Businesses in Africa are trying to fight COVID-19. But they’ll need to refocus their response to help the poorest communities.
Dr. Ijeoma Nwagwu is a member of the Sustainability Leadership & Strategy faculty at Lagos Business School in Nigeria.
The COVID-19 crisis has triggered an unprecedented homegrown response in Africa. There has been an outpouring of corporate philanthropy and community solidarity: for example, South Africa’s Solidarity Fund and Nigeria’s Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID). Large gifts complement a deluge of giving from private individuals and small businesses to cushion the socio-economics impact of social distancing measures — quarantines, curfews, lockdowns — on the poor.
The private sector has created impact that African governments could never have achieved alone. But both corporate and government action to curb the spread of COVID-19 are focused on urban centers and momentary humanitarian relief. It’s too early for a full accounting of aid efforts. But I see through my work with businesses at Lagos Business School that responses to the crisis concentrate on providing food aid and cash grants to mainly urban households.
The battle against the virus will be won or lost in the continent’s poorest communities, which are most vulnerable to COVID, and it’s a long-term struggle. In deploying solutions and support, businesses should focus particularly on those being left behind, such as poor rural farmers. Businesses should also address core structural challenges which predate COVID-19 and worsen its impact now.
How poor communities are vulnerable to COVID-19
A torn social fabric in Africa increases COVID-19’s impact.
Most Africans live precariously at $1.90 a day. In Nigeria, for example, 90 million people — roughly half of the population — live in extreme poverty. Their living conditions further fuel COVID-19 transmission. Sixty per cent of the continent’s population — 587 million Africans — live in overcrowded and unsanitary urban slums, such as Alexandra, Makoko, and Kibera. Here the social distancing needed to fight COVID-19 is impossible to enact, and informal sector workers balk against lockdowns which bar them from eking out a living.
Rural poverty is even more dire. The poor in the countryside mostly live without access to critical health, education, energy and telecommunications infrastructure. Natural disasters and broad economic trends also limit the productivity, income and food security of the poor, most of whom are farmers. Perpetually neglected, the rural areas have found their only support in dealing with COVID-19 coming from community-based self-help associations. (As an example, MANSAM, a coalition of grassroots women’s organizations and civil society groups, enacted a “Sudan Against Corona” campaign: making masks, donating supplies, distributing posters with essential information, and raising awareness about the virus through social media.)
Africa’s young population may seem a significant protective barrier in this pandemic. As the current pandemic has traversed Asia, Europe, and North America, people over 60 years of age have suffered the most severe cases of COVID-19. The median age in Africa is 19 years. However, widespread malnutrition, anemia, malaria and tuberculosis in African nations may result in a higher incidence of severe forms of COVID-19 in younger patients. These immunity-suppressing conditions combine with weak public health infrastructure and the exodus of doctors to the West to create a perilous situation.
Rethink CSR in a pandemic
I have seen through my work with businesses at the Lagos Business School Sustainability Centre that businesses’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives tend to be small-scale, individual efforts. These activities do not address challenges in a holistic way or bring the breadth of resources and expertise needed. Only a handful of businesses, mainly multinationals such as Unilever and Coca Cola, will have sustainability frameworks which attempt to take a systemic and long-term view of the social problems they are trying to address. Recently, some large businesses have launched collaborative associations such as the Africa Plastics Recycling Alliance and the Private Sector Advisory Group; these are vehicles for collective action on key sustainable development issues, from plastic pollution to malnutrition.
The usual CSR dynamic seems to be operating with responses to COVID-19: businesses are generally going it alone under their own logos and deploying fragmented solutions.
For a long time, businesses have needed to pursue long-term, systems-focused, and collaborative engagement to address structural poverty and related sustainable development challenges. The harm caused by COVID-19 is enabled by pre-existing challenges such as food insecurity, poor housing, lack of access to quality healthcare and youth unemployment.
Here is what this needed approach might look like in the area of food security.
Longstanding food insecurity is worsened by COVID-19
COVID-19 has exacerbated existing food insecurity, which already affected one fifth of the population in sub-Saharan Africa. Food security exists “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
African agriculture centers on smallholder farms, which have long experienced underinvestment and poor productivity. Farmers face challenges accessing many fundamental resources, including quality inputs (seeds and fertilizer), education through agricultural extension services, financing, storage, logistics and transport.
Here’s an example of how this plays out. African countries — Cameroon, Ghana, Malawi and Nigeria — produce more than half of the world’s cassava, a staple crop. However, 30 – 40 per cent of the total cassava harvest goes to waste in the absence of appropriate facilities to store this highly perishable crop post-harvest. Meanwhile, huge locust swarms destroyed a swath of farmland across eight East African nations.
COVID-related lockdowns have interrupted these already fragile food production and distribution systems. Farmers are unable to sell their crops, deepening their poverty and leading to greater dependence on external food imports. But these imports are no longer forthcoming due to COVID-related food export restrictions in supplier countries such as Vietnam and India. The resulting scarcity has made staple foods too costly for many households, leading to increased undernutrition.
Businesses can strengthen the food value chain
Momentary humanitarian assistance has value in light of immediate food security challenges. But CSR programming and investment should focus on strengthening the food value chain from its roots in mainly rural farms to the table.
Businesses, particularly those in the financial sector as well as the food and beverage industry, can through both CSR initiatives and investments:
expand financing opportunities for the farmers
create access to appropriate training in, and tools for, agricultural best practices
investing in logistics, transportation and storage systems
enable greater access to retail markets at fair prices.
These efforts should scale the hopeful experiments of social enterprises such as the One Acre Fund in East Africa and Babban Gona in West Africa. These social enterprises have business models grounded in rural economies which link the expertise and resources of businesses with government agencies, community groups, multinational food buyers, and international development partners. Farmers are able to boost their productivity by leveraging high quality inputs (seeds, fertilizer etc.), agricultural training, and logistical support to get their goods to market. Boosted farm income supports household consumption and other activities.
This refocusing of attention and resources can enable Africans to make it out of the current food security crisis and build resilience towards a sustainable future. The coronavirus crisis teaches us that it is essential for companies to take a long-term view and systemic approach to addressing poverty, to forge new corporate alliances and inclusive business models for the common good, and to disrupt and transform failing systems of public service provision and value creation.
About the Author
Dr. Ijeoma Nwagwu is a member of the Sustainability Leadership & Strategy faculty at Lagos Business School. Through the Lagos Business School Sustainability Centre, Dr Nwagwu has led and studied social development projects involving businesses, communities, private foundations, nonprofits and government agencies.
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