The masses of East Africa are hungry, angry, and protesting at the high food prices.
In the last week, there have been scenes straight out of a Kafka book in Uganda. The opposition have been leading walk-to-work campaigns to protest high food and fuel. Security forces have arrested hundreds of people and nearly all the Uganda opposition leadership, and banned people with known or suspected opposition leanings from walking. Six people have been killed basically for the crime of walking.
The jokes about people needing a walk permit from the police are endless.
In Nairobi and Mombasa on Tuesday, there were food protests. There are rumblings in Tanzania, and in Burundi, civil society groups are threatening action too and, in their case, protesting repression by the Pierre Nkurunziza regime.
The Ugandan and Kenyan governments say the astronomical world prices of fuel are to blame because local food transporters pay dearly for their fuel and, like all sensible businesspeople, are passing on the cost to consumers. And, yes, the skies have not opened up to allow rain, so we have drought.
But that is only a tiny part of the explanation. There is the slow death of once fertile lands due to environmental degradation — which governments could have dealt with but didn’t. In countries like Uganda, hundreds of people are actively encouraged by the government to encroach on forests and wetlands during elections as a bribe.
There are very few budget speeches in Africa where the Finance Minister doesn’t predicate growth on good rains and, in West Africa, whether locusts will visit or not.
Despite the attempt to blame the weather, the sun, and insects, most of the food crisis in Africa is caused by state incompetence. Some of it happens because we are not industrialised societies. For these reasons, you can be certain that many Africans are doomed to go to bed and wake up hungry for many more years to come.
The solution to this crisis is not where you might think it is. A while back, I attended a UN presentation that showed that from 1970 to the end of the 1990s, the one factor more than anything else that contributed to the reduction of the number of children dying of malnutrition in the Third World was, by far, the education of women (43 per cent).
Now the education of women has improved considerably all over East Africa. One thing that hasn’t is another factor that is important for achieving bumper harvests — access to land. Even where constitutions permit women to own land, traditional practices deny them the right.
The other problem with food in our part of the world is waste. The statistics are shocking. At a recent conference in Kigali, for example, a researcher from Dar es Salaam painted a bleak picture of Tanzania: 95 per cent of land is unsurveyed, meaning it is difficult to commercialise.
A staggering 70 per cent of the fruit produced in Tanzania goes to waste. A good 50 per cent of the milk goes to waste (statistics suggest the percentage is similar for Uganda), yet it imports milk from Kenya.
Also, 40 per cent of Tanzania’s grain and fish goes to waste. Not surprisingly, between 2009 and 2010, the agricultural sector grew by a miserable 1.5 per cent. And only 0.8 per cent of the irrigable land is under irrigation.
These are the structural things that contribute most to food insecurity in our region. One way to reduce food waste is to store. However, there is hardly any storage to speak of.
Uganda, for example, does not have a single publicly-owned food silo. Recently, the Kampala government decided to do something about it — it issued a decree. A government official said people must store food, and suggested those who don’t might be arrested.
Our Tanzania-based researcher had also heard of this decree and couldn’t resist bringing it up. He noted that most of Uganda grows quickly perishable foods like bananas (matooke) and potatoes. The only problem is that there isn’t a cold storage warehouse where they can preserve their fruit.
So, while there is a lot of focus on agriculture itself as a strategy to combat hunger and high food prices, the main solution to ending food shortages is actually not in the farms. It is in the boardrooms.