From the CEO: Ishmael Sunga

by | Mar 1, 2021 | News, Newsletters

Indeed 2020 was a unique and extraordinarily difficult year for farmers and everyone else alike. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating, causing unprecedented, widespread pandemonium, and impacting all sectors and virtually all spheres of human life.

Hats off to farmers the world over and the agricultural sector in general, for their endurance and resilience. They have given it their all, ensuring a continued food supply, often at enormous human and social sacrifice.

Whilst we are hopeful that 2021 will be better than last year, the pandemic is far from being over. A second wave, which appears more devastating than the initial one, has already reached our shores. And farmers, as essential service providers, continue to face relentless pressure, often without the necessary support and despite the critical role they play.

But there is absolutely no doubt that they will still once again rise to the challenge. For farmers, growing food is a calling, and when push comes to shove, business considerations come last, or they don’t feature at all.

Perhaps that’s why most of us take food for granted and are oblivious to the selfless efforts of our farmers, the heroes who provide it. That is precisely why they are so deserving of all forms of support – public, corporate, private, local and international – as they help us all survive through these difficult times.

In agriculture, the pandemic has exposed just how fragile food systems are, despite leapfrogging scientific and technological advancements that have occurred in the recent past.

But there is a silver lining to all of this: From the ashes of the great devastation and disruption emerges the opportunity to re-engineer a more resilient and sustainable agricultural sector. This should be underpinned by the fundamental principles and values of equity, fairness, respect, trust, openness and transparency, particularly regarding value chain configurations. In short, it’s an opportunity to shape an agricultural sector that makes all value chains and systems role-players winners, to correct some fundamental distortions from the “normal” past. The pandemic has presented a rare opportunity – farmers cannot afford to have this crisis go to waste. They should join others in “building back” to the agriculture that they have always wished for.

As there is more to agriculture than farming, it will require farmers to engage and negotiate a fair deal. The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) presents perhaps the greatest opportunity for farmers and could not have come at a better time.

There is so much at stake regarding building the agriculture that farmers want, and the debate has already started under the rallying theme of “building back better”. Let us ensure that “better” speaks to the future expectations and aspirations of farmers.

Despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic in 2020, the Secretariat performed fairly well. We quickly adapted to the virtual way of working, not out of choice but necessity. This has indeed become the new normal. We worked from home for most of the year, could not travel or meet physically – particularly with our members – and had to resort to virtual engagements. And budget underspends and missing operational targets were unavoidable. Thanks goes out to our understanding development partners.

We kept abreast of global and regional developments, and kept in contact with our members for a view on how they were coping with the impacts and sharing their experiences, hopes and aspirations amongst themselves and with the rest of the world. Key messages coming from our reading of the situation are presented in this issue.

As the Secretariat, we view 2021 with hope and optimism, much the same way that farmers do. We have identified significant opportunities from the new way of working – even doing more with the same or less, bolstered by the practical experience that we have acquired, and the lessons learnt. The message is clear: Adapt or perish. We are in this for the long haul and farmers are staying the course.

Digital technology is the backbone of this transition. The future is indeed digital, and it is now!

We have an exciting programme of work for the year. Worth highlighting is the operationalisation of the SACAU Academy whose initial focus will be on entrepreneurship and leadership, our climate change related work in the run-up to COP 26, as well as implementation of our Poultry Initiative for Southern Africa, which has been selected as one of Africa’s flagship projects for the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS). Engagement in the UNFSS processes will be pivotal as farmers seek to seize the opportunity to negotiate a better deal in future food systems.

Furthermore, we look forward to productive engagements and collaborations with our various partners and stakeholders that enable us to achieve much more than we would otherwise. Finally, we always look forward to the support of and engagement with our members who make our efforts all the more worthwhile.

We shall continue to keep you updated on the above and other pertinent developments. Enjoy the read.



