The Horn Of Africa States: Food Security (Part II) – OpEd


o be without food is simply to die. The United Nations and its multiple subsidiaries and institutions and others all try to define why food is important in such terms as: “all people, at all times, have physical social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” But the reality is that if one has no food, one will die and hence the importance for anyone anywhere to have food to survive. The Horn of Africa States is no different. Food security has been a concern of late and millions of the region’s population do suffer from lack of food and/or insufficiency of food and hence resultant health concerns and issues. As the human body weakens, its resistance to diseases and other physical and mental strengths decline and deteriorate.

The irony is that the Horn of Africa States has vast arable lands and vast water sources both above ground and underground. The region is the source of the Blue Nile, one of the largest tributaries of the River Nile and the Atbara, another Tributary and the Sobhat. It has also the Jubba, the Ganane and the Shabelle rivers and the Omo and many other rivers. It enjoys lakes of fresh water like the Abaya or Tana and others. Indeed, the highland parts of the region can produce enough food to feed the whole region. But the lowlands are not deprived of food production possibilities either. It has vast arable lands, and its long coasts and rich marine life can feed not only the region but many millions more outside the region.

The Horn of Africa States has contributed to the food production systems of the world, which is another paradox. The region introduced the teff and the finger millet and the enset and coffee to the world. It also identified its own seeds of barley and wheat and sorghum and many other foods unique to the region. The region always fed itself and exported foods to the rest of the world and in particular to those regions that are not endowed with enough water such as Arabia. The region owns a truly large animal population including cattle, sheep and goats and the largest camel population anywhere in the world and hence has a substantial source of meat. Yet in the past four decades the region suffered greatly from hunger and starvation and it all goes back to the earnest commencement of wars, both regional and internal, in the late seventies. These wars and civil unrests have been pushed to a large extent by non-regional parties, using the region’s internal idiosyncrasies, such as the fake nationalisms created after the arrival of Europeans in the region at the end of the nineteenth century.

In the past and until recently, the region enjoyed food storage facilities dating back to thousands of years in silos that were dug underground by the farmers of the region. They also processed meat and other food items in such ways as they could last for extended periods without refrigeration. The region never depended on food production of other countries such those of the United States or Ukraine or Europe or even others such as South Asia as is the case these days. It could live without any imports, yet over the past several decades, the region’s food production has declined to the extent, that it has become dependent on imports and food handouts by unscrupulous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The region imports rice and wheat and flour and other foods from beyond the region. It is surprising to find even Brazilian chicken being sold in food stores in the region, indicating how far food production has declined in the Horn of Africa States.

The blame game on the deterioration of food production in the region is said to include among others climate change, urbanization, civil wars and political instability. While true to some extent, the real culprit in the matter is the introduction of non-regional seeds into the region, which has discouraged farmers to continue farming and opting for urban life instead of staying with declining harvests year after year and hence the resultant increase in urban populations, increase in food imports, increase of unemployment and poverty,  and hence the hunger and starvation reports that have become so common in the media on the region.

Food security in the region can be achieved but only if the region’s leaders, both ruling parties and opposition, its businesspeople and its various other sectors embark on projects aimed at food self-sufficiency. Food imports would not or could not be eliminated immediately, but deliberate import substitution projects have to be launched immediately in food production and food processing. Food production projects would include marine and fishing, commercial grain farming and assistance to individual family farms, change in the traditional animal husbandry processes which depended mostly on nomads travelling long distances to feed their animals. They could be raised commercially in large farms, and this is where the businessperson of the region would really play a part. Food production is not an easy task and the region’s leaders would need not to be discouraged by first failures in some of the projects. This is bound to happen like any business venture. Persistence and perseverance of the many stakeholders would be necessary.

Communal involvement with governmental assistance at all levels would be necessary and more particularly co-ordination between the four states of the region. Concerted and co-ordinated efforts would yield better results and there is, where setting up a regional development bank, the HAS Development Bank would be necessary. It would be able to raise funds from governmental institutions and regional and non-regional investors to finance many regional agricultural projects including large commercial farming projects, water-services projects and animal feedstock projects and so on.

Self-sufficiency should be part of the process without reverting to others for help and handouts. The process of creating food security in the region should be a regional affair and not in the hands of others. Any assistance in this regard should be rejected and the region should create its own processes with its own resources. Those who want to take risks on the region as investors should be welcomed as long as they do not involve themselves in hindering food production processes in the region. As Horn Africans say, one only drinks enough from ones’ own hands!

Dr. Suleiman Walhad

Dr. Suleiman Walhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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