Friday February 7 2014

We need long-term plans to address food security challenges in East Africa

By Martin Luther Munu

Food security is a major challenge facing the East African region. Mostly attributed to extreme weather conditions, distribution and availability challenges, the region has continued to suffer from food shortages as a result of crop failures, low purchasing power and low supplies. Leaders as well as policy makers in East Africa need to be more forward looking in their strategies by developing a long-term plan to address this challenge of systemic pressures on agricultural development and food security.

According to a report, “What will East Africans Eat in 2040? Who will Produce the Food and How?”, recently released by Consumer Unity & Trust Society International, the greatest challenge for the East African Community (EAC) policy makers is to ensure that the food system continues to supply affordable and nutritious food for its growing population. This is in addition to avoiding the threat of future price volatility in food markets and competition for scarce agricultural resources.

Over the last two decades or so, the agriculture sector in the EAC countries have been facing market access challenges for farmers, high input costs, increasing energy costs, difficulties in accessing credit facilities, changing eating habits of consumers and poor extension services, among others. Over the next two decades, climate change will increase the challenges the sector will face.

As policy makers at both national and regional level grapple with these challenges, climate change adaptation should be at the centre of all interventions. The report, however, states that it is not clear whether the relevant institutions in East Africa are up to the task of discerning and articulating the choices, navigating and arbitrating between competing interests and resolving conflict by finding common ground on which to enlarge the space for vision and action.

We often get reports of either drought or floods in a number of areas vulnerable to extreme weather conditions in East Africa. Governments and other non-State actors usually come in with relief efforts to address the immediate challenge. Much as this is noble, it does not provide a sustainable solution. It is important for us to institute an effective early warning system and support the agricultural sector to cope with such shocks.

The ever-increasing energy costs as well as global measures on climate change mitigation have seen the promotion of biofuels. As a result, large portions of land are being set aside for biofuel production, competing with food crops, which are already in short supply. One question we need to ask ourselves is, “Between food and fuel, which is the most basic human right?” Definitely food, so our energy policies should take into consideration the human right to food, which is already being abused as exhibited in the recent Turkana food shortages in Kenya and last year’s severe food shortages in northeastern Uganda.

Tanzania on the other hand experienced a rain shortage during the 2012/2013 season that led to production of food grains totalling 1.8 million tonnes, 435,000 tonnes below the expected production of 2.3 million tonnes. Rwanda and Burundi are both faced with similar challenges considering extreme weather conditions and shocks in the other partner states.

To ensure food security by 2040, there is urgent need for investment in productivity by enhancing inputs leading to a better exploitation of good seasons, creating mechanism to enhance credit availability, developing regional policies to reduce the need for food aid and handouts, developing policies to emphasise linking the emergency food aid to long-term development, enhancing tailor-made programmes on food security for marginal groups, promoting the use of appropriate technologies/inputs that are adaptive to climate change impacts and finally, optimising the use of water for agricultural production by promoting integrated water resources management in the EAC, including joint water systems.

Mr Munu works with the Nairobi-based Consumer Unity & Trust Society -Africa Resource Centre.