Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Food Crisis Hits North

War-scarred region faces new woes as food prices spiral.
By Bill Oketch

Helen Ocen, a widow from the village of Ajul northwest of Lira in northern Uganda, is no stranger to the daily struggle to feed her family of six.



But faced wit steeply rising food prices that have hit Uganda, other African countries, and many parts of the developing world, that struggle has become more onerous.



“We eat one meal a day because our mother cannot afford the high food prices in the markets,” said Helen’s youngest son, Godfrey.



“This has made it very difficult for us to grow healthy,” said one of her daughters, Dorcus. “Sometimes we think if Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, did not kill our father, we would stand a chance of better health.”



Helen and her children are among nearly two million people in northern Uganda who have been displaced by a two-decades-long war waged by the LRA.



Although the conflict has effectively ended and the rebels are now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, former refugees now face a dramatic rise in food costs as they try to reestablish their small-holdings and farms.



According to Isaac Egong, who heads a local farmers’ group, former refugees who are now returning to their villages are the hardest hit by the price rises. Many only recently planted crops, and still need to buy food.



All varieties of beans have nearly doubled in cost and peas have increased by about a fifth, while corn has gone up by a third, millet nearly doubled and cabbage up by nearly two-thirds, he said.



Food in the restaurants is available, but more expensive menus are putting off customers.



“We are now selling a plate of meat at 2,000 Ugandan shillings (1.25 US dollars), but we used to sell it at only 500,” said hotel operator Susan Omara.



Much of the food in the north is brought in from other parts of Uganda, such as Mbale to the southeast and Kampala to the south.



Rising fuel and transportation costs have been blamed as major cause for food price increases.



Petrol now costs about 15 per cent more than it has in the recent past, and diesel is also up by about 20 per cent at most filling stations across the country.



Middlemen say obtaining food directly from growers in the villages is difficult because most are only now cultivating their traditional lands.



“It will take time for people to begin growing enough food as they did before the war,” explained Odongo.



University lecturer Dan Okello said the problem has been compounded by producers taking advantage of rising prices in South Sudan, Rwanda and DRC.



“Prices of the local goods will continue to rise as long as business communities continue to export commodities meant for local consumption to neighbouring markets,” he explained.



Agricultural officials in Lira such as Peter Ajungu said that the fuel prices have also affected the cost of agricultural production.



But he said the area’s farmers should produce enough this season to reduce the current increases in food costs.



Although Otim Ogonga, the government’s national agricultural advisory services coordinator, said he feared the north might face serious famine next year if an inadequate amount of rain does not fall across the region.



Ogonga advised farmers to plant crops which are resistant to drought.



Experts say rising prices have been compounded by natural disaster such as floods that afflicted the war zones of the north, as well as drought in other areas.



Uganda’s victims of widespread flooding last year “have not received the attention they deserve”, said Okello. “They remain in desperate need of resettlement kits, shelters, clothing, medical care and food.”



The flood swept away crops, roads and bridges, leaving entire communities isolated, and prompted the government to declare the area a disaster zone. Yet little has been done to address their problems.



About 22 billion shillings (about 1.3 million dollars), has been budgeted for the flood victims, but the aid has not reached most of them, said Okello.



“The money has disappeared into thin air and has not been accounted for,” he continued. “Some people are now taking one meal a day because they cannot afford the escalating food prices.”



Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained journalist.