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food security

After the holidays, a time to reflect on the state of food in Africa

Ian Gillson's picture

As we gather in kitchens and dining rooms during this season of eating and charity, let us pause for a moment to review the state of food trade in Africa: how does cross-border commerce in key crops fare on a continent with pockets of harsh weather and unpredictable politics? How is the traffic in grains and tubers?

It’s clear that prices are high, following the February 2011 peak worldwide. The price of maize in Nairobi has tripled this year alone, while the price of a 50 kg bag of rice in Dakar has risen from $36 to $43.50. These spikes can be blamed partly on increased demand for food crops – including for biofuel production in Europe and the United States. They are also due to supply-side factors, such as higher energy prices which impact transportation and fertilizer costs, and weak harvests in large exporting countries.

But on a global scale there is no food shortage. In 2010, the world produced 2.2 billion tons of cereals, up from 820 million tons 50 years ago (a 268 percent increase). Over the same period, the world’s population has grown from three billion to seven billion people: an increase of 233 percent. In Africa, food staple production is abundant in some areas even though the continent is a net importer of food. Mali grows enough excess sorghum to supply its neighbors, and Uganda, the bread basket of East Africa, makes regular shipments of maize to Kenya, Southern Sudan and Rwanda. The problem is that the surplus food does not always get to those in need. Often shipments of perishable goods are stopped at the border and excessive inspections frequently cause delays.

Kenya’s undisputed wheat basket

The sight of farmers around Narok drying wheat on the ground with agents haggling over price and quality is a reminder of how Kenya’s farmers take advantage of the plentiful sunshine to cut post-harvest costs. Makeshift canvas driers line both sides of the Maai Mahiu-Narok-Bomet highway, a section of the Northern Corridor transport system that creates a shorter link to western Kenya.

Narok is Kenya’s undisputed wheat basket, producing half of the national wheat output in any given year. Its lush wheat and maize (corn) farms, as well as livestock ranches dotted with thousands of cattle, sheep and goats, tell you why the over 2,000 farmers in this fertile region of the Rift Valley are so powerful. Moreover, it is gateway to the world famous Masai Mara game reserve, where wildlife riches and revenue, especially bountiful during this period of the famous wildebeest migration, are shared by the Narok and Trans-Mara county councils.

Refuge in Nairobi

Asa Torkelsson's picture

Zeinab Lebon, 65, with her family

In the Nairobi slum of Kawangware, people like Said, 33, are struggling to help relatives fleeing the drought in Somalia. The full-time gardener and father of four is providing refuge to his mother, Zeinab Lebon, 65, and six other relatives. All share his family’s two bedrooms of 144 square feet each, and he now supports 12 people on one salary.

“We do not have water or toilet; I have to pay every day 1 Kenya schilling for every person for the toilet, 20 schillings for 20 liters of water,”  says Said. Yet, he now also plans to bring his mother-in-law, who is 70, from Daadab in northeastern Kenya. She lost her husband to a stray bullet as they took off for Daadab on foot from Mandera, on the Somali border.