The paradox of food insecurity in Africa

Wednesday September 15 2010

An agricultural scientist shows improved tomato

An agricultural scientist shows improved tomato seedlings. Uganda must invest more money in agricultural research to boost food production. PHOTO BY MICHAEL J. SSALI 

The issues discussed in this column so far have mainly centred on food security, the environment, poverty reduction through farming, and the need for gender equity and women empowerment in agriculture. These also happen to be some of the millennium development goals (MDGs) set forth in September 2000. MDGs are typical concerns for sub-Saharan Africa and the deadline for their achievement is 2015. Early this month, with only five years to that deadline, at least two international conferences have been held here in Africa, one in Namibia and the other in Ghana, during which agricultural experts have discussed some of the pressing issues facing the continent. And later this month, between 20th and 22nd, according to a report by IPS Africa, a UN summit will take place in New York to discuss the upcoming five-year deadline for achieving the MDGs, the success gained so far and the new priorities that must be supported.

But, as Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda points out in the IPS report, issues to do with food security or the environment, poverty reduction through farming, and gender equity cannot be limited to conferences in Windhoek, Accra or New York. We have to create our own debate here in Uganda or even in our individual homes and ask how much success we have gained, what issues need attention, and what we can do ahead of 2015. According to the 2007 Uganda’s MDCs Progress Report, hunger is still a big challenge with an estimated 17,689,000 people said to be food insecure. Income-poverty head count fell from 38 per cent in 2002 to 31 per cent in 2006 but prospects for improvement are threatened by dwindling agricultural production.

“The majority of the people employed in agriculture are either self employed or unpaid family members who are likely to be women,” says the report. “These two constitute 91.5 per cent of all women. Given the low returns from agricultural labour and produce, rural poverty tends to impact more on women than men.” Women normally have no say in the sale of agricultural produce in their homes even if they are the key workers in the gardens and have to devote a lot of their time to sick family members, minding the children, fetching water and gathering firewood.

Our environmental sustainability is in the balance! Uganda is reported to be losing between 500 and 700 square kilometres of its forest cover every year and our soil is continuously degraded with polythene waste as an estimated 3,000 tonnes of plastic are said to be going into the soil annually. Our encroachment on wetlands goes on with impunity. The big paradox is that we are so hungry in Africa when agriculture provides more than 70 per cent of total employment. An estimated 265 million people are said to be chronically hungry when Africa is known to hold 60 per cent of the world’s remaining uncultivated farmland. With one quarter of the world’s arable land on our continent why can’t we adequately feed ourselves? Uganda is an agricultural country; but why are close to 18 million of her people food insecure? The answer must lie in the way we practice agriculture, the tools we use, the techniques we apply, the investment we put into farming, and the determination of our policy makers to turn things round.

The good news from the recent Namibia meeting is that Uganda is one of the countries likely to increase their national budget allocation on agriculture to 10 per cent perhaps as early as next year following the release of some $22billion pledged by the G8 leaders last year in Italy. Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, will be among the countries to access those funds if they submit their investment plans to CAADP (Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme) for assessment by the end of this month. The 10 per cent budget allocation to agriculture, by the way, was supposed to have started about seven years ago for all sub-Saharan countries in order to achieve the six per cent annual growth in agriculture recommended by the World Bank.

During a meeting in Maputo in 2003 all African leaders signed a declaration to allocate 10 per cent of their national budgets to agriculture but up to now for some countries such as Uganda it has been difficult to even allocate as much as five per cent of their budget to the sector. We are late. Malawi was quick to make the allocation and it has transformed itself from a recipient of food aid to a net exporter of maize in each of the last four years. Our neighbour, Rwanda, made the allocation and had improved its food production by 16 per cent in 2008. As a country we need to allocate more money to the agricultural sector to mechanise farming, to do irrigation, and to carry out research on crop diseases, better quality seeds and animal breeds, soil enrichment, and especially to brace ourselves for the threat posed by climate change.