Africa APPG - Mitigating a major food security crisis in West Africa: The impact of Ebola on agriculture and rural livelihoods

Friday, 13 February 2015
Hetty Bailey, Africa APPG Policy & Research Coordinator

Market in Kolahun City, Lofa County, Liberia      Image credit: FAO Liberia

(This is a memo from the joint meeting with the Africa APPG on APPG on Agriculture & Food for Development on 2nd February 2015. Audio recording available here.)

In 2014 the Famine Early Warning Network predicted that, if the Ebola outbreak continued unabated, West Africa could experience a major food crisis by early this year.

The Ebola outbreak resulted in a serious shock to the agriculture and food sectors in 2014. The epidemic started spreading when crops were being planted and expanded during the crop maintenance and critical harvesting period for the staple crops rice, maize and cassava. As a result, food insecurity and the number of people at risk of food deprivation and undernourishment are rapidly growing.

This panel sought to explore the current assessment of the situation and the action already being taken to prevent a major food security crisis in West Africa.


Dr. Arif Husain, Chief Economist, World Food Programme

Dr Arif Husain is Chief Economist and Deputy Director, Policy and Programme Division - Analysis and Trends Service at United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome, Italy. Dr Husain started working for WFP in 2003 and since then he has served in many capacities, including as Deputy Director of the Food Security Analysis Service, and Head of Food Security Analysis in Sudan. Dr Husain's work focuses on analysing how external economic shocks affect food security and welfare conditions in developing countries as well as WFP’s capacities to deliver food assistance. Dr Husain has substantial field experience in working on food security and humanitarian issues in conflict and post conflict recovery countries. His research interests include studying linkages between economic growth and equity, poverty, hunger and conflict; and analysing how global economic shocks impact localised food security, social protection, agricultural trade, and emergency and development assistance. Dr Husain has a Ph.D. in agricultural and applied economics with a minor in forestry from the University of Minnesota.

The WFP was involved in three main activities, caring for patients and survivors of Ebola through providing food assistance, trying to provide people in quarantine with one moth ration and helping communities to transition from crisis to be able to support themselves.

Logistically WFP provide the backbone for humanitarian assistance in the region. Procurement, storage and telecommunications and establishing treatment and community care centres also.

The last report from WHO revealed that 8795 people of 22,000 have perished. It is now stabilising. WFP have assisted 2.7 million people and their families who have been affected by Ebola since April 2014 and have spent quarter of a billion US dollars. At the current rate another 750 million dollars is needed for the WFP to run its programmes until May 2015.

WFP have conducted food security and crop assessments and introduced mobile monitoring systems to find out what the food security situation is, including looking at market practices and coping strategies that people are using. From this WFP have identified that people are affected in three channels- social (fear & stigma, people avoiding each other and work), functioning of markets (Are commodities coming in and being used? How are supply chains working?) and livelihoods (Do people still have jobs? Are formal/informal wage rates being affected?)

WFP in their recent report found that border closures, quarantines, hunting bans and other restrictions seriously hamper peoples access to food. Such restrictions also threaten livelihoods, disrupt food markets and processing chains  and exacerbate food shortages in areas with the highest infection rates.

In September 2014, the estimate was that about half a million people were food insecure and was believed that if certain actions were not taken the number could top a million by March/April 2015.

Losses of productivity and household income due to Ebola caused by loss of labour due to relative and family member deaths but also due to stigma and people being asked to stay away or staying away from work for fear of infection. 

However, crops were planted last year therefore the level of production at the national level has declined but not hugely (10-15%). It is at the local level where problems are apparent facing issues such as households being unable to harvest their crops, or in some cases they were harvested but due to restrictions these crops did not make it to market.

The result it that households have reduced purchasing power as many have either been unable to work or unable to sell their produce. The impact has been different across the countries,  Guinea was worst hit, then Sierra Leone and then Liberia due to the different economic dispersions.

Dr Husain pressed that it is crucial that the next planting due to happen now goes ahead with support through the provision of agricultural commodities and machinery as a substitute of labour as otherwise the next harvest will be affected and have long term consequences even once Ebola is contained. Further, he said injecting liquidity through market cash transfers to assist affected people to buy food and revive economic activity was critically important. He added that as there is no social protection in these countries, investment is needed at the national and regional level to assist in social protection as well as healthcare.


Monty Jones recorded message, Special Advisor to the President of Sierra Leone

Monty is the Special Adviser to the President of Sierra Leone with a particular focus on agriculture. He is former Executive Director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and co-winner of the 2004 World Food Prize. He won the award based on his discovery of the genetic process to create the New Rice for Africa (NERICA), which gives higher yields, shorter growth cycles and more protein content than its Asian and African parents.

