By Daniel Njiwa, Head, Regional Food Trade, AGRA 

Friday morning 1st January 2021 held it own significance. In the world I operate in, this was a particularly special day for Africa with the launch of the start of trading on the basis of the newly developed framework of the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA). The occasion was replete with accompanying fanfare, messages of commitment and reassuring speeches from Africa’s presidents and leaders.

I couldn’t stop smiling. Finally, here we were. The moment when the small business person grasps the opportunity to sell to any market in over 50 countries. However, my excitement was quickly cut short by the harsh reminder that we have been in similar, smaller, nimbler and more homogeneous markets before (East African Community, Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community of West African States among others), from which my friends in the SMEs business are yet to see the benefits. Have we fully addressed their old challenges? These include access to finance, storage infrastructure, inability to meet standards, compliance obligations with heavy red tape, corrupt officials and the list of barriers to trade is endless. The thought of all these obstacles got me depressed, before I realized that I had been dozing on my couch.

It is 12:01am on 2nd January 2021, and I am shaken awake by disjointed noises and a sharp headache. I am drenched in sweat and quite disoriented. What could this be? Something new and terrifying had taken a hold of my system. This, my friends, is how the second wave of the corona pandemic welcomed me into the new year. I was immediately struck by the fact that it had come upon me fast and forcefully, just as the media houses were estimating that new infections would more than double in the next few weeks of this new wave compared to the peaks reached during more than eight months of the previous attack. Africa may be even more unprepared during this time, while the vaccine is at least six months away.

As I worried about my early symptoms, I also turned by attention to the search for herbs and thought about stocking up on fruits and vegetables and I couldn’t help but ponder the source of these ‘power nutritious foods’ and how they ended up in the wet markets and eventually onto my plate. How many small businesses made a living out of it? For most urban centers in Africa, these supplies are sourced from neighboring countries, arriving in markets aboard the night buses and trucks. In Lilongwe, Malawi, urban dwellers enjoy sweet pineapple and melons from Mbeya, Tanzania, while in Nairobi, the mangoes and bananas flow in from Uganda. Nothing unusual there.

As you can imagine by now, my Covid-19 scare had spun me back into work-mode, the very reason our leaders delayed the launch of the ACFTA months earlier. Now I feared that I might be one of the reasons the two-day-old shining launch would face another set of delays going forward. If the pace expected to accompany the new wave is anything to go by, we ought to suppose the re-emergence of drastic containment measures and restrictions to the movement of people imposed by governments, and this, my friends would be the final straw that broke the camel’s back, completely crushing the small businesswoman, youth or SME in Africa. Why do I say this?

My organization, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), with the support of the UK government’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), was at the forefront in creating an understanding of both the primary and secondary effects of the Covid-19 measures on food supply systems across a number of countries and the results were telling. The small perishable food businesses run by women and the youth were the most impacted by almost all the containment measures set for the operation of local wet markets, transportation, the absence of structured and digitized trade platforms, as well as the cross-border facilitation which failed to recognize these small actors. They also suffered massive livelihood losses occasioned by loss of income, non-existent work due to scaled down industrial activity.

With the anticipated second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic threatening an already volatile ecosystem, how we react this time around will either make or break the aspirations of the ACFTA and the woman trader who is only now beginning to pick up the pieces from the ground up to give her business another shot at success in these unprecedented times. African governments should continue in earnest with interventions that will not stifle this SME lifeline, but instead nurture and guard it with everything available for we know that these are the veins that have fed Africa in the most resilient fashion possible. AGRA estimates 60-80% of all food produced and distributed in the continent is by SMEs. More significantly now, since fruits, vegetables and other herbals that are vital for the health of the population amidst a global pandemic and dwindling nutrition are moved and distributed by the same businesses in the hands of women, youth and SMEs, there is a new urgency in ensuring their bulking and storage facilities are open and functional; that they can access soft loans to get them to trade more; that digital solutions are in place to enable them reach wider and distant buyers; that there are deliberate steps to create customs green channels for SMEs; communication lines are open and they have the information on tap to educate them on how best to deal with and pass on Covid-19 information as they ply their businesses. These suggestions are by no means exhaustive, but qualify as a starter pack menu that each government should commit to in order to ensure the women, youth and SMEs involved in the lifeblood of our continent continue to operate and thrive.

Meanwhile, with a positive confirmation for my Covid-19 test results, I have embarked on the journey of a fortnight to manage the symptoms and work towards getting back on my feet again. A major part of this process is a study in how interconnected we all are as it will entail a late-night bus transit from Mbeya, Tanzania delivering my favorite fruits, and a vegetable farmer plucking ‘sukumawiki’ the succulent leafy vegetables along the wetlands from Nakuru to Nairobi. Covid-19 is real! Stay safe and take care!