University of Pretoria: UP co-hosts #FoodTalks webinar on SA and Ghanaian food systems amid COVID-19

COVID-19 has worsened the already high levels of inequality, unemployment and food insecurity experienced by South Africans, noted Dr Marc Wegerif, a lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Pretoria (UP) whose research focuses on food systems, agrarian transformation and land rights, at a seminar co-hosted by UP’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology.

The seminar, hosted in partnership with the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) and the Department of Science and Innovation at the National Research Foundation (DSI-NRF) Centre of Excellence in Food Security, focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food systems in Africa and was the first of a series of webinars titled #FoodTalks, which will look at various aspects of the food system.

“South Africa experiences inequality, unemployment and food insecurity in general, but the pandemic worsened all these factors,” he said. “South Africa also faces high levels of concentration of ownership in the food system. We suffered an economic slowdown, which resulted in the loss of jobs and income, and an increase in food prices. This heavily affected smaller-scale and informal traders who serve the poorest, and were already in a disadvantaged position,” said Dr Wegerif, who was one of two speakers along with Associate Professor Akosua Darkwah, Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Ghana.

The webinar was facilitated by Colleta Gandidzanwa, a postdoctoral fellow at FSNet-Africa, who unpacked the impact that the pandemic has had on the production and distribution of food, from farmers to the market to street traders and others, and discussed the implications for food systems going forward.

Prof Darkwah, who has expertise in innovative qualitative research with a focus on the ways in which global economic policies and migration reconfigure women’s work and households in Ghana, shared her insights from a Ghanaian perspective.

“Ghana’s situation is similar to that of South Africa because food prices were hiked, and this left informal traders more disadvantaged than they previously were. The pandemic caused more and more people to utilise online shopping, erasing the need for informal traders. Additionally, more and more people started using Momo, a mobile money service in Ghana.”

Prof Darkwah directed her attention to how the Ghanaian government can mitigate these occurrences. “Government measures have been beneficial on the one hand and punishing on the other,” she remarked. “With regards to digitisation, lots of efforts have been made to make it possible for low-income traders to be able to transact via mobile money at fairly low costs. They could be lower, but there is a recognition that changes have been made, and given the fact that travelling with cash makes one prone to being robbed, digitisation efforts have been useful.

“On the other hand,” she added, “mitigation measures designed to support small-scale businesses were ineffective. The requirements for accessing these funds were simply too onerous for low-income business owners with low levels of education. Requirements included having employees, which automatically disqualified self-employed workers who make up the majority in our markets; annual records that require literacy in accounting, which many may not have; and having a tax identification number, which many did not have.”

In his closing remarks, Dr Wegerif addressed the issue of regulation in South Africa. “The regulatory bodies in South Africa have not responded to the increases in food prices we have seen over the past two years. We need an ongoing regulation of the markets to ensure that the food system as a whole is fulfilling its function to make food accessible to people to achieve food security. Farmworkers in South Africa produce food yet experience high levels of malnutrition and food insecurity. That’s another reason we need more regulation.”

The inputs in this webinar were based on an International Development Research Centre study that looked at three countries – South Africa, Ghana and Tanzania – to better understand how COVID-19 regulations affected the political economy of food systems in Africa.

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