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As Lockdown Fuels Food Shortages, Africa Goes Online for Groceries

Mealime apps can suggest recipes based on your diet and food preferences.
Mealime apps can suggest recipes based on your diet and food preferences.

Kim Harrisberg, Lungelo Ndlovu, Thomson Reuters Foundation

JOHANNESBURG/BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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 coronavirus 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 rising numbers of African tech companies getting fresh food to people under lockdown.

Now she puts in an order online and gets a box of produce delivered to her home every week. The fruits and vegetables are better quality than the food she used to buy at the supermarket, she said, at about a 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, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, saying she will 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 foods, sparking warnings from aid groups that the pandemic will worsen malnutrition rates.

An estimated 73 million people in Africa are already acutely food insecure, noted Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Africa in a press 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% this year could push another 147 million people into extreme poverty - more than half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).


Mobile tech startups 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 fruits 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, said co-founder Kudakwashe Musasiwa.

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 website 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 started in March.

“Rental fees in malls are high in Namibia,” said Mwedihanga, 36, an IT engineer, whose site delivers electronics, beverages, furniture and more. “And there are many home-run businesses with no place to showcase their products.”

Last month, Tambula partnered with the U.N. 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,” said Mwedihanga, adding that products from informal vendors have grown to make up 35% 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 realising that food from informal traders is often more affordable than that from retail shops.

In Nigeria, entrepreneur Luther Lawoyin realised that bulk purchases could save consumers from overspending on food.

He launched PricePally - described as a digital food cooperative - in November 2019, 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,” said Lawoyin.

The site’s customers save at least 15% 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 one year ago, acts like a version of food remittances, allowing people in South Africa to order groceries for delivery in Zimbabwe.

While 70% of products are sourced locally in Zimbabwe at cheaper rates, about 30% 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 like cooking oil, sugar, spaghetti and soap.

Through Malaicha, her father can get 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 explained.

“Coronavirus pushed us in the right direction,” said De Beer, who believes the app’s steep surge in users will last long after the pandemic.

The company is so confident about the future of online food shopping in Africa that it is launching Malaicha Global next week, said De Beer, so that people can send goods to Zimbabwe from anywhere in the world.

“The need is simply too big to die down,” she said.

Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg in Johannesburg and Lungelo Ndlovu in Bulawayo; additional reporting from Nellie Peyton in Washington; editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary.