January 18, 2021

COVID-19 and Randomness: How the Pandemic has Deepened Inequality in Uganda


*This is part of our series on the nexus between COVID-19 and food systems.

The on-set of COVID-19 has had dire consequences with the control measures put in place severely impacting the economy and livelihood of a predominantly agricultural Uganda.  Agriculture and all related activities were put to a halt with almost 3 million feared to fall into deeper poverty (World Bank, 2020). The sudden and unexpected disruptions caused by the lockdown, travel restrictions and curfew left the frail and venerable economy, at the verge of collapsing, with the resilience of the economy to adapt and bounce back from these unexpected pressures put to the test of time.

The lockdown saw a positive response with people complying with the regulations; however, the hasty implementation of the lockdown left many loose ends;

·       Loss of employment for many small business owners and employees.

·       An abrupt cut on source of income and livelihood for many wage earners.

·       A stop to public transportation devoid of any alternatives for essential workers and those going to hospital.

·       A lack of provision for a source or supply of groceries and essential commodities.

The start of COVID 19 was well managed as people heeded to the stay home regulations, with a manageable impact on the economy. However, the strain of the prolonged lockdown was eventually a greater reality to the country considered mildly affected. The politically charged country, preparing for an election saw political leaders take advantage of the situation as they inculcated doubt, fear and distrust to their advantage.  Propaganda about the virus being a political makeup stirred commotion and skepticism.  With a desperate population and an ill planned and hasty lockdown, a recipe for disaster loomed and a heightened threat for the imminent danger of COVID 19. The immediate and significant effect was first felt in the food sector due to a disruption in the food supply chain as the travel ban took effect.  While many people scrambled to stock food supplies, toilet paper, sanitizer and vitamins, Ugandans tousled with the fear of where tomorrow’s food would come from. 


In Canada, the COVID 19 response plan was instituted to support individuals, businesses, and sectors affected by COVID 19. Measures in place included insurance benefits, recovery benefits, recovery sickness benefits, recovery care-giving benefits and mortgage payment deferral. This was done to ensure people stayed home, contained the spread of the virus and would be able to recover after the impact.

Uganda’s government, on the other hand, was a beneficiary of the World Bank COVID 19 recovery support, meant to protect the most vulnerable, and support economic recovery. This included supporting farmers’ access to agricultural inputs to enable increased production thus boosting nutrition and food security.  The recovery program also supported the senior citizens and those considered in utmost need.  The beneficiaries of the program received food stamps, maize flour and beans.


The food stamp distribution was problematic as the quality of the food was very poor due to poor post harvest handling. There was also a general outcry of the lack of options, as everyone was expected to consume maize flour and beans. In addition, many in rural areas were not considered for the food stamps as it was assumed the rural communities were food secure. Faced with the uncertainty, low income earners struggled for basic commodities, while members of the middle class hoarded food, causing a food scarcity and sending food prices escalating. Though those in the urban areas would not afford or access the food, the rural folks would not get their produce to the markets. Food scarcity was rampant in the cities causing inflation in food prices while in the rural areas food went to waste leaving farmers struggling to make ends meet without an income; livelihood had been cut off as they depend on the food sold.


The immediate food shortage and exorbitant food prices yet registered losses in other parts of the country are an example of an inherent inequality within Uganda’s policy implementation framework.  Although suitable policies have been set to boost agricultural production, the economy continues to struggle with many under fed, poorly nourished and struggling for market accessibility.


Taking an example, the government has instituted a surveillance policy to ensure timely and relevant information is maintained in order to guarantee calamities are contained. Analysing this policy in the light of COVD 19 apparently indicates the government’s inadequate preparation for the outbreak as well as poor implementation. The quantity of the food was inadequate and the distribution biased, leaving many starving families not provided for.  As well the food quality was poor and considered unfit for human consumption.  Not only was the implementation framework lacking, the coordination and distribution was deficient.  The well intended policies left many hungry, with others wondering whether the government had a safety net in place.


Uganda’s favorable weather and rainfall pattern has always ensured a good harvest in many parts.  Although, some parts of the country experience below average food production, well planned and coordinated post harvest handling and distribution should ensure a food sufficient country. However, the country has chronically registered high levels of malnutrition and hunger with households unable to provide a sustainable food supply. At the same time, equally high food waste continues to affect the agricultural system. This is a result of poor processing and storage techniques, as well as poor transportation to markets. The arrival of COVID-19 made the situation worse as it unveiled an already existing weak link in the fragile system, as well as exposed the government’s lack of consideration of cultural diversity and food sovereignty in addressing food security. Uganda is a country with diverse foods, apart from maize and beans, healthy and culturally acceptable crops like millet, sorghum, peas, groundnuts, sim sim (sesame) are grown and consumed. 


