A few weeks ago, while travelling from Nairobi to Kampala, I sat next to an agro-economist. We spoke about the contradictions in East Africa’s efforts to feed itself as we flew over farms in the Rift Valley. Hunger and famine strike the region as consistently as gluts in food production.
For instance, the agro-economist said, the week of September 18 saw a tomato glut in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. He showed me photos of farmers in Nyahururu, Kenya, making compost from rotting tomato fruits they could not sell.
The following week, The EastAfrican’s December 1-7 edition headlined a story about Tanzania’s quest for a market for its four million-tonne maize surplus, with 16 million more tonnes expected by the end of 2018.
All this sounds familiar to farmers in Kinangop, Kenya who, year in, year out, have to deal with a cabbage glut, and end up feeding the vegetable to their cows even though markets exist for the crop.
In 2017, a head of cabbage in Kinangop was selling at fifty cents, a coin that is actually no longer in circulation, yet in the same year, 110 people were reported to have died from hunger in a 48-hour period in March, while millions of other people were reported to be severely food deprived in Somalia.
In 2011 and 2012, a severe drought caused a food crisis across Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya even though there was a food surplus in Uganda.
Why would we see some parts of East Africa make compost out of tomatoes and feed cabbages to cows when people in the same region are hungry and dying of malnutrition? Poor road network and storage facilities, lack of vehicles, and inefficient markets may be blamed for this.
Poor communication, however, seems to be the biggest culprit. In many cases, when tomatoes are needed in a part of the region, the message does not get to the tomato farmer in another part. In the event that it does, farmers can find themselves unable to transport the tomatoes to those who need them.
Yet this does not mean the cross-border trade is not thriving. My agro-economist seatmate told me good weather, great soil, and farming practices that promote the use of little or no chemical sprays can produce organic and delicious produce for export from Uganda: Watermelons, pineapples, pawpaw, maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas, groundnuts, simsim and beans. The use of chemicals raises the price of food.
Kenyan Mau Narok farmers export carrots. Tanzania exports maize and onions. Rwanda exports carrots. There is a platform called Infotrade that integrates and analyses market information, particularly in cereals across Uganda, he said.
This got me wondering. Why, in this age of Uber, Airbnb, and sending information within seconds across the world, are apps to show types of food and availability so slow to take off in Africa?
WhatsApp groups to which my agro-economist seatmate belongs, such as the Uganda-based Farmers Noticeboard, exist. There are many more. We need to use them to the fullest. Food security is critical when faced with a youth bulge and high unemployment and inequality.