The COVID-19 pandemic has created massive disruption in agri-food systems around the world. It has compounded the food security situation globally, with estimates that up to 132 million more people will experience food insecurity as a result.

The accompanying economic crisis has hit Africa hard, with the continent’s real GDP shrinking further by 3.4% bringing the cumulative decrease down by 7.3% from the growth projected before the pandemic. 

Clearly, farmers are in urgent need of support in order to protect their incomes and safeguard food and nutrition security, so they can participate in economic recovery efforts post COVID-19.

We know from our experience with Ebola that a pandemic impacts food supply, and this is something we must address with urgency. I fear that unless we build back better now, transforming our food systems, we may see soon see famine in Africa.

So what can be done to bolster African food systems, and ensure we ‘build back better’ when it comes to agriculture? To answer this, there is a full ecosystem that needs to be reviewed.

Given that agriculture accounts for at least 23 per cent of Africa’s GDP, policies and investments that strengthen resilient farming systems will be pivotal to growth post-pandemic.

First of all, Africa is too reliant on food imports. The food import bill has increased from $15 billion in 2008 to $50 billion in 2020 – much of it food that could be grown at home. COVID-19 is now with us for the long term. We should prepare with policies that mean we will not go back to the economy of yesterday. We must no longer be dependent on food imports.

From the farm gate, our farmers are short-changed. We must help smallholder farmers access markets, credit and banking. We need to de-risk agriculture, supporting agribusiness with sound financial underpinnings. This means guaranteeing loans, particularly for young farmers who may not have financial backing.

We must also realise our greatest asset: our youth. Africa has the youngest population of any continent, with 60 per cent of the population under 25. We can create young entrepreneurs in the agriculture sector, who will transform the economy.

To do this, we need to support the technology and innovation they will embrace, often via their mobile phones. Digitisation can reduce post-harvest losses, for instance, allowing us to predict markets and giving a better link between farmers and consumers. In this way, agriculture can be seen as a business – not a vocation for poor people.

Our young people are right behind this drive, they understand the benefits that technology and innovation bring. Across the continent, revamping food systems will create huge opportunities for our young people, transforming our economies.

Seizing this opportunity to build back better could not be more important – it is a health issue, because we must nourish our children, and it is an economic issue, because we must catalyse growth. It is also a trade issue, involving infrastructure and the private sector.

And lessons must be learnt from COVID-19. We need national food balance sheets, and oversight of strategic reserves, so we can ensure policy predictability using evidence from data to deal with shocks. Some of these systems are currently fragile, leaving us underprepared.

In conclusion, the Covid-19 pandemic illustrates that even well-intended policies can be undermined by unexpected shocks. The impact on agriculture and food systems in Africa will require deliberate cross-boundary coordination and support. These policy actions should not be aimed at returning to a pre-Covid era, but instead, must propel African agriculture through technological advance.

As Africa takes swift actions to recover and grow, we must understand that we cannot and should not go back to the economy of yesterday. We must innovate and adapt to the new world. Vaccines are now offering us hope. This is a moment of great opportunity: African agriculture cannot be left behind.

Vice president of Policy and State Capability at AGRA