Ebola worsens food crisis in West Africa

Ebola food security.jpg
Copyright: Mads Nissen / Panos

Speed read

  • Restrictions in movement and a drop in collective farm work lowered harvests
  • March to May will be critical as food stocks from the last harvest run down
  • In the worst case, more than 1.5 million people could become food insecure

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

The Ebola outbreak’s impact on household incomes has significantly damaged food security in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the West Africa countries most affected by the disease, says a report by the European Commission (EC).

Assessing data from agencies including the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the report says: “The extent, magnitude and severity of the food security impacts of the [Ebola] outbreak are likely to increase as the epidemic continues.”

The report was published on 13 January by the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission’s in-house science service. It states that satellite images showed normal crop levels around harvest time, which runs from September to January.

But François Kayitakire, a food security researcher at the JRC, explains that Ebola restricted the movement of people, which “negatively affected activities in rice fields in the affected areas, especially during the harvest period”.

“Some farms were abandoned,” Kayitakire tells SciDev.Net.

The report notes that “collective harvesting teams that are usually organised in communities to maintain and harvest rice fields were operating far below normal levels. People [avoided] gathering in large groups due to fears of contamination.”

“This is not something we have seen before. One of the things we do not have a good handle on is [people’s] fear,” says Tavneet Suri, a development economist at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the United States. She is also a research programme director at advisory body the International Growth Centre (IGC).

According to an IGC bulletin on the implications of the Ebola outbreak on markets and food security in Sierra Leone, the crisis has depressed informal economic activity, but food prices have been unaffected.

Border closure impacts food supply

In Guinea, rice production fell by around four per cent compared with the previous year’s harvest, the European Commission report found. But the region’s other staple crop, tubers, was less affected by the outbreak because they can remain in the ground for longer without being harmed, Kayitakire says.

Earlier this month, an FAO report estimated that rice production could fall by 12 per cent in Liberia, 8 per cent in Sierra Leone and 3.7 per cent in Guinea, with declines of around 20 per cent in the worst-hit areas of these countries.

Household surveys conducted in [Liberia] by Mercy Corps, an NGO, found people eating less and buying cheaper foods. 

Borders between the affected countries were opened in November last year, apart from the one between Guinea and Senegal. This is expected to improve food security, according to the EC report, as trade between these countries is expected to pick up. Nonetheless, areas severely hit by the outbreak “may face serious food availability issues”, it adds.

Vincent Martin, FAO’s representative for Senegal, tells SciDev.Net that the critical period is likely to be March to May as food stocks from the current harvest run down. “There are also areas where the number of [Ebola] cases is not that high, but the closing of the border has affected people who used to get seed or animal feed for their livestock across the border.”

Food security fears

According to the WFP, if the disease continues to spread at the rate observed last October — the fastest monthly rate so far — more than 1.5 million people could become food insecure.
The organisation estimated that around US$45.5 million will be needed in aid and assistance to improve food security in 170,000 of the most-vulnerable households.

“The three countries most affected by Ebola already had a high level of chronic food insecurity,” says Kayitakire. He adds that the WFP’s most-recent estimate that some 200,000 people face food insecurity due to Ebola looks reasonable.

The European Union has announced about €28 million (around US$32 million) in aid to combat food security in the three most-affected countries, in addition to funds to develop an Ebola vaccine and other medical and humanitarian aid.

Link to the JRC report
Link to the IGC bulletin

*This article was corrected on 27 January. It originally erroneously stated that the NGO, Mercy Corps, conducted telephone surveys in Sierra Leone. In fact Mercy Corps conducted household surveys in Liberia.