May 28, 2020

Africa after corona: paradigm shifts in aid, digitisation and agribusiness

Hand washing outside an NGO in South Sudan © 2020, SPARK

The knock-on effects of COVID-19 could see a “different world-order” in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Much of the Western media has touted the potential threat that COVID-19 poses to overcrowded sprawling urban slums that exist in Sub-Saharan Africa (and in other parts of the world). However, lockdowns across the continent are preventing farmers from transporting and selling their produce. Markets, where millions of people shop for groceries and basic supplies, are closed. Before coronavirus, about a quarter of Sub-Saharan Africa’s huge population of 950 million were already classified as food insecure, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. As such, the threat of hunger during quarantine may be more severe than the threat of COVID-19 itself. 

Yet, squinting through rose-tinted spectacles, perhaps the coronavirus outbreak and the predicted food crisis, could as well bring about major, positive shifts for the future of emerging economies: shifts in the way humanitarian and development aid is managed; shifts towards digitisation; and shifts from subsistence farming to scalable agribusiness.

Shifting power into local hands

For the development community operating across fragile and conflict-affected parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, quick shifts towards localisation are happening. According to Esther Loeffen, the current Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of the Netherlands in Burundi, formerly posted in Sudan and Uganda, the outbreak of COVID-19 is an “opportunity to change towards a different world-order”.

“The donor community has taken away private initiative”, says Loeffen. “We need to invest in changing the mindset of farmer families, to get rid of the dependency mentality and encourage towards planning and investing with their own means”. She says the challenge is convincing humanitarian actors in Burundi. 

Loeffen thinks COVID-19 will also bring about a re-nationalisation tendency across Sub-Saharan Africa. “In Uganda, within two weeks they started producing local sanitizer. The government freed up Ethanol reserves and they now have a local product.” Indeed, Rwanda’s Integrated Polytechnic Regional College Kigali (IPRC) this week produced its first ventilator and Senegal has begun trials for a $1 COVID-19 testing kit

Could we be witnessing the beginnings of a U-turn on traditional aid norms? Where Europe or the US, the regions worst affected by COVID-19, depend on trade from a Sub-Saharan African country? François Lenfant, a researcher and policy analyst with over 15 years development and peace-conflict experience in Sub-Saharan Africa, isn’t shy about this idea. 

He recently voiced his gripe in the Dutch newspaper, de Volkskrant, with the international media’s portrayal of ‘Africa’ as an impoverished, homogenous region. He says, “one good thing that could come out of this is the development sector having more faith in the resilience and governance of local actors. They should be more in the driving seat”. 

“The future is clearly digital”

Waringa Kibe is Country Director of AFR, a Rwandan organisation ensuring low income people, particularly youth and women, have access to financial services. She says, “In Sub-Saharan Africa, we rely on smallholder farmers. Smallholder farmers keep our economies afloat”.

“If we go back to March, when all this started, when the [Rwandan] government imposed a lockdown, the one thing that was not going to be locked-down was agriculture….In Rwanda, a lot of production goes through cooperatives. We’re trying to strengthen cooperatives to survive in a digital environment”. 

AFR is supporting SPARK, an international NGO, to boost the digital business skills of rural people and increase their access to (digital) financial services. COVID-19 has exacerbated the issues farmers often face in affording the necessary inputs required for the planting season, such as seeds and fertiliser. Uniquely, AFR and SPARK support smallholder farmers in creating a digital, bankable history, which can be used to take out low interest loans with microfinance institutions. In response to COVID-19, the partners are also working on linking Rwanda’s smallholder farmers, cooperatives and buyers to online marketplaces.

Patricie Nyimnoeneye checks an app on her phone, which gives potato farmers in the region information about growing conditions and prices in Musanze District, Rwanda © 2019, SPARK

“The future is clearly digital”, says Kibe. The trend towards digitisation was already happening in more stable economies, such as Rwanda. Yet, Loeffen, the Dutch Embassy’s Deputy Head of Mission in Burundi, believes that COVID-19 will speed up the process in regions that have been lagging behind.

Loeffen oversees a project by the Dutch social enterprise AUXFIN, which is bringing digital services to agri-preneurs across the country. Fifty households are grouped together, they elect a group leader and get access to an AUXFIN tablet with software that provides services like agricultural education, access to agricultural inputs and finance. Loeffen says, “it’s quite interesting that in this poor country of Burundi, we have leapfrogged ahead in terms of technological advancement”. 


Subsistence to scalable businesses

In the big city hubs, digitisation goes quickly. Yet, vast swathes of rural Sub-Saharan Africa lack internet reach and this is where almost all of the continent’s market produce is coming from. Here, radio is still the main, if not only, medium of information sharing. The South Sudanese government is utilising this tool with public broadcasts about handwashing but international NGO, SPARK, is using radio as a tool to confront any impending food shortages.

A woman picks vegetables from her garden on the banks of the Nile in Bor, South Sudan © 2019, SPARK

Alongside Cordaid and Agriterra, SPARK is rolling out training for farmers across local radio stations in South Sudan, as well as providing in-kind loans of seeds. In landlocked South Sudan, farmers are finding it difficult to source or afford seeds to plant. Between April and May, conditions in South Sudan’s rural pastures are ripe for planting sorghum, maize and vegetables. Yet, COVID-19 lockdowns, a volatile security situation, years of failed harvests due to drought, and a second, more deadly wave of locusts on the horizon, are limiting South Sudanese farmers’ chance to sow their crops. 

Subsistence farmers and agricultural SMEs could hold the key to combating local food shortages during COVID-19. Rising demand for domestically-grown food because of cross-border trade restrictions could be a chance for many family farmers – with the right support – to start supplying markets and urban populations. 

While it’s premature to suggest that all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa will emerge phoenix-like from the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 is teaching us that there are other ways of doing things. In the face of widespread sickness, death and food shortages, perhaps the circumstances this disease creates can also contribute to some much-needed paradigm shifts. Shifts towards localisation in the development sector, a boost for the digital capabilities of rural regions, and a leg-up the economic ladder for subsistence farmers towards farming as business. The backbone of Sub-Saharan Africa’s economy, agriculture, is starting to know its worth.