KIRUKU: The people are starving? Let them eat ‘politics’
The much-awaited March-May rains are here with us and – as expected – the region is ill prepared, thanks to misplaced priorities, conflict and underinvestment in agriculture.
In Kenya, the rains began pounding at a time when the country was undertaking hotly-contested political party primaries used to nominate contestants for various elective posts. And as usual, everyone’s attention was on the race for party tickets and not what the country should do during the ongoing rains.
In South Sudan, no planting can occur; the country has literally come to a standstill. The civil war there has driven Africa’s youngest country into a permanent state of strife and conflict, forcing an estimated three million people to flee to neighbouring countries.
All this is happening at a time the region faces one of the worst food crises in recent times, with prices skyrocketing due to severe drought affecting most of East Africa. The price of maize flour has hit an all-time high, retailing at an average of $1.50 for a 2-kilogramme pack in Kenya. This has made the cost of basic commodities a campaign tool for presidential aspirants.
In South Sudan, more than 3.5 million people will not have any reliable source of food by July, according to the United Nations. Famine has already been declared in some parts of the country, where at least 100,000 people are affected.
The food crisis in the region is compounded by the recent invasion of army worms in parts of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. The worms, which are destroying maize plants everywhere, now require significant resources to fight, even as governments seek to financially support the affected farmers.
In addition, human-induced climate change, water scarcity and pollution, and ocean acidification are all working in tandem to threaten the world’s ability to feed the people.
The current levels of food insecurity in the region reflect underinvestment in agriculture, even as governments from the East African Community partner states boast of the continued growth of the sector.
With approximately 80 per cent of the region’s population relying on agriculture for their livelihoods, investing in the sector is not just a priority but an urgent need if we are to pull people back from the brink.
To avert a likely humanitarian catastrophe in the coming months, the region must tap into the current rains by investing in food production. Anything short of this will lead to a vicious circle of hunger and calls for humanitarian assistance.
It is unfortunate that famine strikes hardest in rural areas, where poverty levels are extremely high. Partner states would do well to ensure that both small- and large-scale farmers have ready access to cheap and affordable farm inputs during the ongoing long rains. Subsidising the cost of farm inputs and offering credit facilities to enable their purchase is key to boosting agriculture in rural areas. Unfortunately, these efforts have been hampered by the entry of cartels in the sector, who hijack farm inputs subsidised by the government and resell them to farmers.
It is crucial for the region to revamp agricultural extension departments, which are almost non-existent in most partner states, if food insecurity is to be effectively tackled. These will then play a critical role in educating farmers on crop varieties, land use, soil nutrient management, biodiversity conservation, water use, harvesting methods, and harvesting and storage.
To ensure the region enjoys rural prosperity and productive agriculture, we must also work to achieve universal access to basic infrastructure in rural areas, including transport and telecommunications facilities. An improved transport network, water infrastructure, storage facilities and communication system can help to minimise food losses and improve rural-urban linkages. These are all vital when it comes to reducing poverty and promoting economic development.
It pays to acknowledge, indeed, that agriculture remains the backbone of economic development in the region. To fight hunger and extreme poverty, the region must invest in agriculture even more than it is doing in controversial areas – especially the security sector.
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