by Miriam Mannak

Let it rain

Parched lands receive rain, and it's time to make hay while the sun shines

East Africa has received rain for the first time in decades

For decades, East Africa has been subjected to failed crops and some of the worst famines in history. This year, some cautious relief is expected, thanks to decent rainfall and increased awareness among farmers that they have to change their agricultural practices in order to cope with the effects of climate change.

While food insecurity in East Africa no longer makes headlines, the situation is far from optimal. Today, almost 20 years after Kevin Carter took his famous picture, 16 million people in Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya Djibouti and Rwanda have not enough food to survive. That equals the entire population of The Netherlands.

The main causes of these and past stints of food insecurity, hunger and famine in East Africa were, and remain, conflict and erratic weather patterns including unexpected and prolonged droughts and rainfall. 

However, some cautious relief seems to be on the cards. In Sudan, rainfall in June and September was above average, which led to optimistic crop prospects in non-conflict areas. 

The same counts for other East African countries, say the writers of the October 2012 East Africa Food Security Outlook – a monthly report by Famine Early Warning Systems Network and the United States Agency for International Development.

According to the document, improved rainfall has increased the availability of food at household level in most parts of the region. 

“A relatively good start of the harvest, which kicked off in September and October, has improved the availability of food at the household level for consumption and for sale,” the researchers suggest, adding that the availability of pasture and water in, for instance, Sudan has substantially improved, resulting in improved physical condition of livestock and availability of milk. 

This will have a positive impact on the food security situation of millions of people who were uprooted from their hometowns by conflict and subsequently forced to other parts of the country, often in camps that lack services such as water, electricity and other key infrastructure. 

Statistics by the United Nations show that Sudan alone is home to some 2.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) – those who can be classified as refugees in their own country.  

“Food security of the IDPs in Darfur is expected to improve with the start of the harvest, as these people had increased cultivation this year and crop prospects are good,” the Outlook report states. “A good start of those harvests have led to increased availability of food at the household level and also improved supply to the market.”

Another positive element mentioned in the October 2012 Food Security Outlook is that the harvest prospects have led to declining staple prices. However, main staple foods such as sorghum remain expensive.

“Prices are more than double the five‐year average in most markets across the country because of inflation, local currency devaluation, increased transportation cost and the high cost of production this year,” the researchers say.

The weather may be an important reason food security in eastern Africa has improved; credit, however, needs to be given to local farmers. 

A survey by the Consortium of International Agricultural Research, which explores the links between climate change, agriculture and food security in the region, shows that many farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have changed their agricultural practices in an attempt to increase their production while dealing with the effects of climate change. 

Of the 700 households that participated in the research, which took place between 2010 and 2011, 55% is growing at least one crop with a shorter growing cycle. After all, the sooner you can harvest, the smaller the risk of crop failure.  

In addition, 56% of the households that partook in the survey are growing at least one drought-resistant crop that is able to overcome dry spells. 

Also, 34% of cattle farming households have reduced their herd sizes, and 48% have started to grow crops specifically for their cattle instead of using crops for human consumption. 

Last but not least, East African governments have come to the table to increase food security. Two years ago, the East African Community (EAC) – comprising Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi – adopted a Food Security Action Plan. 

In short, the initiative comprises 17 recommendations to fight hunger and malnourishment in the region. These include the elimination of non-tariff barriers that hinder the transfer of food from surplus food production zones to areas with deficits, and the improvement of transport infrastructure including rural feeder roads and other food market-supporting infrastructure such as wholesale markets. 

The agreement furthermore calls for more investment in agro-industries and for the EAC partner states to spend 10% of their budget on agriculture while enacting legislation to provide legal frameworks for regionally co-ordinated weather-indexed insurance for agriculture and rural livelihoods. 

Kenya, in addition, has recently kick-started a national programme to stimulate farmers to replace maize and other weather-sensitive crops with drought-resistant plants such as sweet potatoes, cassava, sorghum and millet. As part of this initiative, the Kenyan government will provide drought-resistant seeds to farmers free of charge.  

Maize, one of the most important staple crops in East Africa, is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Scientists from Stanford University and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in the US predict that African maize yields could decline by 65% for every degree Celsius in average temperature rise.

The aim of the Kenyan plan is to prevent history from repeating itself: in 2011, persistent droughts affected more than 3.5 million Kenyans and Somalis.

While the above is good news, it doesn’t mean the eastern part of Africa is out of the woods. The region has a long way to go toward providing food for all. However, a start has been made. Particularly, the awareness among farmers that they don’t have to be victims of erratic weather patterns, is important. With the help of civil society and government, they are starting to realise that they can work their way around climate change in order to have food on the table – today, and in years from now. 

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