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Food insecurity remains high following below-average harvest in northern Uganda

  • Food Security Outlook Update
  • Uganda
  • August 2023
Food insecurity remains high following below-average harvest in northern Uganda

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  • Key Messages
  • Current Situation
  • Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
  • Updated Assumptions
  • Projected Outlook through January 2024
  • Most likely food security outcomes and areas receiving significant levels of humanitarian assistance
  • Key Messages
    • In bimodal areas, cumulative rainfall during the dry period of July and August has been below average, causing delays in second season land preparation and planting, particularly in the greater north and Teso sub-region. This follows an erratic and below-average first rainy season from March to June, which resulted in slightly below-average national production. While the harvests led to marginal improvements in food access, many poor households in the greater north remain atypically food insecure for the post-harvest period due to high staple prices and minimal crop sales income. In the greater north and Teso sub-region, area-level Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes are expected to persist until the start of the second season harvest. In other bimodal areas, near-average harvests are anticipated to sustain Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes throughout the projection period.
    • Climate forecasts suggest increasing confidence in a strong El Niño by late 2023, coinciding with the second rainy season in bimodal areas of Uganda. El Niño typically correlates with above-average rainfall in bimodal Uganda. Based on historical trends during El Niño years, the onset of the September to December rains will most likely be timely. The above-average rainfall is expected to support above-average crop production and improved livestock productivity. This is expected to increase income-earning opportunities for poor households— including agricultural labor and income from crop sales— which is anticipated to increase financial access to food. However, in the flood-prone mountainous areas of Elgon, Kabale, Kisoro, and Rwenzori, the above-average rainfall is anticipated to cause mudslides, flash floods, and waterlogging of crops. 
    • In Karamoja, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are anticipated to persist through January 2024 due to the delayed and likely below-average green and dry harvests, marking the fourth consecutive poor harvest. While the minimal harvests have resulted in slight seasonal declines in market prices of sorghum, the limited access to income-earning opportunities and sustained low purchasing power continue to drive limited access to food. As own-produced food stocks are anticipated to exhaust by December 2023, most households are anticipated to be purchase-reliant for food atypically early. Own-produced food stocks are anticipated to exhaust by December 2023.
    • Refugees living in settlements are likely facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes as they continue to face limited access to income-earning opportunities, high market prices, and poor financial access to food. Below-average first season crop production in refugee settlements due to limited plot sizes and seed and tools access has resulted in the early exhaustion of harvests, sustaining food consumption gaps. Atypically low food access post-harvest and high disease prevalence, amid overstretched humanitarian services, have resulted in an increased prevalence of acute malnutrition among refugees. From January to June, admissions of children under five with complicated severe acute malnutrition increased 41 percent. With the implementation of the needs-based reprioritization of humanitarian food assistance in July, most refugees in settlements are now receiving rations equivalent to roughly 30 percent of their daily caloric requirements per person. 

    Current Situation

    Figure 1

    CHIRPS seasonal rainfall percent of the 1981-2019 average
    Map showing CHIRPS seasonal rainfall percent of the 1981-2019 average.

    Source: USGS/FEWS NET

    Rainfall performance and seasonal crop and livestock production: In bimodal areas, June to August is typically the dry season, characterized by light rains amid the first season harvest. From June to August 2023, several regions experienced atypical dryness and significantly below-average rainfall, with cumulative deficits reaching 30 to 75 percent of the long-term average in the worst-affected areas of the southwest and parts of the greater north (Figure 1). 

    This follows a spatially and temporally erratic March to June first season of rainfall, particularly in northern and parts of central Uganda, delaying crop maturation and stunting growth in some bimodal areas. The timing of the green and dry harvests was varied, beginning in the southwest in late May/June, followed by northern Uganda in July/August. In August, in southern and northern bimodal areas, most farmers have finalized harvesting and are now engaged in threshing, cleaning, and storage. 

    National production in bimodal areas was likely slightly below average overall, with sub-national pockets of below-average cereal and legume production in the worst-affected areas of the north and Teso sub-region. The north generally accounts for most of the surplus sorghum and bean production in Uganda. The below-average harvests have resulted in slightly reduced sorghum and bean supply to some deficit-producing markets.

    In August, due to the atypical dryness, land preparation activities for second season cultivation have been delayed and below-average, particularly in central and northern Uganda, limiting seasonal demand for on-farm labor.

