COVID’s second wave worsens food insecurity in East Africa

By Richard Wetaya

July 14, 2021

Uganda again faces the specter of inflation, supply disruptions, higher prices for staple foods and hunger as the country endures a 42-day lockdown imposed to halt a deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concerns are now being raised that without significant government interventions, the entire East African region could suffer chronic food insecurity due to disruptions in agricultural production and markets, drought, unemployment, the pandemic and conflict. Farmers and the urban poor are especially hard hit.

A June 2021-January 2022 FEWS NET food security outlook report indicates that Uganda’s farmers are now getting lower farm gate prices, especially for staple perishables like cooking bananas, horticultural commodities and poultry products. Farmers who supply food to urban areas reportedly are earning less income than usual from crop sales due to low prices, limiting their ability to access other non-food needs.

Thirteen counties in Western Kenya, all of which are grappling with spikes in new coronavirus cases, face the same adverse outcomes as the tight government containment measures instituted in June continue.

Uganda, like other African nations, has been experiencing an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths, principally fueled by a populace that has grown lax in observing health protocols and the spread of new highly transmissible variants.  The Delta variant accounts for 97 percent of samples sequenced in Uganda, which currently has 87,227 confirmed cases and 2,104 deaths, according to the WHO Africa regional office. The situation is worse in Kenya, where statistics from the health ministry confirm 187,525 cases and 3,716 deaths.

In 2020, when the pandemic’s first wave hit, the two East African countries imposed strict transport restrictions that substantially disrupted food and commodity supply chain links between their rural and urban areas, creating serious food security risks. Joshua Opita, an agricultural and livelihoods expert, told the Alliance for Science that people in both countries were pushed into food insecure zones.

“For the most part, that state of affairs played out in informal urban settlements where thousands who rely on daily income sources to purchase food reside,” he said.

A 2020 analysis by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, an innovative multi-partner initiative for improving food security, nutrition analysis and decision-making, showed that 17 percent of Kampala’s 3.5 million residents, or 292,330 people, experienced adverse levels of acute food insecurity and had increasing food consumption gaps and reduced dietary mixture. Kampala is Uganda’s capital city. The initiative’s August-December 2020 analysis for Kenya indicated that 6 percent of the population, or 852,000 people, faced acute food insecurity.

In the days following Uganda’s most recent lockdown, fears grew among sections of the country’s poor that the negative impacts of the first COVID-19 lockdown would reoccur.

Their fears were soon realized. In the districts of Kampala and Wakiso, which have been the epicenters of Uganda’s deadly second wave, the price of staple foods like tomatoes, cabbage, cassava, yam, rice and corn flour, among others, skyrocketed immediately after the lockdown took effect.

“The most significant shock was a price hike,” Opita said. “Food prices shot up, but at length, they have come down, drastically. Profitability at various food markets has been affected as the purchasing power of the urban poor and rural consumers reduces. As a direct consequence, food traders and producers, particularly those who supply food to urban food markets, have been getting low profits. With retail outlets closed, many of the country’s food producers are also hard-pressed in getting the requisite inputs for their farms.”

In the first weeks following the imposition of the lockdown, Kampala also witnessed running battles between the country’s security forces and apprehensive businessmen. Many of the businessmen, whose shops had been closed, argued that the new lockdown would play havoc with their incomes, thus affecting their ability to provide food for their families.

Analysts said the traders may have been speaking for hundreds of the country’s underprivileged urbanities, including the informal and transport sector employees and youth, who are at loose ends as they wait for financial support from the Ugandan government.

Each individual designated as vulnerable will not get relief food rations, as was the case last year, but cash to the tune of sh100,000 (US$28). A total of 501,107 people are expected to receive the bailouts, with the first recipients getting payments on July 8.

Agnes Kirabo, executive director of the Food Rights Alliance, takes issue with the government’s cash intervention.

“These cash transfers will be a short-term emergency response and short-term interventions, such as food rations, can only be effective if there are long-term investments in building strategic food reserves,” she noted. “What the country needs are medium-term and long-term interventions, without which the current food security situation may become permanent.”

Peter Businda, an agribusiness expert concurs.

“The money set aside by the Ugandan government does not commensurate with the needs of most of the country’s urban dwellers,” he said. “Most urban households have between three and six members and besides food, they have other expenses. To that end, the money earmarked for the households will not suffice unless the government is telling vulnerable households to cut down on their food consumption by having one meal a day and purchasing non-nutritious foods of poor quality that will last till the next disbursement. Because this pandemic is not about to end soon.”

East Africa: food insecurity hotspot

Several food security monitoring groups, such as the Africa Food Trade and Resilience Initiative and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), contend that East Africa will remain a food insecurity hotspot as new COVID-19 variants continue to spread.

In the 2021 food security monitor edition 13, which provides an overview assessment of the food security outlook in East, West and Southern Africa, AGRA contends that East Africa will remain in a crisis food security situation, driven by below-average agriculture production, below-average rainfall, ongoing conflicts and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The June 2021-January 2022 FEWS NET-Kenya Food Security Outlook Update indicates that poor households in the country’s 13 counties that are under lockdown will face increased food insecurity and reduced food access due to declining employment and income-generating opportunities.

Jane Nalunga, executive director of the Southern and Eastern Africa Trade, Information and Negotiations Institute in Uganda, contends that the situation will get worse, especially in urban areas.

“With other waves on the horizon, the number of food-insecure people in the region will likely triple and the situation may be worse than it was last year,” she said.

In 2020, strict COVID-19 containment measures in the region exacerbated the food security situation, as a recent study on the pandemic’s net impact on household income and food security in Uganda and Kenya reveals. The study, titled COVID-19 implications on household income and food security in Kenya and Uganda: Findings from a rapid assessment , found the proportion of food insecure respondents increased by 38 percent in Kenya and 44 percent in Uganda.

The agricultural economists who conducted the study explained that the situation in Kenya was made worse by disruptions in regional markets, given the high ratio of food imports to domestic production.

David Kabanda, executive director of the Center for Food and Adequate Living Rights, said that while the current 42-day Uganda lockdown may help slow the spread of the new coronavirus variants, it will do little to improve the country’s food insecurity status quo.

“The lockdown has exacerbated an already difficult situation,” he said. “The money being promised to vulnerable groups within the population may help in the short-term but it will not extricate many out of their food insecurity woes. Greater efforts will be needed throughout the region to address food insecurity. The governments of Kenya and Uganda should improve agriculture input supply chains to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on agricultural production.”

Image: Uganda’s military forces distribute food to Fred Mauso and his family during the 2020 COVID lockdown. Photo: Godfrey Kimono