El Nino stalks agricultural lands this year. The good news: food security in Africa improving over the longer term


All over Africa, affordability of food is a bigger challenge to food security than its production or availability per se.

IT’S a strange season in Africa at the moment – while some areas are experiencing the worst droughts in decades, others are at high risk for flooding as above-average rainfall pounds.

In South Africa a devastating drought is claiming thousands of livestock in Africa’s most developed economy and prompting many to fear famine.

In the country’s North West province, in the district of Madikwe, 30 villagers join Josephine Motsoasele, a traditional healer leading prayers for rain, AFP reports. In a trance-like manner, farmers and villagers draped in colourful traditional clothes and sing and pray in local vernacular Setswana for the heavens to open up.

“God, give us rain because we have a big problem,” Motsoasele prays, fearing widespread starvation. “We can’t do anything.”

It is not yet noon, but the room temperature has already breached 40 degrees Celsius.

An estimated 40,000 cows have already died in KwaZulu-Natal because of a prolonged drought, the head of one of the country’s meat lobbies told Bloomberg. A further 800,000 may have to be killed in the province alone, said Gerhard Schutte, CEO of the country’s Red Meat Producers’ Organisation.

A strengthening El Nino pattern bringing dry conditions to sub-Saharan Africa has prompted the South African weather service to predict below-normal rainfall for the next four months. The government declared disaster areas in nine of 11 districts in KwaZulu-Natal in February.

Degraded vegetation
It’s the same case in Angola, where poorly-distributed rainfall since September has resulted in dry conditions and degraded vegetation throughout several provinces of northern and central Angola, says the latest brief by the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET).

Meanwhile in East Africa, several weeks of above-average rainfall has increased the risk of flooding in the White Nile, Jonglei, and Eastern Equatorial provinces of South Sudan.

In Somalia, the Jubba and Shabelle rivers are forecast to be near or above flood stage, with rainfall expected to be even heavier as tropical cyclones pass in the Guld of Aden.

And Kenya is expected to have both drought and floods – the west and central parts of the country, including the capital Nairobi, are at a high risk of flooding in the next few weeks, while the lowland areas in the north and east, extending into northern Tanzania, will have abnormally dry conditions.

The vast majority – 95% – of Africa’s agricultural produce is rain-fed, so the caprices of gods of weather have a huge impact on food security and livelihoods.

South Africa is its region’s breadbasket, but its situation is dire for the rest of the countries in southern Africa region that traditionally import from it.

Still, even as the continent currently battles with extreme weather conditions, the good news is that Africa has made real gains in food security as part of a longer trend, though affordability remains a bigger issue than availability in most African countries.

According to the latest Global Food Security Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), eight of the top 10 countries that have recorded the greatest improvement in food security are in Africa.

Egypt was the best improver in Africa in the past four years from 2011, when the region was rocked by protests partly linked to a food crisis. Benin, Senegal and DR Congo are also among the top five most improved.

Even with its prolonged drought, South Africa is still Africa’s most food secure according to the Index, followed by Botswana, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Uganda.

Bottom-placed on the Index are Burundi, Chad, Madagascar, Sierra Leone and DR Congo.

All over Africa, particularly as countries are urbanising, affordability of food is a bigger challenge in food security than its production or availability per se.

It’s the effect of many factors – expensive inputs, high import taxes, dilapidated rural road networks, and numerous roadblocks along highways, where traffic policemen eagerly shake trucks down before letting them through.

In many places, food prices reflect the logistics of getting it around much more than the cost of producing it.

South Africa’s position on the rankings is bolstered by an extensive social safety net programme – about 17 million South Africans, or a third of the population, regularly receive cash grants from the government – which go a long way in ensuring that people have money in their pocket to buy food.

South Africa also has high nutritional and food safety standards, as well as relatively low agricultural import tariffs.

Bananas to the rescue
Uganda’s strength in food security is in its regular harvests, which in technical-speak is described as low “volatility in agricultural production” in the report.

The country has fertile soil and a good climate for agriculture, but its trump card is its main staple crop, the banana.

Uganda is the world’s second largest producer of bananas after India. About 75% of all farmers grow bananas; depending on the region, domestic per capita consumption is estimated between 220-460kg, the largest in the world, mainly cooking bananas that were domesticated in the Great Lakes region.

Bananas, unlike grain crops, are in season all year round. With more than three-quarters of farmers growing the crop, getting today’s dinner often means little more than going into the back garden and cutting some down.

That means fewer worries about where the next meal will come from.

-Additional reporting by AFP and Bloomberg

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