Keeping a watch on COVID-19


The advent of COVID-19 presented a helpless situation for farmers, as for virtually everyone else. The pandemonium that followed caused panic and fear in the farming communities of Southern Africa and the world over.

Whilst the origin of the virus quickly became common knowledge, no one knew where the pandemic was headed. Watching, listening and learning on the go became the order of the day. And access to information about the unfolding situation was soon identified as the most important survival tool amidst the upheaval.

In addition, SACAU quickly recognised the importance of members sharing their experiences with each other. One way of achieving this was through periodic structured monitoring surveys of the 19 member national farmers’ associations in 12 Southern African countries.

Three surveys were done.

The first was in April 2020, and looked at the topmost challenges faced, immediate impacts on farmers, their response to the situation, measures that governments were putting in place for farmers and their involvement in the process, as well as key messages emanating from their experiences.

A follow-up survey was conducted in June 2020 and sought to understand if and in what way the unfolding situation was worsening, remaining the same, or improving.

The final survey of the year, done in October 2020, was on hopes and fears for the future.

All the information was collated, synthesised and then shared with the members. There was a rich harvest of practices and ideas, and clearly the diversity of experiences and perspectives that emerged enabled them to have a wider understanding of and appreciation for the situation with which farmers and farmers’ organisations (FOs) were grappling. Furthermore, it equipped them with tools and ideas on how to better respond to their specific situations, particularly with respect to policy engagements and advocacy.

Meanwhile, at regional level, the information we gathered was very useful in many respects. It enabled us to get a regional picture of the unfolding situation, and provided to be critical content for our communication, advocacy and representative work. The information was synthesised into emerging lessons and key messages, as well as other types of information products that were ventilated throughout the world via different communication channels.


Impact of COVID-19: in the beginning

Tracking the impact of the pandemic on the agricultural sector from the start and generating information and knowledge from it, has been one of our key functions. This information has been deployed to various uses, including cross learning amongst our members; the development of key messages for advocacy; engagements with stakeholders at regional, continental and global level; as well as for communication purposes using various channels.

The general impact at the start of the pandemic is well documented. A key element of the ways in which we kept abreast of the developments last year was with periodically structured surveys of our 19 member farmers associations in Southern Africa. This article explores the results of the first survey (highlights from the remaining two surveys will be covered in the next issue).

The first was essentially a baseline survey undertaken in April 2020, not long after the declaration of the pandemic, and when the first lockdown measures had been put in place. Thus, the full implications of the unfolding pandemic had not yet manifested.

The survey focused on the topmost challenges that FOs were grappling with in their respective countries, their immediate impact on farmers, as well as their responses. Other areas were government support of farmers, and their involvement by way of formal consultations and representation in appropriate support structures, as well as key messages from their experiences.

Analysis of the results shows a diversity of scenarios, as well as some commonalities. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the results of the first survey reveal shock and helplessness amongst farmers. At that time no one knew where the pandemic was headed, and how/when it was going to end. By far, market failure had the most immediate impact on farmers, and this was associated with knee-jerk measures adopted by government authorities. The failure varied in severity and intensity, depending on broad factors such as the location of the country (e.g. inland, coastal or island), the structure of the economy (e.g. dominantly tourism or agricultural), as well as specific aspects such as the nature or type of product, distance to the market, exports or imports, volumes involved and other factors.

Markets “pull” value chains, and when there is market failure the whole chain becomes dysfunctional. As primary producers, farmers sit right at the bottom of the chain, and when the chain breaks, they are the first ones to lose through direct waste and associated losses and other consequences. Farmers also face the highest portion of loss and risk and, ironically, the lowest return. This often leaves them and the banker in a deadlock, which is by far not a clash of the giants! In addition, this also affects both the confidence and ability of farmers to invest in the next cycle of production.

The impact of the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the strategic, political and economic significance of the agricultural sector. Therefore, agriculture was designated an essential services sector, required to operate at all times, making farmers frontline workers. Despite this, however, farmers’ access to personal protection equipment, and public support (stimulus packages) was rather limited.

