Locusts, Covid-19, bad weather: The anatomy of a food crisis

Monday May 25 2020

A resident of Nyando, Kisumu County, western Kenya carries her goats to safety when the area was flooded in April. PHOTO | ONDARI OGEGA


A spectre of food crisis is haunting East Africa, preceded by an unfortunate axis of locust invasion, Covid-19 pandemic and adverse weather.

And now both the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) are forecasting a grim future.

In its Global Report on Food Crises, WFP is particularly worried about Covid-19 spreading to vulnerable communities such as those with high levels of acute malnutrition, refugee settlements and IDP camps, arid and semi-arid lands and informal settlements.

The UN agency warned that “there’s no time to waste” as more than 27 million people were in “emergency” levels of acute food insecurity prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the restrictions that have come with containing the spread of Covid-19, WFP warns hundreds of millions of people could be “just one shock away from severe acute food insecurity” as at least 135 million people experienced “crisis” and worse levels of acute food insecurity while a further 183 million people were on the edge in “stressed” food security conditions.

The UN agency said it is concerned about the growing risk of famine in some countries, especially those in East Africa.


In April 2020, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fews Net) Global Food Security Alert named Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan among countries, including Nigeria and Yemen, that could face famine, as a consequence of the pandemic.

In East Africa, the situation is compounded by desert locust invasions, floods and insecurity. What is more, the Covid-19 pandemic coincides with the start of the long rains and main planting season and peak of the land preparation activities for labour-intensive staple food crops and vegetables.

“Significant food security gains have been realised in most countries following above-average rains across the region towards the end of 2019. However, macro-economic shocks, protracted conflict, the ongoing desert locust infestation and the Covid-19 pandemic threaten to erode these gains,” said the WFP report.

According to the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group March 2020 update, 16.95 million people in the four most food insecure countries in East Africa are in need of humanitarian assistance due to drought, floods, economic crises, conflict and displacements.


The WFP and FAO are worried that planting, harvesting and market challenges facing vulnerable rural agricultural populations will exacerbate an already fragile situation. These challenges include reduced access to inputs due to limited market access and reduced incomes, lack of seasonal labour, disruptions to transport to markets, lockdowns, physical distancing and lower purchasing power.

“The halt of school feeding programmes ... could result in significant deteriorations of nutritional outcomes among child of school-going age,” said the WFP.

It is also envisaged that travel restrictions could severely affect crop and livestock exports and imported input pushing up food prices as incomes continue to decline.

“Because of the restrictions there are reports of fresh produce going to waste before it reaches the consumer,” said the report.  

Not even national policy responses introduced in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda to limit the impact of Covid-19 on food markets have helped.

“For livestock dependent economies like Somalia, South Sudan and Ethiopia, the outbreak coincided with the onset of the Ramadan when export of live animals and frozen meat to the Middle East countries was expected to increase. Loss of household income will likely have ripple effect on the local economies, and therefore on household food security and nutrition,” added the report.

The Global Covid-19 Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP) has revised the needed money from $2 billion to $6.71 billion to reflect the increasingly urgent need to address non-health impacts of Covid-19.  As of May 5, the UN appeal had received $923 million with another $608 million reported outside the GHRP, bringing the total received to about $1.5 billion.

Of these needs, the food security sector represents the largest component, for a total of $1.6 billion.

FAO is seeking $350 million to ensure the provision of critical assistance where there are already high levels of need, while meeting new needs emerging from the effects of Covid-19.