How does Covid-19 change the conditions under which food is produced and traded? We take a closer look at food systems in Africa. Our Senegalese colleague Fatma Sylla interviewed the development expert Thierno Sall.
Female farmers in rural areas of Senegal need to be empowered.
How is Covid-19 changing the conditions under which food is produced and traded? We take a closer look at food systems in Africa. To kick off of our series of analyses, our Senegalese colleague Fatma Sylla interviewed the development expert Thierno Sall.
- Women do bear the lion’s share of Africa’s agricultural production. Is this also the case in Senegal?
Senegalese women from rural areas play a key role in the country’s agricultural production. They are central to economic issues and are responsible for a significant share of the food production for own consumption, despite having only restricted access to production factors. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s report "National Gender Profile of Agricultural and Rural Livelihoods," 80.7% of farms were managed by men, 19.3% by women in 2015, compared to 83.6% and 16.4% respectively in 2014. The change shows that the situation of women has improved to a certain extent.
Nonetheless, women have not been able to catch up with men in terms of agricultural production. This is due to women’s limited access to land and social norms which systematically restrict the choices offered to women. Women simply lack the means, as most of the land continues to be owned by men. So, while there certainly are women who manage family farms, in the majority of cases, women in rural areas do not have the means to farm large areas of land.
- In what state were Senegal’s food production systems (agriculture and livestock farming) at the end of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic?
For over fifty years, our agricultural sector – originating from family businesses and subsistence farming – has been strongly focused on cash crops (peanuts and cotton). The peanut business, for instance, has played a key role for the Senegalese agricultural sector ever since the era of colonisation. Agricultural production is still heavily dependent on rainfalls, but as irrigation systems were developed – especially in the valleys of the Senegal River in the North – the country’s rice production has increased. The production of millet, a traditional rainfed crop, that had declined sharply, is now on the rise again, both for own consumption and commercial production.
Horticultural production takes place mainly along the Niayes coastal strip and the Senegal River valley, two zones with great agroecological potential. The Niayes region (between Dakar and Saint-Louis) is where a large share of onions, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, cherry tomatoes and tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce and chili peppers are grown, while the production of tomatoes for industrial use, onions, and yams takes place mainly in the river valley, which offers huge opportunities. In 2017, the agricultural sector made up 16% of the GDP, compared to just 7.1% in 2012. Senegal has a great agricultural tradition and the sector employs almost half of the active population. However, the Covid-19 crisis may well disrupt this trend. According to an FAO report published in November 2019, the shortage of rain in the previous (2019) season already forebodes an insecurity of food supply and worryingly increased levels of malnutrition.
- In your opinion, which could be the worst consequences of the crisis for the production and consumption systems in Senegal?
The pandemic hit Senegal at a moment of peak agricultural production. The measures taken to halt the spread of the virus had repercussions on the economy. As an effect, the marketing of perishable cold-season harvests was severely curtailed, especially in view of the movement restrictions. The ban on loumas (weekly markets) also strongly affected the distribution and supply systems for local agricultural products.
The worrying situation during the crisis plausibly foreshadows a threat to the security of food supply and even a collapse of the national economy, especially in a country like Senegal, whose trade deficit worsened significantly in March, as the Directorate of Forecasting and Economic Studies recently announced.
It is currently still too early to make a clear statement on the impact of Covid-19 on our production and consumption systems, but the pandemic has shown that we should have revised them a long time ago. The way the pandemic is developing around the world, there is a great risk of a sustained inaccessibility of commodities. As our food supply depends heavily on imports, we might be faced with stock shortages. Accordingly, the food and labour markets, which are mainly driven by actors on the agricultural and informal markets, might be disrupted. These disruptions would impact the revenues of all the actors in the agricultural value creation chain as well as the supply of cereals, fruit, and vegetables to urban markets and of fish to landlocked areas of the country. We might also see a considerable downturn of consumer buying power in addition to being faced with a narrower range of consumer products that would ensure a varied diet and quality nutrition. Dietary deficiencies in the population could then lead to new health crises in Senegal like malnutrition and obesity.
