February 28, 2021

COVID-19 and ‘bouncing forward’ strategies for Cameroon’s Food Sector

 *This is part of our series on the nexus between COVID-19 and food systems.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, exposing the vulnerable nature of different businesses. However, how we learn, adapt or transform our ‘usual’ operations and management regimes are critical for a resilient and sustainable recovery. The Republic of Cameroon is a Central African nation with a current population of about 26 million people and a projected GDP of US$ 44.4 billion in 2025. More than 60% of Cameroonians are employed and engaged in the primary and secondary sectors of the economy, dominated by agricultural activities, petit traders, and also processing and manufacturing of "light consumer goods and textiles." These sectors play an essential role in their contribution to GDP, employment, and livelihoods for Cameroonians. Small businesses like restaurants and open-air food vendors are an integral part of Cameroon’s economy. They sell different food such as ‘puff puff’ and beans, roasted fish, roasted beef (suya), roasted pork, shawarma, cowpea (koki), cornflour and vegetables (kati-kati), and eru (Gnetum africanum), to name a few. However, with the emergence of COVID-19, many of these restaurants closed down, affecting the food supply chain and a significant 70% drop in food prices since suppliers had no other market options. Thus, developing strategies that build resilience and adaptive capacity for those engaged in the food sector to existing stresses and future shocks is quintessential. 


How the food sector operates in Cameroon


Like many other middle-and-low income countries, Cameroon’s food sector is underdeveloped in terms of physical and cyber infrastructures, digitalization and the lack of financial sources for small business incubation and entrepreneurship. Aside from the few fancy and expensive restaurants (those selling food for at least US $2) in large cities, most cooked food is sold along roadsides and at open-air markets. Smallholder farmers sell their livestock, poultry and fruit and vegetables directly to food sellers and individuals or, at times, using the services of  wholesale buyers who transport the produce to other cities. With such a simple and linear food supply chain, any disruption affects everyone involved, from producer to consumer. For example, a forthcoming study led by the author shows that there is a wide gap in the supply and demand for fish in Cameroon and an increase in fish price due to the pandemic. The principal challenge for food sellers and those engaged in the food chain is poor delivery and food supply services and the reliance on face-to-face financial and physical transactions. Such a system is vulnerable to systemic shocks like COVID-19, where health protocols like lockdowns are recommended. Thus, there is a need for innovation and the development of strategies that are resilient and robust to these kinds of disruptions.



An open-air shawarma spot in Buea, Cameroon

The Bouncing Forward Ideology

Embedded in resilience, the bouncing forward concept is important in how we design response strategies to emerging shocks while thinking about the future in different scenarios, including COVID-19. Bouncing forward involves the different ways we evaluate our current adaptive capacity to make amendments and better prepare for future shocks. Learning and developing our capabilities, capacity and evolving are key aspects influencing agency and varying response decisions. With governments and society responding to the systemic shocks of COVID-19, there is a need for deliberate changes and innovation to many aspects of society, especially those that directly affect or address societal problems through social innovation. However, common rhetoric in society is the idea of 'bouncing back,' i.e., maintaining the same status quo and response strategies that seek to enhance pre-existing management regimes. With instabilities in the global economy, adapting to the same mode of operations will increase vulnerability to businesses and a direct impact on employment and sustainable livelihoods. Therefore, there is a need and emphasis on 'bouncing forward abilities' that can ensure better resilience, robustness, and society's sustainability.



Innovation and Way Forward


The high levels of postharvest food losses in Africa and Cameroon, in particular, could be attributed to poor food delivery systems and networks, especially for fresh produce. With disruptions from COVID-19 health measures to the supply chain, lockdowns, and restaurant closures, there are no efficient systems in which producers can supply their products directly to consumers. Creating a system that facilitates the supply of food to consumers' doorsteps can solve some of these problems. For example, while fishers could supply fish directly to customers through different online platforms in North America, such systems are absent in Cameroon. In this modern era, online food delivery services such as Uber Eats, Skip the Dishes, or coordinated direct delivery of food by restaurants to an individual’s home are becoming essential in the food business. There is a need for innovations and investments in online and physical resources to facilitate communications between suppliers, food sellers and consumers. Nevertheless, the idea of online food order and delivery is beginning to grow in Cameroon, with some restaurants providing options for takeaway or home delivery.


