East Africa has been hit by prolonged drought in the last few years, with grave consequences for the region.
For instance, pastoralists in northern Kenya have invaded privately-owned ranches in search of water and pasture for their animals. This has created conflict between pastoralists desperate to save their herds from certain death and ranchers determined to defend their property.
Deaths have occurred as a result. What started as competition for scarce resources has turned into a serious security issue as the country’s security forces have been drawn in to keep the peace.
South Sudan faces famine and has declared a state of emergency.
Somalia has frequently gone through cycles of this drought and famine thing.
Even “green” Uganda has been caught in it. Usually it is the north eastern region of Karamoja that is affected. This time, areas in the central and south western parts of the country, traditionally the country’s food basket, have also been hit.
It is usual to blame this on climate change. But climate change is only part of the story. Another part has to do with history and politics.
According to some reports, marginalisation of the pastoralist areas of northern Kenya and north-eastern Uganda is partly to blame for the poverty, environmental degradation and violence in the areas.
Successive governments and local politicians have often been blamed for this situation.
Many of the areas mostly affected by food shortages are also found in conflict zones. Conflict, sometimes deliberately engineered or as a consequence of certain actions or policies, has been used as a weapon in the politics of a particular area, either to incite disaffection, force action in a particular direction or to score political points.
In South Sudan the long war of independence and the ongoing war for supremacy among various tribal warlords and nationalities, and the resulting exodus of refugees to neighbouring countries has meant that little can be done on the otherwise fertile land.
In other areas, complacency, indifference or inattention to warning signs of impending disaster are responsible for what is being experienced in some parts of East Africa today.
But even granted that drought and the resultant food shortages are beyond our control, does that also explain Africa’s huge food import bill and food waste? These are also threats to the food situation that, if not addressed, could exacerbate it further.
According to IFAD, Africa spends about $35 billion a year importing food. Yet Africa has one quarter of the world’s arable land.
Rwanda spends $200 million a year on food imports, mostly on processed foods, sugar, wheat and rice, which is more than we export.
There are several explanations for this imbalance. One of them is the change in the food consumption habits especially in urban areas and among the elite. With growing urbanisation and rise of the middle class, this trend is likely to continue.
This leads to a sort of vicious circle. Preference for foreign foods means that demand for local food among the people with the money to buy it is low and therefore production will be neglected.
The money that should be spent on improving local agriculture is spent on imports of food. Local production suffers and food shortages, especially for rural populations increase.
There is another problem: food waste. In Africa, food staples valued at four billion dollars are lost every year due to post harvest inefficiencies. Fifty percent of fruits, vegetables and root crops go to waste.
The problem of food waste is not unique to Africa. In the middle of last year, the Guardian newspaper reported that globally about 1.6 billion tonnes or one third of food valued at one trillion dollars is wasted.
Yet there are many hungry people in the world. In the United States alone, between five and 10 percent of the population are hungry.
There is yet another problem. In Africa, the population engaged in agriculture is increasingly aging. Fewer young people are interested in agriculture. This is likely to have a negative impact on food production in the long term.
The challenge of having enough food for both humans and animals is real and present as the drought in East Africa and food waste across the world show. Climate change is one of the causes but by no means the only one.
Governments bear some responsibility and must provide the solutions. The solutions must be smart, comprehensive and long term.
Obviously we cannot change the world, but we can change the way we live in it and how we use its resources. We even have the means to predict how it is likely to behave in the future with a greater degree of certainty and can therefore act accordingly.