While FOs were generally consulted by authorities, they were largely represented directly in appropriate governmental response structures (e.g. national task teams or private sector committees) set up in response to the pandemic. And, as essential service providers, they were deserving of a place in such structures. However, FOs were not as proactive in asserting themselves in this regard, due to their limited capacity.

Finding themselves uniquely tried and tested and having to demonstrate agility amidst the pandemic, FOs have assumed new roles, often well beyond their traditional mandates associated with advocacy. For example, some found themselves facilitating the distribution of PPEs and driving human health and safety awareness, thus making them part of a critical public service infrastructure and a strategic area of development support.

The analysis also demonstrated that in crisis situations, access to regular information is probably the best resource available to help allay unnecessary fears, understand the impact of the evolving situation, develop mitigation measures, identify opportunities, and strategise for the future.

Finally, the survey showed that digital technology has become vital in connecting farmers in far flung areas, and keeping abreast of developments through real-time communication channels. This now calls for investments in ICT and data infrastructure for FOs, and extensively in digital infrastructure that enhances the availability of and provides access to communication services at affordable cost, including the associated data.


COVID-19: emerging lessons and key messages

The following are some of the key messages emerging from the impact of the pandemic on farmers. They are based on an analysis of the experience of FOs in Southern Africa, and on interactions and engagements with various actors on various platforms.

There is a need for farmers to prepare themselves for the long haul: COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon, and could last well into 2022.

It can no longer be business as usual: farmers and FOs need to adapt to better cope with the continuously and rapidly changing and challenging situation. This means developing new competencies, adopting new approaches and strategies, as well as embracing digital technology.

Information is key in managing crisis situations: keeping abreast of developments on a regular basis (especially digitally) has perhaps been the most important tool available to farmers and FOs in managing fear amidst the crisis, and resultant panic and anxiety.

Give farmers priority access to PPEs, vaccines and support packages: they are frontline essential services providers whose operations have been sustained very often at great personal and financial risk. Yet, they generally find themselves at the end of the line when it comes to accessing important facilities.

A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work: farmers are a very diverse group, experiencing the impact of the pandemic on multi-dimensional levels. Thus, not only does support to farmers need to be differentiated, it should also be comprehensive.

Farmers are part of value chains and thus should not be dealing with the negative impacts of the pandemic unilaterally: COVID-19 has demonstrated that when the going gets tough, the rest of the value chain leaves farmers to fend for themselves. All value chain role-players, including consumers, should contribute to addressing the negative impacts of COVID-19 on farmers.

A need for farmers’ representation at all levels: the pandemic is being addressed at different levels, from sub-national to global, and several organisations are involved. Farmers’ representation and inputs are key, particularly when it comes to developing solutions to their problems.

It is not all doom and gloom – COVID-19 provides a rare opportunity for farmers: the disruption to food systems presents an opportunity for farmers to negotiate the agricultural sector they want. One that should be built on, among others, fundamental principles of equity and fairness in the sharing of value and risk. It is an opportunity for introspection, to replace detrimental ways of working with new ones, embracing new ideas and technology, as well as to bring in younger players. Thus, there is a need for farmers to influence the narratives and discourse on building back better at all levels, from national to global.

Farmers are only stronger when standing together: strengthening the voice and togetherness of farmers at all levels is considered a strategic area for development investment, particularly with respect to strengthening FOs.

Investment in backbone socio-economic infrastructure: is fundamental for the long-term resilience of farmers. This includes communication, well-maintained roads, uninterrupted power/energy supply, and access to water, health, education and other social amenities.

Strengthening intra-African trade can build resilience to shocks like COVID-19*

Before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Africa, its impact on trade was already being felt.

In an ordinary year, Africa imports more than US$70 billion in food and agricultural products. But as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, 2020 imports were projected to fall by 16% and exports by 8%.

