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WFP seeks to lift Uganda out of famine

By Roberts Katende

In light of the endemic famine in Uganda and the need for sustainable solutions to the problem, the Deputy Director of World Food Programme in charge of Hunger, Sisulu Sheila visited Uganda last week. The Independent’s Roberts Katende talked to her about the new strategies. Below are excerpts.

Why are you visiting Uganda?

I am here to look at one of our aid country offices in the World Food Programme (WFP) network of country offices that is pioneering our new strategic plan, first by translating it into a strategic plan for Uganda specifically.

The key thing about the new strategic plan is that it focuses more broadly on food assistance, which allows us to have varied interventions to ensure food security and to end hunger, in addition to our usual kind of interventions, which is primarily related to food transfer. Now we are looking at ways of ensuring food security even when we are not transferring food, and the Uganda office is pioneering that concept.

How are you going to do that?

When you make such strategic changes in some places like Karamoja, where I was, the two work side by side. We transfer where necessary, and the households are growing crops that are appropriate for that arid area, such as cassava.

Is the pilot project in Karamoja only?

No, it is a pilot project that is being piloted in Karamoja that we hope will be replicated once we are sure what needs to be done to make it work.

There have been problems with such interventions in northern Uganda, where seeds have been turned into food. In this case, the people may not eat the stems but misuse them anyway. How have you sensitised participants to ensure this doesn’t happen?

Possibly people were not where they are now. For example, when I travelled to Moroto, people want to make this change. People who survived the famine before ‘” by eating the seeds that WFP provided ‘” have grown up, gone to school, are in charge now. The fundamental difference is that we are not doing it alone. We are not coming and saying, ‘yes, do this’. The people of Moroto were saying, ‘We want this. How can we do it?’ and we are working together with them.

That means people have embraced the project.

Absolutely. There is that spirit around food production, around working and participating in the market and being ready to grow enough and more in the right way, to sell, to eat and to make a serious livelihood.

How are you cooperating with the government? It has similar programmes like NAADS and Prosperity-for-All, and some of the things that you have mentioned are components in its programme.

We are in close cooperation with the government’s vision of food security in Uganda. We are trying to ensure that if we are working in Karamoja and, for example, the demand is a big dam or a big irrigation scheme, we can listen. But we can only possibly make sure and hope that government believes and is acting through their own plan. We are not necessarily setting up parallel systems to the government’s. For example, we have met with the Ministry of Agriculture and we are in line with the national development programme within agriculture, within food security.

Where is the project moving next?

There are three places where the piloting is done: Kapchorwa, Karamoja and Jinja. In Karamoja we are in Phase I, where we are engaging the local community in this effort of cassava multiplication, where cassava becomes the dependable food source. In Kapchorwa, their challenge is that they are producing a lot, but surpluses are taken by the raiders or surpluses are wasted in the field and they lose money. We are working with the local farmers’ association on the need to enter the food market by having the necessary storage and drying facilities. We will be working with the farmers’ association to construct a warehouse that will have the necessary machinery in regard to international standards, to ensure the crops that farmers bring to this facility most of it is of high quality that can go into a wider market.

Will collection centres be like buffers?

No, we have a policy to buy locally, and Uganda is one of the countries from which we buy. As a buyer, we have certain standards that need to be met. So, in this case, we are holding hands with the producers to help them meet our standards, which are also standards of COMESA and which are also international standards. This will be the place where they will bring their crops to be assessed to meet the standards ‘” bagged, weighed and we buy. But our intention in the not so distant future is not to be the only customer.

How much have you earmarked for this project?

We have invested in US$53 million worth of local commodities. In terms of infrastructure, on market collection centres, like warehouses, we plan to spend US$5 million in 2009 and US$9 million in 2010.

How long will this project last?

It will depend on each project. Like the cassava multiplication part, that will have its own life span. But it is a five-year project. And we will see where we are in the five years to replicate it.

It seems you have set your energy to ensure food sustainability, yet people in northern Uganda do not have what to eat.

Like I said we are running a dual system. We are still doing food distribution but at the same time we are introducing an element of sustainability of food security so that people can do it themselves. But, it is also important that we lessen the number of people who depend on food handouts.

You have been here for the last five days. What are some of the biggest challenges you have identified towards the implementation of this programme?

We are charting a new ground. The [current] infrastructure is geared towards a particular model of dealing with food transfer. So if you are not transferring food, how do we support you administratively? What do we change in our management structures? The issue of accountability remains. We are using voluntarily given public money that we have to account for. Now we are going to an area where we are buying cassava stems. Are they healthy? Are they the right ones? Of course WFP has to come in, we have to look for land, we cannot buy it. And so how do you account for cassava stems? The system has to shift. The challenge that our office is facing is that we do not have the immediate systems that are tried and tested to support them. We are learning on the job.

What have been the solutions that you have employed to fix some of these problems?

For example, the depositors in Jinja were saying, ‘you buy our crops’, but we are waiting forever for our money. So we need to go back to our finance and administration people and tell them we need to speed up this process.

Final thoughts?

I am impressed with what our office is doing in our pilot project and how they are confronting the challenges. My office is for hunger solutions; our office here is in partnership with government to find those solutions that are sustainable. Secondly, the amazing enthusiasm and sense of determination from people who are planting the cassava, right up to the level of policy at the highest level in government, are the same. I think Ugandans are at the point where they feel it is our time to get over hunger and that impressed me a lot.

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