When Kenya’s poison easily became lucky Uganda’s meat

Thursday February 8 2018


Maize is delivered to the National Cereals and Produce Board in Eldoret on November 23, 2017. Drought has affected adequate production of the crop in Kenya. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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This report appeared this week in Kenyan media: “Uganda overtook South Africa for the first time in November as the largest source of goods ordered by Kenyans, underlining the impact of drought, which saw electricity and food imports shoot up.

“Kenya’s monthly import bill from Uganda jumped more than two-fold to Ksh7.59 billion ($74.6 million) compared with Ksh2.93 billion ($28.8 million) in October, marking the highest ever recorded monthly imports value from the land-locked country…

“Kenya largely buys foodstuffs, especially cereals, and electricity from the west-neighbouring country, its biggest trading partner”.

It’s odd that a Kenyan publication would need to tell its readers that Uganda is its “west-neighbouring country”.

Is there a Kenyan who doesn’t know that?

I guess one defence could be that that is meant for readers of online versions of these media, some of whom live in far away lands.

That said, Uganda has won a big weather lottery, and has also been gifted by the actions of Tanzanian President John Magufuli.

Last October, The EastAfrican reported that “Uganda has come to the rescue of Kenya and Rwanda, selling both countries more than 11,502 tonnes of maize worth $6.65 million over the past two months…

“Uganda and Tanzania have had a good harvest this year, and with Tanzania’s export ban, Uganda has been left to fill the maize shortage experienced by Kenya and Rwanda”.

These opportunities are driving a small agricultural revolution in Uganda, but at the same time edging it towards an environmental crisis as it taps out its wetlands and swamps to meet the growing food demand from the region.

While we should cheer any news of growing East African trade, there is a downside when that growth comprises exports of things like bananas, potatoes, millet, and maize.

If it was that Kenya was producing less food, because all the labour and capital was going into making computer chips, insulin, and energy saver bulbs, we would all do well.

But it is because its own production has fallen partly because of climate change pressures. Food imports, here, are a warning sign.

Though the story didn’t make headlines in Kenyan media, a January report by the UN’s IRIN was quite shocking.

Two consecutive years of failed rains have left 3.4 million Kenyans in need of food aid and 480,000 children requiring treatment for acute malnutrition, it said.

It then described the ravages of drought in Turkana and Pokot, and said that pastoralists were rushing to sell off their surviving animals before they died, triggering price crashes of as much as 90 per cent in some areas.

The drought has also hit food production, it noted, reporting that maize output had fallen by a mind-blowing 99 per cent, compared to the long-term average in coastal areas.

Those bleak statistics are some of the reasons Ugandan farmers are cashing in, selling food to Kenya. The report forecast that adverse weather will persist for Kenya well into 2018.

If you take Kenya in isolation, you are likely to miss the bigger story.

What the last three years have indicated, from the Sahel, the Horn, through to southern Africa, is that we might have entered a phase where we are not having complete bounce-backs from drought.

While parts of Ethiopia have got over their worst drought, northern Kenya and parts of Rwanda have not.


In southern Africa, Cape Town will probably run out of water on April 22, as the area has not recovered from the long drought that affected the region.

The north of Nigeria, by some accounts, looks headed for environmental collapse, complicating its effort to stamp out the Boko Haram insurgency once and for all.

These environmental crises on the margins are further driving migration to the urban areas, increasing demand and price pressure on food.

These are big problems, but they are not insurmountable.

The problem is that though we might be reaching an environmental tipping, African states are not set up to manage for it.

Recovering wetlands, reforestation, climate change science, and investment in resilient seed varieties should be taking the share of budgets that go to defence.

However, because of how our elections work, and the sharp political contestation, regime survival is dependent on high security expenditure.

A green government that invests less in guns and repression might lose power more easily, but it’s hard to see that there is a long-term alternative.

The author is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]