Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)

26 October 2012 by Joe Dramiga, posted in Uncategorized

As my beloved Uganda celebrates fifty years of independence from British rule we are looking back on its rocky path to the present and looking ahead with hope to a better future. The last 50 years have been characterized by great achievements but also tremendous challenges in human development. I wonder if Uganda will be able to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1: halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. While Uganda is on track to halve extreme poverty, it is less likely to halve extreme hunger by 2015.

The Hunger Line

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) measures hunger as the number of people who do not get their minimum daily dietary energy requirement. Food availability in Uganda is estimated 1953 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day, which is above the 1800 kcal* "hunger line", the minimum dietary energy requirement (MDER) set by the two UN bodies, FAO and WHO, responsible for matters of food and health. The MDER is defined as the amount of dietary energy needed for light or sedentary activity - a methodological flaw in my opinion that will lead to underestimation of the population of the undernourished. (I will explain this in more detail later in this article.)

But we are also well below the global average food availability of 2790 kcal per person, a good 30 per cent less. But as you noticed we are talking about averages and usually they conceal more than they reveal, this is precisely the case with our food availability statistics. How much people need to eat each day - their daily dietary energy requirement - depends on their weight, height, age, sex and activity level.

Daily Dietary Energy Requirement

Table 1: Daily Dietary Energy Requirement The table gives examples of light, moderate and heavy activity levels and the amount of food energy required for such activities by men and women of differing body weight. The reference body weights by sex and age groups are based on the available weight for-height in the Body Mass Index (BMI) reference tables published by the World Health Organization (WHO). Thus given an estimate of the actual attained-height the acceptable weight corresponding to this height is derived from these tables. The actual attained-heights by sex and age used are those estimated by national anthropometric studies. The energy requirements for elderly people are somewhat less, and those for children are much less.* Requirements would be higher for taller people and lower for shorter people. Credit: Norms based on Report of the Joint FAO/WHO/UNU Expert Consultation on Energy and Protein Requirements, 1985

The Depth of Hunger

Meaningful action to end hunger requires knowledge of the depth of the hunger of undernourished people. Knowing the number of kilocalories missing from the diets of undernourished people helps round out the picture of food deprivation in a country. Where the undernourished lack 400 kcal a day, the situation is more dire than in a country where the average shortage is 100 kilocalories. The greater the deficit, the greater the susceptibility to nutrition-related health risks. A weak, sickly person cannot fulfil his or her individual potential. A nation of weak, sickly people cannot advance.

The depth of hunger is measured by comparing the average amount of dietary energy that undernourished people (not the population as a whole) get from the foods they eat with the minimum amount of dietary energy (expressed in kilocalories per person per day) they need to maintain body weight and undertake light activity. The higher the number, the deeper the hunger.

CountryAverage Daily Dietary Energy Deficit of the Food Poor
Germany130 kcal
USA140 kcal
Uganda280 kcal
Haiti460 kcal
Afghanistan480 kcal
Somalia490 kcal

Table 2: Average Daily Dietary Energy Deficit of the Food Poor in Some Countries

But here I have a problem with the methodology: The assumption of light activity for an average food poor is unacceptable. It is a fiction that will result in a gross underestimation of the population of the undernourished. Can a domestic worker in urban areas, who scrubs floors and dishes, and washes clothes at work and home for at least eight hours a day be assumed to be engaging in light activity? Or can we assume that a head-load worker in the agricultural sector, who carries heavy sacks of grain throughout the day, is engaged in light activity? Anyone who has observed how hard the poor in developing cuntries toil for their paltry wages will see the absurdity of this assumption.

The Prevalence of Hunger

Since 1990, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has published a global hunger index. The index is calculated from data on the percentage of the population that us undernourished – also referred to as the "food poor"; the prevalence of underweight children, and death of children under five. With a possible range of 0 to 100, countries scoring less than 5 are considered hunger free, 5 to 10 have moderate food insecurity, scores in the 10-20 range are categorized as having serious food insecurity, those in the 20-29 range are described as alarming, and scores of 30 plus are deemed extremely alarming.

In the 2012 Global Hunger Index (GHI) report 81 countries had a score above 5 among them Uganda which was ranked at position 42 with a global hunger index of 16.1 in the serious food insecurity range. Thus the adequate average food availability does mask considerable food insecurity in Uganda. The food availability in Uganda is inequitably distributed: Kapchorwa and the Southwest sub region—notably Mbarara, Ibanda, and Bushenyi districts are well off whereas Karamoja, West Nile, Nakasongola, Acholi, Busoga and Teso have severe problems with food availability.

Which Groups of the Ugandan Society are Most Vulnerable to Food Insecurity?

Women because in most cases, they do not own assets like land, and are therefore not economically empowered. Because of the patriarchal system of inheritance, they are greatly disadvantaged and cannot easily lift themselves out of poverty. This lack of ownership is further enhanced by their further lack of influence over household income. Children (Uganda’s population under 15 years is 48 per cent and ranks No. 2 in the world.) and the elderly are rendered vulnerable by their age, while the disabled are vulnerable because of their disability. A particularly vulnerable sub-group of children are orphans. There are a large number of AIDS orphans in Uganda.  Apart from AIDS orphans, a large number of children have lost parents as a result of civil war. Children themselves have been abducted by rebels, or have found themselves displaced by war. Generally, undernourished people in Uganda are most likely to be women, children, disabled or refugees, living in the northern or eastern parts of the country, and involved in subsistence farming.