Monty Jones drew attention to his work under the New Alliance for Africa initiative where he discovered NERICA rice and said he was frustrated by the lack of progress in achieving sustainable agricultural production in Sierra Leone. His most recent foray is an attempt to reorganise the Governmental structure of projects to meet international standards for best practice. This is geared towards enhancing nutritional and food security through agricultural fisheries and agro-industries.

He continued that he had been involved in strategic work through a proposed programme for agriculture, fisheries and agro-industry  (AFIP) focused on introducing a collaborative approach to food security with strategic leadership and delivery in projects supported by donor farms. The aim is to allow for coordinated and results orientated project management and supervisory oversight of donor funded projects. However, the delivery and implementation time table was halted due to the Ebola outbreak and they are now reworking the modalities of the proposal to reflect the President's aspiration for post-Ebola reconstruction.

As the health system comes under review, he added that they would fight for food security to be subject to a rigorous review in line with the recent findings of the World Bank and African Development Bank funded and FAO supported agricultural sector review of 2014. He said there is cautious optimism that the post Ebola reconstruction would provide donor partners with wider scope for engaging Governments on funded activities to restore confidence in a strategically placed oversight infrastructure and provide sector led approaches to the various areas of interest aligned to agriculture. He said collaboration on this would yield greater impact and cause genuine overflow to the wider economy.

He added that the constraints analysis on agriculture sector growth would be significant in designing a more robust agriculture policy framework whilst the realignment of Ministerial responsibilities for agriculture, fisheries and marine development would augment the holistic approach proposed by the AFIP programme.


Dr. Robtel Neajai Pailey, Liberian academic, activist, and author based at SOAS, University of London

Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author based at SOAS, University of London. She has consulted for the Government of Liberia, African Development Bank, Australian Agency for International Development, Ford Foundation, ActionAid, and Search for Common Ground. Her writing has appeared in the International New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Al Jazeera English, Newsweek-Daily Beast, and she has provided commentary for the BBC, NPR, Press TV, and Voice of America. Her anti-corruption children's book, Gbagba, was published in 2013 to critical acclaim and has been placed on the supplemental list of readers for 3rd to 5th graders in Liberia.

Dr Pailey spoke about the report she was commissioned to write by the African Development Bank (AfDB) for the Special Envoy on Gender (not publicly available). The AfDB were concerned that women were disproportionately affected by the outbreak and that the data being collected was not disaggregated by gender.

The report found that women's socio-economic vulnerabilities were particularly exacerbated due to the outbreak. As a result, any post Ebola planning would need to address these vulnerabilities head on. She also recommended a follow up report with more quantitative data.

In terms of the food value chain, before Ebola women had very limited access to land, credit, extension services, post-harvest technologies and training.  She said these needed to be at the fore when discussing food security and quoted some key statistics from the report to demonstrate this-


In Guinea, women only counted for 10% of the formal workforce and they were disproportionately represented in the informal sector, many of them lack access to land but work in the agricultural sector.

70% of women in Guinea live in rural areas and are engaged in agricultural sectors. Therefore as a result of the quarantine measures, closed borders and the inability to actually produce food they were disproportionately impacted.


In Liberia, 68.8% of all economically active women are farmers and are involved in weeding, planting and harvesting crops, particularly cash crops. In fact women account for 80% of the Liberian agricultural labour force and contribute 60% to agricultural production as well as 80% to trade. Yet, they only generate 16% of all agricultural earnings- showing huge disparities.

In Liberia, 89% of women are considered vulnerable workers particularly in agriculture and in wholesale and retail trade sectors.

In terms of access to land, although there was a customary inheritance law passed a few years ago, which gives women equal access to land in law, the implementation of that has become incredibly difficult due to push back from traditional leaders in rural sectors.

Sierra Leone

Trends and statistics are similar, Sierra Leone has a law that allows land tenure and administration for both women and men eqaully but implementation varies from region to region. In the north-western part of the country women can own land indiscriminately, but in the South and Eastern areas women can only use the land that are owned by their male relatives.

84% of rural women and 63% of urban women are engaged in informal work and most are engaged in agriculture and petty trading. 70% of women are smallholder farmers.

Trends show that women are disproportionately represented in the agricultural sector but in terms of their earnings and access to land and credit they are disproportionately represented. 

Women process, preserve, store and transport all the food crops for marketing. In Kailahun and Kenema, areas which were most adversely affected by the outbreak, women master farmers and heads of households had their livelihoods particularly compromised.

Same is true for Liberia that has 15 sub political divisions, north-eastern part of the country- Lofa County. Before the outbreak Lofa was considered the bread basket  of Liberia and most farmers in that county are women.

