Trucks are shown lined up in a road along the Beitbridge border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Picture: SUPPLIED
Trucks are shown lined up in a road along the Beitbridge border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Picture: SUPPLIED

Across Africa, from Zambia to Mali, access to imports for inland countries is getting harder. Cautious stock management is being compounded by lockdown rules. The two together can stop regional trade entirely.

These countries are not just importing toilet rolls and tyres. Critical goods that can have an effect on lives and livelihoods, and on politics, are most affected: wheat and maize to cover current shortfalls; seeds, fertiliser and crop protection for the next harvest.

Supply chains are seizing up across the continent as the ripple effects of Covid-19 take hold. It is becoming far harder to do the basic business of trade, and this is building up the next threat — a hunger crisis.

Cross-border trade is an early victim in times of crisis in Africa. Harvest failures, natural disasters and famine push food stocks down and neighbours habitually close their borders to protect themselves.

In recent years there were signs this was changing. The continent-wide free trade agreement struck in May 2019 was a bright spot worldwide, when China and the US were exchanging hammer and tongs rather than goods and services.

The supply chain fears caused by Covid-19 reactions are undoing the free trade work and prompting old habits. Stocks are watched and prevented from leaving warehouses, borders are closed to normal traffic and the assumption of freedom of movement is gone. With special permissions and permits required to cross, basic commodities are becoming political goods again.

Border closures threaten resilience across the continent more than any other force. They reduce the ability of one country or region to compensate for the losses of another. They make it that much more difficult to iron out the shocks and shortfalls of natural disasters such as drought, flood, war and attacks from pests.

The locust swarm in East Africa is a first, natural shock that is already turning local supply shortfalls into a hunger crisis. If it were a simple emergency, the locust problems might be solved by a humanitarian response — a combination of direct support for people without food and pesticides to stop the next generations of locusts from emerging. The pain could be significant, but it would have a good chance of being quickly addressed before the next harvests.

Arriving together with the general drying up of trade caused by Covid-19 could turn the locust swarm into a compound crisis that rolls over several years. Kenyan maize stocks are expected to be exhausted in July. While there are surpluses in neighbouring countries, the first food shortage will arrive if these countries cannot or will not replenish Kenya in time. 

The next crisis wave will follow the 2020 growing season. Without seed, fertiliser and crop protection in-country, the supply mechanisms to help farmers get back to planting and harvesting will stutter and the next harvest will fail. A weakened agriculture sector will not have the materials or co-ordination to deal with the locusts, leaving them free to move into new generations and push further west, further south and spread the problem to more countries.

There will be little buffer for further crises. Any more shocks will have acutely negative effects. A hurricane, a drought, a regional political falling-out or combinations of them will lead inevitably to further humanitarian crises. The pressure is felt acutely in East Africa now, but the same pattern can be seen emerging right across the continent.

The overwhelming priority to prevent this happening is to keep borders open and materials flowing. Maintaining the presumption of free trade and the importance of open borders has seldom been as urgent.

Cross-border co-ordination in trade is fragmented across players as diverse as truck companies, treasury officials, customer agents and donor supply chain managers. The ultimate responsibility, however, sits with national governments, and trade openness depends on mutual trust.

This is a case where multilateral agencies such as the World Food Programme and regional trade organisations such as the Southern African Development Community, Economic Community of West African States and East African Community can come into their own.

A powerful message of confidence in trade relations is needed to keep borders open for critical products. By reminding governments of the positive effects of trade and preventing a slide back to protection and fear-driven stock management, they can help prevent our immediate reactions to a medical threat compounding into longer-term, national emergencies.

To avoid a rolling crisis and the human cost that can follow, we need cross-border and regional connections and interventions that build on the trade co-operation work of the past years and maintain the trust that underpins them. 

• Sprott is MD of project development company Scaled Impact.