One example of how capacity can be built to support bounce-forward transformations in Cameroonian food systems is online food delivery services, which rely on good internet connectivity and an organized home address system for timely and efficient food delivery. Such a delivery system also involves developing a culture of food ordering which is currently lacking in Cameroon. Despite these challenges, few steps can be taken to ensure a coordinated food supply chain. With increasing access to mobile phones and internet services, participants within a particular food supply chain can exchange phone numbers and home addresses. Here, through arranged transport means, producers can coordinate the supply of their products to homes and restaurants without any physical contact. This will also involve changes in the financial transaction through the use of services like mobile money, which is becoming a  popular money transfer and banking service in Cameroon. 


In conclusion, instituting bouncing forward strategies helps build resilience for vulnerable food systems. For Cameroon’s food sector, bounce-forward transformation such as investments in food delivery services through a coordinated communication and money transfer system between producers, food sellers and consumers are important strategies for recovery and preparedness for future shocks. The digitalization of the food supply chain will need developing various networks, collaboration, and exchange of information between participants, and the availability of financial support for such transformation. Digital innovation for Cameroon's food sector is critical for its sustainability and adaptive capacity.



Richard Nyiawung

PhD Candidate

Geography, Environment & Geomatics

University of Guelph

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February 21, 2021

The Left Behind: Uncertainties of COVID-19 in Kakuma Refugee Camp


*This is part of our series on the nexus between COVID-19 and food systems.

While the rest of us around the world are advised to wear masks, wash hands and stay indoors to curb the spread of COVID-19, those who reside in war tone countries and especially those in refugee camps, have a different story to tell. They often do not have these options as access to running water for example is a challenge for them. Kakuma refugee camp, one of the largest in East Africa, is one of the areas hit really hard by the pandemic.

Shared water tap at Kakuma III block 12

Kakuma which means “nowhere” in Swahili- was established in 1991, in North Western Kenya, bordering South Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. During the early stages of inception, Kakuma Refugee Camp was designed to accommodate South Sudanese refugees fleeing violence and conflict from Sudan. Over the years, the camp has become a home of over 190,000 refugees and asylum seekers from different nationalities[1]. According to the UNHCR facts sheet, Kakuma hosts about 21% of the refugee population in Kenya.


The camp is administered by United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and fall under Kenyan government jurisdiction. Individuals in the camp are controlled by the Kenyan government through the Department of Refugees Affairs (DRA), which was adopted in 2006 under the refugees' act[2]. Refugees are restricted to staying in the camp unless permitted to travel to other parts of the country by the camp manager -which is an arduous process. Having spent most of my childhood in Kakuma, I recall the process of getting a travelling document for going back to school in Nairobi taking more than three weeks. It really was, and I think it still is a tedious process to want to get out of the camp, for whichever reason, be it medical or school.


There is only so much one can do in a semi-arid region such as Kakuma. Access to economic resources is very limited. An average temperature of 40 degrees Celsius on a daily basis is not a good condition for agricultural progress. Local retailers have to buy agricultural products from other parts of the country and resell them at local markets. Otherwise, a majority, if not all, depend on food distributed by the World Food Program (WFP) in partnership with UNHCR. Considering the environmental condition of this camp, water is another scarce resource. One communal tap being shared by more than 150 households. And on top of that, the taps only run twice a day early morning and evening, for about one hour. If one finds themselves towards the end of the queue, they will end up with no water for a few days. Water, one of the basic human needs is not that basic in place like Kakuma. In addition to these poor environmental conditions, the legal constraints faced by refugees in the refugee camp have prevented them from accessing livelihood opportunities and becoming self-sufficient. Unlike urban refugees who can apply for “Class M” work permit, those in Kakuma are not able to apply for work permits or at least work in neighbouring areas. If travelling outside the camp in itself is hectic, finding a job is therefore close to impossible!


Residents lining up food distribution in Kakuma II distribution Center without masks.

In January 2021, I decided to get in touch with some of my friends and family members in the camp who acknowledge my questions about the living conditions in Kakuma during this pandemic. I can only imagine how bad it can get. The air is filled with sadness, fear and uncertainty. With the outbreak of COVID-19, the distress is particularly alarming among refugees, as they feel isolated and disconnected from the rest of the country. With restrictions put in place by the government of Kenya and the UNHCR, refugees are in a limbo, finding it difficult to navigate this global health crisis. Several government services dedicated to asylum seekers and refugees have been suspended. This includes welcoming of new refugees, registration process and even resettlement programs. The Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS) has suspended all their activities in Nairobi and Kakuma refugee camps. UNHCR Kakuma has passed information to refugees’ communities through a public information system managed by Film Aid International. Refugees are restricted from leaving the camp, with strict measures put in place for anyone who goes against the ‘law’. An example is a caveat that anyone who leaves the camp amid the pandemic will be arrested and UNHCR will not take any responsibility[3]. Besides, UNHCR is not responsible for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 outside the camp. Prior to the pandemic, the population was already facing a range of challenges: barriers to economic inclusion, poor living conditions, high level of malnutrition, under-resourced healthcare and not so well-trained medical staff, had already left refugees vulnerable to the pandemic.


