How Uganda can combat food insecurity among refugees

Brian Sserunjogi

On October 16, nations worldwide will observe World Food Day under the theme “Leave No one behind”. The day highlights worldwide hunger issues and raises awareness of food quality and nutrition.

This year, Uganda will reflect on the growing food insecurity amidst the rising refugee population.  The World Food Programme’s Global Report on Food Crises (2022) ranks Uganda among the top countries facing a food crisis and hosting the highest number of refugees/ asylum seekers. 

Uganda hosts the third largest refugee population in the world, and the largest in Africa with 1.5 million refugees as of July 2022 from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Burundi, and Rwanda, among other countries.

While large parts of Uganda are generally food secure, since 2016, food insecurity in Uganda has increased. The Global Report on Food Crises (2022), indicates the rising food insecurity in Uganda is partly on the account of the high number of refugees residing in the country, who have fled conflict from neighbouring countries.

According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), the number of refugees in the country with poor or borderline food consumption rose from around 33 percent to 44 percent between December 2020 and April–June 2021 largely due to the socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19 restrictions.

Similarly, 64 percent of refugee households and nine percent of host communities ran out of food in February–March 2021.

These conditions reportedly forced many refugee households to reduce the amount and frequency of meals eaten per day. In addition, the prevalence of anemia among refugee children aged six to 59 months (55 percent) and women of reproductive age (42 percent) was at the highest level recorded by UNHCR in the country, as was the level of stunting among children aged six to 59 months in the South West settlements (42 percent).

Uganda’s 2006 Refugee Act and 2010 Refugee Regulations are flexible and progressive. Uganda is one of the few major refugee hosting countries that allocates a plot of land to newly arriving refugees; allows them freedom of movement, access to social services, and employment; and encourages refugees to participate in the economy through running businesses. 

However, with refugees staying longer amidst dwindling support from the development partners, a lot of effort is needed to ensure refugee self-sustenance and food security.

In this regard, the government needs to ensure efficient use of the land it allocates to refugees by intensifying the provision of genuine agricultural inputs and good agronomical practices to enable refugees to improve the yields per unit area of allocated plots.

Additionally, donors, through the Ugandan government, should consider capitalising on refugee community-founded village savings and loan associations and rotating savings and credit associations to enable refugees engaged in agricultural-related activities to access soft loans for improving their yields.

Besides government-allocated agricultural plots, refugees are increasingly acquiring land for agricultural activities from host communities through purchase, leases, hire, and mutual agreements with hosts. However, some of these transactions remain informal, ad hoc, and unregulated.

To reduce land conflicts and loss of food for refugees emanating thereof, the government needs to put in place regulations that enforce informal land agreements between refugees and host communities.

Facilitating the exchange of land rights for money or services without compromising the land tenure security of bona fide owners would allow refugees to access more land for production.

For non-farming refugee households, the promotion of non-farm interventions is critical to improving their livelihoods and setting them on a path to food security and improved nutritional outcomes.

In this regard continued skilling of refugees, the provision of startup capital, and mentorship are examples of interventions that could be strengthened.

Lastly, to ensure sustainable agricultural production in refugee hosting communities, let’s implement measures to conserve the environment by encouraging the use of alternative and clean energy sources to reduce the degradation of existing forests, wetlands, rivers, and lands.

Mr Brian Sserunjogi is a research fellow at EPRC, Makerere University