Tawanda Matema and Cyril Prinsloo
COVID-19 has affected global value chains by interrupting activity in three areas: transport and logistics, supply and production dynamics, and demand and consumption patterns.
These effects have also been felt in the Sadc region across agricultural value chains, which comprise producers (farmers), suppliers (industries), distributors (transport and logistics) and consumers in the region. Agro-value chains are central to Sadc food security systems, intra-regional integration, trade and co-operation, and economic growth.
First, the most devastating socioeconomic consequence of Covid-19, as far as Sadc agro-value chains are concerned, has been the difficulty faced by many in acquiring access to food, resulting in rising levels of hunger.
The Sadc Synthesis Report on the State of Food and Nutrition Security and Vulnerability in southern Africa 2020 showed that about 44,8 million people, living in both urban and rural areas, are food insecure. Data shows that food insecurity increased by about 10 percent between 2019 and 2020.
In addition, the closure of schools due to Covid-19 has negatively affected food and nutrition security among children of school-going age, with an estimated 20,5 million school children not having access to meals and nutrition services normally provided by schools.
Second, international agricultural production has increased. Similarly, Sadc has recorded an eight percent increase in maize production.
However, the Sadc region has seen disruptions in the transportation of agricultural produce, such as grain — prompted by Covid-19-related restrictions and border closures — and its subsequent distribution to countries with food deficits.
Third, the introduction of national lockdowns aimed at helping to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 has resulted in rising unemployment and the hardship that goes with it as the majority of people living in southern Africa “live hand-to-mouth”.
The implications for domestic markets and industries have been severe as travel restrictions have meant that some businesses, particularly SMEs and those in the informal sector, have had to lay off workers because they could not pay them, while other businesses have closed permanently.
For instance, the shutting down of Beitbridge, the largest inland border in southern Africa, between South Africa and Zimbabwe, curtailed intraregional trade and the movement of over 25 000 people per day. The impact was particularly acute between April and May 2020.
Fourth, Covid-19 resulted in delays in the negotiation and implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which was to have taken off in mid-2020. The AfCFTA eventually took effect in January 2021, although a number of countries still need to ratify the agreement in order to benefit from its tariff-free trade provision.
The successful implementation of the AfCFTA has the potential to significantly strengthen regional integration efforts. It will also enable Sadc agricultural value chains to offer protection to small-scale farmers, local markets and emerging industries through the elimination of tariffs on 90 percent of goods produced and a guarantee of free movement across the continent, which is vital for cooperation and consolidation of resources among member states.
Fifth, the spread of Covid-19 has seen the heightened adoption of digital services across value chains globally. This has included a greater uptake of automation technologies, consumer-oriented platforms for food delivery, business-to-business e-commerce applications, and video-conferencing, among others.
These services have had the effect of restructuring global value chain activities. Sadc countries need to adapt to these changes, while also considering what is technically feasible in a regional context in view of the fact that technology utilisation varies in large-scale commercial farming and small-scale subsistence farming, respectively.
With the adoption of technologies such as smartphone apps, video conferencing and business e-commerce applications, there is great potential to extend agricultural value chain opportunities to smallholder farmers — those who have previously been precluded from participating in, and benefiting from, value chains.
Sadc agricultural value chains face a number of challenges, chief among them being climate change, low levels of agricultural infrastructure development, poverty and food insecurity, the predominance of subsistence farming over export-oriented agriculture and, more recently, delays in the implementation of the AfCFTA.
Although the agricultural sector in Sadc has largely been spared the negative fallout from Covid-19 compared to other sectors, the latter has still exacerbated existing challenges facing the sector.
There are, however, opportunities for Sadc to build more robust and inclusive agricultural value chains. Importantly, small-scale subsistence farming needs to be supported along with export-orientated commercial farming, with the help of appropriate interventions.
There is also scope for Sadc member governments and private businesses to form partnerships in developing resilient infrastructure, using climate-smart technologies that will take regional agriculture into the future and ensure that it is a sustainable driver of development.
Another future-proofing technique would be to digitalise the Sadc agro-value chains to improve communication between, and optimise the performance, of farmers, input suppliers, transport and logistics service providers, financiers and other value chain participants.
The long-awaited AfCFTA, in turn, has the potential to be a catalyst for augmented agricultural production across the continent and to afford small farmers the opportunity to play a meaningful role in Africa’s agricultural development.
* This article has been excerpted from South African Institute of International Affairs policy brief 234, published in April 2021 under the title “Optimising Agricultural Value Chains in southern Africa after Covid-19”. It was produced with support from Sida. The full brief can be found at https://saiia.org.za/research/optimising-agricultural-value-chains-in-southern-africa-after-covid-19/