Blog Post

Agricultural Trade during COVID-19: Trends in Africa South of the Sahara

Prevalence of hunger and food insecurity have been on the rise in Africa south of the Sahara (SSA) in recent years after a long period of decline. In 2020, an estimated one in five people in the region faced hunger, more than double the proportion of any other region worldwide. The period 2019-2020 in SSA saw the strongest increase in annual undernourishment ever recorded. In 2020, estimated prevalence of undernourishment ranged from 10.1 percent in southern Africa to 31.8 percent in Central Africa. By 2030, Africa is forecast to have the highest number of undernourished people in the world.

In “Africa: Food Security and Agricultural Trade during the COVID-19 Pandemic” (Chapter 2 of the recent book, 2021 Annual trends and outlook report: Building resilient African food systems after COVID-19), researchers examine to what extent and through which channels the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these numbers.

COVID-19 has impacted economies, food and nutrition security, and agricultural trade around the globe. The containment measures and restrictions of movement imposed by governments were important in reducing infection rates and helping overwhelmed health systems, but they also posed challenges for economic activity, incomes, and livelihoods. Economic output in SSA is estimated to have fallen by 1.9 percent overall and by 4.5 percent per capita between 2019 and 2020, compared to global declines of 3.3 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively.

The livelihoods of many people in SSA rely on exports of agricultural and food products, particularly cocoa, coffee, fruits, and vegetables. At the same time, many countries in the region rely on imported staple food commodities, such as cereals, meat, dairy products, and oils, for food security. Clearly, any disruption to trade in these various commodities due to COVID-19 lockdowns would have significant implications for incomes and food security in the region.

The chapter’s author finds that despite a global decline in merchandise trade of 9.2 percent during the pandemic, trade in agricultural and food products remained relatively untouched in the long term. Most disruptions to agricultural and food trade occurred at the very beginning of the pandemic, when lockdowns and other containment measures were first established in many countries.

These findings hold true for SSA as well. Lockdown measures began in the region in March 2020; while the strictest measures were lifted in most countries by July, no country had completely removed its containment measures as of the end of 2020. These measures included restrictions on movement of people and closure of businesses and markets. In addition, some countries imposed temporary export restrictions and relaxation of import barriers to help stabilize domestic food supply, while others imposed stricter import restrictions and food safety certification requirements to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19 through food products. Food production, processing, trade, and distribution in the region were all impacted by these various containment measures, with the most significant impacts occurring early in the pandemic.

In April and May 2020, aggregate export values for agricultural and food products of 14 countries in SSA[1] declined by between 5 and 11 percentage points from the aggregate averages seen during the same months in 2018 and 2019. However, starting in June 2020, these export values began to rebound. In the second half of the year, agricultural and food export values from the region were higher overall than those seen in the latter half of 2018 and 2019.

Agriculture and food import values in the region followed a slightly similar trend but experienced higher volatility. Aggregate import values began declining in the 14 study countries by February 2020 and had dropped by 15 percent from 2018 and 2019 by May. While imports rebounded in June—similar to the movement seen for exports—they fell again in July. However, import values in the second half of the year were above their pre-pandemic levels on average.

The shifts in import and export values throughout 2020 can be explained by both changes in the quantity of goods traded and changes in import and export prices, says the chapter’s author. Global food prices fell sharply between January and May 2020 and rose just as sharply in the second half of the year; this mirrors the trends seen for both export and import values in SSA.

Trade flows themselves followed a similar trend, decreasing during the first half of the year and recovering in the second half. In April 2020, the number of export flows between two specific trading partners had already declined by 25 percent from April 2018 and 2019; in December 2020, the same export flows had increased from their pre-pandemic levels by around 7 percent. The number of import flows fell by more than 10 percent in April 2020 and rose above pre-pandemic levels in November and December. Intra-regional import flows experienced larger declines in the first half of the year than import flows from regions outside SSA.

These impacts were more significant for non-staple agricultural and food products: beverages, fishery products, cotton, tobacco, and cut flowers. Thus, the disruptions may not have immediately impacted food security in all countries. However, rising unemployment and falling incomes due to business closures, particularly in the tourism and hospitality industries, reduced food security for millions of households over the course of the pandemic.

In addition, the author points out that trade impacts varied at the country level. For example, cereal values in Ethiopia and Madagascar (both of which depend on imported cereals) experienced significant volatility in 2020 that did not follow clear pattern. In Namibia, cereal import values dropped 60 percent below average in June and remained low until October, generally following the observed global trend.

The author concludes that while agricultural and food trade were relatively resilient in the face of COVID-19, the pandemic ultimately exacerbated already acute hunger and food insecurity in Africa south of the Sahara. Food security for millions was worsened by increased unemployment, falling incomes, and generally poor macroeconomic conditions throughout the region. As a result, SSA has gotten even farther away from achieving the food and nutrition security targets laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals.  


[1] Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, and Zambia