    In unimodal Karamoja, the rainy season, which typically extends from April to October, has been erratic, largely below average, and interspersed with lengthy dry spells between April and August. Significantly below-average rainfall in July and August negatively impacted crops during key development phases, resulting in delayed seasonal green and dry harvests, beginning only in some areas in August. Due to the compounding impacts of below-average areas planted with the high input and production prices and poor rainfall and crop development, sorghum production, the main crop cultivated, is likely to be below average and comparable to last year, making 2023 the fourth consecutive season of below-average production in Karamoja.  

    According to satellite-derived vegetation data, vegetation conditions from June to August have deteriorated slightly in the Karamoja and bimodal cattle corridor districts due to below-average rainfall and above-average land surface temperatures compared to the same period last year (Figure 2). According to key informants, the below-average pasture and water availability in the affected regions has reportedly negatively impacted livestock productivity, mostly reducing milk productivity, which is already at seasonal lows in August.  

    Macroeconomy: According to the Bank of Uganda, annual headline inflation decreased from 4.9 percent in June to 3.9 percent in July 2023. Food inflation remains relatively high but also saw declines from 12.3 to 9.3 percent. The decline in inflation was likely attributed to tighter monetary and fiscal policies, reduced domestic demand, strengthened Ugandan Shilling (UGX), and global financial market conditions.

    In August, the World Bank’s decision to halt new loans to Uganda slightly increased the volatility of the UGX, driving a roughly 3 percent decrease in the UGX/USD exchange rate. Fuel prices also increased by about 3 to 5 percent in mid-August after having been on a steady decline of about 35 percent for the last year. The increase in transportation costs has reportedly moderated the benefits of seasonal decreases in food prices following the first season harvest.  

    Economic growth is slowing due to weak domestic demand for goods and services. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), average economic growth was -6.5 percent between the first and second quarters of 2023, with the agriculture sectors posting nearly -21.6 percent growth. This likely points to below-average income earning opportunities for low-income earners engaged in agricultural activities or the inability to access disposable income for food and non-food needs.

    Refugee Settlements: Conflict, civil strife, economic hardship, and insecurity continue to drive cross-border displacement into Uganda. While new arrivals have relatively slowed in July and August compared to the spikes observed in February and April, the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers continues to overwhelm the capacity of humanitarian agencies to support the populations with food and non-food items and often exceed the capacity of transit centers. 

    Until July 2023, the World Food Programme (WFP) provided refugees with in-kind (38 percent) and cash-based (62 percent) general food assistance based on geographic location. In July, due to sustained underfunding of humanitarian assistance in Uganda, WFP, UNHCR, and the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) began implementing the re-prioritized needs-based humanitarian food assistance. While the implementation process will be gradual, the most vulnerable households (14 percent) are receiving 60 percent rations, the moderately vulnerable (82 percent) are receiving 30 percent rations, and the households deemed self-reliant (4 percent) have been weaned off food assistance. New refugee arrivals receive 100 percent rations for the first three months, after which their level of vulnerability will be assessed.1

    Between January and June, the acute malnutrition caseload has generally increased across refugee settlements, according to the refugee health and nutrition dashboard of the UNHCR/GOU. Between the first and second quarters, nutrition admissions rose 6.6 percent, while complicated severe acute malnutrition admissions increased 41 percent. Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) prevalence among South Sudanese and DRC refugees was 8.2 and 6.7 percent, respectively.

    Markets and trade: Given the slightly below-average national production in the first season, Uganda has less national surplus of cereal and legumes post-harvest than usual. Staple food prices generally followed seasonal patterns across key reference markets but were significantly higher than the average because of high production and transport costs. In bimodal areas, while the retail price of staples has generally seen marginal seasonal declines between June and July across all monitored markets, prices remain considerably higher than the five-year average (Figures 4 and 5). In Masindi, Mbarara, and Gulu, old grain stock was released, leading to a 7 to 11 percent decrease in local prices month-on-month. New maize harvests on the market from Budaama and Bunyoli in eastern Uganda and reduced cross-border demand in Kenya following the harvest in Meru also contributed to the slight decrease in maize prices in July (Figure 3). The retail price of beans remained relatively stable between June and July; however, it was over 25 to 44 percent higher than last July and 51 to 71 percent higher than the five-year average across monitored markets. This is likely linked to the below-average seasonal increase in supply following the below-average first-season harvest in the north, which accounts for much of the surplus bean production in Uganda (Figure 4).

    Figure 3

    Retail maize prices in July 2023 as a percent of last month, last year, and the five-year average
    Bar chart showing retail maize prices in July 2023 as a percent of last month, last year, and the five-year average.

    Source: Farmgain/WFP

    Figure 4

    Bean prices (Retail) July 2023, as a percent of last year and five-year average
    Map showing bean prices (Retail) July 2023, as a percent of last year and five-year average.

