Kenya Food Crisis: Genuine or Artificial?

Published on 18th July 2011

Devastating crop failure
The food crisis is once again here with us in Kenya. Drought has killed livestock, withered crops and dried up water sources. This, combined with a rise in food prices, serious flaws in the food distribution system has resulted in a chronic food crisis. Millions of lives are at risk.

Ironically, we are in the 21st Century, and with the advancement in technology, it is embarrassing that we are susceptible to the vagaries of nature. More often, food shortages are seldom about lack of food in some parts of the country. Shortages are occasioned by inability to get food where it is most needed and inability of the hungry to afford it.
Unable to afford the grain, the hungry depend on relief aid. In this country, those most affected by hunger and poor food distribution are the small-scale farmers, most of whom are women marginalized by the agricultural policy.  To end famine, fair methods of land distribution must be considered.

A fair and just food system depends on small holder farmers having access to land. The function of a just farming system is to ensure that everyone is fed, industrial agriculture functions to ensure those corporations controlling the system make a profit. Poor policies, inadequate distribution systems, international commodity speculation and corporate control of food from seed to table- these are the causes of hunger, the stimulus for food crises.

While the government could be pumping some money into agriculture in a bid to boost production and alleviate hunger, these efforts are unlikely to succeed without focusing on mixed smallholder farmers. Kenya for along time now has been criticised for neglecting the smallholders. They hold the key to ending perennial hunger.

The monies committed to fund programmes to boost small-scale agriculture might not succeed in feeding the nation's soaring population. This is not only due to increasing population and changing environment, but also little "intellectual commitment" to "mixed" farmers who raise both crops and animals and are the source of much of today's food supplies and economic development.

Recent statistics from UN's FAO paint a grim picture on the world's food situation. Kenyans will pay between 56 per cent and 74 per cent more on cereal imports. Prices of basic commodities will balloon. Kenya has experienced nine quarterly rain failures, causing acute food shortages forcing the government to declare the country's food situation a national emergency in 2008 and renewed campaigns to wean the country of rain-fed agriculture.

Food prices remain high because of an ineffective strategic grain reserve facility that is often raided by political mandarins for selfish gain. Inflated transportation costs for imported maize and the spiraling inflation is also to blame.

Global Hunger Index report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) says more Kenyans are in need of emergency food today than they were 20 years ago. But while poor rains have for years been blamed for the food woes, poor policies to support small-scale farmers expose countries to frequent food shortages.

Indeed, history has shown that there is a close relationship between investment levels in agriculture and food security. Kenya has negated on the Maputo Declaration where African governments committed to dedicate at least 20 per cent of national budgets on agriculture. Good progress had been made in the 1980s and early 1990s in reducing chronic hunger, largely due to increased investment in agriculture following the global food crisis of the early 1970s.

But in the past decade, as official development assistance devoted to agriculture declined substantially, the number of hungry people increased.  Globally, FAO says 1.02 billion people are today going hungry, with Kenya having over 10 million such people. This has then been compounded by the government’s inability to prioritize service to support farmers. In Kenya, agricultural extension service to farmers is long ‘dead.’ Save for organisations like AGRA, farmers have been overlooked by donors and policymakers.

Malawi is a case worth emulating. From a net food importer to a net food exporter, Malawi has prioritized agriculture, targeting small scale producers with an elaborate system of input subsidies of at least 30 per cent.

These so-called "mixed systems" can be models of efficient farming, with livestock providing the draft power to till the land and leftover crop residues serving as feed for animals. Moreover, the eggs, milk and meat from livestock routinely serve as important sources of regular household income, of high-quality protein, as well as a buffer against failed harvests.

In Kenya, with apt policies and support from the government, this mixed, or integrated, approach to farming offers many opportunities to increase food production sustainably and alleviate poverty where over the next few decades, agricultural systems, already facing a variety of stresses, will be expected to accommodate a massive population surge.
Realising the potential of the crop-livestock approach will require reorienting agricultural policies to support smallholder farmers facing an array of challenges.  These challenges include climate change, an explosion in demand for livestock products and competition for finite natural resources, including water, arable land, and fossil fuels needed to produce fuel and fertilizer.

With proper land preparation and judicious use of fertilizers, lands lying between fertile regions and dry rangelands could triple production of drought resistant crops - millet, sorghum and cowpea. Breeders are developing new varieties that offer both higher yields and better crop residues.

There is need for greater investments in the livestock sector, which has been much lower, often by a factor often or more, than investments in crops, even though livestock are equally critical to the vitality of smallholder farms. Farmers could benefit from livestock breeding for more efficient animals.

With the right support, these traditional mixed farming systems can be modified to become pathways out of economic and environmental poverty. Essentially, Kenyans need to advocate for policies that support smallholder farmers; build country’s parliamentary and institutional policy-making capacity and partner with other stakeholders.

It is worrying that among the aspiring presidential candidates, none has put forth their vision on food security. It is not in doubt that presidential, governor, senatorial and parliamentary aspirants should be men and women of high integrity – with agenda of food security, Kenya being an agricultural economy. Unfortunately, so far, all seem to be focusing on blocking one or another candidate to leadership or ostensibly protecting their ‘people.’

By Kasembeli Albert

The author is Editor of Business Journal Africa, a business and Finance Magazine.

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