Monday, 29 August 2011

Book Review: Why 2011 Could Be The Year To Plant A Family Garden

Title: Food Shock: Why 2011 Could Be The Most Important Year Ever To Plant A Family Garden
Authors: Bill Heid and Brain Brawdy
Pages: 33
Publisher: Off The Grid News
Reviewer: Gumisiriza Mwesigye
Available at

This year more than any another, the prices for food have been volatile and have kept rising beyond the point at which a number of experts had predicted that they would cool off. This unprecedented trend has raised fears for the future in rich, middle-income and poor countries, and in many of them, sparking off riots and protests against the high costs of living.

Against this backdrop, Bill Heid, an entrepreneur in what is known as the preparedness and survival industry, and Brian Brawdy, an ex-police investigator and military weapons specialist who now educates people on self-reliance and survival, teamed to write this publication. Using an unassuming and concise style, they trace the causes of the current food crisis, present a frank diagnosis of the situation and offer back-to-basics kind of solutions.

The authors present three major reasons why prices have kept going up. Reference is made to the protests in Tunisia and Egypt that were initially fuelled by discontent over prices of staple foodstuffs. These are some of the varied cases, ranging from Russia, China, Mexico to UK and US, that are used to illustrate their point that though prices will continue their upward trend, the attempts by governments to curb them will remain inadequate. This is backed by figures from several organisations such as Oxfam, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Bank and US Department of Agriculture.

In the second reason advanced, Heid and Brawdy observe that the bad weather such as unprecedented droughts and floods in Australia, US, Russia, India and China will continue to play a significant role in the current situation. “We are just one drought or one heavy rain away from a major worldwide catastrophe…” Also, it noted that these phenomena “have demonstrated just how dependent our food supply is on the weather. For now, the effects have just been an increase in price.” The situation of food shortages is compounded by the growing use of food crops such as soya beans and maize in the manufacture of biodiesel—as an alternative to petroleum.

The third reason revolves around the move to increase agricultural productivity through the use of biotechnology and genetic engineering. “Breeding crops to increase the size and yield has had an unintended effect; it also decreases the nutrient value of the produce.” The use of chemicals to counter the menace of pests, diseases and weeds also features prominently here.

Probably, this is one of the few publications on this theme that offers practical, do-it-yourslef solutions to the ordinary people who are most affected by soaring food prices. Heid and Brawdy say the way to cope will be having food security in their hands: Through utilising the land available to them such as backyard gardens to grow their own food.

Though their advice is primarily targetted at an American public, their take on the situation, the causes and probable solutions are also relevant to developing countries whose populations tend to wait on government intervention in a crisis and where biotechnology is being fronted as a way to realise higher crop yields. In the same breath, it serves as a warning to other countries that are contemplating on following that path, of the potential pitfalls and what is touted as "the solution" may not be that. Instead, it is up to the people to take initiative and the onus is on them to play a part in dealing with the current crises.

Get the publication at Off The Grid News website or download here

Friday, 12 August 2011

Sweet and Bitter: The Story of Uganda’s Sugar

by Mwesigye Gumisiriza

When many Ugandans took to the streets of Kampala in April 2007 to protest the government’s intention to degazette 7,100 hectares (17,540 acres) of Mabira rainforest for expanding sugar production, it may have taken many by surprise. More so, when the protest assumed racial tones, became violent and subsequently targetted the Asian community.

However, if one is to closely look between the lines of what could be called the Mabira saga, it is possible to see the wide-ranging influence of the sugar industry in the economic and social life of Uganda. According to a study carried out by D. P. S Ahluwalia, Plantations and Politics of Sugar in Uganda, the origins of the industry can be traced to the 1920s when the colonial administration was promoting peasant production of cash crops for export as raw materials for the factories in Britain. For sugarcane growing, it was developed along the lines of plantations by Asians, thus explaining their link to, expertise and capital in the business up to date.

There are three dominant players; of which two are owned by Asians or Ugandans of Asian origin. Kakira belongs to the Madhvani Group, Sugar Company of Uganda Limited (SCOUL) in Lugazi is owned by the Mehta Group. The third sugar estate, operated by Kinyara Sugar Works Limited, was established much later in 1964, through an agreement between the governments of Uganda and India. In addition to this historical background, these enterprises have maintained their presence in the market owing to government support via rehabilitation after years of little or non-production in the 1970s and 1980s.

Because of this, likely competitors have been kept at bay, this is reinforced by their lobbying the Ministry of Trade and Industry to table a bill in parliament. The outcome of which will set guidelines along which new players will operate while taking care of the concerns of the “big three”. The concerns include new firms and jaggeries buying from outgrowers who are already contractually bound to them. The jaggeries are small-scale businesses that crush cane for the making of wagari.

