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The Plight and Hope of East Africa

September 30, 2009


This is the third post in a weeklong look at East Africa. In yesterday’s post, entitled Africa and America, I focused on an op-ed piece written by Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda. In that post, I mentioned that East Africa, of which Rwanda is a part, is currently facing a number of struggles, the gravest of which are drought and famine. I also noted that there is a possibility that an East African Federation could be formed that would include Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda. In this post, I’ll look at some of the issues faced by those countries and discuss how difficult the path ahead is for most them. Let’s start in Kenya with the drought and famine [“Lush Land Dries Up, Withering Kenya’s Hopes,” by Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, 8 September 2009]. Gettleman writes:


A devastating drought is sweeping across Kenya, killing livestock, crops and children. It is stirring up tensions in the ramshackle slums where the water taps have run dry, and spawning ethnic conflict in the hinterland as communities fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land. The twin hearts of Kenya’s economy, agriculture and tourism, are especially imperiled. The fabled game animals that safari-goers fly thousands of miles to see are keeling over from hunger and the picturesque savanna is now littered with an unusually large number of sun-bleached bones. Ethiopia. Sudan. Somalia. Maybe even Niger and Chad. These countries have become almost synonymous with drought and famine. But Kenya? This nation is one of the most developed in Africa, home to a typically robust economy, countless United Nations offices and thousands of aid workers.”


The current crisis was created by “a combination of problems from failing crops and drought to civil war and rising food prices” [“East Africa faces a ‘perfect storm’ as humanitarian disasters combine,” by Nick Amies, Deutsche Welle World, 23 September 2009]. According to Amies, the news is bad and could get worse.


Climatic changes, war, financial hardship and infrastructural chaos seem to regularly take turns in plunging one region or another into desperation. The latest crisis is centered on East Africa, where countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are currently experiencing a ‘perfect storm’ of suffering. These countries and others in the Horn of Africa are facing a combination of below-average rainfall, the prospect of serious crop failures, increased instability through regional and civil wars, and the overburdening of less severely hit areas through the displacement of populations. A report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also warns that an already serious food insecurity situation in the region could worsen. The FAO report ominously predicts that if El Nino, the oscillation in ocean temperature which usually brings heavy rains towards the end of the year, delivers as expected, floods and mudslides could add to the misery by wiping out existing food stocks, killing livestock, damaging infrastructure and making thousands homeless.”


At risk are “about 20 million people in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda” [“Hunger Crisis Worsens in East Africa as Boreholes, Funds Dry Up,” by Jason Gale, Bloomberg.com, 23 September 2009].


In parts of central Kenya, 50 percent of shallow wells, boreholes and other water sources have dried up. People walk as many as 30 kilometers (19 miles) in search of water in the country where 3.8 million are suffering the impact of drought, the WFP [World Food Program] said in [a] Sept. 16 report. … Health officials are battling an outbreak of acute watery diarrhea in Ethiopia, where 1,354 new cases and three deaths were reported in one week this month, Save the Children said. The government estimates that 6.2 million people, half of them children, will need emergency food aid in the next few months.”


The Economist declares that “governments are at their wits’ end to keep their hungry people alive” [“A catastrophe is looming,” 26 September 2009 print issue].


This year’s drought is the worst in east Africa since 2000, and possibly since 1991. Famine stalks the land. The failure of rains in parts of Ethiopia may increase the number needing food handouts by 5m, in addition to the 8m already getting them, in a population of 80m. The production of Kenyan maize, the country’s staple, is likely to drop by one-third, hitting poor farmers’ families hardest. The International Committee of the Red Cross says famine in Somalia is going to be worse than ever. Handouts are urgently needed by roughly 3.6m Somalis, nearly half the resident population (several million having already emigrated during years of strife). In fractious northern Uganda cereal output is likely to fall by half. Parts of South Sudan, Eritrea, the Central African Republic and Tanzania are suffering too. Rich countries are being less generous than usual. The UN’s World Food Program says it has only $24m of the $300m it needs just to feed hungry Kenyans for the next six months. In Mwingi district, in Kenya’s Kamba region, the crops have totally failed. Villagers are surviving on monthly government handouts of maize-meal, rice and a little cooking oil. Worse than the hunger, say local leaders, is the thirst. People are digging wells by hand, but they hit rock. They plead for the means to go deeper but they cannot afford the dynamite or machinery. In the pastoral areas of northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and south Somalia the death of livestock on a massive scale has sharpened conflict. Oromo rebels in south and east Ethiopia and Somali secessionists in the east of the country are likely to fight more fiercely. The drought may strengthen the hand of the Islamist Shabab movement, linked to al-Qaeda, in south Somalia; it uses food aid to control the people. Recent cattle raids in northern Kenya have left scores dead, with unprecedented numbers of women and children among the victims. Fighting may intensify until the land becomes greener again.”


