Eight million in East Africa face starvation as drought eats into low food reserves

Wednesday October 26 2016

More than eight million people are facing starvation in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Burundi due to a poor harvest that has stretched the region’s food reserves. PHOTO | FILE

More than eight million people are facing starvation in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Burundi due to a poor harvest that has stretched the region’s food reserves.

Experts have now called 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, are facing starvation; in Uganda, the below-average crop production due to drought has left close to half a million people in Karamoja, Teso, Acholi and West Nile regions exposed to hunger.

READ: Kenya pushes for review of CET rates on sensitive goods

In Burundi, insecurity and the economic downturn have led to a disruption of markets, farming activities and livelihoods, leaving more than 2.3 million people severely food insecure. The region’s food baskets — Tanzania and Zambia — are holding on to their surplus, leaving little for maize imports from outside of the region.

READ: Burundi bans exports to stem food shortage


Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority said that if the November short rains are below average, the drought stress will deepen and affect millions more.

“As the forecast suggests, the rains will be below average. We are already at the food stress levels and if this happens then we will have to declare an emergency as millions more will face food shortages going into the new year,” the agency said, adding that it spent $1 million in the past month on emergency food supplies in the coastal and drought-prone northeastern regions.

Kenya’s Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich revealed that $2.5 million has been released from the exchequer to the State Department of Special Programmes for emergency relief food. The department has already bought, on credit, more than four million bags of maize worth $680 million from the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) for relief efforts.

“We shall ensure that the necessary help reaches the most needy people. We are mapping out other areas that are approaching food stress levels,” Mr Rotich said. He did not say when NCPB will receive payment for the maize.

Maize imports

The EastAfrican has learnt that Kenya is also planning to reach out to Tanzania for emergency maize imports in November, to bridge the shortage. About 150,000 tonnes of maize will be bought.

“There have been discussions with neighbouring countries to allow them to sell us maize to forestall the current shortage and mitigate the emergency. We are finalising the memorandum of understanding on the modalities,” a source who is privy to the discussions told The EastAfrican.

Through bilateral agreements, Tanzania is also expected to export grain to other African countries, including Zimbabwe, Burundi, Rwanda and DRC, which are facing grain deficits as weather patterns continue to affect their agricultural production.

READ: Now Tanzania lifts ban on food exports to region

Currently, Kenya’s strategic grain reserve at the NCPB has enough maize to last until the end of the month. The stock stands at 117,000 tonnes, just a half of the 315,000-tonne buffer the country requires to cushion itself from food shortages. However, farmers are reluctant to release their produce, demanding a price of $29 per 90kg bag from the board, which has said it will pay $22.9 per 90kg bag.

Kenya’s Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Willy Bett said the ministry will offer a new price of $28 per bag, in a bid to restock the reserves.

“The government will offer a rebate of up to $5 per bag in order to cushion the farmer against losses associated with the erratic rains experienced this year,” said Mr Bett.

NCPB managing director Newton Terer said the board hopes hope farmers will start selling their maize to it before the stocks are depleted.

“In August, we had 1.6 million bags of maize, but the NCPB has since released more than 300,000 bags to millers,” Mr Terer, said.

Last month, Kenya’s Agriculture Ministry announced that poor rainfall would lead to a reduction of 4.6 million bags in this year’s maize harvest.

Similar fate in Uganda

Uganda is facing a similar fate with its crop yield expected to fall by 30 per cent this year. A recent research by Tegemeo Institute found that there was a poor maize crop in eastern Uganda, and the output of minor “masika” crops in north-eastern Tanzania was affected by erratic March-May rains.

“Kenya will suffer a shortage of nine million bags by next May, as the La Niña (drought) phenomenon that is expected this month will impact negatively on the short-rain crop. Short-rain harvest, estimated at 4.5 million bags, could be less, which will spell doom on crop performance in central, eastern and coastal Kenya,” the report states.

Francis Karin, a senior research assistant at Tegemeo, said that there was a need for Uganda to prepare early for a possible maize shortage, taking into account the lag-time in procurement.

“An early consideration of potential sources of such imports is critical given the drought in the region. The establishment and institutionalisation of a more efficient monitoring and forecasting system is also important,” Mr Karin said.

Since August, Uganda has sold more than 14,502 tonnes of maize worth $6.65 million to Kenya and Rwanda, data from the East Africa Grain Handlers’ Regional Agricultural Trade Intelligence Network (Ratin) shows. However, the country has now tightened its exports as it struggles to support its local demand following poor harvests in September, and an increasing demand from the South Sudan and the DRC markets. SEE INFOGRAPHIC

Mr Karin said that it was important for farmers to know the free on board (FOB) price from the source in order to arrive at the best price for consumers.

“Once you know the free on board price, then factor in freight, insurance, port and other handling charges, then add 50 per cent on the CIF (cost, insurance and freight) price and add transport, say to Nairobi where demand is highest. This will give you the actual price of maize that consumers will pay. Should the CIF price for example be $15, a 50 per cent CET will push up the price up by $7.5,” Mr Karim said.

However, there may be a need to re-evaluate the tariff if, by imposing it, the maize meal prices become untenable for the poor, he added.

“A study/research needs to be undertaken to establish the effect of CET on maize consumer price. We don’t have such information currently but it can be done. What effect will this re-evaluation have? This is already answered — a re-evaluation will point out whether the tariff is affecting consumer price negatively or if it has no impact, in which case it does not have to be adjusted. World prices could be very low such that a CET of 50 per cent may not mean much to the consumer, but means a lot to the taxman. It is a source of revenue for the government,” Mr Karim said.

According to the October 2016 Integrated Food Security Phase Classification report, 83 per cent of the Ugandan population is food secure. The rest is food stressed due to effects of country-wide prolonged dry spell that caused average crop loss of 40 percent across the country, increase in crop and livestock diseases and insecurity.

It is expected that despite Uganda’s mid-year harvest that has sustained the region, the maize yields will this year drop by 12.2 per cent to 32.2 million bags, down from the 36.8 million bags harvested last year.

Uganda’s State Minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness Musa Ecweru said that despite the food shortages being limited to parts of the country, the country food stocks will only last till the end of the year.

“The harvest in August was poor so we really have to be on the lookout of importations and commercial selling of the food as we do not have a surplus,” Mr Ecweru said.