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Foodbanks can help address the hunger crisis in East Africa

Facing a sixth consecutive failed monsoon season, countries in the Horn of Africa are staring at the region’s worst drought in at least 70 years. This, research shows, would not have happened without climate change.

Families are forced to go without food as crops fail and livestock die. With more than 20 million people now facing severe levels of food insecurity in the region, the outbreak of flash floods in Somalia has now compounded the crisis situation. Several East African countries appear in the recent UN report “Hunger Hotspots”, which identifies countries where food insecurity is particularly severe and likely to worsen.

Finding ways to connect these struggling households to food supplies is essential as an emergency response to the current crisis and to build long-term resilience. Food banking is not only one of the most effective ways to respond to hunger, it is also a natural extension of the history and culture of giving and supporting across Africa.

For example, in the 2022 World Giving Index, Kenya is the second-most generous country in the world, where the cultural heritage of Harambi – meaning “all together” in Swahili – has long provided a sense of togetherness.

Many other African countries, such as Sierra Leone, Zambia and Nigeria, were also found to be remarkably liberal. According to index data, people across the continent are especially likely to help strangers in need; In Kenya, 77 percent of respondents helped someone they didn’t know in the previous year.

Food banking is a natural progression of this tradition of supporting families facing hardship or crisis, and they can play an invaluable role in responding to hunger crises.

First, as nonprofit food distribution organizations, food banks connect highly vulnerable and marginalized populations with much-needed healthy surplus food. Food Banking Kenya, which was established in 2017, operates a mobile food banking service that has provided food assistance to communities worst affected during the drought.

This has not only provided emergency assistance to communities that depend on livestock, but has also helped them adopt drought-resistant cropping systems, which can strengthen their resilience in the face of increasing climate challenges.

Similarly, Eat Rains Food Bank of Ethiopia – the country’s first formal food bank – is supporting the humanitarian response to the ongoing drought by purchasing and distributing basic food items to support hundreds of Ethiopian families.

Second, food banks help restore food that would otherwise be lost. In Kenya, for example, about 40 percent of food produced on farms is wasted due to poor storage and difficulty getting products to market.

Food recovery helps smallholder farmers in the region, whose livelihoods have been disrupted by drought. Food banks are community-based and run locally, meaning food bankers understand where the need is greatest and how to get food to people.

Under normal circumstances, food banks serve as a much-needed point of connection to get food available to communities facing hunger. However, drought has reversed the situation. Instead of facing high levels of waste, many farmers are now struggling to make a living amid complete crop failure, livestock losses and water scarcity.

Food depots that previously served as collection centers for communities are now being used to get food to farmers whose crops have been destroyed by drought.

Finally, food banks are helping to build more resilient and food-secure communities in the long run. For example, food banks provide support to communities through school feeding programs, which help children, especially girls, stay in school where a lack of food would otherwise prevent them from attending.

In Kenya, school feeding programs led by food banks in Nairobi’s informal settlements are feeding nearly 2,000 children every day, giving them access to nutrition and education.

Emboldened by a tradition of lifting up those who are struggling in communities across Africa, food banks are already playing an important role across the continent.

In 2020, members of the Global Foodbanking Network in Africa helped distribute 8.1 million kilograms of food, an 80 percent increase over the previous year. They served about 1.4 million people.

But the food banking concept is just beginning to catch on in many parts of Africa. There is a great opportunity to expand the food bank’s presence to more communities.

To reach more people, food banks need to expand their infrastructure and support better food processing and preservation methods to reduce food waste, requiring a lot of investment from both the private sector and government agencies.

Governments and the private sector help food banks work more closely with them, building community awareness of their value and their role in reducing food loss and waste, especially since food banks rely on local businesses and other partners for food procurement.

With more investment, food banks can reach more people facing the current drought as well as other sudden disasters. Over time, leveraging the region’s deep tradition of mutual aid, they can become an important pillar in building a more food-secure future for Africa as a whole.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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