Zintro experts discuss issues with this most recent African famine

By Maureen Aylward

With a devastating famine engulfing the Horn of Africa, we asked our Zintro experts to comment on this famine. We also wanted to know how this famine in is different (or not) from the famine of the 1980s.

Jack Worthington, a global private equity investment managing partner, is currently partnered in an African venture philanthropy project called Trade Africa, founded by Cristina Cisilino and Gerson Barnett. Trade Africa is supported by Ali Hewson (Bono’s wife), and Livia Firth (actor Colin Firth’s wife), among other international celebrity types. Barnett, founder of Made and COO of Trade Africa, offers four reasons why this famine is different than the one in the 80’s:

1. Due to the power of the internet and news media coverage, the famine has been identified quicker and brought to the attention of the world sooner; therefore, aid can reach the needy with far greater speed. “In the 80’s it was all too little too late. Aid agencies, governments, and the UN were simply out of touch,” says Barnett.

2. While the lessons from the 80s have been learned, this time the problem isn’t raising awareness or making suppliers/food/water available. “The big problem is getting the aid to the needy. Somalia is feeling the hard end of the famine. Unfortunately, Somalia is an ungoverned country and is rampant with extremists and bandits. The security issues are causing huge problems,” says Barnett. “Although Ethiopia and Kenya are facing famine as well, these governments are dealing with mass migration of refugees from Somalia as well as their own people, and this did not really happen in the 80’s.”

3. For centuries the Africans have faced total adversity with a smile on their faces and have turned to their religious beliefs. “My wife, Cristina, and I saw this first hand after the post election riots in Kenya when over 2,000 people were killed. In a nutshell, they will simply pick up the pieces and try to move on with their lives,” says Barnett.

4. “We can’t stop this from happening again, but investment into infrastructure (irrigation projects, roads, and so on) and, most importantly, TRADE will create a better economic environment in Africa where Africans, who live in indigenous areas, can help themselves and improve their conditions,” says Barnett.

Harvey Wood, PhD, an environmental problem solver, says that tens of millions of people are affected by the famine in the Horn of Africa: Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. “The concerns are huge, with literally untold numbers of expected mortalities. This is particularly true in Somalia where little reliable information is available or able to pass out of the country,” says Wood. “The news about the extent of the famine in Somalia is filtered by those that have been able to leave the country and enter Ethiopia and Kenya. The drought is bad in both neighboring countries, but not impossible to distribute aid or provide medical aid or food and accommodations. However, only very basic needs are available due to international aid agencies and the Ethiopian and Kenyan governments assisting in what is for them politically difficult areas to be involved.”

Wood says that here are many differences between the present crisis and the 1980s when the famine was denied by the Ethiopian government. “Back then the Ethiopian government did not wish to be seen as the despotic regime that it was. Today, Ethiopia is providing aid itself, which it did not do in the 1980s,” he says.

David Fletcher, a financial and management accounting consultant, offers a recent experience he had during a business trip that he feels is a serious problem happening in Africa right now. “There is a largely unknown aspect to this, namely the sale of land by the Ethiopian, Somali, and Sudanese Governments to hedge funds and other large scale speculators. I am retained by a Swedish-based agricultural consultancy, and in 2009 we were flown from Zurich by a Middle Eastern Sovereign wealth fund to Africa. We ascertained that they had deeds to 600,000 hectares across the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia,” Fletcher describes. “The people we met with were talking about diverting six Billion liters of water from the Upper Nile per day, which would displace the existing population (some 1.3 million people) who currently live on the land. We decided we wanted nothing to do with this, but I believe it is already happening. While I do not know for sure, it could have an effect on the drought, which is on the fringes of this region.”

Warren Te Brugge, a management consultant who founded a sustainable food security program in Africa called My Arms Wide Open, says that food security is a challenge the world over in both developing and developed countries. “The challenge is not that we cannot provide food. The challenge is being able to provide sustainable food sources. The solution is to transfer skills and develop sustainable locally based food sources. This is the intent and underlying objective of the My Arms Wide Open, My World My Garden Cause through the establishment and management of My World In A Garden® vertical food walls,” he says.

“Many children do not have access to more than one meal per day, and that one meal is not necessarily a healthy meal, if they are lucky enough to get it. There is a huge increase in the number of children and child-led households in Africa who are not only hungry and undernourished, but are suffering from HIV/Aids and other diseases or illnesses,” Te Brugge says. “Without a good, fresh food source, disease takes over and these children are handicapped even further. And, high rates of unemployment are a challenge in the communities.”

Te Brugge says that one solution is to develop sustainable water supplies and infrastructure and sustainable food sources. “By establishing projects like this while providing for immediate food needs, sustainable sources of much needed fresh vegetables and fruits on an ongoing basis can be provided that can also be employment opportunities. This will help address food security challenges in the communities affected by the famine,” he says.

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