In terms of cross border trade in the Mano River Union (Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote D'Ivoire) 70% of all cross border traders in these countries are women and due to border restrictions were unable to travel to trade cash crops. This seriously impacts on their ability to have a  livelihood.

Regarding markets, a Mercy Corps report (Nov 2014) said that marketers in these countries complained that because the borders were closed they had to rely on the capital cities to get their crops. Due to the increased transportation costs where trucks and cabs were carrying a limited number of people they had to pay an extra amount.  In Sierra Leone, all the 13 districts also underwent quarantine measures; the marketers are predominately women. 

Finally the moratorium on the sale of bush meat due to the assumption that the Ebola vector was bat has impacted mainly women as there are more women bush meat sellers.


  • When rapid assessments are being conducted they need to be disaggregated by gender as men and women experience crisis differently.
  • When using social cash transfers to mitigate risks that people face, it is important for WFP and Oxfam etc to pay attention to gender nuances. If there are women heads of households that need social cash transfers it is important to institute that in the planning post Ebola.
  • The African Union has proclaimed 2015 the year of women's empowerment for which it is important to take a regional approach not just in the Mano River Union but continentally.


Larissa Pelham, Emergency Food Security & Vulnerable Livelihoods Adviser, Oxfam

Larissa Pelham is one of Oxfam GB's global emergency food security and livelihoods advisers and is also the  lead on food security & livelihoods for Oxfam GB's Ebola response.   Formerly working for save the children, care and currently Oxfam, as well as the institute of development studies and as social protection specialist at the world bank, She has worked on the design,  implementation and monitoring of some of the major national safety nets and multi-donor food security programmes.  She returned from Sierra Leone in December undertaking a rapid assessment of the need for food security and livelihoods interventions in response to Ebola and has almost literally just stepped off the plane from undertaking a markets assessment in South Sudan.

1. The outbreak highlighted the paramount importance of safety nets as a bedrock for supporting households in the face of shock.

Oxfam's recent assessment in Liberia found that 78% of households did not receive any support from NGOs or the UN in the past three months from September and end of 2014. If safety nets had been in place it would have stopped the reduction in purchasing power of households amongst the communities.  

She highlighted that the outbreak started just as two cash safety net programmes were about to be implemented and they are still not in place despite World Bank funding and country efforts. It was decided that instead of doing this for the poorest households they would implement it for the households directly affected (i.e. had a member die or recover from Ebola) which resulted in the dismissing of all households that were indirectly affected.

Because of the border and trade restrictions that were imposed, a large group of people could no longer get their goods to market or buy from the market. By not implementing the safety net it meant that a fundamental way of supporting people's purchasing power was lost. 

Jobs were lost and businesses went into administration and so those working in the formal sector were also affected.

2. Importance of coordinated food security intervention

The national coordination on food security was much weaker in Sierra Leone than in Liberia. Sierra Leone is still very much focused on getting a handle on the number and burials, as such food security coordination has been slow to get going.

The food security clusters were not operative in Sierra Leone. In Liberia they were still in place as they had not yet been removed following the civil war. This played an important role in Liberians engaging in food security.

The FAO was coordinating the food security response in Sierra Leone but it is an organisation that does not have emergency capacities and so it wasn't ready to take preventative action.

This lack of coordination has had an impact by restricting how far NGOs can mitigate a food security crisis through collective intervention in this area. 

3. Food secuirty and livelihoods nterventions were stalled due to a lack of concrete data

However, the World Bank and UN did work rapidly on assessments by mobile phone (which had it's own limitations) but the issue was that whilst there was small scale data on what the impacts were on food security there was no large scale databases to prove all of this. Donors were keen to intervene but they wanted to see the large scale data which caused a tension as to how to manage that- there was a duplicity as to how to proceed as NGOs were trying to collect data whilst also taking action and so it was very limiting and stopped resilience approaches being adopted until now. 

Larissa reported that on the ground, DFID were the only organisation looking at longer term interventions and that the main challenge was getting food security and livelihoods issues on the table due to the complete focus on the  immediate healthcare demands of the outbreak. Despite the fact food security specialists were on the ground and ready to carry out assessments and start getting programmes going, they did not have the decision making power to get it through as this was all channeled upwards. It took 7 months for issue to get the profile it needed which was a big hindrance.

Larissa concluded that the key areas of focus going forward were better coordination for impact intervention and recovery- this would also convince donors of the need to intervene. She said more money was needed for the recovery and called on a pledge to be set up at the World Bank Spring meetings. Next, she emphasised the need to ensure purchasing power through cash in hand transfers at the household level to ensure there is a safety net. Finally, ensure that funding is restored to the service sectors to the agriculture and fisheries sectors. 


