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Urban poor finding it harder to get food

Many residents of Addis Ababa live in slums, struggling everyday to get food.
(Tesfalem Waldyes/IRIN)

Fatuma Ali and Tieba Hussein left Hara village in Wollo, Amhara region of northeastern Ethiopia with some of their neighbours, believing that they could improve their livelihoods in the capital city, Addis Ababa.

"Our husbands decided to stay in the village with the children," Fatuma, a mother of three, told IRIN as her sister and mother of one looked on. "If rain comes, we will return to the village."

Like various villages across Ethiopia, Hara did not receive adequate precipitation in the short, or belg rainy season, which usually begins in February and ends in late April or early May.

As a result, local residents have had to endure serious food and water shortages. The situation was exacerbated by a poor harvest from the 2007 meher growing season.

Fatuma and Tieba worked hard to help their husbands try and get a good harvest. "After harvest, we sold the produce in the market and bought cattle," Tieba said.

Unfortunately, the short rains failed, killing the village pasture as well as their cattle.

Two weeks after arriving in the city, however, life for the two sisters proved just as tough as it was in Hara. "We came to Addis Ababa expecting to get [a better life]," Fatuma explained. "Sometimes the residents give us some food, but sometimes we sleep hungry."

Faced by increasing hardship, the two turned to begging. Moving from door-to-door, they often turn up at people's gates and ask for help. On a lucky day, they will barely get enough to eat.

High food inflation

Fatuma and Tieba are just two of the thousands of Ethiopians who have flocked to urban areas to escape food shortages in the rural areas. Instead, the influx, according to aid workers, has increased demand and pushed urban prices even higher.

In Somali region, for example, decreasing food availability and price increments in local markets have led to migration from Woredas along the Shabelle river banks to Gode town, according to the UN World Food Programme.

This, however, has increased the numbers of malnourished children in the town.

In Amhara, according to the zonal Food Security Disaster Prevention and Preparedness office, serious food shortages exist in some areas of the region. At least five people have died while 300 have been forced to migrate from the area, in recent months.

Addis Ababa has, however, borne the biggest influx. The number of city dwellers, according to local officials, has swelled significantly over the last few months. Most new arrivals, however, have been forced to eke a living on the margins due to high costs of living and food.

The Consumer Price Index published by Ethiopia's Central Statistics Agency, showed the country's food inflation rate stood at 43. 3 percent in July, compared to 17.9 percent at the same time a year ago; with significant variations between regions.

The index is based on regional indices and measures the average change in prices paid by consumers for a fixed market basket of goods and services. The agency attributed the sharp rise to changes in the prices of food components, such as cereals which rose by 171.9 percent.

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Decreasing food availability and price increments in local markets have led to migration

Should there be a decrease in food production during the September harvest season, warn aid workers, the situation will get worse. Last year, Ethiopia produced 16.1 million metric tonnes of grain during the September to November harvest, against an expected 16.5 million tonnes.

Economists blame a combination of factors for the current situation, including increasing numbers of mouths to feed, Ethiopia's largely subsistence farming systems, the global food crisis and high oil prices. Aid workers said there were also the broader questions of land ownership and the need for modern farming methods.

"One reason for the urban food crisis is the huge gap between demand and supply," said a lecturer from Addis Ababa University, who requested anonymity. "The demand is increasing beyond expectation while the supply is less."

Ethiopia's population has doubled to nearly 80 million in 22 years. Officially, an estimated 4.6 million people across Ethiopia are in need of emergency food assistance, but aid workers say the number is expected to increase in light of recent assessments.

More food insecurity

The current high staple food prices, according to the Famine Early Warning System Network (Fews Net) have compounded already extreme levels of food insecurity.

"Increases in staple food prices are coming at a time of already high and extreme levels of food insecurity in [some] regions," Fews Net said on 12 August. "At the same time, livestock prices and labour rates have increased only minimally, further reducing the overall purchasing power of poor and very poor households."

Tewodros Makonnen, an economist from the Ethiopian Economist Association, said urban livelihoods had also been affected negatively by changes in prices of agricultural inputs on the international markets.

"When local production fails to feed the people, one looks at global markets," the university lecturer who requested anonymity, added. "But despite Ethiopia's move to import food from the international market, the prices are [still] not affordable to urban dwellers."

There was, however, differing opinion on this. "The global situation has affected the response, not the problem," said one aid worker. "The problem remains the increasing population and poor farming methods. There has to be emphasis on helping people to recover."

Some 16 percent of Ethiopia's population live in urban areas. According to the UN Population Fund, Ethiopia is one of the fastest urbanising nations in sub-Saharan Africa with 4.3 percent growth per year.

But much of the growth is a result of migration, rather than just natural population increase. By 2020, the level of urbanisation is expected to reach 25 percent, meaning one out of four Ethiopians will be an urban dweller.

Photo: IRIN
Failed short rains have killed the village pasture as well as the cattle

Meanwhile the government and aid agencies are grappling with the situation. Apart from increasing imports, such as wheat for distribution to bakers, especially in Addis Ababa, various strategies have been designed to try and deal with the situation.

The Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, for example, which started operations in April, is being strengthened to provide a marketplace where buyers and sellers can come together to trade and be assured of quality, delivery and payment.

Improvements in farming systems are also on the table, along with microfinance schemes and cooperative unions. But while some of these strategies have helped raised farm incomes, they have increased the burden on urban dwellers.

"Previously farmers brought their products and sold to wholesalers without prefixed price," the university economist said. "Now, unless they get a buyer at their price, they wait for a good offer."

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, Ethiopia's agricultural markets had, over the years, been plagued by high transaction costs and excessive risk. Only a third of output reached the market.

Even then, small-scale farmers, who produce 95 percent of output, came to market with little information and were often at the mercy of the local merchants. If farmers in a particular region were especially productive, the local market got glutted and prices would drop.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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