Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Droughts and Famines in East Africa: From man-made problems to man-made solutions

This page in:

How can droughts and famines be avoided? This is the big question many conferences and summits have grappled with in recent weeks. Unfortunately, it will be very difficult to avoid droughts in future because climate change will put more pressure on scarce land and extreme climate events, both rains and floods, will likely occur much more frequently — and even more unpredictably.

The first famine I remember was brought on by the horrible drought in Ethiopia in 1984. At that time, I was a boy in high school and one of Germany’s most famous actors, Karlheinz Boehm, visited our school to mobilize funds to help the suffering Ethiopians. He had previously established the charity, People for People. One of the silver linings of today’s suffering is the outpouring of financial support by ordinary Kenyans who have been moved by the intense suffering of their fellow citizens.

So how can we avoid this same crisis two years down the road? Or as my Kenyan friends say: How do we keep from begging again for money?

While droughts cannot be avoided, famine can. There are many countries in the world which face extraordinary climatic conditions and others that hardly produce any food. Countries in the Arab peninsula face continuous droughts. Yet, the people in these countries seem to be doing fine, as does Singapore, which hardly produces any food and has never faced a food crisis. This is why this current crisis, which started as a result of harsh weather, is really a man-made crisis, especially here in Kenya, where food prices are unnaturally high. 

Kenyans pay much higher prices for basic food commodities when compared with prices in international markets because of limited trade within East Africa and Kenya’s agriculture policies. East Africa can easily feed itself. Tanzania and Uganda have surpluses of basic food commodities, and even within Kenya, there seems to be enough food in some regions. Kenya’s maize policy is particularly problematic. Significant parts of the country enjoy ideal conditions for growing maize. When developing countries have efficient agriculture sectors, local food prices are normally below international prices. In Kenya, maize prices are still more than 60 percent higher than world market prices.

Exceptionally high and volatile maize prices are the result of policies which make it unclear for the farmer to know what price he will receive, and thus, he keeps his grain off the market hoping to optimize his revenue.


  • Erratic import arrangements add uncertainty into the market. Too much discretion is left in the hands of policy makers and few business men.
  • In practice, this high price policy amounts to distributing resources from the poor to the rich.
  • The poor pay higher prices than they would under a market-based system while a small number of well connected large-scale farmers benefit from artificially high prices.


    While this crisis has been aggravated by man-made factors, the solutions will also be man-made. Three areas seem critical to reducing the risk of another such crisis:
    First, Kenya’s agriculture sector can be globally competitive. The country is a world leader in tea and horticulture. Both sectors are managed by private entrepreneurs and, together with tourism, account for the lion’s share of Kenya’s foreign exchange. In Kenya there has never been a shortage of tea and flowers. As you would expect, tea and flowers cost less in Kenya than in England and Holland, the destination for many of these exports. But Kenya’s poor, who eat Ugali every day, pay more than an American would pay for a bag of maize (see figure).

    Figure: Kenya’s pay abnormal and erratic prices for maize – fundamentally different to tea

    Second, opening up trade within East Africa would make a significant difference. With the current export bans, especially of maize from Tanzania and Uganda, which are still in surplus, the poor are hit hard throughout the region: in Kenya and Southern Sudan, the poor pay higher prices than they would need to. In Uganda and Tanzania, the farmers get lower prices than they would if they could freely export maize to Kenya and other deficit countries.

    Third, once a drought hits, the poor need to be protected effectively and efficiently. Learning from the painful experience in 1984 and subsequent droughts, Ethiopia developed a social safety program which is performing well. Kenya and other countries in the region can learn from Ethiopia’s success and build similar social protection programs that can be activated and scaled up quickly in times of need. Sometimes, a crisis is a turning point for a better future.

    * This blog is also being published as part of a weekly column with Marcelo Giugale in Kenya’s Saturday Nation.

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000