COVID-19: Enhancing diets and strengthening food systems in Uganda

COVID-19: Enhancing diets and strengthening food systems in Uganda
31 August 2020

As we face disruptions to our food supply and people's livelihoods, it is also important to re-think how our food system functions so that even through the crisis, we can strive for positive outcomes by enabling access to nutritious diets and healthy lives for more people in the coming decade and beyond.

By Prof. Pamela K. Mbabazi and Rhoda Peace Tumusiime

In Uganda, as in much of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting new challenges to already fragile food systems and to our efforts to reduce food insecurity and improve malnutrition.

As we face disruptions to our food supply and people's livelihoods, it is also important to re-think how our food system functions so that even through the crisis, we can strive for positive outcomes by enabling access to nutritious diets and healthy lives for more people in the coming decade and beyond.
The UN Secretary General in his Policy Brief on the Impact of COVID-19 on food security and nutrition (June 2020), said

"This crisis can serve as a turning point to rebalance and transform our food systems, making them more inclusive, sustainable and resilient".

The time is right for Uganda's leaders and technocrats to take heed and ensure a transformed food system which responds to all the four dimensions of food security and nutrition. These are: physical availability of food, economic and physical access to food, food utilisation and stability of supply.

Following the first confirmed case on March 22, 2020, President Yoweri Museveni, guided by the Ministry of Health and partners, responded swiftly by triggering the National COVID-19 preparedness and response plan and enforced strict lock-down measures.

As of July 30, 2020, Uganda had reported 1,140 cumulative COVID-19 cases and two deaths. The Government's dedicated multi-sectoral COVID-19 committee put in place a number of measures, including those to enhance access to food among the most vulnerable groups, particularly the urban poor.

The first phase aimed to reach 1.5 million people in Kampala and Wakiso with relief packages of posho (cornmeal porridge), powdered milk and beans, delivered by the joint security forces with support from local councillors, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Uganda Red Cross teams. Of this target, only 800,000 people had been reached by May 7, 2020 as reported by the Office of the Prime Minister.

The UN organisations in Uganda also launched a $316m appeal to support agricultural assistance, malnutrition prevention programmes and targeted food security interventions among other sectoral interventions.

Since March 2020 to date, COVID-19 cases have increased although not as fast as expected. Furthermore, the majority of cases are mild, with a negligible death rate. Whilst it may still be early days, the biggest concern is the knock-on effects of the restrictive measures to contain the virus, which put pressure on the food systems in Uganda and the ability of citizens to access the nutrient-rich foods required to prevent malnutrition in all its forms.

The nature of the pandemic and the lockdown has made ensuring food security for all, safety and quality a challenge. Although the majority of the containment measures have been relaxed since early June 2020, the economic slowdown is forecasted to persist through to 2021.

Despite the Government's commendable response in maintaining trade corridors, and keeping agriculture supplies and markets flowing, Uganda is already seeing disruptions to its food systems. This is evident from reduced business activity, reduced labour demand, reduced domestic and export demand for agricultural products and low food prices.

Farm labour disruptions (through travel restrictions and illness), and difficulties accessing machinery parts (farming and food processing), seeds, pesticides and fertilisers had been severely impacted early in the lockdown but the situation is gradually improving.

These difficulties experienced at the height of the lockdown led to only 60% of the seed stock available for the first season of 2020 being sold. Agricultural extension services also declined due to the earlier lockdown, curfew, social distancing measures and reductions in funding.

Slowdowns in harvesting and food transportation could arguably create further food loss and waste, as well as compromise food safety, especially for perishable nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Exports have also been affected. There has been a 50% reduction in air freight services for fresh fruits and vegetables. We are also seeing a downturn in the informal food market.

This is important because Uganda's informal exports to its five neighbouring countries are estimated to account for 43% of its total agricultural exports. These losses could all have knock-on effect to the economy especially if the pandemic situation is not contained.

Agriculture accounts for 24% of GDP in Uganda and provides half of export earnings. Food-based SMEs are of particular concern and form vital linkages in food systems. These have been heavily affected by the pandemic. In sub-Saharan Africa, SMEs are involved in the provision of around 80% of total calories and are especially vulnerable given their lack of cash resources to sustain themselves.

Job and income losses, particularly among urban settings and more so among women, could also further reduce food purchasing power and may arguably negatively impact household food and nutrition security. Evidence shows that when families are in financial crisis, they tend to spend more on calories and less on micronutrients, thereby worsening their diets further, especially for vulnerable individuals within households.

To compound this, it is not clear to what extent the global economic downturn will have on the demand for Uganda's other key export commodities, i.e. coffee, cotton, tea, tobacco, and sugar. Together, these disruptions to Uganda are affecting market functionality and incomes, which means people may increasingly struggle to access safe, affordable, healthy and diversified diets.

All these factors are ultimately likely to lead to below normal household incomes particularly for the poorest households with emphasis on the urban poor.

According to FEWSNET June 2020 update, the urban areas are in the "stressed" Integrated Phase Classification, with this likely to persist into 2021 .

