In Benue state in Nigeria, the country’s food basket, Mercy Yialase sits in front of her idle rice mill. Demand across the country is high, but she already has mountains of paddy going nowhere amid the COVID-19 seal.
“I can’t mill because the marketers aren’t coming,” Yialase said, referring to buyers, sitting with dozens of other millers at a market stall in the town of Makurdi.
Although food truck drivers are exempt from lockdown restrictions, many fear for their own safety, whether they are fined or arrested by overzealous police.
The situation in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is reflected in sub-Saharan Africa.
Trucking logistics company Kobo360 said that 30% of its fleet in Nigeria, Kenya, Togo, Ghana and Uganda was not working. Several farmers said the crops were rotting in the fields or in the depots, waiting for trucks that never arrived. And millers can’t get their milled rice from buyers.
“There is no clarity about what can move … or what essential transportation is,” said Ife Oyedele, co-founder of Kobo360, adding that truck bosses were scared. “They’re afraid to go out and have their drivers on the road.”
Millions of people in the region are at risk of not getting the food they need due to coronavirus disruptions, according to the United Nations and the World Bank.
While domestic crops and capacity are being lost, imports that the region relies on have also dried up as major suppliers, including India, Vietnam and Cambodia, have cut or even banned rice exports to ensure that their country has enough food to keep the pandemic safe. to cope. .
Meanwhile, scarcity has pushed up prices of the staple staple food beyond the reach of some people since lockdowns were announced in three states in late March to tame the spread of the virus.
Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s largest rice-importing region, could go from a health crisis to a food security crisis, the World Bank warns.
More generally, the United Nations says disruptions of the coronavirus can double the number of people worldwide without reliable access to nutritious food to 265 million.
“There is no doubt that there is an imminent problem of food insecurity not only in Nigeria, but also in countries around the world,” Nigerian Agriculture Minister Muhammed Sabo Nanono told Reuters.
Nanono said that Nigeria had at least 38,000 tons of grains in government-controlled strategic reserves. It wants to supplement with 100,000 extra tons.
However, the region has one of the lowest stocks in relation to consumption, so export restrictions mean rice shortages can “occur very quickly,” said John Hurley, the regional economist for West and Central Africa for the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development.
Nigeria has significantly increased domestic rice production in recent years. But U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures show that it still imports at least a third of what it consumes. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, countries rely on imports for about 40% of rice consumption.
These countries are therefore particularly at risk.
India, the world’s largest rice exporter, temporarily stopped new export deals earlier this month, while supply chain lockouts and disruptions in Pakistan, Vietnam and Cambodia have limited available exports.
With only 9% of global production traded internationally, curbs immediately rose in prices, the USDA said.
“We must ensure that we do not take policies that will harm the rural poor and people in developing countries,” Hurley said.
The price of a bag of imported rice rose by more than 7.5% in Abuja and Lagos between the third week of March and the beginning of April, according to SBM Intelligence, while bags of local rice became about 6% -8% more expensive.
In Kenya, panic purchases and government programs to distribute rice to low-income households have already been exhausted.
If imports don’t pick up, East Africa could face a deficit of at least 50,000-60,000 tons by the end of the month alone, said Mital Shah, director of Kenya-based Sunrice, one of the region’s largest rice importers.
“The entire supply chain has been disrupted,” said Shah. “In the coming weeks, East Africa will have a huge shortage.”
The collection of the waybills for import into Kenya has also been extended from three to four days to three to four weeks. In Nigeria, imports of clearing have gone from weeks to months.
Senegal’s rice imports have fallen by about 30% due to international supply interruptions, said Ousmane Sy Ndiaye, Executive Director of UNACOIS, a Senegalese trading group. He estimated that the nation had enough storage space for two months. Growing rice in countries outside of East Africa, such as Nigeria, is now also more important because of a plague of locusts in East Africa that decimated the crops this year.
Restrictions on domestic traffic and import delays are also an obstacle for farmers, and some warn that production will decline if governments do nothing.
A study by AFEX Commodities Exchange Limited, a Nigerian company that helps the agricultural sector with logistics and financing, found that Nigeria’s fertilizer stocks are currently 20% below normal. There are only enough seeds and other inputs to cultivate 1 million hectares out of the approximately 30 million that are normally grown, the study found.
Other farmers say that the closures interfere with agricultural inspections by banks, jeopardize their financing and cause difficulties in getting tractors – which are often rented – physically to fields. Rice planting normally begins in May.
“Most people in the industry I speak to are concerned,” said Dimieari Von Kemedi, general manager of Alluvial Agriculture, a farmers’ collective.
The government of Nigeria has set up a task force to minimize the impact of the coronavirus on agriculture. Nanono said it made ID cards for people in the agricultural sector, from farmhands to food truck drivers, so they could move about freely.
He said the government is taking steps to ensure that farmers, millers and marketers can work. The Department of Agriculture is working to increase locally produced fertilizers, while the central bank plans to expand funding for farmers, he added.
Help cannot come soon enough for Yialase in Benue, who is waiting for marketers to return.
“If they start coming, I can mill everything here and then buy them.”
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