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Hunger in regional `food basket’

By Flavia Nassaka

Increasing population, bad policies leave many Ugandans hungry

Usually, Irene Namboozo, her husband and two daughters eat the same meal every day – boiled cassava or sweet potatoes. She cooks it all at once and portions it into two. One portion is lunch, the other is supper. They push it down with porridge or, sometimes, tea. When it is not enough, Namboozo skips lunch and her portion becomes supper for the children. “I don’t want my children to starve,” she told the Independent.

Supper is usually at 9pm. But recentlysomething unusual happenedat their house – an uncompleted construction site in Lusanja, a village in Mpererwe, a Kampala city suburb, Namboozo cooked a meat stew.

By 7pm, as Namboozo warmed the left-over lunch meal on a small clay charcoal stove, one of the daughters, three-year old Anita Nansige was restless with anticipation. She was crying and tapping her continuously, urging her to serve the meal. Namboozo told me this was strange as Nansige usually refuses evening meals. Clearly, even little girls like beef stew or a change of diet. And because of that, Namboozo fears what will happen after tomorrow.

The fear of being unable to feed her children hangs over Namboozo every day. She washes clothes house-to-house for a small fee and her husband is a construction porter. The money they get is not enough to guarantee food daily. The beef they are eating was sent by her mother from Mbale, in eastern Uganda. About a week ago she sent roasted beef, matooke, groundnuts, and ‘malewa’ (smoked bamboo shoots that are a staple food for the Gishu).

“Tonight’s meal will be the last from that package,” says Namboozo.

Urban hunger

Namboozo and her family belong to 10 percent of Uganda’s population whom the technocrats describe as `food stressed’ households. They struggle daily to find adequate food. Statistically, they lie between the 89% of the population who are “food secure” and the 1% that are “food insecure”.  In Uganda, food insecurity or plain hunger is mainly a rural issue. But as more and more people move into towns, urban hunger is becoming a major concern.

There are no specific figures to show the extent of the problem. But Agnes Kirabo, the Executive Director of Food Rights Alliance (FRA), a coalition of civil society organizations that specialize in food security told the Independent that through their field work, they have established that most city dwellers cannot afford whole meals and rely on snacks. They eat cheap meals sold in roadside markets and in alley ways. They include roasted meats, porridge, and katogo (includes a foundation of either cassava or potatoes boiled together with either beans or beef and offal). Other innovative meals include a chapatti wrap called rolex, and a heavy beans and chapatti mix called kikomando. A walk through any of the Kampala’s low income areas reveals an array of makeshift roadside eateries. People throng them as it gets darker. Some roads become almost impassable as women and men queue to have their bowls and plates filled at a relatively cheap price.Some places are called `kikumi-kikumi’ meaning meals are sold per portion. That allows one to eat a tiny bit of something.

Rather than go completely hungry as happens in food stressed rural areas like Karamoja, urban food insecurity involves switching from eating food because of its nutritional value to grabbing something to fill the stomach. When the situation worsens, some resort to skipping meals.

The World State of Food Insecurity report 2015 launched in April projected that the hungry will increase to 10.3 million by 2016 from 10% today. It also shows that the number of the malnourished increased from 4.2 million in 1992 to 8.7 million in 2012.

Rural hunger

As Uganda joined the rest of the world to celebrate World Food Day on Oct. 16, it was being referred to as the region’s food basket for exporting more food to the neighbors than any other country in the East African region. Yet internally, the malnutrition figures are appalling. World Food Day was celebrated under the theme, ‘Social Protection and Agriculture; breaking the cycle of rural poverty’.

According to Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) levels, Uganda is rated at higher than 20%, exceeding the World Health Organization’s emergency threshold of 15%. It’s also estimated that 30% of rural households face food shortages each year yet its where most of the agriculture takes place. The problem could get worse because the population is increasing at a higher rate of 3.2% per year yet agriculture productivity remains low at 1.5 % per year, according to World Bank figures. In food stressed Karamoja, people have been reported to be dying of starvation. The region is home to an estimated 1.2 million people living in the districts of Abim, Amudat, Kaabong, Kotido, Moroto, Nakapiripirit and Napak. The region is prone to climate shocks such as long dry spells and floods. The Uganda Demographic and Health survey, 2011 shows that in Karamoja, wasting (low weight for height) is at 7.1% whereas stunting is at 45%.  At the national level, stunting stands at 33%.

But even with such worrying indicators, Agriculture Minister Tress Bucyanayandi is convinced that the country is food secure.

“We have food,” said Agriculture Minister Tress Bucyanayandi.

Kirabo agrees. But she says Uganda has a problem managing that food. She says poor management means as one portion of the population is dying of hunger, in another area farmers are stuck with a bumper harvest. She says instead of giving handouts, the government and donors need to tackle the root causes. In Karamoja, she says, that means the government ensuring availability of water since the area experiences erratic rains and long dry spells.

She says since most food crops grown in Uganda are perishable or semi perishable, there is need for improved post-harvest handling and value addition.

“Groundnuts are usually dried on bare ground exposing the seeds to pests. Beans are also threshed on bare ground and much of the harvest is lost to the surrounding during threshing,” she says.

Minister Bucyanayandi says the government has increased research in food by scientists to improve seeds and produce tubers and cereals that are resistant to disease and adverse weather.


Meanwhile Uganda continues to receive food aid. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have programmes to supply food to different communities in need. Recently, they were shipping food to Karamoja.

But the FAO Country Director, Alhaji Momodou Jallow, said that can be averted. He pointed out that farmers in Moroto had planted maize but they all dried in the gardens due to the drought. He said farmers need an early warning system to alert them in case of drought or floods.

Jallow said they are moving towards helping populations to grow their own crops and support themselves other than expecting aid all the time. “We look at ways of ensuring that people who have had challenges get their livelihoods restored. We aim to provide tools to produce good and nutritious food,” he said. WFP’s Lydia Wamala told the Independent in an email that they aim to support a million Ugandans this year with either food, food supplements (powders fortified with vitamins and minerals) or cash. She said 67% of the over 493,000 refugees in the country are being assisted by the programme.

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