Food Security in East Africa From a Trade Facilitation Perspective

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    If markets worked in East Africa, food insecurity could be significantly reduced. Unfortunately, market failures or government policy failures underlying market failures, in addition to infrastructure constraints, prevent this.

    Impediments to trade in agricultural products in the EAC

    The East African Community (EAC) is frequently affected by food shortages and pockets of hunger although the region as a whole has a huge potential and capacity to produce enough food for regional consumption and a large surplus for export to the world market. There are many factors leading to this state of affairs but the most critical are: (i) inadequate food trade between times and/or places of abundant harvest and those with deficits; and (ii) high variability in production caused by high variability of weather. The EAC Food Security Action Plan designed to address these constraints is aligned to the continental Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) framework and principles focusing on Pillar 3 on Food Security.

    Kenya generally has a structural food deficit while Tanzania and Uganda typically have surpluses of basic food commodities. It should be simple for food surplus areas to supply food deficit areas but this is rarely the case because of persistent protectionist tendencies.

    Transport costs in East Africa along the Northern Corridor (Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, eastern DRC and South Sudan) are among the highest in the world and double those of the U.S. and a third higher than better performing African corridors. To its credit, East Africa has recently prioritized investment in infrastructure, particularly roads. Unfortunately, rail in East Africa remains moribund and plays an insignificant role in trade in the region. The major port in East Africa, Mombasa in Kenya, has operational efficiency problems and although efforts to correct these are underway, progress has been slow. With projected increases in trade growth, a crisis of major proportions will arise in the medium-term in East Africa unless supportive hard and soft infrastructure is urgently put in place, which will have a major impact on food security.

    Smallholder livelihood focus: a dead-end

    Although I am not a food security expert, I have worked on food security and related programs for almost three decades. I am saddened that the situation has not improved significantly despite billions of dollars being invested by donors and African governments over the last few decades. I attended an international food security meeting in East Africa a few years ago. During the meeting, the list of problems and recommended solutions were discussed. I walked out of the meeting because it was the exact same verbiage I had heard twenty years before apparently with little progress having been made during that time. There seems to be a mentality that food security means food self-sufficiency and that providing marginal assistance to marginal smallholders/subsistence farmers in marginal areas will make them marginally better smallholder/subsistence farmers. The consequence of trapping millions of smallholder/subsistence farmers in low yield production has and will continue to be disastrous from an economic, political and social sense.

    It would be interesting to see East Africa and the CAADP program implement a new paradigm that focuses on income being the key to achieving food security rather than trying to help millions of smallholder and subsistence farmers who are stuck because of limited employment and income opportunities. Using regional economic integration as the platform to accomplish this will go a long way to achieving success. Each economy in East Africa is relatively small, however, combined it has a regional population of 133 million and a regional GDP of $173 billion. Many believe that it is through regional economic integration that East Africa has a chance to increase economic growth and broad-based sustainable development. Efficiently integrating agricultural, manufacturing/industrial and service markets throughout East Africa will exponentially boost opportunities for farmers. The agricultural sector, which has largely been ignored in the past, despite rhetoric to the contrary (witness the small number of countries achieving the CAADP target of 10% of budgets allocated to agriculture), could become the driving force for economic growth and poverty reduction by improving market access for farmers and creating income and employment opportunities for the millions of smallholder and subsistence farmers who are currently stuck in abject poverty.


    TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) is a not for profit company, whose principal mandate is to support and facilitate regional economic integration in East Africa, which we implement through a demand-driven innovative arrangement of regional and country programs, all of which are aligned to the EAC and Partner State development plans. We currently have a budget of $465 million with our principal focus on reducing the time and cost of transport along major corridors in East Africa and increasing intra-regional trade. We are in the process of getting more involved in market development, particularly agricultural processing, with the EAC Secretariat and EAC Partner States. We look forward to working with others to develop innovative regional approaches, e.g. designing and implementing harmonized and mutually reinforcing national and regional commodity programs, to alleviate poverty and improve food security through more efficient trade and markets in East Africa.

    Scott Allen is Deputy CEO and Regional Programmes Director of TradeMark East Africa (TMEA).

    This article was published in Great Insights Volume 1, Issue 7 (September 2012)



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