Despite the serious crises in Kenya and Uganda, there remains talk of an East Africa Federation (as mentioned above [“Big ambitions, big question-marks,” The Economist, 5 September 2009 print edition]. On the surface, such a federation seems highly unlikely. The states involved are of very different sizes, backgrounds, and cultures. Each is facing unique challenges in its efforts to achieve sustainable development. So what is the driving force behind such a union? The Economist provides a little history lesson.


In 1967 [Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda] founded the East African Community (EAC) with a view to federation. Little progress was made; the EAC collapsed in 1977, to general rejoicing among Kenyans, who reckoned they were carrying the other two. In 1999, however, the project was revived. In 2007 it even expanded to include Burundi and Rwanda. Many still doubt whether a European Union-style federation can ever be achieved in the region, despite the EAC’s promise to create a single currency by 2015 and to make a customs union work. But recent developments have made further integration more likely.”


The most important development is that the heads of East African nations are starting to warm up to the idea.


Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete, now says his people should stop moaning and prepare for a common market. The head of Tanzania’s tiny stock exchange reckons there could be a single east African version in a few years. Work is already under way to create a common trading system. … Uganda[‘s] … president, Yoweri Museveni, has long nurtured a wish to end his career as the EAC’s first president. Paul Kagame, president of tiny, landlocked Rwanda, is also keen to press ahead. His recent rapprochement with Congo, Rwanda’s vast, ramshackle neighbour to the west, was made in the hope of increasing trade via the fledgling EAC’s market. He is now intent on adding value to Congolese raw materials and shipping them to the world market through the EAC, too. … Kenya, for its part, wants to build a new deep-sea port near the island of Lamu, close to the border with Somalia. … The hope is for roads and railways to Mogadishu, Addis Ababa and Kigali and a pipeline bringing in Ugandan and south Sudanese oil. Funds would flow in from Kuwait and other Arab investors. This would link up east Africa as never before, and a single currency and a customs union would then make much more sense.


There are, of course, lots of challenges remaining, but an integrated regional economy makes a lot of sense if the infrastructure can be put in place. In Paul Kagame’s op-piece mentioned earlier, he pleads with the United States to “support regional initiatives in Africa.” He rightly claims that “Africa’s economic development does not stop at national boundaries. Our markets need to be connected by better roads, by canals and ports, and through new technologies.” The Economist believes that if an East African federation could be achieved there is a good chance that it could expand to include other countries as well.


Why should an East African federation stop with the club’s existing member countries? If defined by the area in which the lingua franca of the Swahili language is used, the range of lorries heading out of the Kenyan port of Mombasa, and the magnet of Nairobi as a hub, east Africa spreads into Ethiopia and includes a chunk of Somalia, a swathe of east Congo, a strip of northern Mozambique and all of southern Sudan, which could become an independent country in 2011, if its people vote in a promised referendum to secede. The EAC already has 126m people. If it expands, it could add as many as 120m more to that number, making it more than twice as populous as Africa’s 28 smallest countries combined—enough, its backers argue, to make a bigger EAC very attractive to foreign investors. The EAC says it would negotiate better deals with the rich world than individual African countries can.”


The article concludes, however, on a more pessimistic note.


