How will East Africa address its food crisis?

by Saul Daniel Ddumba

Over decades, food production in East Africa has been affected by a changing climate, limited use of fertilizers and pest control, inadequate food storage facilities and complex marketing channels that together have led to chronic malnutrition, hunger and poverty (Figure 1). We are also uncertain about how future changes in climate will affect crop production. In order to address these challenges, there is a need to invest in research, to encourage the practice of conservation agriculture, and to use climate-smart technologies like growing high yielding, drought tolerant, and nutritious crops. My research is a step toward addressing these challenges. We are building a crop-modeling framework that can be used to assess the impact of climate change and variability on sweetpotato production for East Africa, and that will provide critical information on when and what to plant.

Figure 1. Factors affecting crop production and associated consequences in East Africa

Figure 1. Factors affecting crop production and associated consequences in East Africa

Why is there a food crisis in East Africa?

East Africa is struggling with a food crisis for various reasons. More than 70% of crops grown in East Africa are rain-fed with little or no application of fertilizers. Supplemental irrigation and application of fertilizers would increase crop yields but the majority of farmers are smallholders who cannot afford the cost of the irrigation infrastructure and farm inputs. Farmers rely on the rainy seasons to grow crops in order to feed their families and earn income by selling surplus crops to markets in urban centers. However, the growing seasons have been changing, with erratic rainfall and increased incidence of droughts and floods; this has severely impacted crop production in the region. The future does not look any better because temperatures are projected to increase, rainfall will become more variable and there is likely to be an increase in the occurrence of droughts and floods. With these changes, there is limited knowledge on how to determine the right time to plant and on which crop varieties to plant.

Together, these challenges lead to low crop yields. However, the challenges do not stop there. Food demand is increasing in the East African region due to an increasing population. Plus, in times when there is a bumper harvest, very little harvested crops can be stored because the region has minimal storage facilities. East Africa also has complex food marketing systems, which are affected by poor policies and poor transport infrastructure that hinder profitable food trade within and between countries. The poor marketing environment directly impacts smallholder farmers as they cannot sell their produce at a reasonable price to make good profit.

The combined effect of all these challenges is malnutrition (more than 20% of children under 5 years are stunted), high poverty levels, and hunger especially among people living in rural areas.

This leads us to another set of questions: Why have these problems persisted for so long? What are the affected countries doing about these problems? Or, better still, who is responsible for addressing these challenges?

Unfortunately, there is no single answer.

Instead, a set of interdisciplinary approaches is required in order to provide working solutions toward ensuring food security in East Africa. The solutions need to be innovative and realistic given the current economic situation in the region. First, there is a need to encourage conservation agriculture. Conservation agriculture emphasizes the efficient use of fertilizers and mixed cropping strategies that increase yields. Second, there is a need to focus on high yielding, drought tolerant and nutritious crops. One example is the orange-fleshed varieties of sweet potato that are rich in vitamin A, and early maturing and high yielding crops. Third, there is a need to improve knowledge, information access and sharing among farmers because farmers often work in isolation. One approach may be the use of mobile apps and farmers’ networks; the national ministries of agriculture need to take advantage of the famine early warning system (FEWSNET) to ensure that the climate-related information reaches farmers who most need it. Information sharing could also lead to improving of the existing market system. Fourth, there is a need to carefully assess the effectiveness of existing agricultural policy institutions and re-structure these where necessary. And lastly, there is a need to invest in climate smart technologies such as the use of low cost irrigation infrastructure to take advantage of existing water bodies like rivers and lakes.

The secret to the success of the above strategies lies in investing in research. This research needs to involve all stakeholders, including farmers, researchers, policy makers, nongovernmental organizations and donor agents, in order to generate the desired solutions. Special attention needs to be focused on the major crops grown in the East African region. For example, the four most important food crops in Uganda are plantains, cassava, sweetpotatoes and maize; maize, potatoes, sweetpotatoes and cassava in Kenya; and cassava, maize, sweetpotatoes and rice in Tanzania.

How a crop production model may provide part of the solution

In my PhD research, I am assessing the impact of climate change and variability on sweetpotato production in East Africa. My study uses four high yielding sweetpotato cultivars,. The main objective of the research is to examine the relationship between climate and sweetpotato production both now and in the future. We have built a computer model framework that uses a process-based crop simulation model called SweetPOTato COMputer Simulation (SPOTCOMS). The model requires weather, soils and crops data as input datasets (Figure 2, Figure 3). The model provides critical information on how changing climate will affect the production of sweetpotatoes in East Africa. It will allow alternative scenarios to be simulated – including different temperatures and rainfall, and different fertilizer and irrigation inputs — and ultimately provide detailed information on what and when to plant.

Figure 2. Crop modeling framework for assessing the impact of climate change and variability on crop production

Figure 2. Crop modeling framework for assessing the impact of climate change and variability on crop production

Figure 3. Taking field measurements for sweetpotatoes at our experiments at NACRRI, Uganda. These experiments were required to calibrate and evaluate the model.

Figure 3. Taking field measurements for sweetpotatoes at our experiments at NACRRI, Uganda. These experiments were required to calibrate and evaluate the model.

Some good news is that our preliminary results show that sweetpotato crops are not likely to be severely impacted by the projected changes in climate. There is therefore a ray of hope that malnutrition, hunger and poverty could be greatly reduced with more investment in research and other strategies highlighted in this article. And finally, there is the need to encourage the transfer of success stories and experiences from one region to another to ensure that none is left behind.

Saul Daniel Ddumba is a 2010 fellow of the Fulbright Science & Technology Award, from Uganda, and a PhD Candidate in Geography, and Environment Science and Policy at Michigan State University.  

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