Ordinary Nigerians are filling the country’s major social welfare gaps amid coronavirus

People’s Food Bank Lekki
People’s Food Bank Lekki
Image: Seun Adebajo
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When Seun Adebajo’s family launched the People’s Food Bank 10 days ago in Lekki, an upmarket Lagos suburb, the plan was to feed 300 people from nearby lower-income neighborhoods amid a coronavirus lockdown. But things have changed very quickly as the food bank now feeds 3,000 people dailyand there’s every indication the number will continue to increase.

With these households struggling without income during the lockdown given their dependence on  small, informal businesses, the need for food and cash relief has grown critical.

It’s a mark of the impact of the ongoing lockdown in Lagos which has left lower-income households especially vulnerable. An initial two-week lockdown has since been extended and, with cases still rising, it’s yet unclear if the lockdown will be lifted or eased soon. While the need for a lockdown might have seemed inevitable amid the Covid-19 outbreak, its abruptness (the government only gave citizens 24-hour notice), has left millions of low income households battling hunger.

“When you talk to people [who come for food], there’s anger and confusion about the lockdown,” Adebajo says. It’s a reality that extends across other African countries that have responded to the outbreak with lockdowns, leading to calls for African leaders to adapt their coronavirus response measures to the realities on the ground.

Food Clique distributions in Lagos
Food Clique distributions in Lagos
Image: Food Clique

For its part, the Nigerian government has only provided cash relief to 3.6 million poor households during the lockdowna tiny figure in a country where 95.9 million people live in extreme poverty. Having surpassed India as the country with the most extreme poor people in the world in 2018, Nigeria now also ranks among the 16 countries globally where extreme poverty rates are still rising.

The government’s inability to cater for its poor reflects a long-running lack of a functioning, nationwide social welfare system. While president Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has attempted to set up more social intervention programs, from feeding school children to cash transfers, the stark realities of the ongoing lockdown show those efforts are nowhere near enough.

Filling the gap

The People’s Food Bank is just one of several citizen-powered welfare initiatives that have sprung up in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Pop musician BankyW currently runs a similar food bank in the Lekki area while Food Clique, an eight-year old non-profit focused on distributing food to the poorest households, has had to rapidly scale up operations in the face of increased demand during the lockdown.

Beyond physical food bank drives, tech savvy Nigerians are also leveraging the internet as a tool for social relief. Over the past month, two major online donor platforms have been created to anonymously crowd-source and distribute donations to recipients in need. AngelsAmongUs allows anyone with the means to anonymously send small donations (an average of $13) to its growing list of over 1,100 recipients who have signed up within its first 25 days of operations. Justin Irabor, founder of the platform, says anonymous donors have already disbursed around four million naira ($10,000) to about 700 people.

For its part, WeAreTogether, another online donor platform, is partly funded by a coalition of prominent Nigerian tech startups, including payments company PayStack and video streaming platform, iROKOtv. The platform has disbursed 10,000 naira each ($26) to nearly 1,600 recipients and has raised 17 million naira ($44,000) in its first 12 days.

It’s a part of a wider move by Nigeria’s tech community which has notably stepped up to the forefront of Nigeria’s coronavirus response. Health startup Lifebank has created a national register of medical equipment for Covid-19 treatment, including ventilators and respirators while Hotel booking platform has partnered with hotels to create isolation centers across Nigeria. One year-old genomics research startup 54gene has also launched a $500,000 fund to boost local testing capacity for coronavirus.

Papering over cracks

Since starting the People’s Food Bank, Adebajo says the family has received cash donations of around six million naira ($15,000) from a network of friends and family supporting the project. The donations will prove crucial as the sharp rise in the number of daily food recipients at the food bank suggests demand for relief will continue to grow. It’s a reality other philanthropic initiatives are witnessing too.

“Since the lockdown started, we have gotten hundreds of calls daily from people asking us to please come to their neighborhood,” says Adetola Farouk, director of media at Food Clique which has distributed 30,000 food packs in the last two weeks alone. “These calls are coming even from some middle-class neighborhoods that we ordinarily wouldn’t expect,” he tells Quartz.

To be clear, privately run food banks are not solely novel in Nigeria or even elsewhere in Africa as similar projects are seen in Europe and the US. The key difference, however, is that Western countries have far more robust social welfare programs and, as such, food banks are plugging smaller gaps.

Waiting to be fed.
Waiting to be fed.
Image: Seun Adebajo

Long-term, Nigeria’s government will be inevitably faced with the major task of rethinking and vastly improving its social welfare system because, while these private initiatives fill gaps in the meantime, they will do not so for long. WeAreTogether aims to shut down the platform in December while Irabor says he’s only thinking “one week at a time” with regard to AngelsAmongUs.

For their part, while the People’s Food Bank is hoping the government takes over the food bank which has grown beyond their initial projections, they plan to stay open as long as the lockdown is on. “It’s not something we can stop,” Adebajo tells Quartz. “Because now, we have 3,000 people waiting to to be fed.”

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