Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Africa must produce enough food for its people

By Olley Maruma - The Southern Times Africa

As the 21st century enters its second decade, hunger, malnutrition and starvation will still be the lot of a vast majority of Africans, making a mockery of their human dignity and humanity's most basic human right - the right to adequate nutrition.

Although food security is at the core of every nation's survival, many African countries are still obsessed with investing in grandiose prestige projects aimed at the export markets of Europe and America, while totally neglecting the food requirements of their own nations. This obsession with earning foreign currency usually in the form of the US dollar, the British pound and the euro has blighted the vision of many African leaders to cheaper, simpler and more appropriate solutions to their national problems such as having a common continental agricultural and energy policy, the introduction of a common continental currency, the total integration of their economies through closer cooperation and intra-regional trade blocs and the formation of commodity associations to protect their agricultural produce and other products against wide variations in world prices.

Today, if an African country invited all the continent's professional experts in vital fields such as science, business and the law, it would find that the Africans present are divided into Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone and not into East, West, North and South.

Although as Africans those present would easily realise that through three or four Bantu languages they could communicate with each other, finding out in the process how much their traditions, customs, scientific methods

and legal jurisprudence have got in common. Instead, today they are divided by the languages and the legal systems and financial institutions of their former colonisers.

So, if Africa is to prosper and restore its human dignity in the 21st century, its leaders must go back to basics. Africa must make sure that it produces enough food for its own people. In this endeavour it must make sure it produces enough grains for its own consumption because a surge in the price of these usually leads to huge increases in the price of bread, milk, meat, and other products. While food accounts for just 10 percent of expenditure in households in the developed world, it accounts for as much as 80 percent in the developing countries.

African countries must come up with short-term and long term regional and continental measures and plans to mitigate the effects of escalating world food prices. Africans should concentrate on using their resources efficiently to develop cheap alternative sources of energy, such as hydropower, solar and wind energy.

The folly of not doing all these things has been made very poignant by what is happening to the Seychelles, once touted as one of "the richest countries in Africa".

The recent global financial crisis exposed the fragility of that country's economy when towards the end of 2008 it was forced to swallow the IMF's most commonly prescribed bitter pill: implement fiscal and monetary reforms to increase tax revenues, cut public spending, particularly on social programmes and remove government control of the money supply.

Since independence in 1976, per capita output in the Seychelles had expanded to roughly

seven times the archipelago's old near subsistence level of existence. Endowed with beautiful islands and glorious weather, much of the economy's growth was led by the tourism sector, which employs 30 percent of the country's labour force. The sector also earns more than 70 percent of the country's foreign exchange.

This led the government to encourage foreign investors to plough their money into upgrading the country's hotels and other tourism services. The incentive offered by the government led to an enormous amount being invested in real estate projects and new resort properties. Mostly five star hotels such as the Hilton, Four Seasons, and the Banyan Tree were built. Hundreds of million of dollars were invested in development projects still in the beginning stages for Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airlines, Raffles and Shangri-La and others. Two billion American dollars was expected to be invested for other private developments such as the Aurore, Per Aquam and Eden Island.

The Seychelles government had also borrowed heavily from international sources to develop its fishing industry particularly tuna fishing. This was because although the industry is worth over US$5 billion a year, the Seychellois government only receives US$22 million in licensing fees.

Things began to turn awry when the impact of the global rise in food prices hit the nation mid last year, prompting calls for an emergency session of parliament to address the issue by the opposition. The opposition call followed an announcement by the government of an increase in the price of rice, the Seychellois staple meal. The increase was a direct result of an upsurge in international food prices. The increase came after the government had been urged by international financial institutions to devalue its currency the rupee, making the price of basic food items too expensive for the average family.

Excessive hikes in the price of food were followed by stiff increases in the price of electricity and water, amongst other basic necessities needed by regular households. This was at a time when the average household had not seen any substantial increase in their salaries while members of government and parliament had allocated themselves huge salary increases, bonuses and gratuities.

The chickens had come to roost. In the past, in its quest to develop the tourism industry which earned the country much foreign exchange, the government was prepared to weather criticism of its policies which had been accused of taking away agricultural land and earmarking it for a university project and more tourism projects. In the last 10 years, many outer coralline islands have remained idle, with farming programmes coming to standstill because of government neglect. Government had even been considering turning some of these agricultural projects into new tourism resorts.

With the Seychelles raking in pots of cash from the tourism industry, it could afford to pay for cheap food imports instead of encouraging its people to grow their own.

The downturn in the world economy, suddenly and dramatically changed the country's

fortunes for the worse. With the heavily indebted Seychelles now unable to meet its debt obligations, its government had to agree to an IMF progamme to liberalise its once state controlled economy.

Before the onset of the world slump, the government had predicted that the economy would undergo a contraction of 0.5 percent in 2009. Now experts say the contraction may be as bad as 25 percent! Last year the economy grew by 3.1 percent.

"With the crisis now impacting on employment in our foreign markets, it wouldn't be a surprise if these figures are revised down come February," central bank governor Pierre Laporte told the press in Victoria.

The Seychelles turned to the IMF last year when it came close to exhausting its foreign exchange reserves with external debts totalling more than US$800 million.

The most interesting idea in the Seychelles to deal with that nation's food security crisis came from the Secretary General of the Seychelles Chamber of Commerce who suggested that the government should subsidise farmers as an incentive to produce more for surplus. In other words, Seychellois farmers are quite capable of increasing food production if given government incentives. But this is not happening at the moment because the ruling elite are wallowing in a complacency created by a surfeit of foreign exchange from the tourism industry.

With most tourists now tightening their belts back at home in the Europe and America, the euros and American dollars that will make their way to the Seychelles are dwindling. Suddenly, people who could otherwise feed themselves are finding themselves being thrown back to poverty because the tourism industry is now in a tailspin and their jobs are gone. Without jobs, they have no money to buy anything and no plots of land for their subsistence farming. Yet as they say, a hungry man is an angry man. The Seychellois authorities may find out that the hard way when one day the angry men revolt against their government.