WFP's enhanced urban food security monitoring system covering the 13 largest urban areas in the country has found that the proportion of urban Ugandans with insufficient food consumption increased from 11% in May to 16 % in June 2020 - an increase from 1.0 to 1.82 million individuals.

  Furthermore, underfunding of development and humanitarian programmes in the country targeting refugees and the Karamoja region is already being reported by WFP and UNHCR. Thus, the forecast in the numbers of food insecure, impoverished and malnourished looks bleak over the coming months into 2021.

WFP has estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic will see more than a quarter of a billion people around the world suffering from acute hunger by the end of 2020, and the livelihoods of 265 million people in low- and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken.

Despite great progress over recent years, 41% of Uganda's population remain undernourished, 29% of Ugandan children under the age of five are still stunted, 53% of children, 32% of women and 16% of men all suffered from anaemia, and 66% of primary and secondary school going children did not have access to a school meal even before the pandemic.

According to the WFP Global Food Crisis Report launched in April 2020 and the recent United Nations Emergency Appeal, 1.5 million people in Uganda are food insecure, with up to 3.8 million Ugandans requiring food security, livelihoods and nutrition assistance.

To put the costs into perspective, the annual costs associated with child undernutrition alone in Uganda is estimated at sh1.8 trillion or 5.6. % of GDP, through ill health, reduced physical growth, and impaired cognitive development. These costs require attention if Uganda is to achieve its National Development Plan (NDP) 3 targets.

The country needs to continue extending its food assistance response to ensure that basic food needs are matched with wider nutritional requirements, increasing the opportunities for citizens to access and afford the nutrient-rich foods that make up a healthy diet.

The Government of Uganda is committed to continue working towards re-energising and empowering existing multi-sector governance platforms for agriculture, food systems, nutrition and social safety net programmes for the most vulnerable.

The current Uganda Nutrition Action Plan (UNAP) Secretariat  offers a great opportunity to galvanise food security in Uganda if well operationalised and strengthened. The Secretariat uses coordination structures up to the Local Government level which bring together Government, development partners, academia, private sector and civil society.  These need to be further strengthened, and all linkages made more functional.

The Government is already elevating the National Zero Hunger Strategy to a ten-year strategic framework targeted to address SDG 2. The strategy aims at positioning Uganda as the main food basket of Eastern Africa. In the short term however, there is need to prioritise finalization of the relevant policy and planning frameworks on nutrition, food safety and food security.

The current emergency food relief programme should also be expanded to include a greater variety of more nutritious, locally produced foods such as fortified flour (maize or wheat), biofortified iron-rich beans and orange fleshed sweet potato.

This will help avoid the prospect of increased prevalence of micronutrient deficiencies. Partners such as WFP and other NGO's experienced in food distribution could play a stronger role in strengthening the capacity of government both at the central and local levels to deliver such expansive food relief distribution programmes. This could support increased efficiency, transparency and accountability.

Social protection schemes and income safety nets have become increasingly important across the world. As of mid-June 2020, around 200 countries or territories had implemented large-scale safety net actions based around protecting food consumption, mitigating poverty and/or maintaining access to essential services.

Although this increases pressure on Uganda's fiscal resources over the longer term, it may prove cost effective to prioritise social protection, using such programmes to also educate households about healthy eating. Already Uganda is implementing the Senior Citizens Grant (SCG) under the expanding social protection programme, to provide monthly cash transfers of sh25,000 to older persons 80 years and above.

This programme should be expanded to cover the most poor and vulnerable populations, especially in times of disasters and epidemics/pandemics such as COVID 19. Other Social Protection programmes like Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF) and Development of Uganda Initiative are inclusive of nutrition and food security. DINU for example has a budget of 153m euros over the next five years, of which 27m is for nutrition.

However, as noted by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition in its policy brief "COVID-19 Safeguarding food systems and nutrition, the pandemic also provides some unique opportunities.

In this context, Uganda has a chance to re-examine its existing food systems and national trade policies, to increase the availability of locally produced foods and ensure the affordability of nutrient-rich foods, especially when compared against imports of nutrient poor, ultra-processed foods.

We also have a chance to ‘build back better' food systems which are more sustainable. Food systems are a major contributor to climate change, accounting for 25-30% of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IPCC.

Uganda's primarily rain-fed subsistence farming makes it highly vulnerable to higher temperatures, more erratic rainfall, and increase in the frequency and duration of droughts, the annual cost of which could be around UGS 12 - 22 billion within a decade if no adaptive action is taken.

This rebuilding of our food systems must be underpinned by the routine collection and sharing of higher-quality data on our food systems and diets of our citizens, to strengthen our evidence-base and routine or real time monitoring of the food security and nutrition situation.

As we traverse and emerge from this pandemic, it is clear that business as usual for Uganda's food system is not an option.

If we are to match the ambition of Uganda's third National Development Plan (NDP 3), to have a people-centered, independent, integrated, resilient and self-sustaining economy, it is essential that we have a well-functioning food system that provides safe, affordable, accessible and healthy diets for all, whilst protecting our natural environment.

Prof. Pamela K. Mbabazi is the Board Chairperson of the National Planning Authority and Rhoda Peace Tumusiime is the former commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the AU Commission