The poor pay more for their food, and they work harder too…

Hunger in Africa has been on my mind recently.  FAO has been reporting that food prices have spiked to record levels.  Worse, reports of famine in Somalia have been circulating – real true famine with people not just hungry, but starving.  Starving means that the body starts to feed on itself just to survive.

I am a big believer in Amartya Sen’s analysis (in his essay “Poverty and Famines”) that by far the largest cause of hunger and starvation in a famine event is not because of inadequate food supply – people become hungry and starve when they cannot access the food which is available.   Sen analyzed food supplies in some of most famous famines including the Irish potato famine in 1845/51, or the Bengal famine in India in 1942, or the
Bangladesh in 1973.  Each of these famines had different underlying causes, but most importantly, in all cases, there was enough food to supply everyone.  No one had to starve.

What then are the factors which deny access to food to hungry people?  Well, in the first case, there are nasty civil conflicts as is the case in Somalia – starvation of people is being used as a weapon.  Hoarding by merchants or by wealthier households is a factor too.

By far and away, however, the biggest reason people cannot access the food they need is because they are too poor.  In plain English, they do not have enough money to buy the food they need.

This last week I was in Burkina Faso.  I had the chance to “get lost” in a village community with my camera, and when this happens, I look for examples of market activity, ie, local buying and selling.   Simple stands where someone is selling few vegetables, or salt, or litre bottles of cooking oil are common.  Oil is daily necessity – I was quoted 1000 Cfa (just over $2 USD) for a one litre bottle.

This is probably a fair price for palm oil, but if you are a $1 – 2/day household, you simply may not have the free cash (working capital) to buy an entire litre at a time.   Local traders’ response to this situation to repackage oil (and many other commodities) into smaller, affordable quantities.  You can buy a small packet for just today.  This is useful.

But here’s the rub. If you buy oil in smaller packets (out of necessity), you end up paying
20% more for your cooking oil as compared to the 1 litre bottle.  So not only are you poor, but now your food bill for oil is 20% more expensive. Ouch.  This is the pain of food

[On the other hand, middle class North American consumers without real cash constraints, can secure 10% case discounts at Costco or Whole Foods.]

What I also saw in Burkina Faso last week, was a woman with an infant strapped to her back drawing water with a rope and bucket from an open well to fill sprinkler cans with water, then walk two cans at a time to irrigate her
vegetables.  This is hard work.

I saw another woman tilling her garden with a pick axe – try cultivating even a quarter acre in this way. I also saw a lot of women bent over weeding their gardens.  These are women working incredibly hard to grow a little food and earn a little income.  What they really need are opportunities to be more productive – to farm larger areas with less effort and with better yields.

Drip systems, suction pumps, diesel pumps, two wheeled tractors, animal traction, better seeds, affordable fertilizers, better agronomic practice – all of these can help subsistence farmers become more productive.  iDE is committed to making all of these available.  iDE believes that the way the subsistence households can escape this penalty of higher food prices is to put more income into the pockets of these consumers through opportunities for improved productivity – so they don’t need to pay 20% more for their cooking oil than
you and I.

Al Doerksen – October 2011


About Al Doerksen

I'm sort of a vocational tramp; my working career divides about evenly between non-profit and the business worlds. I have lived in Mexico, India, Germany and Canada, and now USA. I've had the good fortune to travel to 90 countries of which at least half are developing countries. The last 25 years of my "career" have involved significant (and enjoyable) international management challenges: travel industry, furniture manufacturing, food (aid) programming and ultraviolet water treatment among others. I'm now leading a development enterprise called IDE.
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1 Response to The poor pay more for their food, and they work harder too…

  1. Shoa Asfaha says:

    I really like your article Al.This is a very good example why the poor pays more than others for food. The oil example is one and with other necessities, we observe similar trend, and no wonder the cumulative effect of this perpetuates poverty. This is when affordable technologies such as the ones proposed by IDE help to alleviate poverty.

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