Hunger amidst plenty: the paradox of food insecurity in East Africa’s food basket
By Our Reporters
Hon. Namoe Nyomera, Napak Woman MP, toys with the button on her orange blouse for what seems like an eternity. When she finally looks up, her eyes are vacant. She sighs and then mutters, “I wish we knew what to do.”
She falls silent again and then, heaving herself from her depression, she tells me, on this cloudy Thursday afternoon, about the hunger “that is killing our people in Karamoja as if they were mere dogs.”
The first hunger-related death to be reported in Napak district was in Lopei sub-county this year. The second death to be recorded was in the same sub-county. Tragically, the deaths happened in one family.
Lilly Aleper, who passed away at 78, was the first to die followed by her emaciated grandson, three-year-old James Looki, who was found fastened to her when her death was discovered on September 7th 2015.
“He was rushed to Morulinga health centre but he died two days following his admission,” Hon. Nyomera narrates.
She says that 13 people in Karamoja have died as a result of hunger; the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness however puts the number to ten.
“Government needs to address hunger in Karamoja once and for all,” she says, looking-straight-up, for the first time during the interview, like the effervescent Member of Parliament she usually is.
Mrs. Joy Nyapendi, a civil society activist working with Food for All, echoes Hon. Nyomera’s call saying that government needs to “take a serious look at the shaming situation and make all Ugandans food secure within the shortest time possible.”
Food insecurity is the state of being without reliable access to sufficient, affordable and nutritious food. Globally, more than 800 million people go hungry or without sufficient food everyday. The FAO puts the number of people in Uganda who are food insecure at approximately 6.6 million. The July 2015 FAO Global Information and Early Warning report, Countries requiring external assistance for food, lists Uganda among the 29 African countries with populations likely to suffer hunger or lack of access to sufficient food. Other East African countries mentioned by the report include Kenya and South Sudan. Difficulties in delivering food aid to nationals in states such as Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile is putting some.
“Yes, the report gives the impression that Uganda is doing badly but the problem of food insecurity is localised,” Hon. Tress Bukyanayandi, Uganda’s Minister for Agriculture, says.
He adds: “We are currently seeing severe food insecurity in Karamoja. Northern Uganda and western Uganda are also food insecure.In Northern Uganda, we see a situation of lack of enough food. Households survive on a meal, or even a mere fruit, a day. Western Uganda lacks diversity. Do you know katogo? People in Western Uganda boil matooke [green bananas], add some salt to the matooke and feed on that. No protein and no vegetables!” Hon. Bukyanayandi says before adding that rural households and the urban poor are also vulnerable to food.
WHY UGANDA IS FACING FOOD INSECURITY
“Climate change,” Hon. Bukyanayandi says, adding, “Our farmers knew our weather system rather well. Even before the rainy season showed any signs that it was about to begin, our people, owing to knowledge of regular weather patterns, knew that the rains were coming. They would prepare fields and plant their crops and as expected, the rains came.”
With the rains, plants were nurtured and households accessed food. With changed weather patterns owing to climate change, Hon. Bukyanayandi says, farmers plant crops expecting rainfall “but it does not come.” When rains come in the form of flash floods, crops are lost.
“Prolonged droughts are also a problem. I think you saw that August  Famine Early Warning System Network report [the Uganda Food Security Outlook update] that projected low crop yields in Karamoja because of rainfall deficits,” Hon. Bukyanayandi says.
Poverty, high population growth rates –the population growth rate stands at 3.2% per annum while agricultural productivity is at 2.3% per annum- and flash floods are some of the other causes of food insecurity in Uganda, Hon. Bukyanayandi says.
The Minister also blames food insecurity on post harvest losses, reliance on rainfall, influx of refugees in some parts as well as insecurity and loss of soil fertility.
Teso sub-region is a flat expanse neighboring the Karamoja sub-region. When Karamoja gets some rainfall, its porous soils do not absorb water, leaving most of it to flow to flat Teso. When water collects in Teso, food crops are destroyed.
Fabian Okello, who grows cassava and sorghum in his garden in Soroti, can still recall the pain he felt when his crops were washed away last year.
“The water came from Karamoja up to here,” Okello gestures to indicate that the water submerged his cassava garden.
