More than 2.5 million Kenyans are food insecure. Many more go without food for days during droughts and floods but the suffering can be avoided.
The country needs to focus on developing strategies on feeding its people.
These include increasing food production, strengthening distribution and marketing systems, and developing reliable storage systems.
It is also important that domestic food prices are protected from the volatile nature of world food prices, especially the food consumed by the poor.
Article 43 (c) of the Constitution provides that everyone has the right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality.
It is in this light that the National Food and Nutrition Security Policy was developed in 2011.
Its objectives include putting in place measures aimed at achieving adequate and affordable food for all Kenyans, especially the vulnerable groups.
Kenya’s policy response to food and nutrition security can be grouped into three approaches.
First, consumer-oriented responses that provide direct support to consumers and vulnerable groups in the form of food subsidies, social safety nets, tax reductions and price controls among others.
Secondly, producer-oriented responses intended to support farmers to increase production, using measures such as input supply.
Thirdly, trade-oriented responses that use policy instruments, such as reducing tariffs and restricting exports to stabilise prices and/or increase domestic supply.
Increasing public food stocks and providing consumer subsidies are common measures taken especially during crises to ensure that prices remain affordable.
These measures have had limited influence on the price of food because the amounts available to the market from the national grain reserves are usually very small.
Another measure that has been used to ensure food is affordable is the reduction or elimination of taxes on food items. For instance, the value added tax (16 per cent) on some food items has often been removed in times of crisis.
Nonetheless, there is limited impact of this tax reduction since the price of these commodities still remains high. Price control is another measure that the country adopted last year.
However, enforcing price controls is often costly and difficult especially, in cases where there is no adequate public stock or imported supply to meet the demand at the government-fixed prices.
When prices are set at low levels, they are also likely to discourage domestic production because farmers will find better alternative uses for their land while traders may resort to the hoarding of essential commodities.
Social safety nets have been used to make the impact of the food crisis bearable and to avert starvation and malnutrition among the most vulnerable groups. This is usually in the form of targeted cash and food transfers including school feeding programmes that keep many children in school.
Production-oriented measures include initiatives to support farmers through market and non-market mechanisms such as introducing or expanding the supply of inputs (mainly fertiliser) subsidy programmes.
Fertiliser use is still very low due to its high cost. Private sector projects have been set up to increase the access to inputs by supporting stockists at the local level.
For example, through the Kilimo Biashara project, extension services are provided to the farmers by the public sector and market information and inputs are provided by the private sector and non-governmental organisations to boost production and productivity.
Crop and livestock insurance is a new initiative where, private insurance companies are now providing weather based insurance policies for a variety of crops and livestock.
Export bans are common measures to ensure that the surplus food production is not sold to markets in deficit countries. For example, Tanzania banned export of maize to Kenya last year.
These export bans lead to lost opportunities for farmers and traders to benefit from the good prices offered in the food deficit markets. This leads to reduced investment in production in subsequent seasons leading to an overall reduction in food production.
The implications of the different cocktails of strategic policy approaches to promote food security usually bear considerable cost implications. In particular, there is usually the challenge of financing subsidies, social protection programmes, as well as food imports.
Most governments resort to using their foreign exchange reserves and,or, borrow from the domestic market.
For example, the total expenditure on food subsidies have been projected to exceed one per cent of GDP in Burundi. In Malawi, it is estimated at about 2.6 per cent of GDP (approximately 15 per cent of government expenditure).
This suggests that implementation of different policy measures can be expensive and at the same time not yield the desired results.
Therefore, policy makers have to re-think and come up with the best-bet options that increase food availability, promote greater access to adequate and nutritious food, and sustainably improve the livelihoods of both the producers and consumers.
Dr. John Omiti is a principal policy analyst and Ms Nancy Laibuni is a policy analyst at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA)