As the African Union endorsed 2022 as the Year of Nutrition last weekend, seeking to strengthen the continent’s resilience in food security, the UN was waving the red flag about biting hunger in the Horn of Africa, where at least 13 million people are starving.
In fact, 50 million people in the larger East African region are at risk of starvation, according to experts.
In Ethiopia, in whose capital the AU heads of state and government summit was held last week, some 5.7 million people are affected by severe drought and need food assistance, the World Food Programme (WFP) said.
The UN agency noted that three consecutive failed rainy seasons in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, “have decimated crops and caused abnormally high livestock deaths, while shortages of water and pasture are forcing families from their homes and triggering conflict between communities”.
“Harvests are ruined, livestock are dying, and hunger is growing as recurrent droughts affect the Horn of Africa,” said Michael Dunford, regional director of the WFP Regional Bureau for Eastern Africa.
In Kenya, where the government late last year declared drought a national disaster, 2.8 million people are hungry. The WFP has announced that it targets about 900,000 of those in the worst affected counties in the northern and southeastern regions of the country.
According to Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority (NDMA), two years of poor rains have resulted in hunger, child malnutrition and livestock deaths.
“Malnutrition remains critical in Turkana, Samburu, Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, North Horr, Laisamis and East Pokot. It is in serious phase in West Pokot and Tana River, and the counties are projected to remain in the same phase for the next three months,” said NDMA’s Mid-season Food and Nutrition Security Rapid Assessment Report.
Livestock keepers in the northern region of Garissa, Mandera, Marsabit, Isiolo and Wajir have already lost more than 500,000 heads of cattle and the situation is being blamed for the rise in insecurity in Marsabit, Isiolo, Turkana and Samburu counties.
In Marsabit, more than 2,500 households have lost their source of livelihood after the death of their livestock. Charities have been distributing animal food aid.
Food and Agriculture Organisation Deputy Director-General Beth Bechdol and UN Resident Coordinator Stephen Jackson, who visited the county earlier this week, said 150,000 animals had died in the past few weeks.
Ms Bechdol said there was a need for increased emergency allocations for drought-hit counties.
A similar scenario plays out in southern Ethiopia and southern Somalia where 2.9 million people are starving, and 585,000 children are malnourished.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) report titled “Food Security Monitor for January 2022” shows that as of January 30, 50 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda did not have sufficient food.
The report attributes the food crisis to conflict and political instability, weather and macroeconomic shocks.
“The ongoing conflict in the Tigray region is driving IPC Phase 4 (emergency) outcomes as humanitarian efforts remain cut off,” the report says, quoting the World Food Programme, which says 83 percent of people there are food insecure, without access to harvests or markets.
The Food Security and Nutrition Working Group also reports that high food prices and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic have affected households' ability to buy food.
While Uganda witnessed poor harvests due to below-average October-to-December rains, production is projected to improve in the Central and Western regions, and in other parts of the country like Karamoja, imports from neighbouring countries are expected to ease food supply.
South Sudan is facing floods for the third consecutive year, which have left families displaced, fields submerged, leading to harvest losses and livestock deaths. This has worsened food insecurity in a country already constrained by ongoing conflict and experts project that the magnitude and severity of food insecurity is likely to increase.
Preliminary results of sectoral analysis undertaken in November 2021 identified 11 counties where food insecurity is an extreme concern in 2022.
The latest available projections point to 7.2 million facing acute food insecurity, with the risk of famine in parts of the country.
Recent climate models are suggesting yet another wetter-than-average season starting from April for South Sudan.
The situation in the region is so dire aid agencies are pleading for more funding and more food aid to save the hungry.
Amid the raging food crisis, some countries, like Tanzania, have food in stores but distribution bottlenecks, food fights with potential customer states, non-tariff barriers and handling challenges maintain the status quo.
This week, Tanzania opened grain storage facilities in Lubumbashi, DR Congo, and in Juba to facilitate the sale of surplus food.
Agriculture Minister Hussein Bashe said the country also plans to open another facility in Mombasa.
The Agriculture ministry will not directly involve itself with the business of selling the grain, but it will play the role of initiator, he added.
“We have delivered 800 tonnes of grains to the two centres. This is all in efforts to enable Tanzanian farmers and traders to get good markets for their products,” Mr Bashe tweeted. “We believe access to markets motivates farmers to increase production.”
The country recently launched an ambitious food surplus creation scheme titled the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania, which uses 350,000 hectares in the country’s fertile southern highlands to grow maize, paddy, wheat, sorghum, millet, cassava, beans, sweet potatoes and bananas.
The latest data from the Bank of Tanzania shows that the country held 214,968 tonnes of food stocks in the National Food Reserve Agency, a record high since November 2015.
“The food stocks consisted of maize, paddy and sorghum; and was a reflection of the government’s efforts to ensure food sufficiency,” the BoT said.
In 2020, Tanzania produced 6.3 million tonnes and the food security director in Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture, Dr Honest Kessy, projects the country would produce 6.7 million tonnes of maize in the 2021/22 harvest season.
Whereas there is high production of maize in Tanzania, poor post-harvest handling is a source of concern in the region, as it is blamed for high aflatoxin content.
“Tanzania exports to Kenya only 12 percent of the total demand, which stands at 600,000 tonnes,” Dr Kessy said. “If we address the issue of production costs, storage and standards, we will have room to export more.”