    Source: Farmgain/WFP

    In unimodal Karamoja, sorghum prices have declined seasonally between June and July and relative to last year by roughly 5 to 45 percent, although prices remain above the five-year average in most reference markets (Figure 5). This is mainly due to the start of the harvest and improvements in security, easing domestic trade constraints, have increased local food access and availability. Additionally, with the reduced price of sorghum, households can get more sorghum in exchange for the price of goats, charcoal, firewood, and day labor wages in July compared to last month and last year (Figure 6). The maize harvest, which began in late August, will likely result in similar reductions in maize prices. However, due to the below-average harvest expected in Karamoja, the decrease in prices is expected to be temporary. While the price of goats in July increased by 9 to 69 percent in Moroto, Nakapiripirit, Kotido, and Kaabong, high food prices have moderated the benefits of the favorable terms of trade for pastoralists. 

    Figure 5

    Sorghum prices (Retail) July 2023, as percent of last month, last year, and five-year average, Karamoja region
    Bar chart showing sorghum prices (Retail) July 2023, as percent of last month, last year, and five-year average, Karamoja region

    Source: Farmgain/WFP

    Figure 6

    Sorghum (Kg) Terms of Trade (ToT) relative to firewood and charcoal July 2023, as percent of last month, last year, and five-year average, Karamoja region
    Bar chart showing sorghum (Kg) Terms of Trade (ToT) relative to firewood and charcoal July 2023, as percent of last month, last year, and five-year average, Karamoja region

    Source: Farmgain/WFP

    Regional cross-border trade of cereals and legumes usually peaks between July and September, following the bimodal harvest in Uganda and as demand remains high in the regional deficit-producing countries. In July and August 2023, cross-border trade and regional staple food prices have generally maintained seasonal trends. However, regional prices remain above average due to sustained high production and transportation costs. Additionally, due to the below-average maize grain carryover stocks from 2022 in Uganda, maize exports from Uganda to Kenya saw a 60 percent decrease between the first and second quarter, and maize imports from Tanzania to Uganda were exceptionally high, meeting domestic shortfalls with excess to re-export to South Sudan and Kenya. Additionally, given the total ban on wetland rice production in Uganda in February 2022, limited domestic rice production amid sustained demand has driven a sharp increase in rice imports from Tanzania.

    Current food security outcomes

    In bimodal areas, most households are experiencing temporary, seasonal improvements in food availability with the first season harvest, as well as increased access to income from on-farm labor opportunities. Minor decreases in staple food prices are slightly improving food access for poor households. However, in the greater north and Teso sub-region, limited harvests and below-average seasonal incomes from crop sales are driving households to be atypically purchase-dependent for food in the post-harvest period. Given the extremely dry conditions in July/August, land preparation for second season cultivation has been delayed and below average, reducing income-earning opportunities for poor households. As a result, household access to typical sources of income and food is inadequate to meet minimum food and non-food needs, and as such, widespread Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes are prevailing in the greater north, the Teso sub-region, and parts of central and eastern Uganda. Area-level Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes are most likely in other bimodal areas, except for some localized areas affected by poor crop production.

    In Karamoja, are-level Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are expected in August, with some extremely poor households likely continue to face Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes. The delayed and intermittent start of harvesting has provided only minor improvements in food availability and access for some poor households. However, most households have not been able to access substantial green harvests in August. While staple prices have seasonally reduced, income-earning opportunities remain limited due to the below-average on-farm or alternative labor opportunities, resulting in low purchasing power. Additionally, insecurity, including livestock raiding, asset theft, and violent conflict, continues to disrupt livelihood activities despite the increased presence of security personnel in the region, voluntary disarmament exercises, and livelihood support offered to former Karamojong involved in these activities. While cattle and goat prices are generally favorable, most poor and very poor households no longer own livestock, which they formerly relied on to exchange for staples. The depleted livelihood coping capacity of poor households is resulting in relying on strategies such as eating less preferred foods, skipping meals, and reducing the quantity of food consumed per meal. 

    Refugees living in settlements in northern Uganda were impacted by below-average rainfall, resulting in poor harvests and limited on-farm labor opportunities during the harvest period. The seasonal improvements in food availability and financial access to food were likely minimal. Households face high competition for alternative income-earning opportunities due to overcrowded settlements, resulting in low purchasing power despite high purchase-reliance for food. While previously the significant amount of food assistance was maintaining Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes, alternative food-based and livelihood coping strategies are likely insufficient to compensate for ration reductions. Available information suggests that refugees in settlements are facing moderate food consumption deficits or are marginally able to meet minimum food needs but only by engaging in negative coping strategies that deplete essential livelihood assets, indicative of Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes. 

    Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
    Seasonal calendar for a typical year in Uganda.

    Source: FEWS NET

    Updated Assumptions

    The assumptions used to develop FEWS NET’s most likely scenario for the Uganda Food Security Outlook for June 2023 to January 2024 remain unchanged, except for the following:

    • Given the suspension of new loans from the World Bank to Uganda, the corresponding reduced US dollar inflows are expected to exert downward pressure on the UGX in the medium-term. As such, the pace of economic growth is likely to slow and the slight depreciation of the UGX is expected to result in an increase in the cost of fuel imports, resulting in increased transportation costs that will likely elevate food prices. 

    Projected Outlook through January 2024

    In most bimodal areas, the seasonal increase in food availability from the first season harvest and relatively improved food access due to seasonally declining staple prices are expected to improve food security and sustain Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes through January 2024. However, following below-normal cereal and legume production in some sub-regions of Teso and the parts of northern Uganda, households are not expected to obtain typical food and income quantities and own food stocks are expected to be depleted by the end of October. Below-average income from crop sales is expected to be inadequate to access sufficient food and non-food items. For the rest of the bimodal areas that received an average harvest, food stocks are likely to be depleted in November. Given the above average rainfall enhanced by El Niño, agricultural labor opportunities during the October-December second season cultivation are expected to improve household purchasing power to meet minimally adequate food needs but unlikely to enable access to seeds and other inputs for production. At the area level, Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes are likely to to improve to Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes through November/December in the greater northern Uganda districts, Teso sub-region, and parts of central and eastern Uganda, given that early/timely availability of green harvest and slightly above average harvests during the second season are expected to improve both food consumption outcomes and incomes to meet other household non-needs. In the mountainous areas around Elgon and Rwenzori, El Niño enhanced rainfall is expected to cause mud/landslides. Displacement of people due to landslides, destruction of residential and road infrastructure, as well as floods and water logging of crop fields are likely to occur in some worst-affected areas. However, the above-average rainfall is expected to result in favorable crop production of cereals and plantation crops, like bananas, coffee, tea, sugarcane, and pineapples, which are expected to enhance food and income sources to maintain Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes in the bimodal areas through January.

    In Karamoja, inadequate and below-average seasonal harvests in August/September are expected to temporarily reduce the number of households facing widening food gaps; nonetheless, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are expected to remain prevalent in the sub-region through January 2024. Some households that didn’t have access to any harvest or exhausted their production in green form are expected to continue facing significant food consumption gaps. Continued insecurity and disruption of typical livelihood activities is expected to constrain food and income access. While staple prices are expected to seasonally reduce but remain above the five-year average and similar or below 2022 levels before they begin to rise again in October, poor purchase power is expected to continue limiting food access. Due to limited income-earning opportunities, vulnerable people, including elderly people, people with illnesses, and young children, will resort to begging or migration to access income for food. The prevalence of global acute malnutrition among children under five is likely to remain seasonally higher than in a typical post-harvest period. 

    In the refugee settlements, refugees will likely continue facing consumption gaps and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes through January 2024, following a considerably below-average first season harvest in June and July, amid the implementation of reduced food rations since July. Sustained above-average staple prices, limited income-generating opportunities available, and poor household purchasing power are likely to limit households’ capacity to meet their minimum food and non-food needs through September. Households will likely continue relying on strategies such as limiting the number of meals per day and amount of food per meal consumed, as well as removing children from secondary school and reducing health expenses to pay for food, indicative of Crisis. While refugees will likely have slightly improved access to harvests from second season cultivation starting in November and December with the forecasted El Niño rainfall, refugee cultivation plots are small, and in some areas, particularly in the north, soil quality is unfavorable for harvesting. The prevalence of severe acute malnutrition is likely to increase through January, largely driven by the below-average first season harvests, inadequate food consumption, increasing prevalence of disease, and stretched nutrition services through January 2024. 

    Most likely food security outcomes and areas receiving significant levels of humanitarian assistance

    Recommended citation: FEWS NET. Uganda Food Security Outlook Update August 2023: Food insecurity remains high following below-average harvest in northern Uganda, 2023.


    As of August 2023, no new information is accessible to FEWS NET on the status of the implementation of the needs-based re-prioritization process. Additionally, it is too early to understand the extent of the impact of the reduced humanitarian food assistance on food security and nutrition outcomes.

    This Food Security Outlook Update provides an analysis of current acute food insecurity conditions and any changes to FEWS NET's latest projection of acute food insecurity outcomes in the specified geography over the next six months. Learn more here.

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