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Ugandan Parents Send Their Children to Boarding Schools to Cope with the Food Crisis

by Halimah Abdallah Kisule

Ms Akullo Flavia, a retail shop owner in a Kampala suburb, stands puzzled in the local market not knowing what to buy for supper. Her initial plan to buy fresh fish is ruined – there is no fish for sale at the stalls. A local hajati, or fish dealer, is disappointed too. She explains that the moon’s recent brightness is helping the big fish to see the net and escape. The little fish that get trapped in the nets are all sold on the beaches at much higher prices to the waiting refrigerator trucks of fish processing companies who export to countries like China and several parts of Europe. Officials from the fisheries department say that even these companies are facing a deficit and only exporting a third of their capacity due to declining fish populations in the lakes and rivers.

Eating fish, once a staple in the Ugandan diet, has become a luxury. A kilogram of fish now costs Shs 5,000 ($3 USD), a price that has doubled since 2006 and is out of reach for most Ugandans who live on less than a dollar a day.

With increasing food prices, Ugandan parents are finding it cheaper to take their children to boarding schools than buy the food needed to feed them daily. Akullo has only her youngest daughter at home who goes to a day school; the rest are at a boarding school. During holidays, she sends her entire family to Gulu village in northern Uganda.
“They have to go during holidays. It reduces stress on me [having to] think about their daily food. At least in the village, some food items come from the garden. All I need to do is to buy enough sugar, soap, and paraffin for them to go with,” she explains to me.

Akullo is not alone – most families are now resorting to the same tactics.

“In the village, my children won’t think of tea for breakfast – after all, nobody is having tea for them to see. Here they will demand tea and something to eat,” says a nurse who operates a local drugstore.

Another mother is happy that she remains at home alone during the day when all her children have gone to school where their fees include lunch. That is her comfort. She can have just a cup of tea for lunch and prepare a reasonable dinner for the whole family. Rising food costs forced her to fire her house helper so that she could reduce the number of mouths to feed.

It is not easy anywhere in Uganda. A kilogram of beans sold at Shs 1300 (less than $1 USD) in January 2007, but now sells at Shs 1900 (slightly over $1 USD). Beef, goat meat and liver costs have risen from Shs 2,500 and 4,000 (between $1 and $2 USD) per kilogram to Shs 4500 and 6,000. Rice now costs 2,200 per kilogram, up from Shs 1,500. All fruit and vegetable prices have also followed suit.

Food prices have been steadily increasing since 2004, when the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) signed a peace pact with the Sudanese government, prompting trade across the border with Sudan. Uganda currently supplies all the needed food items to Southern Sudan (in addition to manufactured goods) since the desert-like climate leaves the region incapable of producing its own food.

Uganda is now feeding an area more than twice its size, while also supplying food items and non-food items to the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Kenya.

Naturally, this is good news to Ugandan farmers who will continue to be assured of the markets for their produce, but they face production challenges. Traditionally subsistence farmers, their crops produce enough for home consumption and only the surplus is sold off. Turning them into commercial farmers will take considerable effort by the government.

Mr Fred Lubowa and his wife have planted 400 suckers of an improved banana variety supplied under the Non-Sectoral Conditional Grants from the government’s Plan for Modernization of Agriculture (PMA). For the Lubowas, this is no small achievement. The couple was disappointed with the old variety that was prone to banana wilt disease and fetched low prices.

The new variety produces big bunches and generally fetches higher prices. Lubowa used to sell a bunch of the old variety for Shs 2000, but now sells the new bunches from his garden for more than twice that amount. With a boost in the market, the couple could not be happier.

“It has changed our lifestyle – we built a permanent house,” says Lubowa, who originally lived with his wife and five children in a mud and wattle house. He explains that in years past, his children would be sent home for not paying their school fees, but now, he says this is no longer an issue.

Another farmer is happy that the government’s National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) is providing training on increasing the production of local chickens through modern technologies. Local chicken fetches higher prices compared to exotic breeds. With markets opening up around the region, a chicken that previously sold at Shs 5,000 (about $3 USD) now goes for up to Shs 15,000 (about $8 USD).

Statistics indicates that Uganda’s crop production has been increasing, especially with the assistance of the PMA’s pillars like NAADS, but what is certain is that even with this growth, Uganda’s supply will not be able to satisfy the current market demands.

“The demand is very high for food in the region… we are trying to increase investment in the rural areas by buying off seeds to supply to farmers to increase production,” says NAADS Executive Director, Dr Silim Nahdy.

He explains that Uganda does not have a food reserve; the government’s strategy is to encourage farmers to grow staple foods that last long in the ground like cassava and bananas and to encourage Ugandans to maintain a granary system where cereals are stored in every home.

Besides the demand for food, fuel costs have greatly contributed to the increasing food prices. The 2008 World Trade Indicators Study released in June by the World Bank reveals that Kenya is partly to blame for the increasing prices because of delays at the border. “Goods bound for Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi spend on average five days more.”

The study states that truck drivers in oil-importing, landlocked countries are paying as much as 50% more for fuel than in other countries of the region, even before recent oil price jumps. “Delays increase costs and uncertainty of delivery and that is as big a problem as a lengthy transport process.”

As a result, people are smuggling fuel from Kenya into Uganda where a liter of petrol costs Shs 2,700 ($3 USD) while diesel costs Shs 2900, adding to the skyrocketing transport costs. In effect, all food items coming from the deep villages are now priced based on both demand and transport costs. Coupled with poor road networks and generally bad road conditions, things do not get any better. Sometimes perishable food items like sweet bananas go bad along the way.

The World Bank points to other factors in the food crisis like droughts and increased demand for biofuels. It warns, “There is no relief in sight.” The worst part is that of the 36 countries faced with food crisis, 21 of them are in Africa; Kenya, Ghana and Chad are predicted to undergo severe localized food insecurity.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The World Bank has assigned $800 million dollars in assistance to Africa for agricultural development under the New Deal for Global Food Policy to combat malnutrition, one of the Millennium Development Goals. The funding will be used to combat adverse weather conditions like droughts, access technology and facilitate land tilling.
About the Author
Halimah Abdallah Kisule is a journalist from Northern Uganda. She is married with two children.

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