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Informal food systems drew the short straw during Covid-19 lockdowns

Published September 15, 2021, by Morgan Morris

The first webinar in the new #FoodTalks series looked at the impact of Covid-19 on food systems in South Africa and Ghana.

Experience from Covid-19 has shown that some parts of the food system not only endured but thrived amid the lockdowns, while others bore the brunt of these measures.

Dr Marc Wegerif presents at the first #FoodTalks webinar.

In both South Africa and Ghana, among other countries, the informal food systems – the ones serving the most vulnerable – were the hardest hit, as argued at the first of the new #FoodTalks series hosted on 8 September. This series aims to explore the workings of several food systems in Africa, and is hosted by the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa), the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, and the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria (UP).

The first webinar, in which presenters looked at the impact of Covid-19 on food systems in South Africa and Ghana, can be viewed here.

Speaking first, Dr Marc Wegerif, a lecturer in development studies at UP, outlined the trials suffered by the small-scale and informal economy in South Africa amid South Africa’s lockdowns. While the “immunised” formal food economy steamed along – supermarkets and commercial farms racking up record revenues – state-imposed restrictions hit mostly informal traders and businesses. These were shut down initially, cutting off precarious livelihoods, and were later also affected by cumbersome permits and regulations. And while jobs were lost and/or household incomes decimated, food prices crept up.

At one stage, food inflation in South Africa was 128% higher than the core inflation on which salary and social grant increases are usually negotiated, explained Wegerif. And of course, all of this took place against the backdrop of existing inequality, unemployment and food insecurity in the country.

By shackling the informal sector, the state had – however unintentionally – also put further pressure on the incomes of South Africa’s poorest, who often relied on the informal sector for more affordable foods, argued Wegerif. As such, the informal sector enjoys close social relations with the people that they serve and are responsive to them, whereas corporate shareholders in the formal food sector are far removed from the communities they sell to, he noted.

“One of the reasons why these traders respond to their customers in the way they do, and don’t just increase their profits in the middle of a crisis, is that they’re socially embedded.”

In comparison with South Africa, Ghana had better withstood the Covid-19 pandemic. Even taking into account that its population is about half the size of South Africa’s, Ghana’s official number of cases and deaths are well below that of South Africa. Ghana had also lifted its lockdowns sooner – mere weeks after first introducing it.

But as in South Africa, Ghana has a sizeable informal food sector. Which, just as in South Africa, reeled under the lockdowns, explained Professor Akosua Darkwah of the University of Ghana in her presentation.

Because of movement restrictions, farms couldn’t access the necessary labour to work the land, which meant that harvests suffered. With markets closed, the large groups of low-income women migrants were cut off from both the goods they buy for their businesses, and their clientele. Traders operating on rotating credit were not paid by their clients, who in turn sold fewer goods as households cut back their spending. Food prices rose as incomes shrunk. Families had to cut down on meals and the variety of products in those meals.

The impact of state interventions in Ghana also mirrored those in South Africa. State criteria either disqualified those in the informal sector from business support, or put in place regulatory requirements beyond the means of such businesses.

“Covid has disrupted all of the processes, all the way from the farm to the plates in our home,” summed up Prof Darkwah. And, she added, a largely informal food system that had survived for decades has, thanks to the pandemic, proven to be very fragile at its core. “Covid has worsened a food system that is precarious for the most part.”

Both speakers agreed that while the informal sectors bounced back to some degree, greater resilience has to be built into these food systems.

Their role in serving poor communities makes them invaluable, while corporations, far removed from these everyday realities, merely increased profits and contributed to making food more expensive, said Wegerif. As such the informal food sector, in particular street traders and small-scale famers, forms a nucleus of these countries’ food systems that should be built on, he added.

“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.”

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