African food crisis is part of a ‘silent tsunami’

20 August 2008

by Ed Beavan

High price: a woman sells goods at an open-air market in the mountain town of Moyale, in north-east Kenya, near the border with Ethiopia, last month. The rise in prices has put many goods beyond the reach of many ordinary Kenyans REUTERS

High price: a woman sells goods at an open-air market in the mountain town of Moyale, in north-east Kenya, near the border with Ethiopia, last month. ...

AID AGENCIES have said that up to 14 million people could be affected by the escalating food crisis in East Africa. Rising global food prices, erratic weather patterns, and successive droughts have com­pounded the situation in the Horn of Africa. Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Programme, has described the global food crisis as a “silent tsunami”.

Ethiopia is one of the worst-hit countries, while parts of northern Kenya, Uganda, and Somalia are also facing acute food shortages. Many parts of Ethiopia have suffered a complete crop failure. Rising food costs mean that many people cannot afford to buy food. The price of maize, for example, has quadrupled in the past year.

Keith Etherington, who is the representative for Ethiopia at the aid agency Tearfund, recently returned from a trip to the Wolaitta and Kembata Tembaro regions, south of Addis Ababa. He said he was surprised to find lush green landscapes there, after recent rain. The lack of rain earlier in the year, however, had pushed people “to the edge”: many were forced to sell their assets and to eat seed, which should have been sown for crops.

“We could see a lot of fields were ploughed, but nothing was grow­ing, as they had been forced to eat the seed. That’s led to this problem of a decline in agricultural production. We visited a number of families whose children were severely malnour­ished, and one family had decided to sell their share in a cow to raise money to buy food.

“We also went to a market and spoke to grain traders, who said the price of grain had gone up three- fold since January, and people in the community could not afford to buy anything from the market.”

Tearfund has set up an emer­gency feeding programme, targeting malnourished children, and a seed-distribution loan scheme, under which, it is hoped, farmers can repay in kind in the future. It is also working through a network of 70 churches to set up a money-saving scheme to help the community in lean times in the future.


Judith Melby, an African specialist at Christian Aid, said it was also working on projects in the Horn of Africa to encourage people to farm the land, and to promote better agricultural tech­niques. She said the rise in global oil prices had had a devastating effect on the region.

“The increase in the price of oil has affected the price of everything, such as food, fertiliser, and trans­port, and the rising interest in biofuels in America.”

The demand for ethanol in the United States has meant that many farmers have switched from pro­duc­­ing maize for food to growing it for biofuel, thus leading to more food shortages and rising prices.

A Christian Aid report, Fighting Food Shortages: Hungry for change, released in July, said that large numbers of people had migrated to cities in Ethiopia in search of work, which meant that only about 30 per cent of farmland was being cultivated. The report estimates that about 862 million people worldwide lacked sufficient food before the current crisis. It calls for more to be done to address the root causes of the problem, such as improving long-term agri­cultural practices in developing countries.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also warned that the global food crisis is “casting a long shadow over the world”, and referred to the reduction in aid to agriculture in Africa. Writing in The Sun on Wednesday, he said: “Hunger is a hugely political issue and much of the blame can be placed at the door of leaders in the rich world.

“Encouraging farmers to pro­duce biofuels has led to food being used for fuel instead of going on to people’s plates.”

Both Christian Aid and Tearfund have launched emergency appeals for the Horn of Africa.

Fighting Food Shortages is downloadable from

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