Thus, the crux of the current competition is expansion at less cost rather than directly targetting the consumers. There is a shortfall in production—there is a need to expand from the current 190,000 tonnes per year to 220,000 tonnes to meet demand. The gap is met by imported sugar, which is cheaper. Yet another headache is the cost of production, which is highest in East Africa: US$ 480 per tonne compared to US$ 390 in Kenya and Tanzania. Even then, there is the challenge of consumption—while for Uganda, it is 9 kilogrammes per person, in Kenya and Tanzania, it ranges between 14-15 kilogrammes.

There are thousands of farmers—known as outgrowers—contracted to supply the factories. Statistics from Uganda National Sugarcane Growers Association (UNASGO) put the number at 20,000 and indirectly benefitting 50,000. But Ethical Sugar, a civil society organisation, puts the number at 7,000, who in turn employ 20,000 people, and 15,000 directly employed by the factories. Either way, production of the white crystals, which are an essential part of our diets, is the livelihood of a significant part of the population.

This extends to the business opportunities to local entrepreneurs such as those who transport cane, the wholesalers and retailers who sell the products. Even the by-product of the process known as bargasse is used to generate power in an environment-friendly way and at a cheaper cost than burning of diesel. Besides this, there are industries that use sugar as input, ingredient or preservative—breweries in making beer, soft drinks and packed fruit makers and confectioneries in producing sweets, bread, biscuits. However, the type used is industrial sugar, most of which is imported. On estates such as Kakira, there are social services such as a hospital, nursery, primary and secondary schools. With expansion in the near future, the benefits will definitely spread, and with it the impact of the sector.

Despite revenue of billions of shillings and annual taxes amounting to over Shs. 62 billion, the sugar industry is a source of disaffection and dissatisfaction. This probably from the feeling that the industry gains more from the people than the latter should be getting from it. For instance, neither do the producers have say in setting price nor do the outgrowers determine how much they get per tonne. There are different rates for the three factories; Lugazi pays its outgrowers Shs. 24,000 per tonne, the rate for Kakira is Shs. 38,000 while Kinyara sets it at Shs. 32,600. Even the land owners that lease their land for planting of sugarcane claim the fees they are paid are not commiserate with the market. Even the consumers feel they are paying a lot; ranging from Shs. 1,700 to Shs. 2,000 per kilogramme depending on where they buy it.

So, is it still surprising that during the Mabira saga, the protest tried to introduce boycott of Lugazi sugar as one of the weapons? In spite of this backdrop, we can hardly do without that sugar in our cup of tea.

This was published in The Manager, a weekly newspaper, Kampala, Uganda, in the week of 16th March 2009

Note: I posted this here because many of the facts are pertinent in light of the current crisis in sugar supply going on in Uganda. However, because of a number of factors, the figures quoted here have changed over time.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Breaking the vicious cycle of food crisis

by Masimba Tafirenyika/UN Africa Renewal magazine

Once every few years, the world goes through a familiar ritual: various factors converge to trigger unusual increases in global food prices. In response, countries rush through emergency measures to ward off widespread shortages. Prices stabilize, calm returns and the world declares yet another victory in the war against rising food prices. The crisis vanishes from the radar — until the next one.

Few are surprised that for the second time in three years, another crisis is back. In February the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s food index, which tracks monthly changes in the global prices of staple foods, reached its highest level ever. At the same time, the World Bank announced that 44 million people in developing countries had been thrown into poverty by rising food prices since June 2010.

A report released in May by Oxfam, a British charity, predicts that food prices will more than double in the next 20 years unless the global food system is overhauled. The report, Growing a Better Future, forecasts price increases in the range of 120–180 per cent “as resource pressures mount and climate change takes hold.” The US-based think-tank International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) projects similar increases over the same period. Newly elected FAO head José Graziano da Silva of Brazil said in June that “food prices would remain volatile for some time.”

Without doubt, Africa’s poor suffer the most from high food prices, as they rely on a few staple crops for survival. This year the Horn of Africa faces its worst drought in 60 years, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Millions of people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda will face severe food shortages. Oxfam identifies the sub-region as one of the world’s “food insecurity hotspots”. According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), millions are threatened with starvation in eastern Mali, northern Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

World leaders have avoided a head-on tackle of the food system’s underlying weaknesses, including low investment in agriculture, especially for smallholders; an end to huge land purchases by the rich; lack of transparency and fairness in food markets; and disputes over climate change. Each time a crisis strikes, they have tinkered at the edges of a broken system or employed makeshift measures.

Unfortunately, it is a general trend in the world,” complained Jacques Diouf, the outgoing FAO chief, frustrated by world leaders’ failure to heed his warnings of imminent shortages during the 2008. “We react when the crisis is already here.”

