH Phase 3 or above) in 2019. Between March and September 2020, that number had risen to between 101 and 105 million people. The majority of these populations live in Africa South of the Sahara.

In SSA, as in other regions of the world, the majority of ongoing food crises in 2019 were driven by conflict, extreme weather events, economic shocks, or a combination of those factors. While it is too soon to precisely quantify the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mid-year update also discusses the likely effects of the pandemic and associated lockdowns and economic declines. It echoes findings from the 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition report , which estimated that as many as 132 million additional people worldwide may become undernourished by the end of 2020 due to the global outbreak. A similar IFPRI projection foresees a dramatic increase in global poverty, with possibly near 150 million more people living in poverty and food insecurity this year.

The mid-year update provides several regional breakdowns, including for East Africa, Central and Southern Africa, and West Africa, the Sahel, and Cameroon.


In East Africa, conflict, flooding, high food prices, and the recent desert locust infestation are the primary drivers of current food crises, in addition to the impacts of COVID-19. The region’s urban population, which has expanded rapidly in recent years, has been hardest hit with job losses due to the pandemic lockdown measures. Many poor households in the region are also facing a loss of remittances. East Africa’s 9 million internally displaced persons and 4.6 million refugees are at particular risk of increased food insecurity and hunger, as humanitarian assistance to the region has been cut in 2020 by 10-30 percent.


In Sudan, an estimated 9.6 million people were in Crisis-level or higher food insecurity between June and September 2020 – a record number. An additional 15.9 million people are estimated to be in Stressed-level (IPC Phase 2) food insecurity. Conflict, food price spikes, and the desert locust infestation have all combined with the COVID-19 pandemic to drive these staggering numbers. Flooding in early September could continue to drive food insecurity rates even higher.


In South Sudan, acute food insecurity remained significantly high, with 7-8 million people experiencing acute food insecurity between February and August. Ongoing conflict, lack of infrastructure, poorly functioning markets, and faltering macroeconomic conditions have all exacerbated lean season food insecurity; many of these factors have increased due to COVID-19.

In Ethiopia, around 8.5 million people, or 21 percent of the population surveyed, experienced “crisis-level or higher” food insecurity between July and September 2020. Over 1 million of these were in Emergency (IPC Phase 4) food insecurity. The main drivers of food insecurity in the country have been crop damage caused by an infestation of desert locusts, below-average rainfall in some areas, flooding in other areas, displacement of populations due to conflict and climate events, and COVID-19-related income loss and rising food prices.

Between 2.5 and 3 million people in Uganda faced “crisis-level or higher” food insecurity between May and August. Urban populations have experienced employment and income loss due to COVID-19, and refugee populations have been faced with reduced opportunities to engage in casual labor. In addition, staple food prices have increased in some regions, diminishing households’ purchasing power. Other drivers of Uganda’s food insecurity include localized flooding, livestock diseases, and localized conflict such as cattle raids.

In Kenya, six percent of the population surveyed (about 850,600 people) is expected to experience “crisis-level or higher” food insecurity from October through December, mostly in the country’s arid and semi-arid regions. The impacts of COVID-19, widespread flooding, desert locust infestation and related crop damage, and conflict have all played a role in continuing food insecurity in the country.

Many countries in West Africa and the Sahel were already experiencing declining food security conditions even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Conflict in the region has led to mass population displacement, loss of livelihoods, and disrupted food assistance. In addition, significant flooding has hit several areas of the region in 2019 and 2020, and COVID-19 has led to increased poverty disrupted supply chains, and inflated food prices.

Over 5.7 million people are facing “crisis-level or higher” food insecurity in northeastern Nigeria alone; the mid-year update estimates as many as 8.7 million people in acute food insecurity in the country’s 16 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory between June and August. These numbers show an astounding 73 percent increase in acute food insecurity from the 2019 lean season. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing conditions stemming from conflict, economic shock, and extreme weather events.

In Central and Southern Africa, drought and economic downturn had weakened many households’ purchasing power even before COVID-19. While many countries in the region experienced adequate rainfall early in the year, several countries have received below-average precipitation, leading to crop failures and income losses. Urban consumers who rely on open air markets for food purchases experienced reduced access to food, as many markets were closed as part of countries’ COVID-19 containment measures. Conflict also continues to impact the region.

An estimated 2.6 million Malawians will face acute food insecurity from October 2020 through the March 2021 lean period; this is about 15 percent of the country’s population. Most of this food insecurity will occur in the rural south, which has experienced both flooding and abnormal dry spells that resulted in a production shortfall this year. The urban population in several cities are also facing acute food insecurity due to employment loss, reduced remittances, and lower incomes, all a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 21.8 million people are expected to fall into Crisis-level or above food insecurity by December 2020. An estimated 5.7 million of those will experience Emergency-level (IPC Phase 4) food insecurity, while an additional 29 million people will be in Stressed-level conditions. Ongoing conflict has led to population displacement in several areas of the country; this displacement, coupled with flooding and the impacts of COVID-19 containment measures, has disrupted agricultural activities and livelihoods for many vulnerable households.

In the cities of Maputo and Matola in Mozambique, around 364,000 people fell into Crisis-level or higher food insecurity from June through November. Urban populations are being hard hit with lower demand for casual labor, reduced remittances, higher food prices, and restrictions on imports. At the start of the lean season (October-November), an additional 285,000 people are forecast to experience acute food insecurity in seven rural districts surveyed. Rising food prices, escalating conflict, and depletion of household food supplies, coupled with COVID-19 impacts, are the primary drivers of food insecurity in rural areas.


Sara Gustafson is a freelance writer.