The year 2017 was momentous for Somalia, with the inauguration of a new president and parliament following a historic electoral process, and also the launch of a National Development Plan (2017–19). However, the peaceful transition of power was soon followed by the declaration of a “natural disaster” in the form of a prolonged drought that sparked fears of famine. By the end of 2017, 6.2 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance and over 1 million people internally displaced.
One year ago, we did not know how many Somalis were poor and how programs and policies could help to reduce poverty or at least build resilience against falling deeper into poverty. We knew that Somalis receive an estimated $1.4 billion (24 percent of GDP) in remittances every year. But we did not know whether the poor received the remittances and whether they helped mitigate the impact of poverty. To overcome this dearth of information, we implemented the Somali High Frequency Survey and established a near real-time market price monitoring system.
In East Africa and West Africa, about 300 million people living in dryland areas rely on natural, resource-based activities for their livelihood. By 2030, this number could increase to 540 million. At the same time, climate change could result in an expansion of Africa’s drylands by as much as 20%.
Over half of the 12 million people living in Somalia are acutely food insecure. This adds to the development challenge for Somalia after more than two decades of civil war and political instability. In particular, the urgent need for humanitarian assistance bears the risk of fostering aid dependency. To embark on a sustainable pathway toward development instead, intervention should rely on markets (whenever possible), and react dynamically to changes in market equilibria.
Therefore, we started to monitor 14 Somali markets and publish the data in near real-time using something similar to what we use for South Sudan, the innovative survey and analysis methodologies.
I first visited Madagascar in 1985 as a student doing research with FOFIFA, Madagascar’s national center for agricultural research. I was fortunate to be able to come back in the early 1990s as a task team leader for a project funded by the World Bank, at a time when the Bank was restructuring its projects to respond to drought in southern Madagascar. Over two decades later, here I am again in the South of this beautiful country, which is suffering again from drought and continues to be counted among the poorest countries in the world.
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.
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.
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.
I am standing in a camp near Dollo Ado, in southern Ethiopia near the border with Somalia. The camp is an open site on hard rocky land: the only vegetation is grey, thorny scrub. An endless wind is swirling around me, picking up the light soil under foot and coating everyone and everything with a thin film of orange. Dust devils spin lazily in the relentless hot sun, making it hard to see the plastic sheeting that is the only covering for the ‘huts’ in which 10,000 people are living. Welcome to Haloweyn, the newest refugee camp for the drought-triggered exodus from Somalia. Today is Eid-ul-Fitr, but nobody is celebrating here.
We have stopped to talk to people and understand the challenges they face, but it is hard work. Many of them have scarves wrapped around their faces to protect themselves from the wind, very few of us speak any Somali, and when we do communicate they look uncertain and dazed, as well they may. This camp is only three weeks old—less than a month ago all these people were wandering through this extraordinarily arid landscape, trying to pick their way past the lines of conflict, almost all malnourished and often sick too. That those we meet seemed to have recovered their physical health already is fairly miraculous. Their reluctance to relive their experiences seems wholly understandable.