During the lockdown period of the pandemic, many communities were placed at risk of greater exclusion as a result of the restrictions on movement and limited access to communications platforms due to data requirements and costs. Civil Society Organizations across the regions rose to the increased demand for their support in spite of their own experienced challenges. In a response to the urgent need to connect communities with an aim of informing, engaging, and sharing experiences with the broader society, the Southern Africa Trust launched a series of webinars titled Society Talks which has succeeded in bringing the plight of poor communities within the Southern Africa Development Communities (SADC) region during the pandemic, to light.
One pertinent area of discussion has been on food security and how the restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 outbreak have negatively affected particularly women and youth engaged in agriculture and informal trade. While food security was a problem prior to the pandemic, the situation has thrown a spotlight on how the discourse around the sector has been managed by the various governments across Africa, underscoring a need for urgent improvement.
While smallholder farmers add significant value to food security, operating as informal traders at a micro-level means they are often excluded from the value chain. More emphasis needs to be placed around creating inclusive spaces within these value chains to acknowledge and encourage the smallholder farmer contributions, supporting local economies. Numerous participants agreed that Africa has the capacity to produce healthy food for its people, even in times of a pandemic or natural disaster. The need for food sovereignty is obvious, along with a focus on reducing imports like rice, oil, and wheat. To solve hunger problems, there needs to be a move away from global commodity chains and re-localize food systems.
The direct impact that the pandemic has had on informal traders, mostly women, has been dire. With no market access and no cross-border trade permitted, farmers were unable to sell their product, and traders unable to get food staples in exchange for fresh produce. The knock-on effect also is the possibility of wasted growing seasons due to the lack of access to seed.
A recurring theme in the webinars is the need for sharing of knowledge and collaboration on response strategies. As a direct result of the Society Talks, 12organisations, initiated by the Southern Africa Trust, Graça Machel Trust, Mandela Institute for Development Studies (MINDS) and the Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment(CAPSI), have formed a call to action, directed to SADC Secretariat, that outlines the belief that regional intergovernmental coordination and democratized engagement with community and social actors in neglected sectors is a priority. By focusing on the goal of food security in the region, equality and human rights will be strengthened, while opportunities across the food chain for rural and urban youth will be created.
To respond to the immediate socio-economic hardships caused by the pandemic, as well as building a new foundation for a sustainable and resilient recovery, the document presented to SADC has the following policy recommendations (in summary):
Strengthen the ecosystem of support for smallholder, family, and subsistence farmers
To do this, agricultural policies must support the smallholder, family and subsistence farming sector, with particular emphasis on climate resilient agro-ecology methods, while strengthening indigenous farming knowledge; expand access to land and support land redistribution programmes; offer public financial support programmes; strengthen local value chains; promote and protect the rights of rural women food producers; and crack down on exploitative and anti-competitive business practices.
Invest in the role of women in food security
Women and children must be put in the center of recovery efforts in the agricultural sector, involving them in policy dialogue and decision-making; adopt a gender-based right to food and nutrition frameworks; involve rural women in the mitigation and adaptation development strategies in relation to climate change; eliminate gender, racial and ethnicity, and class discrimination in the allocation of agricultural resources; and eliminate the discrimination, violence and harassment of women cross-border informal traders.
Involve youth in agriculture
Establish support programmes for rural youth that provide access, such as land loans, quality seeds and technical support; expand free vocational training and education in agriculture, targeting the large proportion of unemployed young people; support the development of youth farming organizations and co-operations; expand and improve internet connectivity services to rural areas to enable access to information and markets; create job funds at national levels to encourage local businesses and farming enterprises to hire and upskill young people.
Rebuild sustainable indigenous food systems
Defend seed sovereignty and rebuild sustainable indigenous food systems that eliminate the waste of natural resources; priorities the use of agro-ecology approaches; value and expand on the indigenous knowledge systems, including the teaching of this at schools; and reallocate land to sustainable farming to transition out of intensive monocropping industrial agriculture, in favor of models that are climate resilient, support biodiversity, reduce scarce water consumption and priorities local food needs.
Public financing for food security
SADC should halt the net capital outflows of gains from natural resources and urgently operationalize the Agricultural Development Fund; this fund should support smallholder, family and subsistence farmers, by establishing a dedicated food sovereignty and nutrition fund that supports the sustainable production of diverse foods; the fund should be open and accessible, with transparent monitoring and reporting frameworks; increase the overall national budget allocations to meet existing Malabo Declaration commitments.
Institutional frameworks and regional cooperation
The right to food, food security and nutrition should be recognized by SADC Member States in all national legislative frameworks, strengthening the emergency and long-term policy and programme co-ordination; a centralized multi-stakeholder food security and nutrition information system should be established; fast track the implementation of the SADC-wide universal protection floor, that guarantees access to essential healthcare and basic income security.
The time is ripe for change – a new regional strategic development plan by SADC could be the instrument to transform food systems towards models of food security that end hunger and secure citizen’s rights to development and self-determination.
“We always knew there were very vulnerable families and communities in our nations, but only with lockdowns we woke up to the need to provide for them, including distributing food, for them to survive. Without lockdowns, I don’t know whether we would have had the movement, which governments have taken to organize themselves, to dig deep and find their sources to provide for those vulnerable families, the unemployed and people living with disabilities.”
Mrs. Graça Machel – Society Talks airing 13