Cape Town — When the Covid-19 hit, governments all over the world became responsible for curbing the spread of the virus. Leaders across Africa came up with regulations that have affected the livelihoods of small-scale fishers and farmers, but in different ways.
The pandemic along with climate change have exposed and multiplied the vulnerability of food systems across the globe, increasing food prices and food insecurity, but especially in African countries who are least equipped to handle the multiple, ongoing crises. One-in-four people globally - 1.9 billion - are moderately or severely food insecure, a number that is on the rise.
The term food system describes the interconnected systems that influence nutrition, food, health, community development and agriculture. Right from growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, distribution to the disposal of food and food-related items. And this highly complex system operates within and is influenced by a host of social, political, economic, and environmental factors.
A project following the impacts of Covid-19 responses and the political economy of the African food system looked at South Africa, Tanzania and Ghana, and was funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS).
"We have focused on three countries with three different farming and food systems that have also adapted different policy and regulatory responses to Covid-19 and looked at how those different policy and regulatory responses have affected food systems that themselves are already differently structured. Tanzania is a very smallholder based food system in contrast to South Africa's, which is based primarily on large scale commercial farming, but with a very large small scale sector and similarly a very highly corporatised, centralised supermarket based retail sector. It contrasts very strongly with the sectors in Tanzania and Ghana," says South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair Professor Ruth Hall.
The partnership between activist organisations and university based researchers chose these three countries with a particular purpose in mind. South Africa has a very corporate-based food system whereas Tanzania has a food system dominated by small scale farmers and small scale fishers and Ghana is somewhere in between. Similarly they're extremely different in terms of regulatory responses to Covid-19.
"We did in-depth qualitative research in these three countries in three sites per country and in South Africa we have outlined our three sites where the West Coast, focuses on fishing in the Western Cape, secondly, fresh produce in parts of Kwazulu-Natal particularly focusing on small scale producers in communal areas supplying informal markets into Pietermaritzburg and then thirdly the fresh produce sector in Johannesburg and Gauteng, much of which sources from Johannesburg and a lot of that market produce comes from Limpopo.
Reporting on the South African component, PLAAS conducted a large number of in-depth interviews with food system actors.
"When we say food system, it's not just farmers and shops, but a range of actors from input suppliers to primary producers be they farmers or fishers. In some cases traders, wholesalers, fresh produce markets and street vendors," says Hall, adding that their focus was explicitly on the informal sector and the small scale sector and looking at how Covid-19 affected them.
"So what we are explicitly not doing is looking at overall aggregate food production within South Africa. We're also not looking at hunger which has been adequately covered in other studies. So the interest that we have is not just if there's enough food in the country but how the regulations have affected particularly people who already are in a relatively marginalised position within the informal sector in South Africa's food system. So South Africa has a peculiar food system in which even the poor are net consumers of food," the research reveals.
Hall further emphasizes how the small scale sector and the informal sector of the food system in South Africa is actually vast.
"So while a lot of the food we eat is produced by commercial farms, processed by big agribusinesses and sold by the big four or five supermarkets chains. In fact a huge number of people derive their livelihoods from small scale farming, small scale fishing and informal street trade. We got some of the stats here which are quite remarkable. 2,5 million small scale farmers at least part-time and about 250,000 black small scale farmers producing for markets, often these informal markets that were particularly hard-hit during Covid-19, about 80,000 small scale fishers and as many as 750,000 street traders, most of whom have some food that they are selling," she says.
"South Africa has had a long, hard and very restrictive type of lockdown over the past 18 months whereas Tanzania has had almost no restrictions other than some export restrictions and travel restrictions but largely has not locked down. While Ghana had medium level of lockdown that was then lifted after some time. So both in-terms of the food system, the political and regulatory responses by government, we see quite a spectrum of experiences so there's a lot to learn from here," Hall said.
The research shows very clearly that these different responses have really impacted on the flow of fish that have been caught and sold to local, regional and international markets, affected the prices of fish and the supply chains with some people managing to keep within the system and even benefiting and others being locked out.
In Ghana, 60% of their fish produce is imported from Namibia, South Africa, Europe and also from the U.S. according to Patricia Blankson Akakpo, an activist with the Network for Women's Rights in Ghana.
