Millions of people in East Africa could die in the famine sweeping parts of the region. From Somalia, Ethiopia, parts of Kenya, and Uganda’s Karamoja region, the horrific scenes of the starving and severely emaciated are now commonplace.
Estimates say the number of starving people in the region will surpass 20 million by September.
There are the usual cries for international help and donor meetings to pledge humanitarian aid. As in the recent past, it will amount to little. Thousands will die, millions will be severely scarred by malnutrition, the casualty count will be done, and we will wait for the next famine in three or so years to go through the same ritual again.
It is possible to do something different, politically inconvenient and morally unpalatable though it might be. A different solution would be to enable East African business people to make a profit from the famine.
Consider the case of Somalia. The Somali nation is spread across East Africa and the world. It cares about fellow Somalis, in whichever country they might be citizens. They are business-savvy people, and one of the things they have mastered, like few others, is logistics.
Suppose you are a fashion designer in Nairobi or Kampala, and you want a rare fibre delivered to you from remote Mongolia. In that case, the expansive Somali network will have it at your doorstep in less than a week. The Somali nation also has many deep-pocketed fellows.
Tomorrow, East African governments could say, “okay, business people of the region, take food to our hungry.” They would have to remove border controls for food convoys, scrap related levies, and provide security.
Telco companies like Safaricom, MTN, Tigo, and Airtel would be tasked to receive mobile money contributions from the region and the rest of the world for food relief. Businesses would tender to procure food and transport it across the open borders to the hungry. Procurement and donation from abroad would be permitted, and their delivery to East Africa handled by the Somali networks.
The telcos will chop off some of the money as fees, but they will not steal it. You can be sure that in two weeks, billions of shillings will have been donated. It would then immediately pay into the mobile money wallets of the businesses that won tenders at a rate that enables them to make a good profit.
To be sure, there will be corruption and fraud. Our business people will throw in bad food and charge too much, but if we work on the assumption that 25 percent of the supplies will be problematic, that leaves 75 percent that is still good to eat.
You can bet on it. In two weeks, thousands of lorries will have been leased, millions of tonnes of food bought, and the queue of food-laden lorries heading into Somalia and Ethiopia from Kenya will be 25 kilometres long.
The crisis-hit parts of Uganda and Kenya would be sorted out with a few lorries and hundreds of pick-ups. Fellows would make a fortune, but millions of lives would be saved. And East Africa would be one less hungry family again.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3