To address food insecurity in Uganda post COVID-19 the government must act now
In the wake of COVID-19, food insecurity in Uganda is drastically increasing. Food Rights Alliance and Twaweza East Africa call on the Uganda government to take specific and urgent action to address the growing threats to food security following the pandemic.
In Uganda, as in many countries across the world, COVID-19 has challenged communities and the government in unprecedented ways. As health officials try to control the virus and protect their people’s health, the lockdown imposed to contain the spread has put livelihoods under immense strain, leaving many people without enough food to eat.
Uganda in lockdown
Ugandans from all walks of life, both in rural and in urban areas, have prayed, panicked and prepared. The situation is worse than many feared. The government’s response included the closure of schools, markets, bars and restaurants, and bans on public and private transport and social gatherings – including church, weddings and funerals.
People with white-collar jobs work from home as they wait for their monthly salaries. Many others have been laid off at home with no future, no source of income and no idea how they will regain employment.
Food relief packages of maize flour and beans were distributed to people in greatest need. But these rations would not last a month for many households, especially those with large families. Many in rural areas were left without food packages on the assumption that rural communities could produce their own food.
People with incomes stockpiled food, sending food prices skyrocketing. Others, the have-nots, cannot afford to buy even basic commodities. Rising concerns about food security are fuelled by uncertainty as people ask how long will this last? Will we survive?
Getting answers from survey data
To build a better picture of Uganda’s food security situation, and to see where additional government action is needed, Food Rights Alliance and Twaweza East Africa conducted a country-wide survey on citizens’ experiences and views on food consumption, farming and livelihoods during the COVID-19 outbreak. Data was collected through 16 rounds of calls to the Sauti za Wananchi panel (a nationally-representative, high-frequency mobile phone panel survey), conducted between 18 May and 4 June, 2020.
The findings indicate that COVID-19 has forced and is forcing families to either reduce the number of meals they eat a day, or to reduce the amount of food they buy or eat. Those unable to meet their family food needs are turning to others for help – first to friends or family, then to the government’s emergency food packages.
Poorest hit hardest
The survey estimated that 85% of the Ugandan population did some work, paid and unpaid, during lockdown. But 10% of the population in urban areas are unlikely to have work to go back to. Forty-one per cent of retail and non-agricultural businesses are no longer operating; 27% are completely suspended; and 26% of the interviewees reported that their income is insufficient to cover their basic daily food needs.
In an already deeply challenging situation, rural citizens are bearing the brunt. During lockdown, only 12% of the population received food assistance – 24% of those were urban residents and only 7% lived in rural areas. Alarmingly, wealthier citizens received more government support (16%, compared to the poor at 10%).
Women’s experiences during lockdown
Most women are in informal work and have suffered disproportionately from the closure of markets and the ban on public and private transport. As a result, the survey reports that women’s dependence on others has increased, and household food security has decreased.
A statement (PDF) from the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development describes how women’s reduced capacity to generate income and feed their families, coupled with the increased time spent together in lockdown, has led to women and children experiencing more gender-based violence.
What this means for Uganda
As a country, we should be worried by these figures. If the economy is not revived with the easing of the lockdown, many households risk suffering further increases in food and nutrition insecurity.
While Uganda is considered a food basket of East Africa and food is still being grown, families are going hungry. Data on what and where farmers are planting and investing, could provide useful information on how far food systems and food supplies will be disrupted in the weeks and months ahead.
In addition, data on which families can afford diverse meals can help the government provide emergency packages to those most in need. Given how they are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, interventions that are geared towards enhancing food security should pay particular attention to women.
Our call to the government: act now
The Food Rights Alliance and Twaweza East Africa call on the Ugandan government to invest domestic budgets to improve national emergency food responsiveness. The government, through the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, should establish food reserves in the country that targets families most in need of emergency food packages.
COVID-19 has laid bare the importance of food availability and affordability. Without national food reserves and food emergency preparedness systems, Ugandan people’s food and nutrition security will continue to suffer.
Agriculture is the backbone of our economy, yet consistently underfunded. Most farmers use rudimentary farming tools, hindering large production, and it is women – providing the bulk of the agricultural labour force – who are most affected. The government needs to invest in labour alternatives for sustained high production, including affordable technologies to support farmers, especially women.
Finally, the lack of a national vulnerability register leaves out the most vulnerable when food rations are distributed during crises. We call upon the government, through a consultative process, to establish a country vulnerability register to aid and guide other distribution process in case of future crises.