The latest UN report estimates that about 36,000 Batswana are food insecure with COVID-19 hampering causing unemployment, weakening the economy and adding to the country’s traditionally poor agricultural performance. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI exclusively speaks to the World Food Programme’s regional director, Menghestab Haile on the solutions
By comparison, another United Nations agency, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), estimates that a total of 36,000 Batswana will face food insecurity between April 2021 and March 2022. This figure is marginally higher than the previous corresponding period due to several factors.
“The small increase reflects the continued and adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on households’ access to food, primarily due to the economic slowdown and a consequent increase in unemployment,” the FAO report read.
Viewed at a regional level, the number of food-insecure Batswana is a drop in the ocean compared to the challenges in the DRC and South Africa. Viewed at ground level, however, thousands of already poor citizens in the country are facing increasing challenges of access to, not only food but also sound nutrition, a situation that worsens outcomes for indicators such as health, education, social stability and others.
For organisations that monitor food production and insecurity such as the FAO and WFP, Botswana has ranked well across most indicators over the years, despite perennial droughts. This has been due to strong social protection spending, with millions of pula supporting initiatives such as supplementary feeding, orphan and destitute support as well as poverty alleviation programmes.
However, rising budget deficits and tightening revenues mean this type of spending is unsustainable in the long term, a situation worsened by COVID-19’s impact.
WFP regional director, Menghestab Haile says the fundamental challenge for Botswana and other SADC states is that food production is largely focussed on smallholder farmers who are dependent on rain-fed agriculture. Emergencies such as climate change, COVID-19 and other disruptors tend to immediately shatter production amongst these smallholder farmers, leading to high food insecurity.
Even in South Africa, which has the region’s highest commercial agricultural production, big producers are focussed on profitable exports, while smallholder farmers are unable to consistently provide food security for the rural population.
“Even without climate change, no country would be able to produce enough with the smallholder system, which often uses old technology and methods,” Haile says.
“When we talk about resilience to climate change and other disruptors, that must come from transforming these smallholder farmers to a higher level.
“Even if you have early warning systems in place, that will not help as long as a country’s food security is based on rain-fed, smallholder farmers like what we see in the region.”
The reliance on smallholder farmers is quite evident in Botswana. With few large-scale commercial producers making supply available at the national level, citizens are dependent on subsistence farming at the household level and imports at a national level for food security.
The latter, however, is based on consumers’ disposable incomes and the level of government social support, both of which have been impacted by COVID-19 and the downturn in the economy.
Food self-sufficiency has become a burning priority in government, particularly as COVID-19 disrupted supply chains last year and exposed the country’s long-running over-reliance on imports.
Government’s response has been to reinvigorate the cluster development model in agriculture and add urgency to value addition initiatives that can yield higher agriculture and food processing outcomes.
Government plans to spend P1.95 billion on various agricultural initiatives under the Economic Recovery and Transformation Plan in the next two years, with a particular focus on commercialising the sector towards food self-sufficiency.
Haile, who recently undertook official visits to Mozambique, Madagascar, Namibia, Angola, the DRC and Botswana, says political willpower is not an issue in the region.
“Governments are quite responsive in terms of willingness but the mechanisms are not there.
“There is a willingness to work together but there is also a technical weakness that we have to work on.
“If you compare with east or west Africa, this region has more middle-income countries but we have to find a way of mobilising these resources more efficiently.”
In Botswana, Haile acknowledges the work and resources government has been pumping into food self-sufficiency via higher agricultural output.
The food and agrometeorology veteran believes that Botswana does not have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to improving its food production and self-sufficiency. Instead, countries like the United Arab Emirates are examples of the transformation possible through tapping into in-country resources.
While the WFP’s presence in certain African countries is largely to coordinate food aid, in Botswana Haile wants to see the establishment of a technical centre that will partner government in the best processes towards food production and sustainability.
This assistance involves partnering in everything from supply chain and procurement capacity to the grassroots level of nutrition and school feeding.
“We have said we will work together in joint programmes and partner with government in its efforts,” he says.
“The government has very clear objectives and it knows its priorities. That makes it easier for us to partner.”
Haile argues that while Botswana is world-famous for its mines and tourism, one resource that could transform the country into a hub in Southern Africa is education, built over the decades of investment by government.
“You have highly educated people and together with the natural resources like mining and tourism, this country can be a beacon in the region,” he says.
“When I met the International Affairs minister, I told him that when you compare Botswana to the UAE which is now rich, Botswana could be even richer because you not only have diamonds but also highly educated people.
“The UAE has a long-term strategy to become the hub of their region and Botswana should be thinking about making itself a hub for the region in terms of knowledge.”
The WFP director has a soft spot for Botswana and speaks with conviction about the country’s potential.
“I have a long history of knowing Botswana.
“In 1989 I was studying in the UK with about a group of 50 Africans of whom four were Batswana, two men and two women.
“We all wanted to stay on in the UK, but the four people from Botswana all wanted to finish studying and go home.
“We would work at Burger King and McDonald’s to make money, but the people from Botswana were busy studying.
“They would say ‘we are not here for money but to get an education and go back home to help.’”
Haile continues: “Botswana has heavily invested in education for years and years.
The question is how to engage those educated people in economic diversification and make the country a hub for knowledge and innovation because you have invested more than any other country.
“Let’s find ways to leverage that knowledge.”
To varying degrees, government and its private sector partners are working on policies to improve agricultural outcomes, some of these leveraging on the knowledge-based approach.
However, critics have pointed out that of the reams of policies developed since Independence for the agriculture sector and the billions of pula spent, little has been produced.
The urgency brought by COVID-19 and declining government resources, however, make transformation a desperate need rather than an option.