Local businessmen are still skeptical. They argue that the EAC’s dream of federation could be botched by a trade row, tribal violence or strangled at birth with red tape by venal politicians and bureaucrats. So the mood is mixed. Could east Africa take off as a regional trading bloc? Or will the idea disappointingly fizzle once again? An early test of the EAC’s earnestness will be to see if it can get its member countries jointly to look after Lake Victoria, a common resource that scientists say has been overfished and poisoned by the sewage running off its overpopulated shores.”


There are, however, some good things to report. Take the small country of Burundi, which I’ve yet to mention in the post [“A Death in Burundi,” by Tracy Kidder, New York Times, 22 July 2009]. Burundi is at the bottom of the heap of current EAC members, but it is at least facing in the right direction.


Burundi is a small, ancient, landlocked, mountainous nation that exports excellent tea and coffee and not much else, a country with a rich and, in modern times, a tragic history, tragic in large part because of European colonialism. It is a history intimately connected with the history of Rwanda, its neighbor to the north. In the post-colonial era, Rwanda and Burundi accentuated each other’s path toward mass violence. Most Americans surely remember hearing news of Rwanda’s infamous genocide, which began in 1994. But many know little or nothing of Burundi’s related catastrophe, an ethnic civil war that began in October 1993, lasted 13 long years and killed, it is estimated, about 300,000 Burundians. The country now has a democratically elected government, but it receives considerably less aid than Rwanda, and is in desperate shape. The war has turned a poor country into one of the very poorest in the world and also into one of the sickest. In almost every category, Burundi’s public health statistics rank among the world’s most abysmal. … In 2006, a small group of Americans, led by a Burundian-American, created an organization called Village Health Works. They dreamed of helping Burundi find a new beginning. They started by trying to bring decent public health and medicine to a rural village named Kigutu. The system they created now provides, among many other services, food to the hungriest people in the area and clean water to all of them, and it is also a medical center that in its first year and a half has treated 28,000 patients, most of them without charge. … Many volunteers and almost all the money behind Village Health Works come from the United States, but the inspiration behind it was both Burundian and American, and the entire enterprise, with its aim of making public health indigenous and lasting, has been built on a close alliance with Burundi’s health authorities. Committees of villagers — the most effective has been the women’s committee — have a real say in policy and operations. Moreover, all of the permanent staff — the lab technicians, community health workers, nurses and the chief doctor — are Burundian.”


Uganda is a bigger success story. Oil continues to be found in that country [“Derricks in the darkness,” The Economist, 8 August 2009].


Tullow Oil, an Anglo-Irish exploration firm, announced on August 4th that it had struck oil while drilling in Uganda near the shores of Lake Albert. It was the tenth discovery in the area. Indeed, oil firms do not seem able to drill a well in Western Uganda without hitting the stuff. That part of Africa had long been seen as something of a wasteland by oilmen. But now an oil rush is under way. … Within a few years Uganda could be producing 100,000-150,000 barrels a day (b/d). But where will it go? Some might be used to generate electricity, of which Uganda is desperately short. That could put an end to persistent blackouts and boost local manufacturing, which has withered on unreliable and exorbitantly priced electricity. The country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has made it clear he wants a big refinery built. The oilmen politely disagree, arguing that east Africa’s economy can absorb only a fraction of the petrol and other products a full-sized refinery would turn out. They would prefer a much smaller facility, consuming perhaps 30,000 b/d, with the balance being pumped across neighbouring Kenya to the Indian Ocean.”


An East Africa federation that developed the infrastructure mentioned earlier would help Uganda make the correct decision regarding the future of its oil. The country would be better off investing in alternative forms of reliable energy so that it could export its oil for the much-needed revenue. Kenya hasn’t been so lucky, the article reports, and it keeps drilling dry holes. Exported oil from Uganda, however, would have to pass to through Kenya to get to market — benefiting both countries. Undoubtedly, the news about oil has helped strengthen Uganda’s currency [“East African currencies seen mostly gaining versus dlr,” Reuters, 23 September 2009]. The discovery of oil should also increase the flow of FDI into the region — investment it desperately needs [“Region Records Lowest FDI Inflow – UN,” by Binyam Tamene, Daily Monitor, 20 September 2009].


