Southern Africa food crisis: When it’s too expensive to eat

Back in 2015, Nelia Kanyemba, a farmer in Malawi, only managed to harvest a small amount of millet after prolonged dry spells destroyed most of her crops. Two years later, the situation for millions of people in Southern Africa is getting even worse.

Imagine living in a world where it’s too expensive to eat. I don’t mean a night out at a restaurant or missing the occasional pastry. I mean when it’s too expensive to keep good nutritious food on the table. That’s what’s happening in the part of Africa where I live.

A nutritious balanced diet is out of reach for many, and a lot of people eat only once or twice a day.

For much of the last year, more than 20 million people here were dependent on food assistance; they make up half of the 40 million Africans affected by the worst drought in 35 years.

I’m not talking here about the huge and serious East Africa crisis. But while few in Southern Africa will die of starvation, the long-term effects of prolonged food insecurity are profound.

The people of Southern Africa have experienced two consecutive years of drought produced by a prolonged El Nino event. Crops failed here and they failed badly. The price of staples like maize and sorghum skyrocketed and, in many places, were simply no longer available, bringing about levels of hunger previously unseen in this part of the continent.

People’s coping mechanisms are exhausted. People are exhausted.

Around one in four children under the age of five are stunted, a condition caused by malnutrition that, for older children, cannot be reversed. Families without food are not sending their children to school; those children that go to school hungry struggle to focus and their grades suffer.

In Mozambique, one of our team met a mother who told him she was thinking she’d have to arrange a marriage for her 12-year-old daughter because she couldn’t provide food for her anymore.

In Madagascar, more than one and a half million people in the south of the country are dependent on emergency aid, and over 330,000 of them face severe hunger. Eight out of ten are farmers. Families are selling their assets and migrating in search of alternative incomes.

The good news is the rains finally came and harvests will be better this year but the wet season doesn’t always bring relief. In March, Cyclone Enawo in Madagascar left more than 250,000 people in need of food assistance and more than 350,000 without clean water. Cyclone Dineo affected more than 500,000 people in Mozambique in February – but its greatest effect will be on communities’ longer-term food security. Dineo destroyed more than 29,000 hectares of crops including maize, ground nut, cassava and beans.

For many, this was their first harvest after the drought. Now it’s gone.

Dineo didn’t stop there. Its rains wreaked havoc on Zimbabwe where floods across 45 districts killed more than 250 people. In Malawi, where one in three people were reliant on food aid at the height of the drought, floods washed away almost 2,000 hectares of maize, cowpea, cassava and sweet potato, as well as livestock such as goats and chickens. People’s homes, their household food supplies, clothing, and cooking utensils were lost. The rains severely damaged infrastructure, making it even more difficult to distribute food or any kind of relief.

And then there’s the Fall Army Worm that began eating its way across Southern Africa at about the same time the rains started. Although mostly found in maize, the parasite has also been detected in sorghum, potato, tomato, spinach, bean, cowpea, soybean, groundnut, banana, and ginger, as well as in grazing pasture used by livestock.

Farmer Gosha Zimhatye inspects maize plant
Gosha Zimhatye inspects a maize plant infected with Fall Army Worm on his farm in Masvingo province, south-eastern Zimbabwe

For many farmers, Armyworm has wiped out their first crops for three years, leaving them with nothing. One Malawian farmer said he and his family of six children are now eating only two meals a day, porridge during the day and maize meal at night.

Time and again we’ve seen how resilient these communities are but Fall Army Worm is a new and potentially very dangerous threat.

The application of pesticides has controlled the outbreak in parts of the region, but a cost-effective solution for smallholder farmers has yet to be found.

Humanitarian assistance from organisations such as CARE has played a big role in many people’s lives here. CARE has distributed cash, food and relief supplies to people affected by drought, floods and cyclones. We’re working with farmers on improved techniques aimed at increasing household food production so they can better deal with climate shocks, and improving community resilience to disasters such as drought.

But I worry that it’s not enough.

If we don’t all pull together – donors, governments, aid agencies – and take action now, millions of people across the continent will continue to suffer.

By Michelle Carter, Managing Deputy Regional Director for Southern Africa, CARE International

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.