2016: Year of drought, famine in Rwanda

Monday January 2 2017

In the larger East African region, hunger pangs were equally felt more this year, more than eight million people were reported to be facing starvation in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Burundi due to a poor harvest that stretched the region’s food reserves. PHOTO | FILE

In the larger East African region, hunger pangs were equally felt more this year, more than eight million people were reported to be facing starvation in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Burundi due to a poor harvest that stretched the region’s food reserves. PHOTO | FILE 

By Moses K Gahigi

For many Rwandans, the late harvest brought relief to a 2016 that was overcast by hunger.

At some point more than 100,000 families especially in the Eastern Province districts of Rwamagana, Nyagatare, Bugesera, Kayonza and Kirehe, as well as Nyanza, Gisagara in the South suffered famine after crops failed due to drought.

Conditions were difficult for the better part of the year, forcing hundreds of people to flee to neighbouring countries especially Uganda, in search of food, while others looked for jobs to sustain their families.

While the government blamed climate change, analysts cited poor agricultural policies which have failed to create high yields for the food shortages. Farmers, especially those in marshlands have tried to irrigate their crops, but the practice is absent in hilly terrain.

“It is mostly co-operatives which farm in the marshlands, government has given them this land, but individuals who cultivate on hilly lands are suffering, it has been impossible for them to get water, the help only reached a few people, those in marshlands,” said a farmer.

There was a shortage of water and foliage in the cattle rearing regions with many dying, which pushed some farmers to move cattle to Tanzania.

The Minister of State for Agriculture and Animal Resources was recently sacked, a development many attributed to the worsening conditions in the sector, which employs the biggest segment of the population.

Civil society groups have blamed the government for failing to address the recurring food insecurity issues in parts of the country prone to drought, saying the funds allocated to the sector are wasted.

They have also highlighted a gap in agricultural planning and prioritising, government reduced spending on agriculture from 11 per cent of the total budget in 2015/16 fiscal year to 7.5 per cent this year.

The agricultural sector has remained one of the most underfunded sectors, with banks largely ignoring it.

Irrigation

The 2015 Auditor General’s report indicated that irrigation equipment procured by government in the district of Nyagatare at a cost of Rwf2.7 billion was not put to use.

The AG also raised the red flag on the mismanagement of resources meant for the Crop Intensification Programme and the Post-Harvest Handling and Storage Taskforce, warning that this might set back the country’s gains in food security.

Government has promised to help farmers acquire irrigation equipment with a subsidy of up to 50 per cent and link co-operatives to financial institutions, this is however still a pipe dream.

In Rwanda, food scarcity led to a sharp rise in food prices. Food inflation jumped from 6.9 per cent in July to 7.4 per cent in October, the highest since 2012.

Prices of items such as beans have for instance peaked at Rwf700 for a kilogramme, twice the usual price of between Rwf350 and Rwf400.

Sugar prices jumped to Rwf1,100 up from Rwf750 a kilogramme, while a kilogramme of sweet potatoes and green bananas has moved from Rwf200 to 350 per kilogramme.

The prices of key sought-after food items rose by between Rwf65 and Rwf160 since June while some vegetables and fruits almost tripled in price over the same period.

In the larger East African region, hunger pangs were equally felt more this year, more than eight million people were reported to be facing starvation in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Burundi due to a poor harvest that stretched the region’s food reserves, making experts push for a review of the 50 per cent common external tariff (CET) on potential imports outside the region and in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa).

In Kenya, more than one million people, mostly in the northeastern and coastal areas, faced starvation; in Uganda, the below-average crop production due to drought left close to half a million people in Karamoja, Teso, Acholi and West Nile regions exposed to hunger.