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"Food has become too expensive"

Women displaced by clashes around Kabezi, near the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, May 2008.
(Judith Basutama/IRIN)

Even before his wife bore their eighth child, Selemani François knew he would have a difficult time sustaining a large family on a taxi driver's income in Burundi's capital of Bujumbura.

"I am in 'shida' [trouble] because my family can hardly eat - let alone eat good food like meat," he said. "If I do not find another job soon, my family will starve - and those in school will have to drop out."

Selemani's frantic efforts to find alternative employment have so far yielded nothing - mainly because formal employment in a country that is just pulling out of nearly 15 years of conflict is very hard to come by.

For many of Burundi's eight million people, the situation has been aggravated by a recent significant rise in food prices.

"What has put me in real 'shida', is the rising cost of food and fuel for the car," Selemani told IRIN. "A year ago, I used to spend 15,000 Burundi francs [US $15] a week on food, now I need 30,000 [$30]. Food has become too expensive."

Like Selemani, several Bujumbura residents said despite ongoing rains, prices of even locally grown foodstuffs had risen.

"Every day, the prices go up," Bararufise Marceline, a trader in the main market, complained. "Now, we sell less and eat cheaper food. My family used to eat meat or chicken several times a week, now we are lucky if we do twice."

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 70 percent of family expenditure in Burundi goes on food.

"With rising food prices, that figure could go up," Cecilia Lonnerfors, the agency's communications officer in Burundi, warned.

According to the WFP, only 18 percent of Burundi's population is food secure. "Thirty-four percent are extremely food insecure; consuming less than 1,400 kilocalories (kcal) per day [recommended intake is 2,100 kcal],"
Lonnerfors told IRIN on 6 June.

Long term problem

Burundi, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), WFP and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), experienced a per capita food production decrease of 24 percent since 1993 due to reduction in access to land and lack of production inputs and technical assistance.

Yet 91 percent of Burundi's population depends on subsistence farming, according to the UN. The country, which has witnessed conflict for the last one and half decades, also has the second highest population density in Africa. This has placed pressure on land and affected agricultural production in one of the poorest countries in the world.

"We are seeing more people killing each other over land - even between brothers," Jean Pierre Kisamare, the deputy executive secretary of the human rights group, League Iteka told IRIN. "Land has become a very important issue."

Apart from land, food availability in Burundi has been affected by market-related problems. A 2006 assessment by FAO, WFP and UNHCR cited poorly integrated markets due to high transaction costs, poor infrastructure and insecurity.

The other factors include lower demand due to high prices and inflation, slow market turnover and decreased production and supply.


Photo: Judith Basutama/IRIN
A woman scavenges for food in a Bujumbura suburb: The UN World Food Programme estimates that 70 percent of family expenditure in Burundi goes to food

According to the WFP's food security monitoring system, prices of basic foodstuffs such as beans and cassava have increased by 52 and 22 percent respectively this year, compared to 2007.

The impact of these high prices has been particularly felt because of a progressive reduction in purchasing power over the last 10 years. Even for the few paid employees, salaries have only increased by 10 percent since 2002.

"People are starting to eat foods they were not used to before," Lonnerfors said.

The WFP, which is planning to spend US $12 million to scale up its programmes in Burundi this year, is currently providing food rations to 600,000 people a month.

High population density and inadequate agricultural techniques aside, Burundi's population is also extremely vulnerable to climatic shocks. "In 2007, we had planned [to help] 500,000 people, but ended up assisting two million because of heavy rains and flooding," she added.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in a 6 June report said the situation had forced households to adopt very strict coping strategies with regard to food consumption.

"The purchase of expensive basic foodstuffs has either been reduced or completely stopped, households now depend on low-cost foods and have reduced the frequency and consistency of meals," OCHA noted.

The situation had been worsened by lean or late rains. In low altitude areas like Moso, Bugesera and Imbo in western Burundi, late rains had severely affected anticipated production levels.

In Musigati commune, Bubanza province, an estimated 70 percent of the families will face food shortages from July because their bean crop was planted too late for the rains, according to the UN and NGOs. Farming activities in the commune have also been affected by the activities of the armed opposition Forces nationales de libération (FNL) group.

Peace would help

Blamed for delaying Burundi's peace process, the FNL has remained active after all the other groups denounced armed opposition. Its fighters have recently been involved in clashes in provinces like Bujumbura Rural, Cibitoke, Kayanza and Bubanza.

Population displacements caused by these clashes have disrupted farming activities. An attack in May in Kabenzi, for example, forced 20,000 people to flee their villages. While they have since returned, they have had to be given aid.

''Every day, the prices go up. Now, we sell less and eat cheaper food. My family used to eat meat or chicken several times a week, now we are lucky if we do twice''

On 30 May, FNL leader Agathon Rwasa returned to Burundi, raising expectations that the peace process would now move forward. Officials believe that once peace returns, the government can focus its attention on plans to revamp food production.

According to the agriculture ministry's strategy paper, the government plans to mobilise farmers to exploit unutilised land, promote crops that have a resistance to climatic shocks such as cassava, and turn plains in Imbo, Moso and other areas of western Burundi into productive lands.

In the middle and longer term, the government plans to promote regional specialisations, enhance project management capacity and initiate broad reforms.

However, aid workers say the strategies in their current form will require huge amounts of resources, which the government does not currently have, meaning various organisations would have to help.

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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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