Q & A

Q. Action Against Hunger- asked whether the action that was being called for was preventative of a peak in food insecurity that was to come or whether that peak was now. 

Q. Lord Cameron (Chair of Agriculture & Food for Development APPG)- Asked about what is being done to support smallholders to get the raw materials that are needed now in time for next year's harvest?

Larissa reported there is support for seeds and tools to ensure next year's crop is planted now. She added that Sierra Leone had lifted its trade restrictions and so now people can move around. The impact on transport prices had not yet been realised and there is uncertainty whether that's because international borders are still closed and so food is not actually going out of Sierra Leone.

Arif Husain agreed that the planting that is taking place right now (February- March) is going to determine the status of food insecurity going forward. He added that, the disease is not spreading as rapidly as it was and countries are now talking about getting to the 'containment phase' but the fear is still there. Schools have now opened in Sierra Leone and Guinea but not enough students have shown up and will take time for people to re-adjust and for surrounding countries to relax their borders again to allow for trade and movement of people. 

Q. Sierra Leone co-operative of women- asked what she could take back in terms of good news for the women of the co-operative as to what programmes and initiatives could be expected to assist such groups.

Dr Pailey said the African Development Bank will shortly be launching a social investment fund specifically for women with the aim of accessing what these vulnerabilities are and to give them extra incentives (farm implements, money etc to mitigate the vulnerabilities that they have post-Ebola).

Q. Unite for West Africa Initiative- Concerned about the stigma created and how this might impact small scale tourism in West Africa. Asked whether the private, public and third sectors could work together post Ebola to grow confidence of potential investors and tourists?

Dr Husain said many things needed to happen before the conversation about tourism begins, including the opening up of airlines, routes, borders  etc and that before tourism can increase, more returns from foreign direct investment (FDI) would be needed. In Liberia 70-80% is FDI and it depends how quickly returns can be made on this in addition to returns from plantations and mining.

Dr Pailey added that tourism was not just affected in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone but for countries in the region such as Gambia which relies on 20% of its GDP from tourism. She said the adversely impact was felt more widely due to the bad international media coverage that insinuated that Ebola was an African crisis. The international media need to report that it is okay for people to travel to these countries and the sub-region.

Q. Jamie from the Africa Research Institute- mentioned the International Growth Centre (ICG) report on the Economic Impacts of Ebola which suggested that food prices in Sierra Leone were following natural patterns for that time of year and that there was not a significant difference this year. He asked Dr. Husain whether the half a million people that are food insecure, are they food insecure because of Ebola?

Dr. Husain agreed that food prices were generally in the band that they should be for the time of year but argued that usually, you would say with all other things being equal, but what has happened here was a shift in price at the same time as an unexpected decrease in the purchasing power. 

Larissa added that food prices have been following their seasonal trends but most of the assessments have been conducted by mobile phones which isn't getting out to rural areas where there is no mobile phone connection. She argued that in such localities the pattern may be widely divergent to normal prices.

Further, she believed there could be a time lag in the data as people are only just starting to sell again and purchasing power hasn't picked up. She added that the exchange rate devaluation could also lead to price increases. 

Regarding exports, it seems as though the harvests are stable and that the flooding from last year might have had a bigger negative impact on this than Ebola. Further due to continued closure of borders there is not the supply going out of the country, so if you have a low harvest then the demand could stay stable as more supply is being kept within the country.

Q. Independent consultant to the World Bank & Monty Jones- He said Ebola has exacerbated weak systems of delivery to rural areas due in part to fragmented delivery at the country level but also by the donors, adding that Monty Jones mentioned the need for coordinated efforts for post-Ebola reconstruction. He asked whether the way the Governments have responded would enhance the way donors perceive their capacity or undermine it?

Dr. Husain said everyone was tested by Ebola due to the fact that the standard operating principles that usually apply in an emergency were no longer relevant. Therefore new ways of assisting people had to be designed which took experimentation and time but he believed that due to the fear and magnitude of the problem, Governments had raised their bar very quickly. He warned that it was not over and that if the response became complacent now, it would start up again.

Dr. Pailey added that she was concerned that when talking of state building in the post-conflict moment that we need to return to what state building actually entails. Is it about service delivery? Giving authority back to state institutions at the expense of service delivery? Donors need to discuss Governments how state building should look different post-Ebola.

An audio recording of the event is available here.

Addtional links

The WFP/FAO report on food security in Sierra Leone is available here.

Oxfam have a policy brief on the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone here and also released a report last week on governance for health emergencies in West Africa, available here.