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Status of African food security ... February 2016

Which African countries are battling the biggest food shortages? This article is published in collaboration with Mail & Guardian Africa.


Peter Burgess

Which African countries are battling the biggest food shortages? This article is published in collaboration with Mail & Guardian Africa.

A girl selling apples by the roadside waits for customers just outside the Angolan city of Lubango, January 15, 2010. Lubango is hosting the African Cup of Nations Group D soccer matches. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Africa is facing its worst food crisis in years, as El Nino rages across the continent; new analysis fromMail & Guardian Africa collating data from the UN, IRIN, the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS Net) and various news agencies reveals that more than 40 million people in Africa are facing food insecurity – and some, outright starvation.

The continent needs at least $4.5 billion for emergency relief, but just a fraction of that has been raised so far, even as analysis from Oxfam shows that an early response is far cheaper than a late one.

The Horn of Africa – particularly Ethiopia – and much of southern Africa is in bad straits; and the weather is not the only factor at play. A country’s ability to cope depends partly on its public finances and ability to mobilise resources; for some, weakening currencies is making food imports more expensive, and conflict is making it difficult to move supplies around.

Still, there are some bright spots, as most of Sahelian West Africa is enjoying above average rainfall and bumper harvests– a clever African Union would have found a way to harness these disparities on the continent. We run down some of the numbers:


In absolute numbers, Ethiopia is the hardest hit. 10.2 million Ethiopians need food aid this year, as the country faces its worst drought in fifty years. Another 7.9 million “chronically food insecure” people in the Horn of African country of almost 100 million people are receiving support through a regular safety-net programme already funded by the government and donors.

Ethiopia needs $1.4 billion of food aid this year to prevent a potentially catastrophic escalation in chronic malnutrition cases; 400,000 children will probably need supplementary feeding because of severe acute malnutrition later this year. So far, aid groups and the Ethiopian authorities have received about half of that $1.4 billion appeal for emergency funds, Save the Children said.

South Sudan

Nearly a quarter of South Sudan’s population, or 2.8 million people, urgently needs food aid, and at least 40,000 are on the brink of catastrophe. The country is in a particularly precarious position, facing the devastating effects of both drought and conflict..

South Sudan needs $1.3 billion to provide emergency relief this year, but so far, aid groups have received just 2% of that, says a recent UN statement.

Southern Africa is also very hard hit, though the impact in each country has been mixed, influenced not only by the weather but also the government’s public finances and thus ability to cope.


Drought in Zimbabwe has ruined harvests and left more than a quarter of the country’s 15 million people lacking secure food supply – about 3 million people may need food aid this year.

The country needs $1.6 billion to combat hunger, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa said – that’s more than what Ethiopia or even South Sudan needs, which suggests that the government is well and truly squeezed.

Of that amount, $717 million is needed to buy grain, with another $200 million for school feeding programs and almost $140 million to support livestock farmers, according to a statement distributed on Tuesday in the capital, Harare.

South Africa

South Africa is also facing scorching heat, with record-high temperatures last year, and rainfall in 2015 being the lowest in 112 years. Five out of the country’s nine provinces have been declared drought disaster zones, as crops fail and livestock perish – nearly 800,000 cattle may have to be culled.

South Africa’s government may not be requesting formal assistance from the international community, and in all likelihood will import supplies itself to cover its needs. Analysts expect South Africa to import between 3 million and 4 million tonnes of maize to fill the gap, but this comes as the country’s currency has fallen to all-time lows against the US dollar.


In Malawi, the 2014/15 cereal harvest was 24% down on the five-year average. Currently, 2.8 million people are “food insecure” (they lack access to food that’s sufficient to lead healthy and active lives) out of a population of 16 million as a result of flooding and drought last year.

Average maize prices were at a record high in December 2015. The government’s $146-million Food Insecurity Response Plan is so far 48% funded.