Yet tariff and non-tariff barriers and distribution challenges plague the supply chain.
Tanzania and Uganda, exporters of food across East Africa, have found challenges with Kenya because of red tape linked to screening of grain for aflatoxin. This week, some trucks ferrying grain were still stuck at the Namanga border when The EastAfrican visited.
Frequent export bans, high transport and transaction costs associated with transhipment from points of production to points of consumption, and poor food storage have all hampered intra-EAC food trade.
Trade wars between Kenya and Uganda and Kenya and Tanzania, which saw Nairobi ban maize imports last year, have contributed to the supply disruption. Still some trade happens informally through the porous borders.
Rwanda and Uganda are still sparring over the reopening of the Katuna/Gatuna border point, through which most of the goods going to both countries and farther into the DRC go. The latest rapprochement between Rwanda and Burundi, whose borders have also been closed for over three years, affected food trade in the region.
The AGRA report notes that Rwanda has experienced only minimal food insecurity sustained by increased food access from the inter-seasonal harvests of cassava and bananas.
“Suspension of Covid-19 measures has also led to the resumption of business and an improvement in income-generating activities, contributing to improved food security,” the report says.
In Tanzania, drought and its resultant poor harvests have disrupted the country’s maize supply, pushing up prices.
But it is the Horn of Africa where attention is needed, experts say.
This week, the WFP said that the region is experiencing the driest conditions recorded since 1981.
Gerald Masila, chief executive of the East African Grain Council blames food insecurity in the region on poor distribution. This is the problem Dodoma is seeking to cure by opening depots across the region.
“Food security means there is food available, accessible, affordable and acceptable,” Mr Masila said.
“If any of these are threatened then you have food insecurity. But the biggest of them is availability, which is production.”
Data from the East African Grain Council indicates that maize remained the most-traded food commodity in the region in the fourth quarter of 2021, followed by rice, wheat flour, sugar, sorghum and dry beans.
Kenya’s total land area under maize production is about 1.5 million hectares, with an annual average production estimated at three million tonnes, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Maize and dry beans trade were below average in the fourth quarter because of reduced imports from Uganda, as Tanzanian maize increasingly became more competitive and reduced availability of constricted trade from the main producing areas in Ethiopia.
However, food fights continue to mar trade and food provision.
Kenya banned Ugandan milk, sugar and poultry products in December 2020, and the matter is yet to be fully resolved.
Uganda has protested that these sanctions went against the EAC protocols. A planned meeting over the matter has been called off several times.
Private sector players, who have in the past month been visiting the border posts at Malaba, Busia, Mutukula, Rusumo and Namanga to monitor the implementation of the Common Market and Customs protocols, this week called for the removal of frequent and multiple tests of food at the borders to ease trade.
“The EAGC spearheaded the development of EAC harmonised standards on grains and cereals and standards on sampling and testing to boost cross-border trade of cereals in the region,” said Mr Masila on Wednesday during a stakeholders meeting at the Namanga border.
Kenya International Freight and Warehousing Association Chairman Daniel Wainaina lamented that clearing costs of cargo on the Kenyan side of the Namanga border had increased by over 70 percent due to the multiple processes.
“For a 20-tonne truck, the clearing cost is about $200, making it expensive to move cargo from one country to another. There are too many agencies doing the same thing. For instance, the Kenya Agriculture Food Authority (AFA) carries out aflatoxin tests on maize at the border. After the AFA, KEPHIS will also carry out the same tests. And the Kenya Bureau of Standards is waiting in the wings to carry out tests and verify. And you still have to go through the Customs process, as well as the weighbridges. The whole process ends up taking more than two days, further delaying the cargo at the border,” Mr Wainaina said.
“There is a need for more staff to be deployed at the AFA to facilitate approval of pre-applications of maize imports from Tanzania to Kenya, and joint testing of aflatoxin to be undertaken, preferably in Arusha, to reduce the number of procedures at the border,” Mr Wainaina added.
The region is facing a food deficit due to overreliance on rain-fed agriculture. Also a high cost of food production due to high fertiliser prices has frustrated small-scale farmers.
An annual assessment by Tegemeo Institute revealed that the total cost of production for maize differed across production systems. The major contributors to cost of maize production were fertiliser (23 percent) land preparation (14 percent), and post-harvest activities contributing 13 percent of costs for small-scale farmers. For large-scale producers, fertiliser took up 21 percent of costs, land preparation (18 percent), and post-harvest activities 13 percent.
“Because of structural, policy, soil conditions and rainfall reliance, the cost of production per kilo of maize in Kenya is much higher than Tanzania and Uganda,” noted Mr Masila.
This explains why Kenya is a net importer of maize from Tanzania and Uganda.
Data from the Ministry of Agriculture shows that in January 2021, Kenya imported 450,000 bags of maize from the two countries and another 300,000 bags in February. In 2020, maize production for Uganda was 2.75 million tonnes. Uganda exports 90 percent of its maize to Kenya.
A favourable regional crop calendar allows Tanzania’s harvest to coincide with the lean season in key destination markets of Kenya, Burundi and South Sudan.
“The harvest seasons in the region vary within the EAC,” Mr Masila explained. “Uganda harvests starts from around March up to April, because they have two seasons. In Tanzania, the main harvest comes in June to July. Uganda comes back in August before we get Kenyan harvests in September and October.”
Additional reporting by Geoffrey Ondieki