Although maize is grown and eaten in Uganda, millet is more widely accepted culturally in Northern, North- East, Eastern and Western regions. Millet is a highly nutritious cereal containing the highest calcium compared to other cereals as well as special amino acids namely, tryptophan, cystine, methionine and total amino acids limited in many other cereals.  Because of its iron content; millet porridge is popularly fed to nursing mothers in Uganda. Millet is grown for food, as a source of income and is traditionally processed into a local brew.  Millet bread and the local brew are important ceremonial victuals, making millet a culturally, religious and traditionally valuable crop. Its resilience, drought tolerance, extended shelf life and limited pests makes it a suitable crop for food security. Even with its qualities, millet has received limited promotion with more emphasis on maize, bananas and cassava. Additionally, introduction of subsidized foods like rice in the urban centers has further outcompeted millet.


Millet bread served in Endiiro: Western Uganda

Millet is one of the oldest indigenous crops in Uganda however, it has received limited devotion to improving its production, utilization, processing, storage or even marketing.  On the contrary, growing of bananas, cassava, sweet potatoes and maize have been promoted through the dedicated national programs at major research stations at Namulonge and Kawanda as well as international funding. As a researcher at Kawanda and Namulonge research centers working with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), we researched improved varieties (high yielding, pest and drought resistant), post-harvest handling and utilization methods for bananas, yam, and cassava. New banana breeds, cassava, sweet potatoes and maize varieties were developed and distributed. However, limited research on millet was done and only in Serere, a smaller, less financially supported center in Eastern Uganda. While there is value for variety, food sovereignty cannot be ignored in the fight against food insecurity.


Although, Uganda prides itself in food diversity and sufficiency, with a wide range of staple foods, food insecurity in Uganda is an intricate problem resulting from a dependency on policies developed without concrete research and well documented data. The necessity of research on and promotion of indigenous crops and their values cannot be overstated.  More research on crops like millet, sorghum, peas and groundnuts should be advanced. The research advancements should then be a guide in policy development and implementation, with a deliberate effort to implement local research findings. Therefore, researchers, end-users and policy makers should work together to enforce implementation and influence change. There is a disconnect between researchers, end-users and policy makers.  Working with the African Institute for Capacity Development (AICAD), one of the useful strategies we employed was a close collaboration between farmers, researchers, university scholars and policy makers to endeavour research findings were quickly and easily transferred. 


Apart from policy implementation, the dependency on donor funds has seen Uganda adopt and implement conditional foreign models that are not consistent with the cultural, political and social needs.  This has seen the continued growth of the less local crops like rice and wheat while neglecting indigenous crops. The success of a model should address the needs of the local communities and provide tailor made solutions that encourage suitable adaptation of technology and innovation among the community.


Uganda’s problem has been compounded by a lack of coordination, lack of appropriate information (marketing, rainfall, etc.), creativity, innovation (preservation methods) and digitalisation. Although Uganda is moving towards mobile technology, government commitment is still desired.  There is need to improve on the internet system to enable fast and easy access to reliable information across the value chain.  Mobile technology has promoted coordination, encouraged innovation and broken the barriers of poor infrastructure.


A critical analysis of the situation reveals the success of an early lockdown in Uganda’s effort to control the fast progress of COVID 19 with low numbers of reported cases in the first spike. However the progression of the lockdown measures in the midst of political rallies influenced how the disaster unraveled.  The political sentiments and propaganda sowed doubt; this coupled with lack of a proper system in place to support the desperate citizens triggered a negative response with people ignoring the calls for social distancing and staying home. You cannot lockdown a hungry person. Therefore, in order to address food security and preparedness, there is a need for longer-term and short-term strategies. Models derived from authentic research, depicting real problems, approaches and solutions that are realistic and involve persons affected.


There is need for a total overhaul on the implementation framework, research and systematic feedback process. There is also need to identify sectors, businesses, individual groups, persons and activities most affected and develop supportive measures accordingly.  The government needs to put in place a system that promotes information accessibility and innovation through increased use of digital technology. Finally, when it comes to people’s lives there is need to avoid divisive politics and emphasize unity.


COVID 19 has revealed Uganda’s continued struggle with policy implementation, lack of commitment and coordination among the implementers of the policies. The long term effects of the pandemic on the social and economic system are yet to be felt. Uganda, like most African countries was last to experience the attack by the pandemic, giving ample preparation time for the catastrophe yet when it eventually hit, Uganda was ill prepared. This predicament demonstrates the necessity for disaster preparedness, the importance of a systemic plan for reserve resources (redundancy) for times of the unexpected.



World Bank Press Release, 2020. Uganda: World Bank Provides $300 Million to Close COVID 19 Financing Gap and Support Economy Recovery.  The World Bank Press Release, June 29, 2020.


Christine Kajumba Kaahwa

Food and Digitalization Expert

Guest Contributor

ECV Ontario



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