Botswana’s virus food prep puts long-term plans on hold

Keeping the food flowing and protecting Botswana’s farmers and food supply has been the main task facing Jimmy Opelo and Botswana's Agriculture ministry. [Shutterstock]

“Botswana has not been spared by the wave of COVID-19,” says Jimmy Opelo, Permanent Secretary at Botswana’s agricultural ministry, who revealed how his country has had to change its tack on farm and food policymaking due to the pandemic.

The World Bank has warned that disruption to production and supply chains could ‘spark a food security crisis’ in Africa, forecasting a fall in farm production of up to 7%, if there are restrictions to trade, and a 25% decline in food imports.

Keeping the food flowing and protecting Botswana’s farmers and food supply has been the main task facing Opelo and the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food Security, and he tells EURACTIV that serious disruption to food supply has been avoided so far.

“There has been business as usual across the economy and that has been seen in the agricultural sector,” he says.

Essential service

In April, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the African Union described the food supply system as “an essential service that must continue to operate during periods of lockdown, emergency, curfew and other containment measures”, in a bid to ensure that farming communities and food supply is protected.

Botswana’s government has also been quick to define agriculture as an essential service sector and set up a COVID-19 relief fund to support farmers and other key sectors.

But curbing the effects of the pandemic to ensure domestic food security for Botswana has required a shift in priorities, at the expense of planned investment in infrastructure.

“We have had to scale down activities geared towards ensuring agricultural production in the country,” says Opelo. “

“One of the things that we had to do was to determine what we call a ‘strategic grain reserve’,” says Opelo, to ensure that there is enough cereal and grain stored until the pandemic has passed.

But that has come at the expense of cuts elsewhere.

“Immediately we had to cut the other budgets to make sure that we had the funds to restore our silos. In the process of doing this, that derailed our financial plan for this year,” he adds.

“Part of the funding that we had set aside for infrastructure spending in the agricultural sector – we have had to cut those, and that means that many projects cannot go on.”

A three year plan to upscale horticulture has also been put on hold, adds Opelo.

The other pandemic

Had it not been for the virus, the locust pandemic that has swept through much of eastern and southern Africa would be exorcising governments across the region.

Opelo says that the locust plague has caused a 25% loss in production but, he says, “we do not think all hope is lost”, and hopes that the key supplies of sorghum, maize, beans and fresh produce could last beyond a year.

But the combination of COVID-19 and the locust pandemic means that “we are definitely going to suffer some losses and that explains why we have been trying to ensure that our silos are well prepared,” he says.

“Before COVID-19 we had not been investing so much in food storage facilities. We were almost certain that a harvest season’s production would carry us through until next year, but with this pandemic we have to prepare storage in such a way that it can last at least two years. Its impact is going to affect us now and for the next season.”

Sustainability

Within the wider region, agricultural produce has also continued to flow, even though many of the border crossings between Botswana and neighbouring South Africa have been shut during the pandemic.

The Southern African Development Community Protocol on Trade is also functioning to give its 16 member countries tariff-free access to each other’s markets.

“Trade borders have been removed within the region. At the moment we still have the flow of trade and goods,” says Opelo, adding that “besides our own internal production, we have an arrangement within the SADC Protocol (on Trade) so that there are markets we can access.”

Officials from the FAO fear that the lockdown measures will affect supplies of fertiliser and other inputs, pushing down production in 2021.

South Africa’s Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy has estimated over 80% of the country’s fertiliser and 95% of plant protection chemicals are imported, a pattern mirrored across a continent in which Morocco is the only major fertiliser producer.

Indeed, self-reliance and security of production are key priorities.

“We have learnt a lot of things and one of the things we have learnt is the idea that as we talk about sustainability and security, we have to work out the mechanism through which we are able to self-supply within inputs such as fertilisers and herbicides,” says Opelo.

“We still get the bulk of these from South Africa…but post COVID-19 we know that it is high time that we move faster.”

Botswana hopes to access some of the €2 billion earmarked by the European Union for sub-Saharan African countries affected by the pandemic, and Opelo points out that being classified as a middle-income country means that funds from EU programmes have become harder to access.

That funding could allow the country to return to the long-term plans to boost production and infrastructure.

“Had it not been for COVID-19 we would have put in place strategies to improve the way that we get the harvest to market, as well as physical infrastructure projects. All those good plans we had to put aside and only God knows when we will be able to return to them,” says Opelo.

“It is fair to say that COVID is going to change the dynamics of how we go about agriculture in the country.”

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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