Rethinking nutrition governance in Ethiopia in the light of Covid-19

Published on 22 May 2020

Seife Ayele

Research Fellow

Nicholas Nisbett

Research Fellow

Covid-19 continues to spread across Africa. An ICNL Tracker shows no fewer than 102 measures in 45 African countries – laws, regulations, executive orders – to combat the spread of the disease. Along with 37 other African countries, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency. This followed the confirmation of its first COVID-19 case on 13 March. As in the rest of Africa, Ethiopia has so far registered relatively few confirmed cases and deaths. However, it is likely that many cases are not being picked up due to Ethiopia’s limited health system capacity including inadequate laboratory testing. Weak health systems are a worry as even relatively well functioning health systems such as Italy’s have been overwhelmed by the peak of the pandemic.

There are considerable fears that in Ethiopia and many other African countries, economies and health systems will be unable to cope thus worsening broader health and economic consequences.

Due to the global economic downturn, travel restrictions and varying national lockdowns, the pandemic has already started to affect the economic growth of many  countries including Ethiopia. Health consequences are also likely to be considerable, due to the high prevalence of existing conditions and diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, as well as different forms of malnutrition and related problems. When infections peak, already weak health systems are likely to be overwhelmed quickly: SSA countries have amongst the lowest critical care capacity in the world. Preventing spread by social distancing is also expected to be difficult due to high social cohesion and frequent gatherings. The appropriateness of severe ‘lockdown’ strategies, because of their potentially severe effects on livelihoods and food security are being questioned by some commentators.

A recent rapid appraisal study showed some early effects of the pandemic on the food value chain in Ethiopia, where vegetable trade and consumption was reduced, and some produce abandoned on fields due to lack of buyers or movement restrictions. Some traders are also creating artificial scarcity by stockpiling products, only releasing to market after a price hike.

Smallholder family farms and family labour

The bulk of food producers in Ethiopia are smallholder family farms, who are largely dispersed and mainly depend on family labour. They appear to be continuing to grow crops and tend to their animals. However, as some commenters note, as the pandemic unfolds planting could be affected unless farmers get timely access to fertilizer and seeds. A large section of the poor also seem to be affected due to limited resources to pay for social security.

There are other obstacles too. Even at the best of times Ethiopia’s food production is vulnerable to frequent droughts and floods. Over the past few months, and like the rest of the region, Ethiopia has been ravaged by a locust outbreak, affecting both crop and livestock production, and Covid-19 is distracting the attention of governments and international communities from fighting it. Likewise, Global Nutrition Report underlines that poor diets make people in countries like Ethiopia more susceptible to the virus. Arguably, food and nutrition shortages are Ethiopia’s key ‘underlying conditions’ that put millions at risk.

A recent study by Institute of Development Studies (IDS) supported by Irish Aid explored the major political economy challenges that Ethiopia faces in nutrition policy and programme design, coordination and implementation. It showed that, over the past two decades, Ethiopia made significant progress in reducing undernutrition – for example, from 2000 to 2016 the proportion of underweight children under the age of five decreased from 41 per cent to 24 per cent, with stunting in this age group falling from 58 per cent to 38 per cent over the same time period. However, Ethiopia continues to face poor nutrition programme coordination and implementation – often programme implementation has been fragmented, slow or excessively delayed, hampering the translation of nutrition strategy and programmes into action and outcomes, and this could be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Making nutrition governance more responsive and effective

Addressing undernutrition and its costly socio-economic burdens will require a coordinated and well-executed response, with particular thought given to the additional COVID-19 burden on the undernourished as well as the constraints that undernutrition and associated weak health and food systems place on tackling COVID-19 effectively. Key to this is establishing an independent and well-equipped nutrition governance agency.

In the immediate short term:

  • smallholders need to be supported to continue to supply food, and the focus should be on food with the highest nutritional value. Small scale irrigation needs equipment such as pumps, and urban and high demand areas can be encouraged to use low cost methods of growing vegetables.
  • food processors should be encouraged to fortify food with micronutrients such as iron, and people generally should be supported as much as possible to stay in business. This may include improving the logistics for food movement, such as facilitating transport for food products within and between urban centres and organising temperature-controlled storage and distribution facilities, to reduce postharvest losses.
  • a zero tolerance stance should be taken on saboteurs. Those who stockpile food in anticipation of price hikes should be quickly brought before the law.
  • cash transfers and safety net measures should rapidly be made available to severely affected families as this will have a double impact. It will increase the purchasing power of recipients, and create effective demand for food products, key to boosting agriculture.

Finally, given the multi-sectoral nature of nutrition, all relevant actors need to work in partnership and in sync – food producers, processors and distributors, consumers associations, government, donors and NGOs – everyone – to sustainably reduce undernutrition and avert the effects of Covid-19 pandemic.



The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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