Hunger in a Food Exporting Country


Foreign travelers, missionaries and explorers to East and
Central Africa including Uganda observed and recorded an abundance of
foodstuffs including crops, livestock, poultry, fish, wild game and wild fruits
and vegetables which provided adequate and balanced diets to individuals most
of the time.

In his report of 1907, Winston Churchill observed
that with her richness of the soil and the abundance of water, Uganda must one day become the great center
of tropical production, and play a most important part in the economic
development of the whole world.

The British colonial policy in Uganda and elsewhere was to produce
foodstuffs to feed her exploding population and tropical raw materials for her
booming manufacturing industries. Accordingly, Uganda’s
fertile land and economically active population were diverted from producing
for domestic consumption to the export market. The production of indigenous and
nutritious millet, sorghum and beans was marginalized and suffered a
considerable decline. The production of cassava and maize – the foodstuffs that
are deficient in proteins – was stepped up to meet the growing demand for food.

in the 1930s, the authorities identified rising levels of malnutrition
especially among children and women. In order to fill the gap, the development
of fisheries including fish farming (fish ponds) received a high priority.
Nutrition clinics including Mwanamugimu at Mulago hospital were established
throughout the country to treat malnutrition cases and to train mothers in the
preparation of balanced diets, hygiene, sanitation and safe drinking water. The
nutritional situation improved until the beginning of the 1970s.

The political disturbances from 1971 to 1986
undermined the production and distribution of food, caused the breakdown in the
provision of safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities. Food and
nutrition insecurity increased again.  While still in the bush, the
National Resistance Movement (NRM) correctly analyzed the critical food
insecurity situation in Uganda and was determined to reverse it
during its administration. The idea was to grow the neglected nutritious food
crops of millet, sorghum and beans etc and to balance production for domestic
and export markets.

However, once in power, the Movement
administration changed course. Beginning in the 1990s, the government decided
to increase and diversify the export commodities in order to earn enough
foreign exchange and import technology for development. Consequently the
production of the traditional crops of coffee, cotton, tobacco and tea was
stepped up. The nutritious foodstuffs of beans, fish and sesame
(non-traditional exports) were diverted from domestic to the export markets in
the neighboring countries and beyond, leaving a wide gap which is increasingly
being filled by the consumption of non-nutritious maize (corn) and cassava
without adequate supplements. The NRM Manifesto for 2006 elections and World
Food Program (WFP) reports give details about the extent of food exports.
According to the World Food Program, Uganda sold to this organization the largest
amount in value terms ($41.2 million) in 2006.

Meanwhile, Ugandans are eating less not only
in quantity but in quality as well. Ipso facto, the level of under-nutrition
especially among children, who need balanced diets for their physical and
mental development, has risen to high levels which are disturbing and
unacceptable.  UNICEF
reports give a detailed picture of this sad development in a country that was
once the “Pearl of Africa”. Twenty percent of children under-five suffered
moderate and severe underweight; 32 percent suffered moderate and severe
stunting between 2000 and 2006; and the percentage of infants with low birth
weight stood at 12 between 1999 and 2006 (UNICEF, 2008).

small;”>More disturbing is the evidence that people who eat a lot of
maize and cassava without adequate dietary supplements develop serious nutritional
problems including neurological disorders. What is also disturbing is that
while Uganda has become a major food exporting
country, it has simultaneously become a hunger ‘hot spot’ nation and a
recipient of food donations. The policy of export-led growth has encouraged the
sale of food to the extent that very little of nutritional value is retained
for domestic consumption.

The recent rising food prices and the
increasing food demand in Uganda’s
neighboring countries and beyond have pushed many households to sell food
without regard to the domestic requirements. Consequently, the domestic
shortage has driven prices beyond control to most households. While rising
prices may be good for large scale farmers (inquiries from some areas in the
western region have found that the small scale, unorganized farmers have not

ted), the government needs to do something to protect the vulnerable
households in rural and urban areas. This could be done through subsidizing
basic food stuffs or controlling food exports to ensure Ugandans have enough to
eat. A laissez-faire policy is not appropriate in these circumstances. Josette
Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Program has reported that some
countries including Egypt, Sudan, Niger, Ethiopia and Tanzania have banned food exports. Uganda should take appropriate measures to
balance domestic and export requirements because the cost of inaction can be
huge in the short, medium and long-term.

To divert attention from these adverse
developments, we are beginning to read and to hear about Uganda’s
population “explosion” as a major contributor to food shortages. And the
solution being advocated is birth control, disguised as reproductive rights, to
reduce the numbers so that Uganda can continue to be integrated into the
global economy as an exporter of raw commodities according to her comparative
advantage as an agricultural country favored by nature. This reasoning should
not be entertained. Women and girls need to be empowered through functional
education and remunerative employment as well as access to property and credit. Uganda has the potential to produce enough
for domestic and external markets but it needs to put its house in order.

First, it needs to increase agricultural
productivity by using modern but carefully selected technologies. Second, Uganda needs to pay particular attention to
the rapidly deteriorating environment especially the hydrological and thermal
changes. Third, the country needs to provide infrastructure especially rural
roads, rural energy, storage including cold storage and processing facilities
to reduce waste, improve value and longevity. Fourth, as Uganda discovers oil and mineral resources,
the opportunities for industrialization are brighter than ever. In this
connection, it is very important to remember that the population boom was a
major contributor to the birth of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

We conclude by observing that since 1967
studies have shown that there is no negative statistical relationship between
economic and population growth, certainly not in the case of Uganda.
There are strong arguments to show that more people have a positive effect in
the long run. And that is why the developed countries are encouraging larger
families.  Let
us not kid ourselves – numbers matter!

At the United Nations sponsored meeting in
April 2008 on Population Distribution, Urbanization,
Internal Migration and Development, 
Chairman of the Group of 77 and China stated that “urban population growth
should be seen as a positive factor contributing to better development rather
than the prevailing belief that population growth has harmful social and
environmental consequences and should be slowed down at all costs. The G77 and China believes that this latest viewpoint
should be the subject of greater debate”. That is a powerful statement that
Ugandan authorities should take very seriously indeed.