Feeling the pinch of soaring food prices

Johannesburg — Urban families in Lesotho, a small landlocked southern African country, are struggling to cope with rising food prices, according to a recent survey.

Practically every household interviewed in a vulnerability assessment reported being affected by escalating food costs; more than half of urban households admitted borrowing food to get by, and more than 40 percent said they had been forced to cut down on meals.

People living with HIV, pensioners and Basotho living off remittances and grants on the outskirts of urban centres were the worst affected, the Lesotho Urban Vulnerability Assessment Survey discovered.

"Food security is a chronic problem in Lesotho, but high food prices have hit people living in the peri-urban areas particularly hard," said Bhim Udas, country representative of the World Food Programme (WFP), which was involved in the survey. "Most of the people with low incomes spend 75 to 80 percent of their money only to buy food."

Lesotho imports 70 percent of its food needs and has been seriously affected by soaring global food and fuel prices. "Though prices have come down by two to three percent between October and November 2008, they are still high compared to prices in March in 2008," Udas said.

The urban survey, conducted by the national Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC) - a joint UN agency, NGO and government taskforce - reflects Lesotho's cocktail of poverty, high unemployment and one of the world's worst HIV pandemics.

It found that 45 percent of urban households had taken in at least one orphan (the figure hit 56 percent in Thaba-Tseka, a remote town in eastern Lesotho) and 20 percent of households were looking after chronically ill relatives.

Unemployment in Lesotho has hovered around 35 to 40 percent for the past two decades, according to the UN. But recent retrenchments in neighbouring South Africa, where most Basotho have historically sought work, will worsen the rate of joblessness and cut remittances.

The survey found that 35 percent of households received assistance in food and cash from outside the country. Overall, remittances account for more than 24 percent of Lesotho's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to the World Bank's Migration and Remittances Factbook 2008.

It is not just urban Basotho who are in trouble. Subsistence farmers, who have endured recurring droughts since 2002, are likely to face yet another poor year. "The rains have been delayed this season (2008/09), cereal production is expected to be less than what it was in the last season, which was quite poor already," said Udas.

Last year's national VAC report estimated that 353,000 people would be in need of food assistance in 2008/09.The government is considering food/voucher schemes and programmes to distribute inputs; the VAC also recommended cash transfer interventions.

Relevant Links Southern Africa Food, Agriculture and Rural Issues Economy, Business and Finance Lesotho Sustainable Development But financing could be a problem. WFP, which planned to provide targeted food aid this year to 12,000 of Lesotho's 82,000 people on antiretroviral therapy in remote, mountainous and inaccessible areas, has been hit by a funding crunch that has affected the project's sustainability.

"We have very little stocks leftover to provide food for January and February," said Udas. The UN agency needs US$12 million to fund the programme through 2009. (All Africa)


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