(Irinnews)Drought, poor rains and continuing high fuel prices have combined to keep food prices in Eastern Africa high, with consumers forgoing basic staples and many traders being forced to shut down their businesses.
IRIN spoke to residents of seven countries in the region for a sense of how the rising cost of living was affecting them.
« [Buying] meat and butter is unthinkable; meat has gone up from 40 to 45 birr [US$2.60] a kilo four months ago to 90 birr [$5.20] a kilo now, » said Solomon Bekele, 55, who supports a family of five in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. « Butter is now around 120 birr [$6.95] a kilo from just 60 birr [$3.47] in October 2010. »
Solomon, who makes 4,000 birr [$231] a month, says he spends about 60 percent of his income on food.
According to Ethiopia’s Central Statistical Agency (CSA), the annual inflation rate reached 39.2 percent in July, from 16.5 percent in February 2011.
Food prices rose by 47.4 percent in July against 12.8 percent in February.
In south-central Somalia, much of which is in the grip of a severe famine, food prices have skyrocketed.
« We eat one or two of the usual three meals every day because of the high price of food; two months ago, half a kilo of rice cost 20,000 shillings [$0.66], but now it costs 40,000 shillings [$1.32], » said Fadumo Hassan Abdi, a mother of six in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. « Until two months ago, I had a small business in Bakara Market [in Mogadishu], but it was lost during the war between the Transitional Federal Government and Al-Shabab [militia]. »
Mustafe Mohamed, a father of three in Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland, said: « Four months ago one 50kg sack of rice was only $28, compared with $34.50 now, while a 50kg sack of sugar that cost $40 now costs $50. Before, $90 was enough feed the family, but now you can’t even buy food for $200 – we don’t know what to do. »
Shaqlan Jama Ismail, a grandmother, says food prices have never been so high in her lifetime. « We used to buy food with cash, but now we have to borrow money, » she said. « We are waiting for the almighty Allah to help us. »
« In late July , a litre of petrol was 5,800 Somaliland shillings [$0.96] but now it is about 7,200 shillings [$1.20] – if the situation continues like this we may stop driving, » said Mohamed Abdalla, a taxi driver in Hargeisa.
On 6 July 2011, Tanzania’s Agriculture Minister Tumanne Maghembe announced a ban on crop exports for six months to prevent the food shortages being experienced in many parts of the region.
Maghembe noted that « generally there is food surplus » in the country, but pockets of food insecurity existed in several regions, including Singida, Dodoma and Shinyanga, as well as northern regions of Arusha and Tanga in the east.
« There was poor rainfall in several parts of Shinyanga region and crops failed, » James Lembeli, Member of Parliament for Kahama, told IRIN.
According to Tanzania’s National Bureau of Statistics, the annual headline inflation rate for June 2011 was 10.9 percent, against 9.7 percent the previous month.
« We used to buy rice for 1,200 shillings [$0.74] for a kilo but now, you have to pay 1,500 shillings [$0.92], » said Sitti Pilula, a resident of Kariakoo, a suburb of Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.
Maghembe noted that since the export ban, smuggling of food to neighbouring countries had increased, threatening food security in Tanzania.
Fuel prices are also soaring, with some observers predicting protests should the government fail to resolve the issue.
Kenyan families are adjusting to doing without food items that used to be part of everyday life.
« I could not eat ugali [maize meal, a staple] without meat; even when I had it with vegetables, it had to be mixed with beef, » said Francis Muruli, a teacher in Nakuru, in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province.
Muruli and his family now eat vegetables with their ugali, saving an average of 80 shillings [$0.83] on every meal.
Due to a shortage of maize caused by poor rains, a 90kg bag, which cost about KSh1,200 [$12.50], now costs as much as KSh4,000 [$41.70]. According to government officials, an unreliable rainy season means the maize yield for the rest of the year is uncertain.
Wanjiku Kamau, a resident of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, says the high prices of food and other commodities means she is unable to save any money.
« I am paid 10,000 shillings [$104] per month; my rent is 3,000 [$31.30] while almost all the rest goes to feeding my children, » said the single mother of three. « Everything has increased in price; two litres of cooking oil which I used to buy for 280 shillings [$2.90] is now 470 shillings [$4.90]. »
Francis Kamunya, a secondary school teacher, now goes directly to producers and buys in bulk to reduce the cost of running his household. « Rather than buy maize in single packets, I now prefer taking about 5kg of maize to the posho mill, leaving me with at least some savings, » he said. « I buy at least 20kg of rice from the Mwea [rice scheme] traders. It is enough to last three months. »
In northern Kenya, more and more residents are relying on relief food as traders close their businesses due to high supply costs and dwindling customers.
Abdi Ndenge, a night-watchman at a guest house in Isiolo town, works as a porter during the day yet he can barely make enough to feed his two children. « I was comfortable until December last year; I used to work at night, sleep during the day and could afford to feed my family; this is not possible now with the food prices having gone so high. »
The government has capped fuel prices but global trends and the shilling’s poor performance against the dollar mean the Energy Regulatory Commission has been forced to raise these caps several times over the past few months. The pump price of petrol in Nairobi is about KSh115 ($1.20) against KSh97.1 (about $1) in January 2011.