East Africa exhibits the lowest in-flow of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) when compared to other African recipients, a new United Nations investment review revealed. While FDI inflows to Africa reached a record high of US$ 88 billion in 2008, the inflow into East Africa represents a mere 5% ($4 billion) of the total, almost the same as the previous year, the UNCTAD´s annual review of investment trends indicated. The report said FDI inflows increased in seven countries within the sub-region, namely Comoros, Djibouti, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, Uganda and Tanzania. Madagascar, Uganda and Tanzania received large inflows of FDI, particularly through cross-border Mergers and Acquisitions.”


Much of the expected FDI will likely come from China, which is not only interested in Uganda’s oil but in Congo’s timber, iron ore and other minerals. The flow of FDI should also improve because East Africa is on the verge of gaining broadband access to the Internet. As I wrote in my last post about Africa, Rwanda has struggled to connect Internet (see my posts Wiring Rwanda to the World and Update on Wiring Rwanda to the World, but it is apparently within weeks of getting that connection [“Bold Rwanda takes broadband leap,” by Adam Blenford, BBC News, 21 September 2009].


Landlocked Rwanda is weeks away from completing a link to a new fibre-optic network promising high-speed internet for East Africa, officials say. Engineers expect the capital, Kigali, to be connected to newly-arrived undersea cables in Kenya by November. A national fibre-optic ring is due to go online early in 2010. The new link is the key part of a plan to transform Rwanda from an impoverished, agricultural society into a hi-tech economic innovator.”


Rwanda is not the only country that will be able to take advantage of the new connection [“Landlocked countries connect to Seacom cable,” by Michael Malakata, Computer World, 22 September 2009].


Landlocked countries in Southern and East African are now assured of high-speed bandwidth capacity following connection agreements between the undersea cable consortium Seacom and ISPs. The Seacom consortium has signed agreements with Altech of South Africa and New Artel of Rwanda to provide connectivity to landlocked countries with high-speed bandwidth capacity. New Artel is a government-owned ISP providing Internet services to government ministries and departments. Through New Artel, Seacom will use Rwanda’s national fiber-optic backbone to connect high-speed bandwidth to Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. … Mozambique and South Africa are the only two countries in Southern Africa that currently have connections to the Seacom cable as the cable has landing stations in the two countries.”


The attached image shows the current broadband connections to Africa. Broadband connectivity between East African countries would be a huge step in making a federation a reality. Cellphone connectivity is another important connection and the outlook in that area is also improving [“Zain Expands Mobile Banking Service,” Celluar News, 23 September 2009].


Zain has announced an upgrade to its mobile banking service, Zap to enable customers to receive money from any bank account around the world and send money to any bank in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. … Zain and its international and regional banking partners are confident that Zap will increase access to banking services in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, where formal banking services are largely restricted to urban populations. Eighty per cent of Kenya’s and ninety-five per cent of Tanzania’s and Uganda’s populations do not have currently have access to banking services. Currently over US$10 million worth of airtime transfers take place in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda each month.”


Companies are also trying to introduce broadband services into the region [“Emerging Capital Partners Invests In East African Telecoms Co,” By Robb M. Stewart, Wall Street Journal, 22 September 2009].


Emerging Capital Partners has committed $25 million to Wananchi Group Holdings, a telecommunications company specializing in pay-television and Internet services in Kenya and Tanzania. … ECP said its equity investment will be used to upgrade and expand Wananchi’s network infrastructure, enabling the company to provide east Africa’s first triple-play service of digital pay-TV, high-speed Internet and voice-over-Internet protocol services.”


When viewed as whole, the above news stories clearly paint a picture of both plight and hope in East Africa. Visionary leaders like Paul Kagame continue to strategize about the future and see possibilities where others have seen none. As a funnel for resources from elsewhere in Africa, East Africa could become a major transshipment area and it could build on that to create an even broader economic base. The best hope for East Africa is to work together to bring these dreams to fruition. But first they must get through the current food crisis.

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