Life in Addis Abeba is full of paradoxes. While a large proportion of the city’s population still suffers from malnutrition, others are seen cherishing luxury to an extent that all they care about is where to spend their Saturday nights out. Each day seems to widen the gap between the two extremities.
Every time the annual performance report of the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) is presented to the Parliament, we hear about the increases in cultivated land and crop yields per hectare. For a country with agriculture as its economic mainstay, such statements are simply out of place.
For good or bad, the film, entitled “The Hidden Hunger” – screened on the eve of the Ethiopian New Year in 1974, left such a scar in our minds that food security has been a vital challenge throughout our history. Hence, the annual report of crop production by the relevant ministry has always been a sign of hope.
Indeed, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in one of his interviews, expressed his aspiration for the country to attain the level of being able to providing its people with at least three meals a day, in a decade’s time.
Two decades have elapsed since then and that vision is yet to materialise, at least for the bulk of the population. Of course, the population growth during these years has reached an alarming level, despite the media turning its back on the stark truth.
Food security issues, back then, were considered by the nutritional impact on children only. The pictures were of toddlers with big bony skulls, large eyes and ballooning stomachs, standing on two skinny limbs and all the signs of kwashiorkor.
Adults earning wages were able to feed themselves with milk, meat or eggs, once in a while, to keep them going. Fatty foods, like minced meat soaked in melted butter, were favourite recipes consumed once a week by the ordinary wage-earner, signing the payroll opposite a three-digit figure.
Food security issue had then dominated the front pages of newspapers, not so much for the scarcity of food or the price of a sack of grain or teff, but for the new phenomenon of queuing-up to buy cereals from kebele stores. The very act of lining up to buy grain was not only a new practice, but a demeaning one.
The Dergue regime was open to criticism for not delivering the goods. “The monthly wage is 30 Br, but the price of Teff is 60 Br” was a standing slogan that added fuel to the fire of unrest throughout the capital. Those days are gone and a quintal of Teff is now selling for over 1,500 Br. After two months of abstention from fatty food and dairy products, people went to the livestock and herds market on the eve of Easter, only to discover that the going price for an average sized ram was 3,000 Br.
A kilo of butter from Sheno was selling for 130 Br. Honourable ladies and respected housewives were reduced to queuing buyers and were treated despicably. One egg sold for two Birr and 50 cents.
Therefore, food security is not simply a quest for bread. Malnutrition is becoming a serious health issue ordinary people, who are aspiring for nothing more than three meals a day.
Any clothing imported from China – be it a brand new garment, a handout from a charitable organisation or a piece smuggled through the border as salvaged – cannot hide the malnutrition, which is vivid on the face of the people wearing them.
Malnutrition is hazardous, making us vulnerable to other forms of dependency. At this time, it could be feeding children with dietary biscuits, or even tablets.
Fatty foods and dairy products may be the best source of nutritional food. They may not be affordable to a typical wage-earner. Of course, other types of alternative food items, such as; fish, fruits and vegetables could be substituted.
A visit to a green grocery reveals that Ethiopia is not lacking in horticulture. In fact, it has become an emerging exporter. A kilo of bananas in poor villages sell for 12 Br, which is about two Birr apiece. Oranges have become a rarity. Fish is sold for 60 Br per kilo. Vegetables, like – cabbage, salad, onions and garlic – are getting more expensive by the day.
Performance reports by the concerned ministries do not match up to the food security situations on the ground, which has to be compared to the population explosion. The yields from agriculture, headed to the local markets could show positive growth. But, what matters is the proportion that each individual gets in terms of per capita share, or in terms of required calories or food value mix.
A certain group of people in society are wasting time. These groups do not represent the Addis Abeba urbanites.
They grab everything they can get from the shelves of supermarkets. They can afford to buy burgers for over 100 Br a piece. These are people who worry about where to pass their Saturday nights. For the rest of us, however, life in Addis has become a question of to eat or not to eat.
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