[Bob Marley, “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”].

In Uganda 35 per cent of the population are food poor up from 27 per cent in 1990, and 16 per cent of children are underweight.

This is in sharp contrast with some West African countries that achieved tremendous progress: Ghana has reduced the food poor from 27 per cent in 1990 to 5 per cent, as in Nigeria is down from 16 to 6 per cent. Mali’s down to 12 per cent from 27 per cent two decades ago and Niger’s to 20 per cent from 37 per cent.

Why are we falling behind? There are many factors involved but one of the main internal factors is the low productivity of Uganda’s agricultural sector.

The Low Productivity of Uganda’s Agricultural Sector

Uganda's economy is predominantly agrarian; 22 per cent of the GDP, 82 per cent of the employed labour force, and 31 per cent of export earnings are derived from the agricultural sector. A total of 6,810,000 ha (16,828,000 acres), or one-third of the land area, is under cultivation. 70 per cent of the area under cultivation is used to produce locally consumed food crops.

Uganda’s major agricultural products (in decreasing order based on overall volume in 2005) are matooke, cassava, sweet potatoes, maize, cow milk and millet. Traditional cash crops include coffee, cotton, tea and tobacco; main fruits and vegetables include pineapples, passion fruits, tomatoes, onions and cabbages.

The country’s southern climate is tropical, with two distinct dry seasons. In contrast, the north eastern region is semiarid. Uganda faces a number of environmental challenges including deforestation, overgrazing, loss of wetlands and soil erosion.

Subsistence farming is dominating farming. For instance, you will find in most rural areas homes with a goat, a hen, a cow, a pig, a dog and a small garden. The majority of subsistence farmers own tiny pieces of land while those with large tracts are not using them for any viable commercial activity. As small farms are largely dependent on weather and underlying soil fertility, food insecurity emanates from inadequate rainfall, excessive rainfall, pests and diseases, and low crop yield. As such, production is low for home consumption and whatever remains can only go to informal markets.

Subsistence farming is a generational problem – it cuts across the family, starting with the father to the son and then grandchildren. Since subsistence farming is not income-focused most farmers do not have money to educate their children up to university. So, children of peasant farmers who cannot make it, recede to their parents’ rudimentary farming practices, with no additional skills. Another reason, subsistence farming has persisted is scarcity of labour-saving technology. For instance, tractor-hire services in most rural areas.

Another problem is that smallholders find themselves cut off, by remoteness or lack of funding, from the new seeds, crop types, fertilisers and techniques which are driving increased production across the world. They can be hampered, too, by poor transport in getting their crops to market and lack the information and voice to get the best price when they do, taking away incentives to boost production. Decades of government neglect mean that small-scale farmers, who make up the bulk of the labour force, have been left to their own devices, eking out a subsistence living.

Uganda is faced with the twin challenge of a rapidly expanding population with stagnating growth in the agricultural sector—the principal source of livelihood for most of Ugandans. With the Ugandan population (currently 34 million) growing at 3.3 percent per annum, this implies that the country adds about 1 million "new mouths" to feed each year. On the other hand growth in the agricultural sector has stalled in the past 10 years. For example, over the 2000-2010 period, growth in the agricultural sector averaged about 2 percent compared to about 8 and 11 percent for industry and services respectively.

As such, the fast expanding population—is forced to share the non expanding basket of food. Besides leaving millions hungry, low agricultural production disputes the national budget on increased commitment towards food imports (and therefore dependence on international food prices) and hurts the manufacturing sector in the form of high input and low demand for their products due to reduced earnings from agriculture, which employs most Ugandans. Simply put, an economy where 82 per cent of the labour force can barely feed the country is unlikely to generate the surplus needed to finance development. This suggests that improving agricultural productivity is a key to long term food security. Our eastern neighbours in Tanzania have shown the way: Tanzania’s hunger index score has dropped sharply, down from 28.0 in 1996 to 19.3 in 2012. This according to the report is due to renewed emphasis on the potential of agricultural, and intensified efforts to commercialise their agricultural production. Tanzania is supporting small holders to secure land titles and improve access to water as the goverment advances a wider programme to transform the agricultural sector.

*In the International System of Units (ISU), the universal unit of dietary energy is the joule (J). One kcal = 4.184 kJ.

2 Responses to “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”

  1. Dr. Thomas Kinyanjui Reply | Permalink

    This is a very informative piece. What is the way forward? Can collaboration between the east african states help alleviate this food scarcity? say by building on the individual strengths of each state in term of production of say corn, bananas etc.

    • Joe Dramiga Reply | Permalink

      Dear Dr Kinyanjui,
      surely a collaboration between the east african states will help but it will not be enough. To make it plain: The Ugandan government has to support agricultural production and research with an efficient policy and a big budget. Most African countries are investing below 5pc of their budget in agriculture - They need to invest as much as 30pc. In the Maputo declaration of 2003 African countries committed themselves to at least 10pc by 2015. The AU set a target of each African country to spend 1pc of GDP for agricultural research and development. Asian countries invested 15 to 30pc (national budget) in agriculture to achieve the green revolution.

      I recommend you the following article.

      Transforming Agriculture in Africa

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