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Five ways Covid-19 could affect rural Africa – and what to do about it


Written by Steve Wiggins

Hero image description: A woman working on an irrigation project in Mozambique. Photo: Marcos Villalta / Save the Children CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Covid-19 is expected to lead to large economic losses in Africa – with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa expecting economies to shrink by 2.6% in 2020. Lockdowns to prevent disease transmission can take a heavy toll on urban economies especially, closing down most services including tourism and much informal activity. The size and duration of this economic loss is uncertain, depending on how the disease develops and the measures taken to control it. Even less clear is how rural areas will be affected.

Drawing on lessons from previous health and economic crises, this blog explores five potential impacts of Covid-19 on agriculture, food systems, food security and rural livelihoods in Africa – and how to counter them.

Five potential impacts of Covid-19 on rural Africa

  1. The region’s agricultural output will fall, owing mainly to the reduced demand for high-value perishables and export crops, especially air-freighted exports (subscription required). Effects may be quite small for other crops, so long as disruptions to rural markets and supply chains are not severe. If farm input supply – or the finance that pays for it – is interrupted, then farms that depend significantly on external inputs may experience further declines. This will not be the case, however, for many smallholder farms.
  2. Women will probably face additional work in caring for the sick, on top of their often already heavy domestic workloads. Their daughters may be taken out of school to help them.
  3. Rural household incomes will fall, particularly for those that rely on high-value perishables and air-freighted export crops, on rural non-farm business and employment, or on remittances from migrants (subscription required).
  4. Some supply chain businesses – such as transporters, processors, traders – will reduce activity or shut if they deal with produce for which demand has fallen, transport is disrupted, or if closed down by disease controls. At worst, businesses will go bust – although some small and informal enterprises with few capital costs and overheads may survive if they can switch labour to other activities.
  5. Food insecurity may rise as incomes fall and agricultural prices increase owing to disrupted supply chains. If markets are closed, some households may lose access to food, or must buy from more distant centres at a higher cost. Households on low income may well switch to less nutritious food.

Such impacts will be highly uneven. Socially, infections and disease hit some hard, while others remain untouched. Economically, some households have resources to cope with loss of labour and income, while others cannot. Geographically, impacts will vary by farming systems – the type of crops and livestock produced, their dependence on labour and purchased inputs, and by the supply chains that link them to markets.

What’s needed to deal with Covid-19 in rural Africa?

In terms of what to do, three priorities stand out.

Sustain rural livelihoods

Allow rural markets to operate with modest restrictions and precautions. Ensure farmers can farm, which may mean guaranteeing supplies of fertiliser, seed and fuel, and in some cases, allowing seasonal labour to move for harvests. Remittances will probably fall, but for those still flowing, transmission from urban to rural areas must be facilitated.

Maintain food systems

Set up green channels for agricultural inputs, processing and marketing. This includes minimising restrictions and prioritising these activities and transport. Find ways to keep enterprises in food supply chains running, or if they must close or operate at reduced capacity, provide bridging loans so they can re-open when the crisis passes.

Protect those most affected

Scale-up existing safety nets to reach more people and if necessary, increase payments. Where such nets do not exist, institute emergency cash transfers. Target broadly to prevent exclusion errors: worry less about inclusion errors and prioritise women living in rural areas when extending safety nets or increasing payments. If girls are withdrawn from school, encourage them to return after the crisis – for example, with cash bonuses.

Four lessons for managing the response

  1. First, manage responses adaptively. Take prompt action but be prepared to revise responses in light of incoming information. Engaging with communities – which needs time and resources if it is not to be mere co-opting – not only generates critical information but can also generate practical responses that work locally and that outsiders may not see.
  2. Second, allow for adaptive management and invest in understanding what is happening. Rapid data gathering and analysis – on changes to livelihoods, food supply chains, rural markets and food security – is needed.
  3. Third, as responses to previous crises have been under-evaluated, knowledge of what works – and how – is vested largely in the heads of those who previously responded. Hence, those with experience of previous crises from across the board should be employed to avoid privileging the views of any group of specialists.
  4. Lastly, it is important to recognise capacity limits and acknowledge what is possible. Feasible options may seem insufficient to deal with the crisis, but experience shows they can make a difference. In large part, this is because individuals and households most affected usually make great efforts to resolve the difficulties they face. External support that works with such local responses can thus make a difference.