Nairobi — When the East African Community (EAC) launched its online Regional Food Balance Sheet (RFBS) last month, it looked as though the five EAC member-states finally had developed a comprehensive, credible and timely picture of their trading bloc's food supply.
But while observers welcome the roll-out of the RFBS website, some question whether it provides a complete and accurate picture of combined food stocks in the EAC's five members: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda.
Food balance sheets are basic estimates of local crops and livestock production, food imports and exports, as well as consumption patterns. When the quality of raw data is solid, such a tool is the best way to predict surplus or deficiency within a country or region, experts say.
Geoffrey R. Njeru, a research fellow and lecturer at the University of Nairobi's Institute for Development Studies, is among those raising concerns about whether the EAC is ready for a regional food balance sheet.
One of the problems with it is that there is a shortage of qualified agricultural researchers across the region that can pull together reliable data on food stocks, he said.
"There is also inadequate project funding ($1.5 million), reluctance by member countries to share sensitive information on their national food stockpiles, manipulation of data for economic purposes," Njeru told Sabahi. "All these are among teething problems that the Eastern Africa Grain Council, the agency under EAC which is in charge of RFBS, should address if this project is to start bearing fruit."
"The Eastern Africa Grain Council will also need to employ its own agricultural research officers across the region who should work closely with each government national food data centre and statistics centre," Njeru said.
Agriculture represents a huge portion of the regional economy.
"It is estimated that between 70% to 80% of the labour force of the EAC is involved in the food sector in one way or another," according to the EAC Food Security Action Plan, a four-year plan published in February 2011. "Between 24% and 48% of the GDP of the member countries is attributed to the agriculture sector."
According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the RFBS is an important tool in the East African Community's efforts to create a Common Market, which would allow for the free movement of goods, people and services.
And that would include "the free movement of staple food commodities within the region", USAID said in a June 2012 report on the RFBS.
"The EAC has identified the RFBS as a critical tool for enhancing intra-regional trade as it provides policy makers with the data they need to make informed decisions on policies that affect regional food security," the report said. "The RFBS provides a periodic snapshot of the available stocks for an agreed upon set of critical staple commodities."
Njeru served as lead researcher for the Regional Food Balance Sheet Project Report, which the Eastern Africa Grain Council commissioned and published in May 2010. He said it would have been better if the EAC had delayed the balance sheet's launch a little longer until the member states were prepared.
"[T]he process can still be a success as long as regional governments increase the funding, which should be channelled to address the shortage of researchers and establishment of fully-fledged food data bank centres," he said.
For the balance sheet to be effective, governments should create programmes to educate farmers and other stakeholders who would benefit from the data, he said. "Food balance sheet is still a term understood [only] by a restricted circle of stakeholders."
The grain council originally was due to roll the RFBS out late last year, according to USAID. In April, the council launched Food Balance Standing Committees throughout the region comprised of actors from the public and private sectors as well as relief agencies. These committees are tasked with collecting and aggregating national data from each EAC country.
To guarantee the accuracy of the balance sheet's data, the Eastern Africa Grain Council "will need to fast-track the Food Information Systems and Regulatory Measures, which was supposed to have been set up by last year to check accuracy of information keyed into the food data bank system", said Daniel Osiemo, national co-ordinator of the Agricultural Sector Programme at Kenya's Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries.
The balance sheet is designed to help curb governmental protectionism -- such as through arbitrary bans and trade restrictions on cereals -- by making information on regional food output available to officials of all EAC governments, said Richard O. Sindiga, economic affairs director at the Kenyan Ministry of East African Community.
However, developing reliable scientific processes and methods for data collection is not an easy task, he said.
"I think the government should encourage farmers to form a grain producers association which can be useful in collection and dissemination of agricultural data," he said.
Sindiga asked for stakeholders to be patient, saying that the balance sheet was a work in progress with continuing gaps that needed to be addressed.
"It is obvious the data we have at the RFBS portal is far from being declared scientific in the statistical sense, but it provides an approximate picture of the overall food situation in the region, and therefore it is useful for economic purposes," Sindiga said.