The shilling has dropped 18 percent against the dollar in 2011, trading at a new low of 95.10 on 9 August.
According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, headline inflation reached 18.7 percent in July from 15.7 percent in June.
« Life is becoming unbearable because I have to struggle every day to be able to put food on the table for my family. Today, the largest bunch of matooke [plantain, a popular local staple] costs up to 20,000 shillings [$7.30]; I used to pay half the price in January but my income has remained the same from that time, » said James Mukwaya, a father of four with a household of eight people. « We would resort to maize flour but that too has risen to 3,200 shillings [$1.16] per kilo instead of the 1,500 shillings [$0.54] we used to pay. »
A sugar shortage – caused by drought and the temporary closure of a major sugar factory for maintenance – has seen prices soar: 1kg is retailing at about 5,800 shillings ($2.11) in urban areas, and costs up to 10,000 shillings ($3.65) in rural areas.
« The producers haven’t hiked prices but wholesalers and retailers are taking advantage and have doubled prices, » said Jimmy Kabeho, chairman of the Uganda Sugar Cane Technologists’ Association.
The government has waived taxes on sugar to stem the price rises, including allowing controlled imports.
Power rationing across the country has also contributed to the rise in prices, with many industries forced to use fuel-guzzling generators for much of their production.
« Prices are rising night after night; I have to hold my breath when entering the market because of the rising food prices, » said Sara Lamunu, a resident of Gulu, northern Uganda. « Last Wednesday a kilo of sugar was 6,000 shillings [$2.19] but this morning the price has risen to 9,000 shillings [$3.30]. »
« I no longer fry food because a litre of cooking oil costs 4,500 shillings [$1.64], » said Alice Atto, another Gulu resident.
According to Musa Ecweru, the Minister for Disaster Preparedness, exports of food to South Sudan, Somalia and Kenya had contributed to the high food prices.
Opposition parties and civilians have threatened a resumption of the « Walk to Work » protests that saw the government crack down violently on protesters in April, injuring Kizza Besigye, leader of the country’s largest opposition party.
Food prices have continued to increase in Rwanda over the past two months, despite the government’s tax exemptions on some basic commodities.
According to the National Institute of Statistics, the increase in the consumer price index of 1.54 percent is attributable primarily to the increase in prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages (2.41 percent), housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels (0.95 percent) and transport (3.08 percent).
The cost of local goods increased by 5.12 percent, according to the institute, attributed to a 1.7 percent price increase in vegetables and a 6.12 percent increase in bread and cereals prices.
Although Agriculture Minister Agnes Kalibata has stressed there is no evidence of food insecurity across the country, she said Rwandans had been advised to stock food and to avoid selling their surplus produce.
« The issue of food insecurity cannot be taken [to be] as serious [in Rwanda] because it has been noticed that prices of certain food commodities in some parts of the country are extremely high while farmers in other parts struggle to get buyers, » Kalibata said.
Jean-Chyrsostome Ngabitsinze, a Rwandan agricultural researcher, said there was a need to engage rural farmers in cash-crop farming. « While encouraging farmers to adopt fruit and vegetable crops, which [are] suitable to both local and international markets, this will help ensure food security and enhance the livelihoods of local farmers, » he told IRIN.
Burundi residents attributed the high food prices to rising fuel prices, and say parts of the country are experiencing severe food insecurity.
« We fear we could have a famine like the one in Somalia, » said Aminata*, a banana vendor in the capital, Bujumbura. « I take care of a family of five children and I am spending at least five times more than what I spent in 2005 to feed them. Today, beans cost 1,300 francs [$1.03] whereas it was only 600 francs [$0.50] in 2005. »
Some families in the drought-prone northern province of Kirundo are skipping meals. A widow told IRIN she now ate once every two days.
Ciza Leocadia, 29, a mother of twins, said: « I came to Bujumbura in search of food because I was not able to raise my twins in my rural home; I have nothing to eat. » She said her husband had gone to neighbouring Tanzania in search of food.
Sébastien Ndikumagenge, director-general in the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, said rising food prices, speculation by dealers and a banana disease that had been ravaging the country’s staple since November 2010 had compromised food security, with some families at risk of starvation.
According to a first-quarter report by Burundi’s Central Bank, « The rise in food inflation is mainly due to the increase in rice prices (8.7 percent); fresh fish (17.3 percent); dried fish (9.6 percent), palm oil (29.7 percent) and dry beans (14.1 percent). »
Antoine Gahiru, a communication officer for the Institute of Economic Studies of Burundi, said annual inflation in June was 8.6 percent, due to high water and electricity prices.
However, sources in the Agriculture Ministry told IRIN grain production across the country was on the increase following recent harvests but a countrywide food deficit of 61,800MT of cereals remained.
*not her real name