For a continent so reliant on international trade, the pandemic has delivered a hard lesson on the importance of building resilience by strengthening intra-African trade and diversifying economies. But it has also helped reveal how this can be done.

Alongside hindering trade, the pandemic also postponed the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) until January 2021. Set to be the world’s largest free trade area in terms of the number of countries covered, it presents a timely opportunity to bolster and scale up intraregional trade throughout the continent.

Existing intra-African trade flows, in particular within regional economic communities (RECs), enabled countries to minimise disruptions and keep food supplies flowing amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

Benefitting from geographic proximity, similar cultures and long-standing trading relationships, RECs play a key role in advancing Africa’s regional and continental integration, increasing opportunities for African producers and consumers beyond their own borders.

Now, these successes can be harnessed to boost the continent’s trade even further, but will rely on a number of factors.

Firstly, governments must embrace digital innovations to accelerate the process of strengthening intraregional trade and to help overcome non-tariff trade barriers. As highlighted in a recent report from the Malabo Montpellier Panel, non-tariff measures including quotas and subsidies, are a major hindrance to intraregional and intracontinental trade.

With significant progress already being made to transform Africa’s food systems through digitalisation, innovation to improve trade flows has been kickstarted by the pandemic. For instance, some countries have introduced centralised testing and certification databases to speed up COVID-19 inspections for lorry drivers and to reduce border delays.

Removing these non-tariff trade barriers would not only boost the availability of diverse and nutritious foods, but also crucially help to reduce levels of food waste or loss, which currently stands at around 40% of all food produced in Africa.

Secondly, measuring and managing informal cross-border trade must be prioritised, particularly for bolstering resilience during times of crisis.

Informal trading across borders is a key channel for imports and exports within Africa, particularly for staples including beans; rice and maize; as well as livestock. When properly harnessed and measured, it can contribute towards economic growth, job creation and poverty alleviation.

However, many of those reliant on cross-border trade for their livelihood are women, who have been disproportionately affected by restrictions, border closures and curfews enforced due to COVID-19, alongside gender-based discrimination and violence.

With greater support and protection, women can trade more safely, as well as contribute more significantly to domestic economic development. Once the AfCFTA is in place, wages for skilled and unskilled women are expected to rise by up to 4% by 2035, through new employment opportunities across the agricultural value chain.

Thirdly, expanding and optimising infrastructure is key, including transportation and production resources.

Boosting domestic processing capacity for agricultural products could significantly increase economic growth, with the export of processed goods tending to be more profitable than that of raw products. For instance, producing and selling cocoa butter or chocolate would be a far more lucrative operation than exporting cocoa beans.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of building agricultural value chains that can withstand shocks and stresses. Developing processing industries and strengthening intraregional transport links would not only enable countries to tap into regional, continental and global markets, but would also help manage risks for domestic markets, ensuring food supply chains can keep moving and feeding communities in times of crisis.

Before the pandemic struck, intraregional food and agricultural trade across Africa’s eight RECs already played a key role in boosting economic growth, improving livelihoods and strengthening resilience to shocks.

Strengthening these RECs and the links between them will help cement a solid foundation for the AfCFTA, which is set to represent a market of more than 1.2 billion people – presenting potential for increasing intra-African trade by more than 50% and adding an estimated $76 billion to global income.

With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic spilling over into 2021 and beyond, there has never been a better time to unlock the benefits of trade for food and economic security.
* Reproduced from


AfCFTA to unleash continent’s potential*

The new pan-African trade deal could be the “anti-Brexit” lever that will unleash the continent’s united economic potential, according to the latest Malabo Montpellier Panel Report titled “Trading up: Policy innovations to expand food and agriculture trade in Africa” published in December 2020.

The launch press statement highlights that intra-African trade makes up just 20% of economic activity, yet holds the key to reducing reliance on imports and boosting food security post-COVID-19. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is likely to be a watershed development for African regional and international agri-food trade.