“I’m really worried about my children,” said Joyce a mother of two from Congo, have resided in the camp for seven years now. “If the disease gets here, there will be high mortality. We are facing a lot of challenges already as refugees. We don’t have enough food, water and there are all sort of diseases here”.


People in Kakuma rely on minimal food ration aid provided by the World Food Program (WFP) twice a month. The food is distributed in small portions of maize, sorghum, oil and lentils and an additional $1 per person in the form of cash transfer. With the shortage of funds, the World Food Program has reduced the amount of food given to refugees in both Kakuma and Dadaab by 30%[4].This has made food insufficient in camps forcing many refugees to take credits from local retail outlets.  The number of collectors at food distribution centres has reduced by more than 50 percent because of the pandemic.  With the help of World Vision Kenya, temporary taps have been installed at distribution centres and people are encouraged to practice social distancing as they queue in the line to wait for food to be distributed.


Kakuma III marketplace. Little Halima on the right helping mother sell murere (Jute plant)

“Even with restriction in place, there is still a lot of crowding at distribution centres, people don’t bother wearing masks, because they lack awareness about the dangers of the virus,” said Gatwech a South Sudanese refugee. “We don’t have a lot of information about this disease. Only the block leaders understand what is going on. We don’t have televisions or radios to get any updates about the virus”, he added.

Most people in Kakuma do not have enough information about COVID-19. As I mentioned earlier, the means of communication like radios or Televisions are not common, there is no electricity. Even if one is fully aware of the dangers of COVID-19 one still needs to fetch that water, stand in line to get food, share one compound with your neighbours, share a room with four or five other individuals, share utensils or rather eat in one plate, share latrines and so forth. Hospitals are understaffed, protection kits are not enough for healthcare workers and no distance measures put in place due to overcrowded space. The spread of the virus is almost impossible to prevent. Health care providers such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Africa Inland Church (AIC) in Kakuma are trying their best to prevent the spread of the virus but the gap is somewhat too wide to be bridged, leaving everyone in the camp vulnerable to acquiring the disease.

COVID-19 has also taken a toll on small businesses in the Kakuma Refugee camp. Curfews have been put in place where everyone has to be home by 7:00 pm. The police roam around and if anyone is found on the street they are arrested and fined ksh.20000. All shops are expected to close by 7:00 pm. This is a disadvantage to businesses whose operators believes the best time to sell is from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm. Roadside businesses are banned but there are still people doing this illegally because it is the only way they can make a living[5].

“I know it’s not halal to be selling here but I don’t have a choice. I need to make extra money so that I can buy food” said mama Halima, a roadside seller. We are told to wear a mask, wash hands, we don't even have sinks or money to buy these masks, she added".

The economic consequences of the pandemic are expected to be dire in Kakuma refugee camp. Though UNHCR and its partners are working towards solutions to help refugees recuperate from the pandemic, the low average level of pre-existing living conditions will make it even harder for them to recover.


Inside the World's 10 Largest Refugee Camps.(2012)  UNHCR: Retrieved from https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=8ff1d1534e8c41adb5c04ab435b7974b


WFP Cuts Food Rations for Refugees in Kenya Amidst Funding Shortfalls (2017)

Retrieved from: https://www.wfp.org/news/wfp-cuts-food-rations-refugees-kenya-amidst-funding-shortfalls


Forsen., Y. & Guyatt., H (2016). Refugee Household Vulnerability Study: Kakuma Refugee Camp.    Retrieved from:



Chudolinska, H., (2012).  Kakuma: Peaceful coexistence among 13 nationalities away from home.



Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Settlement, Kenya (2020): The UN Refugee Agency.

Retrieved from



Nyadual Makuach

Criminology and Computer Science Program

Undergraduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario

University of Guelph

[2] Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Settlement (2020).


 [3] Information retrieved from residents in Kakuma refugee camp (2021)

 [4] WFP Cuts Food Rations for Refugees in Kenya Amidst Funding Shortfalls (2017)

[5] Information was collected from a resident in Kakuma (2020)

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