Museveni right on cassava, but should Ugandans listen to him?

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  •  Museveni’s sin, then, is not that he was wrong. Rather, he sounded like a celebrity Instagram nutritionist and fitness blogger or podcaster, not the president of a country who is expected to offer actionable policy and put money behind it.

It’s perhaps no surprise that of all the May 1 Labour Day speeches and events that made the most headlines around the world, President Yoweri Museveni’s “If there is no bread eat muwogo (cassava)” took the biscuit.
Speaking at Labour Day celebrations, Museveni said that “If there is no bread, eat muwogo (cassava).

Africans really confuse themselves. You are complaining that there’s no bread or wheat, please eat muwogo.  I don’t eat bread myself”. There has been a sharp rise in the cost of wheat flour and cooking oil, as a result of the disruption of supply lines caused by Covid-19 and, lately, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and western sanctions against Moscow.

Together, Russia and Ukraine account for nearly 30 percent of total global exports of wheat, and nearly 80 per cent of sunflower seed products. According to UNCTAD data, nearly 70 per cent of Uganda’s wheat imports are from Russia and Ukraine. Some countries in Africa are dependent on two nations for 90 per cent of their wheat imports.

Museveni’s comment has attracted international interest, partly because it echoes the infamous quote by Marie Antoinette, queen of France during the French Revolution, who said “Let them each cake” as the masses revolted over the lack of bread. Needless to say, the revolutionaries beheaded her.

The statement has since come to embody a political leadership out of touch with reality. Yet, Museveni’s statement is different. His tone might have rubbed many the wrong way, and it was ill-timed, given that the country is looking for a solution to soaring food prices, not tongue-in-cheek sound bites, but the spirit of his comments was correct.  Cassava flour is now widely considered a healthier alternative to wheat. Among other things, it is gluten-free.

Gluten can cause health problems for some people, including inflammation of the small intestine. And bread, especially white bread, is considered not healthy. Museveni, then, was offering good diet advice. Globally, among ethical eaters and the health fundamentalists, cassava flour is the in-thing. And in parts of West and Central Africa, cassava flour is big.

Museveni’s sin, then, is not that he was wrong. Rather, he sounded like a celebrity Instagram nutritionist and fitness blogger or podcaster, not the president of a country who is expected to offer actionable policy and put money behind it.

Secondly, the broader spirit of his statement, that the food crisis from the Russian war on Ukraine should motivate a movement to staple food alternatives closer home is also spot on. We seem to be coming to the tail end of over two years of Covid-19 ravages, and Uganda and Africa, have not learnt the lessons and responded in a concrete way. In the West, they are moving industries closer to home to reduce the long supply lines. They are pouring massive new resources into clean energy, bolstering natural gas production, or in the case of Europe, cutting deals for new supplies from places closer to them like Algeria. What is Uganda’s answer?

Cassava in Uganda politics. It faces the cultural and political hurdles that maize flour confronted decades ago, before food crises and the demographic remakes of Kampala and other major urban centres in the country led to its wide acceptance. The reality is that away from the headlines, cassava has been battered, and grown and eaten in areas that for years didn’t have major voter clout in Museveni’s political order, and was therefore largely starved of resources.

After a virus nearly destroyed all of Uganda’s cassava crop in the mid to late 1990s, there was an impressive recovery.  Yet, cassava production in the country has now declined drastically from 4.9 million tons (MT) in the early 2000s to  2.6 MT in 2019.

This has happened in both a national and continental context where agricultural production is hopeless. In 2003, realising the threat posed by food insecurity, African Union heads of state made a commitment — the Maputo Declaration — to allocate at least 10 per cent of their national budgets to food and agriculture, and to strive for an annual six per cent growth in agriculture.

Nearly 20 years later, only two of the smaller African countries have reached the goal set out in Maputo. Uganda is NOT one of them. Agriculture’s share of Uganda’s national budget is a miserable 3.7 per cent today – and that is after it increased from 3.2 per cent.

And so you have a great irony: if tomorrow Ugandans heeded Museveni’s call and went all out for cassava, they would be hungrier than if they remained dependent on imported wheat. In other words, Museveni perhaps should have told Ugandans not to eat cassava.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3

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