The AfCFTA will be one of the largest free trade areas in the world since the establishment of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), covering a market of more than 1.2 billion people and up to US$3 trillion in combined GDP. The agreement also creates the opportunity to increase intra-African trade by more than 50%, adding an estimated US$76 billion in income to the rest of the world.

“Lagging far behind other major regions of the world like the EU, in terms of trade between individual countries, the African Union (AU) and its member states have made a commitment to foster the links between domestic markets across the continent,” says Ousmane Badiane, Co-chair of the Malabo Montpellier Panel, which authored the report.

“This new trade deal comes at an opportune time for the continent to support fast-transforming economies and meet a surging domestic demand, fuelled by a rapidly growing population and urban middle class.”

The trade area comes into force as the African population continues to grow, rising from 1.2 billion people to an estimated 2.2 billion by 2050, and creating exponential demand. Yet the continent already relies on food and agricultural imports worth approximately US$72 billion per year, currently growing by 3.6% annually.

And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that Africa’s trade volumes would decrease by 8% for exports and by about 16% for imports during 2020.

Agricultural experts at the Malabo Montpellier Panel analysed potential opportunities for African national governments and its eight regional economic communities to trade more effectively in this new paradigm, including ways to leverage informal cross-border trade. Informal trade accounts for 30 – 40% of total trade within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and as much as 86% of Uganda’s official exports.

The panel’s recommendations include improving information and data, particularly on informal cross-border trade, for instance data on its scale, quality of products, and patterns of trade flows. This would support simplifying regulations, providing training on food hygiene, enhancing access to finance, and addressing entrepreneurship skills.

“Many of those reliant on cross-border trade for their livelihoods are women who have been disproportionately affected by restrictions, border closures and curfews enforced due to COVID-19, alongside gender-based discrimination and violence,” said Ishmael Sunga, member of the Malabo Montpellier Panel and Chief Executive Officer of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU).

“Once the AfCFTA is in place, wages for skilled and unskilled women are expected to rise by up to 4% by 2035, through new employment opportunities across the agriculture value chain.”

The report also outlines how to address tariff and non-tariff barriers, and how to improve and expand infrastructure, for instance by addressing cumbersome customs procedures, roadblocks, subsidies, and technical barriers such as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) rules. There are possible digital solutions like introducing radio frequency identification (RFID) or microchipping for tracking livestock, or the digital storage and exchange of safety certificates for quick and easy transmission across countries. The report also provides examples of how to enhance value chain competitiveness and strengthen crisis preparedness and resilience, with emphasis placed on those food products that are of high value and that contribute to improved nutrition at the same time.

This calls for investment into the design and development of technologies that improves both the quantity and quality of food. Furthermore, the provision of training facilities needs to be enhanced to expand access to opportunities for skills development and innovation capacity along the value chain.

“Rule-based open trade is essential for an efficient and sustainable African food system, and keeps food prices more stable, which is good for producers and consumers,” says Joachim von Braun, Co-chair of the Malabo Montpellier Panel.

“The next ambition can be a fair and deep trade partnership between the African Union and the European Community.”

Every year, between 10 and 12 million young Africans enter the job market, vying for one of only about 3.1 million jobs created. Although agriculture and informal sectors are already the highest employers on the continent, they are likely to accelerate employment creation even further as the demand for food rises across the continent.

“As mechanisation and digitalisation expand across food systems, there are new opportunities for agriculture-related job creation beyond the farm,” says Debisi Araba, Malabo Montpellier Panel member and Managing Director of the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF).

The Panel drew on the experiences of Africa’s existing regional trading blocs, such as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), including governance systems, institutional policy innovations, and programmatic interventions.

*Press statement on New pan-African trade deal could be the “anti-Brexit” and unleash continent’s united economic potential, reports find, issued by Marchmont Communications, December 21, 2020