He adds, “I knew we were dead! The cassava could not survive! Neither could the sorghum! Luckily, my sister in Kampala sent us some money which we used to buy food. The food was expensive! We had one meal each day instead of the two we ordinarily do.”
Money, it is said, is the root of all evil and in Uganda, the love of and lack of money, is a driver for food security. In Okello’s case, flooding combined with poverty denied his family access to sufficient food. In the case of the case of Karamoja, factors including lack of access to adequate seeds and labour owing to lack of sufficient funds drives food insecurity. This is in addition to some of the previously-mentioned causes including prolonged drought. Pests and animal diseases also drive food insecurity in Karamoja.
In Western Uganda and in other areas, love of money forces farmers to sell food that their families would have survived on.
“We have talked to these people but they do not listen. We told them, you grow some sweet potatoes to beat hunger but they ignored us. Now they are going without food,” Mr. Peter Igaga, the L.C 1 chairman for Nakalokole village in Iganga district says.
His Kabale counterpart, Remi Agaba, says that “our people sell off most of the irish potatoes –and even the sweet potatoes- and they end up without enough food!”
The case of Karamoja region
According to a report published in August 2015 by the Famine Early Warning System Network, the Karamoja region will experience an acute food shortage in the subsequent months due to low yields and of food crops. This is largely attributed to rainfall deficits in the Karamoja region. Some homesteads according to the report are expected to face an acute food shortage.
Many parts of Karamoja have been described as chronically food insecure for the past 10 years due to a combination of factors including recurrent drought, over population and declining resource base for agro-pastoralism. According to a report by the International Federation’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) in 2008, the districts of Abim and Kotido in that region suffered an acute decline of food supply with up to 80% of population being heavily affected. This situation was largely attributed to three consecutive seasons of poor harvests, depleted food stocks, low livestock production. The poor crop yields and low livestock production were because of drought, floods and, crop and animal diseases.
The World Food Program (WFP) and UNICEF conducted a food security and Nutrition Assessment in 2014 in the Karamoja region which found that food insecurity was not only as a result of drought or low crop yields but also lack of sufficient livelihood and income generating options at a household level. However, the overpowering effect was the insufficient supply of food.
The assessment asserts that the low agricultural productivity is largely a result of low rainfall. For more than 60% of farmers across Karamoja this is the single biggest factor adversely affecting agriculture followed by lack of access to key agricultural inputs.
In another assessment conducted by WFP and FAO in 2014 on food insecurity in Karamoja region, the key constraints to crop production included inability to access agricultural inputs like pesticides and fertilizers and drought in the region. The agricultural inputs were necessary for the crops to be able to withstand the harsh conditions brought about by the heat and little rainfall. The weather condition was unreliable for farmers to practice natural crop growing methods.
However, it is important to note that there are other related factors. Both assessments acknowledge that the low agricultural yields lead to a rise in the prices of food crops yet most households do not have the purchasing power.
Human development is dependent on food security. Food nurtures nations, aiding human beings to grow both physically and mentally. Lack of or limited access to food on the other hand has negative social, economic and sometimes political implications.
Poverty is perpetuated and development is hampered where food insecurity exists. A people with little or no access to food are a people who are likely to be to be sickly, economically unproductive and could suffer death. A sick and an unproductive population not only faces poverty but also strains the national purse.
Additionally, loss of lives resulting from lack of access to sufficient food has social and economic implications. Not only does death cause pain to deceased’s family members, it also makes orphans of children. Other than missing out on parental love, orphans strain relatives and they could end failing to access needs such as education. Frida Lorot, 17, whose mother passed away owing to iron deficiencies while she was pregnant says that had her parents been alive, she would have been educated to get a good job.
“We cannot overly emphasize the importance of addressing food insecurity in Uganda because as has been demonstrated, lack of access to sufficient food has far and wide reaching consequences,” Dr. Daniel Mayambala, head of FAO’s Africa regional office says.
To Dr. Mayambala’s call to address food insecurity, Mr.Bukyanayandi says:
“I want to emphatically say that we are not just seated back, watching as people in Karamoja die of hunger. We have put in place mechanisms to beat food insecurity. Our Early Warning System helps us alert farmers of weather changes so that they plant their crops in tandem with good weather,” Mr. Bukyanayandi says.