Arguably, the national interests of the major food producers have paralyzed efforts to reform global agricultural policies. For example, the first ever gathering of ministers of agriculture from the Group of 20 (G-20), which includes South Africa as the sole African member, failed to reach an agreement in June on policy issues.

The Paris talks deadlocked on concerns that biofuel policies divert crops from food markets to the production of ethanol and biodiesel and also that export bans, imposed by governments to ensure adequate stocks at home by restricting food exports, distort global supplies.

Prior to the G-20 meeting, Oxfam had noted angrily that “the failure of the [food] system flows from failures of government — failures to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to invest — which mean that companies, interest groups, and elites are able to plunder resources and to redirect flows of finance, knowledge and food.”

40 per cent of Africa's farm produce is lost...

Experts generally agree on the causes of food crises. Bad weather has reduced grain exports from Australia. Export bans by food exporters (21 countries at the beginning of the year), continued subsidies to farmers by rich nations and market speculation have distorted the supply and price of food on global markets. Subsidies encourage farmers to over-produce and thus depress market prices, forcing farmers in poor countries to compete with cheap food imports. Commodity traders contribute to spikes in global prices through speculation.

In addition, lack of investment in agriculture and inefficient farming contribute to food shortages in Africa. About 40 per cent of Africa’s farm produce is lost on the way to the market, notes The Economist, a British weekly. In some areas, as in western Kenya and northern Ethiopia, families have less than the minimum farmland required to support a household.

Lack of land titles, access to credit and property rights, especially among women, limits the amount that can be harvested from small plots, observes the magazine.

Due to perennial food shortages, experts and anti-poverty activists continue to press for a better system. Robert Townsend, an economist with the World Bank, argues that better seeds, more fertilizer and improved methods of cultivation increase harvests. He calls for more investment in research to develop improved varieties, as well as well-managed irrigation schemes to ensure reliable water supply. In Benin, the Bank’s Global Food Crisis Response Programme supplied fertilizer, which boosted cereal production by an additional 100,000 tonnes.

Following a continent-wide initiative by the African Union to spend more money on agriculture, 26 counties have so far signed agreements under a plan called the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme, run by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the AU development agency.

The results in some countries have been remarkable. Rwanda, the first to adopt the programme in 2007, increased land allocations to maize by almost five-fold in three years, raising maize yields by more than 212 per cent — from less than 0.8 tonnes per hectare to 2.5 tonnes — over the same period. Malawi has also seen comparable successes, along with Sierra Leone and Tanzania, among others.

Equally important is the need to reverse the gender imbalance. Giving rural women the same access as men to land, technology, financial services, education and markets, argues FAO in its State of Food and Agriculture 2010-11 report, will increase agricultural production and reduce the number of hungry people by up to 150 million worldwide.

There is no doubt that the pace of overhauling the global food system will be painfully slow. This will guarantee repeated food crises. Responding to the failure to reach an agreement on agricultural policies by the G-20, Oxfam noted that the group’s “sticking plaster approach falls well short of the major surgery” needed to tackle the global food system. Like a festering wound left untreated, failure to act now will only hasten the inevitable — a visit to the surgery room.


Tuesday, 2 August 2011

More Breasts Not Jets

This week marks the 19th World Breastfeeding Week, an event that has been observed annually, from 1-8 August, in more than 120 countries. The aim is to promote breastfeeding for infants and the health benefits of providing important nutrients and protection from diseases. It also beneficial to women, as it helps in protection against breast and ovarian cancer and in the spacing of children, among others.

The theme for 2011 is "Talk to me! Breastfeeding - a 3D Experience". According to a statement from the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), the focus of this theme is supporting breastfeeding through a third dimension—using communication at various levels and between various sectors. “We live in a world where individuals and global communities connect across small and great distances”, the statement reads, “we have the ability to use these information channels to broaden our horizons and spread breastfeeding information beyond our immediate time and place”.
In efforts to reach beyond the usual setting—that is mothers, health facilities, community and home—and time—that is from pre-pregnancy to weaning—WABA intends to include traditionally uninvolved groups, such as the youth.

The statement from WABA notes that since the youth comprise about 18 per cent of the world’s population, they are therefore an invaluable sector to ally with in any public health movement. It adds, “ In association with the United Nations’ International Year of Youth, WABA commissioned a dedicated group of young people to carry out [the call] to action and create awareness, mobilise and engage, connect and build bridges across generations, cultures, religions, and civilizations on breastfeeding.”

A point to ponder: If the government of Uganda uses even half of the money ($750 million) that purchased fighter jets to support breastfeeding, what would be the impact on the wellbeing of the population? In a perhaps less obvious way, would contribute more to security than jets and bombs?