25 January 2011

Africa: Drought and Food Price Increases Spark Fears of Violence

Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
Withered bean plants.

The ongoing drought in different parts of Africa may threaten food security, fuelling spread of riots over food price increases, economists have warned.

Residents of Algeria and Tunisia last month protested over food costs, sparking fears among governments which had experienced unrest in 2008's hunger crisis.

Agriculture ministers from Europe, Africa and Canada, last week, met in Berlin to seek ways of improving food security and tackle price hikes to tame social unrest.

Among those present was Kenya's Agriculture minister Sally Kosgei.

Surging food prices in 2008 led to protests and riots in more than 30 countries.

Kenya is already feeling the effects of the drought. For people and livestock in the arid and semi-arid areas, regions that have been hit hard, starvation to death is now imminent.

Prices of foodstuffs are rising due to reduced supply to markets, forcing households to allocate more of their income to buying food at the expense of other necessities.

Potato prices have doubled since January last year, wheat by 50 per cent while cabbages and tomatoes now cost about a fifth more, data from the Agriculture ministry shows.

Economists have sounded an alarm over the soaring food prices which now threaten the social stability of the country especially with the widening of the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Mr Joe Devries, a director at African Green Revolution Alliance (Agra) said food prices are certain to climb further in the prevailing conditions and it is those from the lowest income classes that will bear the greatest brunt.

"Prices may yet climb more, and this will undoubtedly hurt the poor," said Mr Devries. Life was 4.02 per cent costlier on average among individuals of Nairobi's lower income class in November last year as compared to the same month in 2009, data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics indicates.

The cost of living in this class, defined as households spending less than Sh23,670 per month, is soaring faster than the middle class which reported a 2.1 per cent rise.

Mr Simon Gaithu, an expert from the Ministry of Planning explains this trend, saying that food prices tend to affect the spending patterns of the lower income class more than the rich.

A volatility in food prices, like what has been witnessed in the past three months is set to reflect harder on the spending patterns of households earning less than Sh23,670 a month since about 36 per cent of it is taken up by food alone.

"Food is the single largest expense for the lower income class, any volatility in food prices weighs heavy on their expenditure patterns," said Mr Gaithu.

He said the first half of the year is likely to be a tough time for the poor because of the soaring food prices that could only climb owing to the anticipated shortfall in crop production.

The reduced harvest is due to a drier-than-average spell in the first quarter of the year--La Nina-- which the meteorological department says is set to ravage the production in the current crop season.

The food price increase is also attributed to the fact that Kenya is a net food importer of food stuff exposing local consumers to the effects of movements in the international markets.

In July last year, a tonne of wheat cost about Sh17,200 ($215) at the international markets, but has risen Sh25,600 ($317) as Russia and Canada- among the largest producers deal with effects of wild fires and flooding respectively.

The two countries contribute about 7.3 per cent and 4.1 per cent of the global wheat supply respectively.

A fungus attack in Kenya cut about a third of the expected 350,000 tonnes of wheat in the annual production against the demand of 900,000 tonnes.

The deficit is plugged through imports, exposing consumers to international price swings.

United Nations' food agency Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says food prices at their historical highs could at best remain at the current levels, but all indications point to higher prices while riots have erupted in some countries over the same.

The food index which tracks the monthly price changes on basic food commodities including sugar, cereals and dairy products hit 214.7 points in December as compared to 206 points in November last year.

They now tower over the 213 point-levels reported in June 2008 while erratic weather patterns could only mean more devastation owing to increased crop failure.

Dr Mary Mathenge, the director at Egerton University's Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, says the international price swings casts a dark shadow on the country's food situation because it relies on importation of key commodities including sugar, rice and wheat to feed its population.

"Since Kenya is a net importer of most basic food commodities, deficits in these commodities are filled in by imports from regional and international markets. This implies that our country is vulnerable to the supply and demand dynamics as well as consequences from these external markets."

Data from the institution indicates that Kenya produces just about 40 per cent of national wheat consumption, and only a fifth of the rice demanded.

Maize production, Kenya's staple food, barely meets demand and any shocks in production sends the country into panic mode.

The amount of grain held as reserve cannot sustain the country through this dry spell, agriculture experts say.

This has raised questions over the government's ability to deal with crises that relate to food security, reminiscent of the 2008/09 drought that left tens of people dead from starvation.

Dr Mathenge said social unrest over soaring food prices is not improbable in the near future and government needs to take urgent steps to contain the situation.

"The ability of a nation to access basic necessities is not only necessary for survival, but also for stability. The current food crisis needs to be given the attention it deserves."

Way forward

Experts say the only way to avert a hunger crisis, considering the erratic weather patterns is to shift from rain-fed agriculture.

"The government should establish a more efficient monitoring and forecasting system and be more responsive to agents and institutions with better market information and intelligence," said Dr Mathenge.

Mr Devries said rain-fed agriculture is by nature a risky business, but is bound to continue to be the primary means of food production for the country for the foreseeable future.

"It is imperative that the government continually invest in smallholder farmers' ability to produce greater harvests, through access to improved seed, fertiliser, and other proven soil and water conservation measures," he said.

Several parts of the country have already reported massive crop failure in the current season, while a significant portion of the maize harvest from the last season is reported to be contaminated by a killer fungus, aflatoxin.

The situation has been coupled with diminishing farmland as a high population growth rate continue to pile pressure on the limited arable land to give way to human settlement.

"Kenya's food insufficiency could become worse because the population is growing, agricultural land is shrinking, agricultural productivity is dwindling and climate change is making agricultural production riskier," said Dr Mathenge.

Food production will have to rise 70 per cent by 2050 as the world population expands to 9.1 billion people from about 6.8 billion people in 2010, according to Fao.

Other experts say agricultural financing, contract farming and crop insurance will help boost food security.

Crop insurance has gained acceptance in Kenya in the last three years, but the underwriting firms cite the lack of data on weather patterns as a hindering factor.

Kenya Meat Commission has moved to contract livestock farmers to deliver animals for slaughter on conditions agreed on the onset of the contract.

The firm's CEO Ali Mohammed says this is one way of promoting productivity since the farmers are assured of the market and a good return on their investment hence an incentive to produce.

Not likely

Riots over rocketing food prices have been reported in Tunisia and Egypt, with fears that the situation could be replicated in some Asian countries, but Agra feels that Kenya is not likely to follow in the same steps.

Mr Devries says the government is already taking steps to mitigate against the adverse effects of surging food prices, at least in the short-term.

"As long as the people see that the government is doing what it can to assist with the situation, there will not be the type of social unrest we have seen in Tunisia," he said. "Those situations erupt in places where the people are convinced that governments have stopped listening or caring what happens to its population."

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