Blog Post

COVID-19, Food Access, and Food Insecurity in Rural Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have wide-ranging impacts on living standards, poverty, food insecurity, and economic stability across the globe. For low-income regions like Africa south of the Sahara (SSA), these impacts are particularly devastating. Many countries in SSA struggled with food insecurity before the outbreak of COVID-19, and the pandemic has only exacerbated those challenges by disrupting domestic food value chains, reducing remittances and other income, and lowering populations’ purchasing power and food access. A new study published in Agricultural Economics examines how households have coped with this increased food insecurity in rural Kenya, Namibia, and Tanzania.

The authors posit that rural households in these countries experienced decreased food access as a result of COVID-19 lockdown measures that disrupted supply chains and reduced people’s ability to work; that these measures as a result worsened household food insecurity; and that households likely had to employ multiple coping mechanisms to manage the shock of COVID-19 on top of their previously existing food security challenges, including an ongoing locust infestation.

The authors investigated four types of food access disruptions likely to be caused by disrupted supply chains and markets: experience of limited availability/food shortages, increased food prices, inability to travel to markets, and other disruptions. The study also utilized the Household Food Insecurity and Access Scale, paired with a series of surveys conducted in 2019 and 2020, determine the extent to which COVID-19 is associated with dimensions of food insecurity, including food cost, availability, access, and panic selling of agricultural goods. Finally, the authors used a multivariate probit model to show the relationship between COVID-19 lockdown measures and the strategies households have adopted to cope with disruptions to food access: reducing food intake (i.e., rationing strategies); increasing food search; using less nutritious/ desirable food (i.e., dietary change strategies); receiving support from the government; and receiving support from friends and family (i.e., external help).

The total sample was composed of 871, 652, and 704 rural households in Tanzania, Namibia, and Kenya, respectively.

The results show that in Kenya and Namibia, 86 percent and 74 percent of survey respondents, respectively, reported disruptions to their food access. In Tanzania, only 36 percent reported food access disruptions. According to the authors, the lower numbers seen in Tanzania can be explained by the fact that at the time of the 2020 survey, the Government of Tanzania had just lifted the restrictions put in place to mitigate the first wave of COVID-19, making movement of people and goods (including food) easier.

Of the types of food disruption examined, increased food prices was the most reported. Among respondents who reported experiencing any type of food disruption, 91 percent, 77 percent, and 50 percent reported paying more for food in Kenya, Namibia, and Tanzania, respectively.

Most of the food insecurity indicators showed a similar trend, with respondents in Kenya and Namibia reporting worse food insecurity than respondents in Tanzania. When asked whether they had gone without food for at least one day in the past 30 days, 58 percent of households in Kenya said yes; this number was around 50 percent in Namibia and just 16 percent in Tanzania. Overall, 90.5 percent of Kenyan households experienced food insecurity during the study period, compared to 68 percent of households in Namibia and 45.3 percent in Tanzania.

Interestingly, this trend is reversed when it came to panic selling of agricultural goods. Panic selling is defined in this study as the sale of agricultural produce, particularly perishable goods, that households had not planned to sell at that time; these sales often result in unfavorable prices. Panic selling was found to occur most in Tanzania, with 51 percent of surveyed households reporting that they engaged in panic selling; this number was 42 percent in Namibia and just 9 percent in Kenya.  

Overall, the study found that COVID-19 lockdown measures were associated with a 36.4 percent increase in food insecurity across the study countries and across all the individual food insecurity indicators studied. However, the association of COVID-19 and food insecurity was not as significant in Namibia.

When it came to coping strategies households used to manage increased food insecurity, the majority of households in Kenya and Tanzania reduced their food intake (75 percent and 29 percent, respectively), compared to only 2 percent in Namibia. Government support was used by 56.6 percent of households in Namibia and 30 percent in Kenya, while almost no households in Tanzania reported receiving government aid; this finding is in line with the Government of Tanzania’s COVID-19 response policy, according to the authors.

Social support from friends and family was also a common coping mechanism across the study countries. In Namibia, 26.1 percent of households reported receiving informal help from their support networks; this number was 21 percent in Tanzania and 20 percent in Kenya.

While the results highlight the numerous coping strategies used across the study countries, the study also found that many households had no recourse in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both government interventions and social support from peer networks, while reported in all three countries, were limited by the impacts of the pandemic and associated lockdown measures. As these mechanisms form the core of the coping strategies commonly used in low-income countries to address shocks, when they face limitations or are taken away altogether, many households are left with what the authors called “the do-nothing strategy.” The result is an increase in poverty and food insecurity.

The study concludes that households in Kenya, Tanzania, and Namibia did experience disruptions to food access during the study period; these disruptions are due to a combination of existing food insecurity and the impacts of COVID-19 lockdown measures. To address the region’s long-standing food insecurity challenges, as well as increase resilience against future macro shocks like the pandemic, investment in social safety nets, government interventions, improved food storage technologies, and market stabilization policies are needed, particularly in remote and rural areas.