7 October 2005

Namibia: HIV/Aids Takes Sustenance As Well As Lives

Windhoek — HIV/AIDS is robbing subsistence farmers of the ability to grow enough food, according to a new survey conducted in northern Namibia.

Out of 144 HIV-affected households in the Oshana, Oshikoto and Okavango Regions, 86 percent did not produce enough mahangu (pearl millet) and maize to meet their calorie requirements, said a report this week by the Namibia Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU).

In an average Namibian diet, just over 50 percent of calories are derived from grains, mainly mahangu, the staple food in the north-central regions. To meet those needs, the minimum yield should be about 1,075 kg per year for each household.

"We found that 113 of the 144 households surveyed produce less than 750 kg of mahangu or pearl millet annually," noted NEPRU researcher Ben Fuller, who compiled the report.

Among the reasons given for the poor output were lack of animals for draft power, adults too sick to work the fields, and "loss of labour and knowledge of farming practices" - including basic skills such as how to plough, plant and tend the land - which in turn led to smaller fields being planted, the report said.

An estimated 21 percent of Namibian adults are HIV positive.

To try and cope, some families had switched from mahangu to less labour intensive maize. The downside is that maize depletes the soil faster and is less drought-tolerant than millet.

There was evidence of women-headed households trying to consolidate and work cooperatively to maximise production.

The report noted that HIV-affected families not only produced less but had fewer livestock to fall back on. "Livestock as an asset are likely the first to be sold once a household's medical and funeral expenses increase," said Fuller.

Cultural practices also played a role, as a widow did not inherit her husband's livestock after he died, instead, these went back to his family.

Nearly half the families depended on a government pension of N$ 300 (US $50) a month as their main source of income, and 27 of the 144 households said they relied on drought relief from the government.

"The only conclusion is that the majority of households surveyed are hungry for parts of each year," the report stated.

A similar study carried out in 2003 in the Ohangwena Region, also in the north, found that almost 60 percent of HIV-affected households had experienced at least one day in the previous month when they did not have food.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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