"Locally we only produce 40% and during the Covid-19 pandemic, though we did not record any reduction on the fish flow, there were issues with fish flow across regions so transporting the fish from the south to northern Ghana was a problem because there were partial lockdowns which affected the flow of fish in the market," Akakpo says, adding that not only regulations affected the flow of fish, but also people's choices and fears about where they go and the fear of contracting Covid-19.
Maia Nangle from Masifundise Development Trust says the fishing sector in South Africa is largely dominated by a few big fishing companies and yet there's a very important small scale fishing sector that many coastal communities are part of and rely on for their livelihoods.
"South African fisheries and the food system in general is very much dominated by the corporate sector but so many small scale fishers and fishing communities rely on this for their livelihoods and basic incomes. The government's strict response to Covid-19 and implementation of extremely harsh lockdown regulations led to the closure of export markets, tourism markets as well as the restaurant industry which completely crashed. Those are all very important markets for small scale fishers and because of the closure of all those markets, there was an oversupply of fish with minimal demand and this caused huge drops on the price of fish," Nangle says.
The government of South Africa also supported sales from small-scale fishers to industrial fisheries such as Oceana, an investment holding company with interests in fishing, cold storage and shipping, linking the informal market to the formal, says Nangle.
"The reason for that is that within small scale fishers, there isn't much of post harvest opportunities or processing of fish. As fish need to be sold fresh and small scale fishers don't have cold storage facilities, they had to sell their produce at very low prices that they get at the moment. They can't keep the fish for longer then sell it when the price is higher, whereas in selling it to industrial fisheries who have the facilities to do that and wait till the prices are better."
In Tanzania, a lot of the fish trade is cross-border, inland and also along the coast targeting the tourist industry, restaurants and of course, that was disrupted even though there wasn't a hard lockdown.
"Tanzania didn't have strong lockdown. However, that didn't stop some of the effects that came along with Covid-19 and particularly during the very early days where restrictions were put forward. This really interrupted the flow of fish within the country but also along the borders because we couldn't trade across the Great Lake area but also if you look at the coastal areas, tourists, hotels and the whole hospitality industry play a significant role," says Tanzanian activist Editrudith Lukanga from the Environmental Management for Economic Development Organization.
Lukanga says in the coastal areas, closing borders with other countries restricted tourists from coming in and this impacted significantly on the traders within these hotels that were serving the tourists. There was a significant drop, people lost their jobs, incomes were significantly reduced and the fish traders had to look at some alternatives. One of it has been the growth of the internal consumption through internal markets which contributed to increasing nutrition for the communities, but had its own downside for the trader.
"Normally in these tourist hotels, fish sell at higher prices but when sold locally, prices go down because now, the availability and supply is high and therefore it is the business people that are losing in a way because they are now selling the fish at a lower price," she says.
Coming to the Great Lakes region, restrictions that were put within the border-post increased the running costs and brought a bit of trouble for the traders as transportation of fish across the borders was close to impossible.
"It became difficult now for fish to be transported to other countries. You cannot pass through a border-post without testing for Covid-19 and that adds on the cost, takes longer and therefor it puts the fish itself as a product at risk because it's perishable, so the business people where losing on that."
To the traders this meant to they had to look for alternatives.
"There's a Congolese trader who is based in Mwanza, working at Kirumba International fish market who had an interesting story. She says because of what has been happening at these borders, they had to look for an alternative route. Now instead of going through the normal route, they now had to travel by road from Mwanza to Kigoma where there's Lake Tanganyika, then board the boat from the lake across going to Congo. So that route
again, doesn't come without complications. It took longer and there are times when upon arrival in Congo, the fish has been spoiled, gone bad. Then the health officials would confiscate and then it would end up being wasted," says Lukanga. These are just some of the challenges the traders have been experiencing and how Covid-19 has really disrupted the fishery value chain.
While many have lost out, the effects vary between classes of boat owners, crew, processors, and traders - and each of these roles is highly gendered, with women playing dominant roles in fish processing and fish trade. Restrictions on mobility, cross-border trade and the collapse of tourism meant loss of markets in both Ghana and Tanzania, with school closures adding to women's reproductive burden at the same time that market opportunities were foreclosed.
Moderate or severe food insecurity has been climbing slowly for six years and now affects more than 30% of the world population, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). And by 2050 the world will need to feed an estimated 9.7 billion people, all while protecting natural resources and biodiversity.