Sunday, October 16, 2011

Can Uganda be the food basket it aspires to be?

Today is world Food Day. I have not always paid much attention to food prices as food in Uganda, for the middle class at least, has been pretty affordable for many years now.

Many food crops in Uganda grow easily in the country side with minimal farmer in-put, dependent on natural rain water and rudimentary farming knowledge systems. Food ,in Uganda is largely grown on subsistence production basis although commercial producers are increasing.

Even international food producers are buying large tracts of land in Uganda, clearing it, and setting up large scale food farms for export. Recently, a British company bought a large expanse of land in central Uganda to produce for export and evicted many natives on the land and the news story made the 'New York Times'.

Most staple food crops in Uganda such as bananas,potatoes,cassava and maize are ferried in by lorries and trucks from upcountry food farms to the capital Kampala and other urban centres for a profit by food traders who pay the fuel costs for transporting this food after paying a pittance for them from up country food farmers.

In Uganda, it is the middle- men who make the killing in the food business. They will buy a bunch of bananas from a village farmer at about one US dollar and sell it in the capital Kampala for about ten times that price. Yes, they have to buy diesel to transport the bananas but the profit margin seems a little too steep. Many think the food dealers in Uganda are part of the problem of rising food prices.

I began paying attention to food prices in July this year. Food prices at my local market began shooting up overnight. Inflation in Uganda including on food prices has reached 28% according the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. All of a sudden, prices doubled. The household food budget more than doubled as well and food which initially only took a small percentage of my household income took a much more uncomfortable percentage of my personal income. I started to take notice.

In Uganda there were widespread popular protests when food and fuel prices shot up. The Ugandan opposition took advantege and rode the wave. Government was slow to respond and blamed the prices increases on the rising cost of fuel which, they claimed, was external to the country, and they didn't have much control over. But the people were not convinced.

Uganda often projects itself as a food-secure country owing to the country being gifted by nature-a good tropical climate,regular rainfall and fertile soils. Uganda even aspires to be the food basket for the greater Eastern African region.

In fact,Uganda does actually export food to neighboring Kenya,South Sudan and Congo(DRC) and this has been part of the cause of high food prices in Uganda since regular Ugandans have to compete to buy locally-produced food with say, the Sudanese ,who are willing to pay much higher for food than Ugandans who have taken low food prices for granted.

Uganda is actually not yet food-secure as the Ugandan government would have us believe. Famine is perennially reported especially in the Northern part of the country and when disaster strikes parts of Uganda,such in the mountainous Bugisu region, food scarcity always results because of an absence of effective local food storage and preservation systems. Even Ugandan traditional food granaries of per-colonial times have diminished. Yet as a child, about twenty years ago, I used to seem some in my rural village.

As Pacey and Paine have suggested in their food production theory, one has to look at the entire supply chain of food production to diagnose the food-security challenge facing Uganda.

Uganda largely depends on natural rain water which of late is not reliable and climate change has changed weather patterns and Ugandan farmers can no longer plan for the planting season due to changing weather patterns. Uganda therefore needs to mainstream irrigation among local farmers instead of blaming climate for constant food shortages.

Land tenure systems in Uganda are not helping either. Unlike many countries of the world, the majority of Ugandans own in-herited small individual plots of land which is not conducive for large-scale mechanized agriculture. Food production is mainly at subsistence level with few industrial-commercial producers. Land reform is therefore another another potential remedy in Uganda.

Many other options such as embracing more scientific and economically efficient farming methods and systems could lead Uganda into achieving its ambition of being a food basket for the region.

In the mean time, below par food production levels, an absence of food preservation technologies,rising population rates,external demand for local food will continue to impact on food prices in Uganda.

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