Get smart or go hungry, SADC warned

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Southern African countries must urgently establish a drought response fund and invest in early warning systems to enhance regional food security, Namibia’s Agriculture, Water and Land Resettlement Minister, Calle Schlettwein, has told The Southern Times.

Schlettwein’s wake-up to the region came as ministers responsible for agriculture, food security, fisheries and aquaculture in Southern Africa recently reviewed guidelines developed by the SADC Secretariat in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Soon to be presented to the Council of Ministers, the guidelines provide SADC members with measures to avoid disruption to food supply chains and associated livelihoods resulting from the impact of COVID-19.

The guidelines provide measures to minimise disruption to farming operations, and enable access to production inputs, including critical emergency veterinary drugs. The measures include ways to reach markets for farming households.

This week, Minister Schlettwein told The Southern Times that while some SADC members expected reasonable cereal harvests, the disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak had been a wake-up call for a region that has for long largely relied on food imports.

Successive years of drought in several countries have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cut agricultural production across the world and thrown spanners into the logistical aspects of moving food across borders.

Schlettwein said, “It has not been an easy year because we have had to rely heavily on supplementing food, especially grain, to those affected by the prolonged drought.

“This be as it may, the current situation has also been a wake-up call for SADC member states to start producing enough for consumption and stop relying on food imports.

“The other major challenge we faced as a region is that we do not have proper early warning systems and figuratively speaking, all we do is look at the sky (to try and determine) whether there will be rain or not.”

Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are all emerging from a prolonged El Niño-induced dry spell interspersed with flooding that has wreaked havoc on crops, livestock and infrastructure.

“It is imperative that in as much as we work together as a region in improving food production, we cumulatively contribute to the food security situation of our region. We are stronger as a region and indeed as a continent but that can only work if we are producing enough as member states,” Schlettwein added.

The Namibian minister said SADC needed long-term, sustainable plans to deal with recurring calamities.

“Drought has been an on and off scenario in the region … This simply means that we can not rely on rainfall alone and we need to come up with plans that subvert effects of droughts.

“One such area is the implementation of agriculture mechanisation as well irrigation in member states, so agricultural production is pretty much all-year rather than seasonal.”

Schlettwein said greater focus should be placed on growing drought resistant crops.

Schlettwein and his counterparts across SADC recently noted that COVID-19 could lead to a decline in the nutritional status of vulnerable populations due to a reduction in household food security and access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene services.

Disruption to supply chains through blockages on transport routes, transport restrictions and quarantine measures have been resulting in significant increases in food loss and waste, particularly for perishable produce like fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and dairy products.

Labour shortages caused by restrictions on movements at production, processing, transportation and retailing of agricultural produce has been another bottleneck to food security brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This plethora of issues has seen SADC ministers, with support from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, to set up guidelines on food security.

The strategies include supporting labour migration toward ensuring the uninterrupted harvesting of crops; and promoting measures to increase shelf-life of agricultural produce. Ministers are also looking at ways of exempting bulk food transporters of from curfews.

These measures will be implemented in harmony with broader SADC guidelines on transport.

As part of these transport sector-specific guidelines, SADC members agreed to establish national transport and trade facilitation committees or use existing structures comprising officials from the ministries responsible for transport, health, police/army, and trade.

To this end, a Regional COVID-19 Trade and Transport Facilitation Cell has been created at SADC Secretariat level.

Reporting by Tiri Masawi for The Southern Times in Windhoek, and Egline Tauya for the Southern Africa Research and Documentation Centre in Harare

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