Angola’s three southern provinces are being scorched by drought – Cunene, Huila, and Cuando Cubango. In Cunene, 800,000 people – 72% of the population – have been hit by crop losses and livestock deaths, with child malnutrition rates beyond the emergency threshold of 15%. Nationwide 1.25 million are at risk.


El Niño’s climate impact splits Mozambique in two – in the north there has been flooding, in the south drought. More than 176,000 people are in crisis in the provinces of Gaza, Inhambane, Sofala, and Niassa, until at least the next harvest.

A further 575,000 people are food insecure, especially in Zambézia, Maputo, and Niassa provinces – a total of 750,000. Around 50,300 people are receiving food assistance in Gaza and Sofala, IRIN reports.


In Swaziland, more than 201,000 people out of 1.1 million – one fifth of the population – are food insecure. Maize prices have already increased 66%.


In Madagascar, nearly 1.9 million people – 8.6% of the population – were “food insecure” in 2015, with 450,000 of them in crisis. The drought-hit southern regions of Androy, Anosy, and Atsimo Andrefana are struggling badly, with 380,000 people – 30% of the population – affected, reports from IRIN indicate.

DR Congo

In The Democratic Republic of Congo, fighting in the east of the county worsens DRC’s food insecurity. Orientale, Equateur, South Kivu, and Katanga provinces are already at emergency levels. An estimated 6.6 million people face food shortages.

The good news

But it’s not all doom and gloom – most of West Africa is in pretty good shape, having enjoyed average to above-average rainfall and good harvests thanks to El Nino’s effect on ocean currents in the Gulf of Guinea, according to reports from FEWS Net.

Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, and most of Chad and Niger are on “minimal” alert for food insecurity, according to FEWS Net classification. Supplies on cereal markets have improved since the lean season (between June and September) with the arrival of new crops from ongoing harvests. The seasonal decline in prices since September is improving household cereal access.

In Liberia, 2015/16 rice production levels were average to above average, with recent official government reports suggesting that Lofa County, a surplus rice-producing zone where 2014 farming activities were hindered by the Ebola outbreak, experienced a bumper harvest this year.

It’s largely the same case for Guinea and most of Sierra Leone, though insecurity in northeastern Nigeria and neighboring areas of Niger and Chad is reducing activities and food access despite the ongoing harvests.

Quick response

For the countries in crisis, a quick and timely response is crucial. Early response and building resilience interventions, however varied, are significantly more cost-effective than emergency interventions for seriously malnourished people, a recent report by Oxfam shows.

A five-country study commissioned by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Niger, Mozambique and Malawi estimated that response at four months after a failed harvest costs $49 per household, whereas response at six months after harvest costs $1,294 per household.

A similar study in Ethiopia found that early commercial destocking (selling off animals while they are still healthy) was 137 times cheaper than waiting until herds are depleted then responding with imported food aid and restocking.

Still, a perceived risk in responding early is that humanitarian funds will be released incorrectly to situations that turn out not to be a disaster.

“National governments and donors are afraid of ‘crying wolf’ by reacting pre-emptively to forecasts that are subsequently proven to be incorrect, which presumably leads to funding being misallocated,” the Oxfam brief says.

But the report states that the shift to early response does not incur any additional cost compared with late response; in fact, smart implementation of early response strengthens a community’s resilience.

Don’t wait and see

“Economic concerns over false early response are unwarranted. Country studies found that, for every early response to a correctly forecast crisis, early responses could be made 2–6 times to crises that do not materialise, before the cost of a single late response is met,” the DFID study concluded, as quoted in the Oxfam brief.

At-risk countries, donors and humanitarian actors must acknowledge that waiting to see if a situation becomes a large-scale crisis before committing funding and resources is a false economy, Oxfam urges; a quick response is a “clear economic win”.

The current El Niño is expected to persist for at least an additional 4-6 months.

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Written by Christine Mungai Writer, Mail & Guardian Africa
Published Friday 26 February 2016
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