Article by Regean Mugume, Research Analyst at the Economic Policy Research Centre.

The outbreak of COVID-19 and its subsequent spread is exacerbating the worrying food security vulnerabilities in many Ugandan households. A mother of three in Kampala is quoted saying “Hunger will kill us even before we die of this virus.” According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (2020), the prevalence of food insecurity increased from 24.1 per cent in 2006 to 41 per cent in 2018. The increase in prevalence in food insecurity was mainly driven by flooding and the locust invasion in some regions of the country. This implies that about 18 million Ugandans were food insecure before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the situation is likely to worsen following the compounded impact of COVID 19 pandemic, locust invasion and massive flooding in various parts of the country. This evidence suggests that whereas Uganda boasts as a regional food basket and a net food exporter, more needs to be done to address the impediment of malnutrition and food insecurity, which may pull multitudes into poverty.

The government, like in past emergency crises, adopted an ad hoc strategy of mobilizing and distributing food relief in response to the rising food insecurities in many urban and rural poor households. However, the food relief response has not been effective and it has received criticism from beneficiary communities who cite challenges such as poor quality of supplies, delays in the distribution and limited coverage due to limited resources. Notably, five months after Uganda registered its first COVID-19 case, some vulnerable residents among the targeted 1.5 million urban poor in Kampala and Wakiso have not yet received food relief as promised. In addition, the lack of clear guidelines on quality and the process of contribution seems to play against the pooling of resources and the distribution of donations. Based on the aforementioned challenges, Uganda needs to devise a sustainable long-term strategy for ensuring food security during emergencies to safeguard households from food poverty and insecurity.

Relatedly, Uganda’s public expenditure review on social protection (2012) and Uganda’s constitution (1995) underscore the importance of establishing National food reserves as a long term and predictable safety net to cushion vulnerable communities against food insecurity shocks. However, this measure has not been implemented. Unlike Uganda, neighbouring countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Rwanda have strategic food/grain reserves that provide food relief to vulnerable people and help in price stabilization during food price fluctuations.

With National food reserves in place, some of the overarching challenges faced in food distribution during crises would be limited if not eliminated. Firstly, food reserves would ensure that good quality food relief is stored and distributed to vulnerable households as opposed to stakeholders pooling food of different grades or quality standards. Secondly, the insufficiency and delays in food distribution would easily be addressed by strategically locating the reserves in the different regions of the country to ensure real-time deliveries to the vulnerable households, while ensuring that food stocks are monitored and replenished.

Further, since food security and accessibility partly depend on food prices, which tend to increase during shortages, reserves would be relied upon to stabilise food prices during shortages and cushion households against food poverty. Conversely, during bumper harvests the prices of food products tend to reduce. For instance, during the maize bumper harvest in the 2017/18 season, its market price drastically fell from Ugx 1,000 to Ugx 200. In this case, the reserve would have bought off the maize from farmers at a higher price stabilizing the incomes of the poor households whom mainly depend on agriculture.

However, an effective National strategic food reserve system should be a component of the country’s National Food Security and Nutrition Strategy. It should also include (i) an early warning system to raise alarm in case of spikes in food supply and food prices, (ii) a highly accountable and effective management team consisting of farmer cooperatives, civil society organizations and the private sector to facilitate governance and operations of the strategic reserves. With these in place, Uganda’s response to food emergencies, especially during crises, will be timely and effective in distributing food relief to vulnerable communities.

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