East African countries need to show more cooperation in addressing food security challenges that could likely get worse if unforeseen external crises continue to pop up and disrupt supply chains across the world, according to a new study published this week.
The findings on the impact of such crises on food availability within the East African Community warn that without coordinated mitigation measures the entire region could soon find itself swamped by perennial global shocks akin to the climate change, Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war.
These combined challenges have exacerbated risks in global food access and trade leading to rising inflation, production and import costs, and increasing nutrition challenges for EAC country populations, the study says.
EAC countries were therefore urged to invest more in producing their own food, improve value chains across the board, adapt faster to climate smart agriculture, and increase trade between themselves especially in key food items to reduce import dependency that is already afflicting many of the countries.
Dr Margaret Chemengich, lead consultant of the East African Business Council (EABC)-led study, told an EABC webinar to introduce the findings on May 16 that the succession of uncontrollable global events had increased the importance of pursuing and consolidating more intra-country “business engagements” within the EAC bloc.
“We are not short of food policies since all seven EAC countries have their own, but we need to improve on enforcement of these policies and bring them in line with each other,” Dr Chemengich added.
She noted that Tanzania currently appeared to be best positioned to help out the more needy EAC countries by “increasing food supplies to them and making money at the same time since it will not be doing so for free.”
The study quoted latest FAO figures compiled this year showing that Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi have maintained the highest food import dependency ratios in the region since 2013 despite the ratios for Kenya and Burundi dropping between 2018 and 2019.
“EAC region remains perpetually food insecure with all indicators reflecting negative trends in the study period. This is worsened by export restrictions which usually target trade in cereals and other high energy diet staple foods that account for food security,” the study said.
It called on governments to keep their food reserves sufficiently stocked to cover lean seasons and “repurpose policy support to make healthy diets more affordable sustainably and inclusively” for their populations.
Climate change was identified as the dominant factor in diminishing global food security since EA’s dependence on rain-fed agriculture makes it particularly susceptible to the vagaries of weather.
At country-specific level, on Kenya, “There is a need for surveillance and rapid response to crises to avoid further damage, for instance, stopping wars and banditry attacks to avoid people abandoning crops and livestock for safety,” it said.
Kenyan authorities also needed to move fast to ensure that agricultural land laws clearly define land tenure systems and are enforced “so that the land is not all converted to quick money residential plot subdivisions.
It said Rwanda had done well to engage development partners to revise its national food and nutrition policy and ensure it embraces private-sector-led growth in agriculture and improves the competitiveness of farmers and commodities.
It said policies currently aimed at subsidising poor diets in Rwanda had led to “a focus on trading items rather than households consuming them, resulting in low dietary diversity,” and needed to be restructured to balance trade and nutrition needs.
“There is a need to open up cross-border trade and maintain stability at the same time. This will encourage the growth of border towns in the trade of agricultural food and other goods, mainly impacting small-scale traders' youth and women,” it said.
In Tanzania, authorities felt that existing cross-border trade policies were “quite dynamic, which makes trade unstable. This, coupled with political issues over cross-border trade, needs to be addressed so that investors along the agricultural value chain can have a sense of stability,” the study said.
On Uganda, the study recommended that government research more into developing a bigger stock of quality food crop seeds “that are more resilient.”
“Illicit trade along the porous borders, largely on food products coming from Uganda, requires law enforcement to counter,” it said.
It also recommended that the Tanzanian government reduces taxes on food items to make them more accessible to households and bring farmers up to speed on issues such as standards, SPS measures and food certification to make them more competitive in regional and international market trade.
According to the study, there appears to be a mismatch between Tanzania's agricultural policy formulation and actual implementation at the higher levels of national governance.
“Better coordination among agriculture-related ministries and regulatory bodies, coupled with increased allocation in support of agricultural programs which are mainly funded by donors, will help revitalise the sector in Tanzania,” it said.
Among its recommendations, the growing gender gaps in food insecurity needed to be addressed through targeted food security programmes and social safety nets for vulnerable populations, like the provision of food vouchers and similar forms of aid where necessary.
The study said countries could address basic inflation and currency depreciation factors affecting public affordability of healthy diets by implementing.