East Africa: Rising prices mean less food on the table (The Monitor, Christian Science Monitor, Business Daily Africa)

| May 30, 2011

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Rosemary Nyambura sells bundles of used plastic bags in the bustling Wakulima wholesale market in Nairobi, Kenya. She works hard but is getting frustrated. She says, “Corn flour is almost double what it was only a few short months ago. I have the same money in my pocket, but food costs twice as much, so my family can eat half what it used to.”

Food prices in East Africa have increased steadily this year. Prices of staple foods in Kenya have doubled since early 2011. In mid-May, Tanzania banned food exports in a bid to slow rising food prices. In April, Ugandans began “walk-to-work” actions to protest rising food and fuel prices. One might assume that farmers are benefitting from high food prices. But Ugandan farmers say otherwise.

Mike Mulindwa is a farmer in Namirembe Kyampisi sub-county in Mukono district, Uganda. He believes that middlemen are the ones cashing in on rising prices. He says, “They tell us that fuel for their cars is expensive, so when they get here they buy our products cheaply. Yet when they reach Kampala, they overcharge the seller, who in the end overcharges the final consumer.”

According to Mr. Mulindwa, farming is not profitable these days unless you operate a big farm. Prices of pesticides and fertilizers have increased in recent months. Mr. Mulindwa says that they are now too expensive for ordinary farmers like him to make a profit.

Mr. Mulindwa has not bought himself a shirt or pair of shoes in a long time. He laments, “And if things remain the way they are, we might even have to sell our possessions.” He notes that people no longer buy sugar. He says, “I have stopped buying sugar because if I took sugar, I wouldn’t be able to buy books for my children.”

He calls on the government to assist. He says, “They should reduce taxes on the basic things we use in farming like pesticides and fertilizers.”

Rehema Namayiga is another farmer from Mukono district. She is earning more from her products this year than last year. But, she says, “Prices of commodities like soap, sugar, flour and others are too high. Last year … I was able to save some money for myself. But this year I even failed to raise school fees for my children.”

Her neighbour, Magdalena Sebuwanga, sits in her kitchen peeling tiny, poor quality yams and preparing home-grown ntula (bitter berries) for supper. She asks, “Can’t you see what we are eating?” Mrs. Sebuwanga says there was a lot of sun this year and their crops dried up. “Coffee fell off the trees. And that is why we don’t have food. We buy flour from the shops and the people who have food to sell like matooke (plantain), sell it expensively.”

Mrs. Sebuwanga says she consumes almost all the food she grows. Many of the farmers here live and work on small plots. Few are able to grow enough to take to the market. And because they need quick money, most of them end up selling to middlemen. She says, “When the traders come here, they pressure us. They buy things cheaply from us and when they get to the town centres they sell them expensively.” Farmers prefer to take their own products to markets because it’s the only way to make a decent profit.

Experts say the rise in food prices in East Africa is caused by rising oil and food prices in international markets. Small-scale farmers rarely benefit from this situation. In East Africa, Kenya is worst affected because the country’s staple crops of maize, wheat and rice are all traded on international markets, and Kenya imports maize. Price increases are passed on to the consumer. Changes in international prices affect Uganda less, as Uganda’s staple food is plantain, which is not traded internationally.

There is little optimism on the streets. As one maize dealer in Nairobi says, “We seem to share most of the challenges in East Africa as a region, and the outlook could be grim for all of us.”