Corona crisis reinforces Mozambique’s agriculture ‘emergency’

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South Africa’s lockdown, brought in last week, means informal traders, who play an important role inMaputo’s food supply, are now finding it difficult to cross into South Africa for supplies. The Mozambique government has said this is an opportunity to focus efforts on boosting domestic agricultural production, but this is likely to come too late to make up for the shortfall if the country’s vast informal food supply network can no longer effectively operate.

Commercial goods vehicles continue to move through the Ressano Garcia border with South Africa, although authorities have become more strict in demanding that drivers show permits for the transport of goods.

“Besides the process taking a bit longer than normal in getting some of our trucks back into South Africa over the past couple of days, things are still functioning normally,” Kevin O’Brien, Risk and Sustainability Executive for supermarket chain Spar, told Zitamar.  “Clearing agents on both sides of the border, as well as Mozambique Customs, assured us that all is functioning as normal.”

But the increased number of army, police, customs and migration controls means informal traders are finding it harder to move across the border.

The government has been criticised for not implementing tougher measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, similar to the full lockdown in neighbouring South Africa.

The state of emergency decree specifies that formal stores and markets will remain open, but it doesn’t mention whether informal markets and street traders can continue to operate. 

“Drastic measures would not help at this time,” said João Feijó, a researcher at Mozambican rural affairs think tank OMR. “Even in a lockdown context, it would be wise for the measures to be taken gradually rather than radically. The markets must remain open because many families depend on them to buy food.”

Instead the government should ensure all customers are aware of and follow safety advice while shopping, such as keeping people two metres apart at all times.

“In India there are marks on the floor so that people in the queue are in place. Those are the kind of measures we need in our context. Not closure, but educating people to take preventive measures,” said Feijó. “People should not die from the disease, but they should not die from outdated prevention measures either.”

In a speech in January, President Nyusi said investing in Mozambican agriculture is a “national emergency — and the government now says it will use the coronavirus crisis to encourage more local food production.

“Faced with today’s challenges, the solution is to redouble our efforts to increase production and productivity levels, particularly in agriculture, throughout its value chain, to ensure increased food availability and take the country off the hunger map,” Prime Minister, Carlos Agostinho do Rosário, said on Thursday in the Assembly of the Republic.

The government already has the systems it needs to boost production, said Feijó; it would “be a matter of taking more seriously the work that the Ministry of Agriculture has been implementing. Projects that are already in place, could be expanded and put into action in other districts.”

Antonio Francisco, of the Institute of Social and Economic Studies (IESE) recommends that the government invest in farmers in the Lower Limpopo region, and “make the whole area available for food production. Chokwe also has a lot to offer, all it needs is a bet on that,” he said. He added that the government should start by activating financing lines for the distribution of seeds.

As well as investing in production, the government also needs to build better distribution and delivery chains. There are already small and medium-sized companies in Mozambique ready to do this, “but they need financing,” said Paulo Artur, who runs Comorganico,  which sells and delivers agro-ecological vegetables in Maputo.

Comorganico, which delivers fresh produce to people’s doors, has seen a boost in customer numbers since the crisis started. However, the increased work means he is also increasing his employees’ exposure to catching the virus. Comorganico has supplied staff with gloves and masks, and reduced their work week from five to three days.

“Another company could cover the other two days, but there is no capital [to expand businesses]and there is a lot of fear of debt,” he said.

The government could also tap into the networks used by aid agencies, including its own National Institute of Disaster Management (INGC), and NGOs to ensure food is distributed and people are fed.

“The government has enough institutions and experience to keep people fed. All it needs is to trigger them. We suffer cyclically from floods, droughts and more, but vulnerable people have always been assisted, although with help from humanitarian organisations like the World Food Programme,” said Feijó.

The Cereals Institute of Mozambique should be instructed to purchase the necessary food which could then be delivered through these existing distribution chains, said Feijó. Distribution could be free for the most vulnerable, and at an affordable price for others.

“It is an option that should be considered because, in principle, it is only a matter of time to arrive at this situation of widespread food insecurity,” he said.

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