In between her shifts, Zimbabwean nurse Sinothando Mpofu used to go to Bulawayo’s open-air markets to buy tomatoes and cabbages for her family of nine — until the country’s COVID-19 lockdown closed all stalls.
Mpofu worried about where she would get fresh food, until she saw a message in her local church WhatsApp group about Fresh in a Box — one of a rising number of African tech companies delivering fresh food to people under lockdown.
Now she places an order online and receives a box of produce delivered to her home every week. The fruit and vegetables are better quality than the food she used to buy at the supermarket, she said, at about one-third of the cost.
“Buying vegetables at a local supermarket is very expensive, but now I get a variety of vegetables and I eat balanced meals all the time,” Mpofu, 37, said, adding that she would keep using the site even after lockdown ends.
In many African countries, measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 have made it harder for people to access affordable, nutritious food, sparking warnings from aid groups that the pandemic would worsen malnutrition rates.
An estimated 73 million people in Africa are already acutely food insecure, Matshidiso Moeti, regional director for the WHO’s Regional Office for Africa, said in a news release last month.
“COVID-19 is exacerbating food shortages, as food imports, transportation and agricultural production have all been hampered by a combination of lockdowns, travel restrictions and physical distancing measures,” she said.
A possible global GDP loss of 5 percent this year could push another 147 million people into extreme poverty — more than half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute has said.
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Mobile tech start-ups are helping people get hold of fresh food during the pandemic by tapping into the rapid rise in smartphone use across Africa.
About one-third of people in sub-Saharan Africa had access to a smartphone in 2018, more than double the number four years earlier, according to the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Launched in October 2018 and selling surplus fruit and vegetables from local farms, Fresh in a Box found itself scrambling to add more farmers to its roster to supply the sudden rush of new customers, company cofounder Kudakwashe Musasiwa said.
He added that it now distributes about 2.6 tonnes of vegetables daily from nearly 2,000 small-scale farmers to customers’ doorsteps.
“With COVID-19, something incredible happened. We had to find a way of scaling up really quickly, because all of a sudden our demand shot up,” Musasiwa said.
Like Zimbabwe’s Fresh in a Box and the Market Garden app in Uganda, which is connecting women produce vendors to a new wave of online customers, Namibia has also seen a rise in the popularity of online markets under lockdown.
A Web site called Tambula — meaning “take” in the local Oshiwambo language — is described as “an online mall” by its founder Jerobeam Mwedihanga, who launched the site about a week into Namibia’s lockdown, which began in March.
“Rental fees in malls are high in Namibia, and there are many home-run businesses with no place to showcase their products,” said Mwedihanga, 36, an information technology engineer, whose site delivers electronics, beverages, furniture and more.
Last month, Tambula partnered with the UN Development Programme on a pilot project to sell informal market goods online, including local foods like dried spinach, mopane worms and ground nuts.
“For many consumers, this is their first time buying traditional foods online,” Mwedihanga said, adding that products from informal vendors have grown to make up 35 percent of online sales.
One positive to come out of the new coronavirus pandemic, he said, is that people are becoming more aware of e-commerce and realizing that food from informal traders is often more affordable than that from retail shops.
In Nigeria, entrepreneur Luther Lawoyin realized that bulk purchases could save consumers from overspending on food.
He launched PricePally — described as a digital food cooperative — in November last year, as a way of letting people buy food online in bulk from farmers and wholesalers and split the cost with other site users.
“When the coronavirus [outbreak] was really picking up in Nigeria, we noticed a spike in our traffic and sales, so we figured that people need help to get their food items and, especially, to avoid the market,” Lawoyin said.
The site’s customers save at least 15 percent on the food they buy, he added.
PricePally had about 320 paying users before the virus hit — that number shot up to more than 1,000 after the country’s lockdown kicked in on March 30, Lawoyin said.
Just as lockdowns around the world have disrupted food trade across borders, they have also made it difficult for people working abroad to send food to their loved ones back home.
Zimbabweans living in South Africa who would normally pay bus and taxi drivers to carry food packages to their families have turned to an app called Malaicha.
The app, which started in South Africa nearly a year ago, acts like a version of food remittances, allowing people in South Africa to order groceries for delivery in Zimbabwe.
While 70 percent of products are sourced locally in Zimbabwe at cheaper rates, about 30 percent come from South Africa where Malaicha has permission to import goods.
Nokusa Nyathi, 24, stood in a snaking queue of up to 200 people at the Malaicha pick-up point in Bulawayo, waiting to get the parcel of goods that her father in South Africa had ordered online — essentials such as cooking oil, sugar, spaghetti and soap.
Through Malaicha, her father can send groceries to his family in a few days, compared with the weeks or months it can take to send the food from South Africa to Zimbabwe, Nyathi said.
Using the service is also cheaper than if her father simply sent money for his family to buy the food themselves, she said.
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