He also says that Uganda Bureau of Statistics’ (UBOS) Uganda Food Security Outlook update helps to alert government of areas that could face famine so that government marshals resources to provide them with food.
“You know we have our Ministry of Disaster Preparedness. We work with them to take food to areas facing famine. We also work with development partners such as the World Food Programme (WFP),” Mr. Bukyanayandi says.
The government, through the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), World Food Programme (WFP) and other development partners, has always intervened by giving the most vulnerable households, food handouts. This year, the OPM has already dispatched tons of food aid to the sub-region.
But given that most families are starving, Mr. Ssemanda says, food handouts from OPM, are a drop in the ocean. For instance, in Kapedo sub-county alone, 57,000 people were identified by local leaders as the most vulnerable, but out of these, only 399 people were able to receive food from OPM.
WFP also distributed relief food to help vulnerable households to cope with hunger. The distribution started the seven districts of Karamoja, targeting children, the elderly, disabled and the chronically ill, but locals say it is not enough.
Given the fragile environment and effects of global warming, Mr. Ssemanda asks government to consider irrigation if the sub-region is to become food self-reliant. Without such long-term interventions, he says Karamoja could forever need food aid.
By 2015, world leaders had hoped to have eradicated extreme hunger by 50 percent; hunger and poverty reduction were Millennium Development Goal 1. However, reports indicate that this dream was not realized as anticipated because of reasons such as declining incomes of the poorest and increasing food prices. Several reports also point to the uncertainty of obtaining higher crop yields because of worsened prevailing erratic weather conditions and future climate change.
It is worth noting that Uganda through agricultural research has invested enormously into developing improved crop varieties that can withstand climatic changes to address food insecurity. For example, according the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), Uganda has so far released more than 19 improved cassava varieties, 22 maize varieties and much more for sweetpotato, beans and rice. The new technologies possess characteristics such as being drought resistant and tolerant to pests and diseases. According to Dr. Titus Alica, a Senior Agriculture Researcher with NARO, if Ugandans adopt the new crop varieties, the country is capable of producing enough foods to go around.
Mr. Ssemanda prescribes provision of seeds, farm tools and information to farmers on ways food insecurity can be mitigated.
“The Early Warning System also needs to be used more effectively. If early warning messages are being ignored by the public, why is this so? What can be done to remedy this situation so that people listen? Uganda needs to find the answers to save her people,” Mr. Ssemanda says.
EFFORTS TOO LITTLE?
Despite Hon. Bukyanayandi saying that his government is sufficiently managing food insecurity in Uganda, the WFP country director, Mr. Jonah Ssemanda, says that more efforts are needed.
“Yes, Uganda is working to address food insecurity but can we say that the steps being taken are enough? No, we cannot. People are still dying of hunger,” Mr. Sssemanda says.
What the public is saying…
Rose Akampulira, A Market Vendor at Kalerwe Market: I think we now have the problem of food insecurity because many people have re-located to the cities so there are few people cultivating in the villages. Government should improve services in rural areas to motivate people to stay in the villages otherwise, where we are headed, it is disaster. We still have a lot of vacant land in Uganda so lack of enough food should not be one of our problems.
Simon Alibu, An Agriculturalist: On the surface, the situation is worrying but I don’t think Uganda has reached the point where it needs to worry about feeding its population. I believe the real issue here is how do we utilize the land and available food to be able to feed all? Plus, in agricultural research, Uganda has done a lot to improve the crops but also the management component to ensure that people produce enough. So right now, I think the government should consider intensive sensitization and motivation for people to take up new technologies for example for cassava and maize.
Annet Nandutu, A teacher, Kitante Primary School:
It is surprising how a country that is known to feed all neighboring countries is now crying of hunger!!This country is the same one said to be well-endowed in terms of arable land and water. Surely for me I think there is a lot of poor planning on government’s part. Something needs to be done and now!
Gilbert Kabuye, A Social Worker with Community Initiatives Africa: The FAO in 2008 warned that if Uganda is not careful, we might be hit with an alarming hunger situation following countries such as Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti. It looks like government then didn’t take issue seriously. I hope that our policy makers can come up with fire-fighting measures to curb the situation otherwise we have already heard of people dying for example in Karamoja.