How West Africa is ramping up food security after Ebola outbreak

Almost a year after the Ebola outbreak garnered strength in West Africa, countries in that region and the international community are teaming up to fight the disease's lingering effects on food security and agriculture. 

James Giahyue/Reuters/File
Volunteers distribute food at a World Food Programme storage center in Monrovia October 16, 2014. Almost a year after the Ebola outbreak garnered strength in West Africa, countries in that region and the international community are teaming up to fight the disease's lingering effects on food security and agriculture.

As the West African countries heaviest hit by the Ebola outbreak look to rebuild, food security and nutrition will be key to combatting the lingering effects of the disease. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, agriculture makes up roughly half of each country’s GDP. In Guinea, agriculture makes up at least a quarter of the country’s GDP, and the deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) has had disastrous effects on food security in the region.

As the death toll of EVD rose, West African countries began to experience labor shortages, and many fields of crops went unharvested, according to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). As part of the measures to prevent the spread of EVD, many West African governments established quarantine zones and restricted the movements of people. Unable to increase food production and with little to no goods moving into these countries, the price of food skyrocketed and led to food shortages. Additionally, the banning of bushmeat like chimpanzee, antelope, and buffalo to prevent further infection deprived many households of a vital source of protein.

Now as the virus recedes, West African countries and the international community are ramping up efforts to combat the next killer: hunger. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that as many as 1.4 million people will be food-insecure because of Ebola.

The FAO is currently partnering with the WFP, governments and other partners to assess crops and food security in the hardest-hit countries. In October 2014, FAO launched its Regional Response Programme to assist vulnerable households in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. This program included both short-term and long-term initiatives to improve food security.

One of the primary functions of this program has been to assess the economic impact of the EVD and the food security situations in these countries. Preliminary findings from this assessment report show a decrease in agricultural production and demand, disruption of markets, a decline in the purchasing power of households as incomes have declined and a risk of the degradation of nutrition. The assessment will also be necessary in order to determine the appropriate measures to get agricultural production back on track.

In addition to stopping the spread of the virus, this programme has aimed to boost incomes and agricultural production to combat food shortages. To accomplish these goals, FAO is asking donors for US$30 million and activities include boosting food and cash crops, livestock and fisheries production, introducing microfinance strategies and continuing to assess the food security situation.

Since May, the World Bank Group has mobilized US$1.62 billion for response and recovery efforts in the region and a portion of this funding has gone towards reviving agriculture and addressing hunger. So far, the World Bank Group has provided 10,500 tons of maize and rice seed to farmers in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to jumpstart small farming in these countries.

As the international community continues to fund and support these efforts, one important component has been access to data. GeoPoll has been working with WFP to help target aid distribution through its mobile technology. By conducting regular remote surveys, WFP has been able to track poverty rates and food prices across the region.

Long-term improvement of food security in West Africa will depend heavily on getting the agricultural sector back on track, and on preventing further spread and future outbreaks of the EVD. During the height of the outbreak, the FAO focused heavily on short-term goals of combatting the virus and food shortages. But as the outbreak has declined, the program’s focus will shift to reaching long-term food security goals.

The Liberian government is putting into action its ambitious Post-Ebola Health Investment Plan, which will focus on training health workers, building up infrastructure, and investment in early detection of dangerous diseases. In April, the World Bank announced an additional US$650 million toward rebuilding the West African countries heaviest hit by Ebola. By improving these systems, West African countries will be in a better position to combat any future outbreaks, which will be crucial to improving food security.

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