Tuesday, April 21, 2015

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Uganda: Hidden Hunger in the Capital

Is enough attention being paid to rising food prices and increased malnutrition in Uganda’s capital?
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Food for thought? Owino Market, Kampala. Photo by Rob Gipman.

Kampala, Uganda:

“Rice is double what it was six months ago - A person eats to live. If you don’t eat, you don’t live. It doesn’t matter what; it’s just if it is there.”

Jane, a teacher in a primary school in Kampala, earns just $56 a month. And this is being stretched further by recent increase in food prices. Jane and her five children have not eaten meat, eggs, dairy or fish in three months. This is not an isolated case; her situation is typical of the type of plight faced by many urban Ugandans since the steep price hikes of 2008.

Rising food prices means rising malnutrition

Since then, commodity prices in staples have consistently risen in Uganda. On average, food prices have gone up by 45% with inflation at 18% in the last year. The markets of Busaga, Nattette and Owino are stocked with sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cabbages, and fruit but people are forced to forgo food they were able to buy a few months ago. Urban hunger is on the rise.

The World Bank estimates that globally wheat prices are up by over 50% since mid-June; the price for corn has risen more than 45% in the same period; and soybeans are up by almost 60% since the end of last year. These dramatic price swings have been caused by economic uncertainty, increased risk of weather shocks and low cereal reserves. The rising cost of fuel prices have also impacted upon the viability of contemporary agricultural practices.

Unsurprisingly, these food price hikes have caused much concern in Uganda. The central bank insists that “global financial turmoil and the drought in east Africa have all played their part”. However, the impact in Uganda has been worse than in other countries in the region, which indicate that the government has mismanaged its fiscal policies.

Hunger is hidden

The population density of Kampala and neighbouring districts, such as Wakiso, is increasing as more people seek to make their livelihoods outside of rural agriculture. But Kampala has an unequal distribution of wealth. Income disparities have not been adequately accounted for in estimations by Famine and Early Warning Systems (FEWSNET) that Kampala is "food secure". The net result is that political attention to the problem is woefully lacking.

A spokesperson from Kampala City Council said: “I really doubt there is food security in Kampala - we know people are eating one meal a day”. But district officials do not have hard anthropometric data, and few records or studies document feeding practices. Whilst this data is available in rural districts, it seems that local governments and aid agencies are not sure of the extent of the problem in the city.

The rise in urban hunger is recognised by Save the Children and the World Food Programme (WFP). Both multilateral organisations acknowledge that only a small percentage of resources are spent in Kampala. A spokesperson for the WFP highlighted the absence of agriculture and nutrition programmes for urban women. An increased focus on disaster risk reduction in a development paradigm targeting rural poverty means that urban hunger is not being properly addressed by aid agencies.

Unsupported urban livelihood strategies

When food prices rise sharply families adopt a number of strategies. Reduction in calories and dietary diversity are most common, as well as pulling children out of school, relying on extended family, growing kitchen gardens, working longer hours and searching for alternative means of income. In urban as oppose to rural areas coping strategies particularly differ with respect to home production – which is an important adaptive strategy in the context of food price volatility. People tend to sell produce such as fruit, rather than consume them. This the lack of storage makes planning meals almost impossible.

Legislation banning urban agriculture prior to 2005 in Kampala has contributed to food insecurity. A later study by Daniel Maxwell on its potential health benefits exerted pressure on the government to acknowledge urban agriculture as a viable way of enhancing food security. But this previous illegality of urban agriculture has acted as a barrier and many people are not aware of statutory changes. Changes in consumption patterns also show more men are spending their income on fast food in the city, at the expense of ensuring household food security. Policies directed at women’s income control and home production in urban areas are therefore critical.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development predict that "food price volatility featuring high prices is likely to continue and possibly increase". Mario Samaja, the FAO representative to Uganda, says the “theme was chosen to shed some light on the trend and what can be done to mitigate its impact on the most vulnerable”.

The impact of food price rises on the urban poor needs to be addressed in political agendas. Whilst politicians may be clear on the causes of this hunger, local people’s responses to the crisis need more attention. 

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