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Africa's food shortage knows no bounds

08 December 2001, Globe and Mail

The United Nations' food agencies in Rome are now openly warning that food shortages threaten famine in the poorest African countries, among them Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal. But what about the wealthier African countries? Is all well there?

For an answer, I asked my friend Yussuf Kajenje, a former journalist and father of three who lives in Tanzania, where he now works for one of the international food-development agencies. 

"Tanzania" and "food crisis" are rarely mentioned in the same sentence; the country is thought to have sufficient production and distribution capability to keep its population fed. Mr. Yussuf's suggests this analysis may be wrong. Tanzania is already suffering, he says.

This is a letter he recently sent to me, presented here with only minor editing changes. Note his second paragraph, which mentions farmers too financially stretched to plant extra crops in spite of the higher prices their products can fetch, and, farther down, the looming biofuels disaster:

"The uncontrollable increase in food prices is becoming a serious problem in Tanzania. I say so because in most cases I do buy food to feed my family and it is a fact that there has been a constant increase in food prices in Tanzania. Maize, rice and beans, which are staple foods here, have doubled in less than three years.

"There are number of reasons leading to the rising food prices. One is that poor farmers in Tanzania are no longer planting more food crops as was the case in the past because they have no money left for inputs which are also becoming too expensive.

"Unfavorable weather conditions in recent years have led to the decline in food production. For instance, last year in Tanzania we faced drought. With scarce rainfall, food production declined a large percentage. Consequently, this has a negative impact on the country's poverty alleviation efforts.

"Another reason is the spill-over effects of the increased world fuel prices. This is attributed to the fact that in some regions of the country there is plenty of food harvested, yet the food cannot be transported to the other regions facing the scarcity because it is too expensive to meet such transportation costs.

"Authorities say up to 300,000 tonnes of maize imports are currently required to meet the national food requirements. Maize is a staple food in Tanzania. Prof. Peter Msolla, the Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Co-operatives, a few days ago was quoted saying that so far only 6,500 tonnes of maize have been imported despite the government's waiver on taxes on imported foodstuff as an incentive for importers.

"The waiver was aimed at stocking up the national food reserve. In January, the government announced the tax waiver for a period of five months from January to May. This was arrived at following an analysis by the Ministry of Agriculture of the declining food production, with maize production for the 2007/2008 season, coupled with severe food crises in 21 districts of Tanzania.

"Maize importers however said that even after the duty waiver, they were unable to get substantial volumes and attributed this to the fact that most countries that produce grains in large quantities had turned to the lucrative bio-fuel production instead.

"Already, the country has started relief food programs in areas experiencing critical food deficits. Overall inflation also jumped to 8.9 per cent in February this year, up from 6.8 last December. This has serious impact especially among poor households. Currently the food basket in Tanzania accounts for 55 per cent of the consumer price index, meaning most of the inflation burden results from high food and commodity prices.

"Another reason that could lead to the increased prices of food is the current drive to switch from the production of food crops for the production of bio-fuels. Such a trend has some negative impact in the future country's food production as private foreign investors are being given thousands of acres of fertile land to grow plants like sugar cane and jatropha for production of bio fuels."

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