- What approaches are you taking to strengthen women’s resilience - especially in rural areas - against the effects of COVID-19?
In the long term, the effects of COVID-19 will necessitate sustainable financing schemes for women’s activities. Making women in rural environments more resilient – in other words, strengthen their ability to cope with and overcome the effects of COVID-19 – is an indispensable item on public development policy agendas. The marginalisation of women from rural labour markets might become more accentuated, certainly so if they have to compete with men for the rare paid employment opportunities. The rate of women who work in the informal sectors - agriculture, livestock farming, fishing, trade and processing - is high, and they are the first at risk of losing their incomes in the current situation. Even if some of these women actively produce goods, they mainly do so for the purpose of marketing or processing them locally.
Women need to be supported in order to improve and secure their productive bases. They need access to good quality arable land, a sufficient supply of good quality water, and certified seeds. They need to be supported and encouraged to adopt sustainable production systems by means of incentives, like specially adapted agricultural insurance products, risk amortisation, storage and preservation infrastructure. The resources and leadership capacities of feminist and women’s rights movements - such as the Association des Juristes Sénégalaises AJS or the National Network of Rural Women of Senegal - must be stepped up so that they can provide women a voice and make sure that their concerns are taken into account in the strategies for coping with Covid-19.
- Which are the opportunities for socio-ecological transformation that we should seize in order to create more sustainable production and consumption systems?
In view of the limitations of industrial agriculture – which requires the heavy use of chemicals that accelerate climate change, the deterioration of arable land, and pollution, and which pose health risks – now is the moment to protect the most vulnerable, especially women and young people.
The Covid-19 pandemic has confronted us more urgently with our obligation to rethink our model of land development by means of sustainable production and consumption systems, with a view to autonomy and resilience for Senegal’s food supply in terms of quality and quantity. We will need systems that are much more geared towards supporting this type of family agricultural business.
If these are well organised and supported along the whole supply chain - production, processing and marketing - they can make a considerable contribution to safeguarding the autonomy and security of the Senegalese food supply system.
One solution is agroecology. Agroecology reconciles economic, ecological, and social aspects and is based on a territorial approach while guaranteeing satisfactory yields and making crops and livestock more resistant to climate change or diseases.
Land, agricultural and public development policies that take into account the key issues that apply to all social categories, especially women (access to land, water, and quality seeds), are always the first choice for dealing with this type of crisis. It’s about transformation, but above all, of transition.
- Which role do women play in this transition and in the definition of governance policies for these systems to safeguard food supply and autonomy?
Between 60% and 80% of the food produced by women is intended for family consumption in most developing countries. Men, on the other hand, generally tend to farm crops for sale and/or the agro-food sector in order to secure an income for their families. Even if their role is often forgotten or little appreciated, women are the ones who mainly ensure their families’ security of food supply.
That is why it is so important to encourage and support them at every step of the value creation chain so that they can play their central role in rebuilding the policies for the security and autonomy of food supply while diversifying their sources of income.
Women can make a much more significant contribution to the national economy if they have access to resources and opportunities, to high-quality education and technologies, and to rural employment markets. Moreover, levers such as providing support for their production (from processing to marketing their goods) and promoting gender equality and female leadership will enable them to become fully-fledged players in the Senegalese agricultural sector.
Thierno Sall holds two degrees, one in geography from Cheikh Anta Diop University, and another in information and communication technologies from the Science and Engineering Faculty of the University of Dakar. He is information and communication officer at Enda Pronat, an NGO that is member of the Enda Tiers Monde network.
As an expert specialising in development issues, he is highly knowledgeable about socio-ecological issues in Senegal based on his experience in managing and capitalising on development projects in rural contexts.
The series of interviews on the effects of Covid 19 on food systems continues with reports from Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya.