Kenyans will continue relying on neighbouring countries to put food on their tables if they do not check their love for land and their government’s thirst for taxes.
This is the verdict of Mr Gerald Masila, the executive director of the East Africa Grain Council (EAGC), a man who has studied the region’s agriculture for years.
Why are Uganda and Tanzania producing more food than Kenya?
Both Uganda and Tanzania enjoy a competitive and comparative advantage over Kenya when it comes to agricultural production.
Uganda has a very favourable climate, more rainfall and has a bimodal climate that allows two harvests of grain in a year and a year round harvest of all other farm produce, including horticulture.
The soils are also much more fertile and require less fertiliser. Uganda also has more arable land that is being developed for large-scale commercial farming.
There are also substantial investments being put in place in Uganda to develop large commercial farms that enjoy larger economies of scale, are more mechanised meaning they produce at much lower unit costs.
Likewise, Tanzania has larger available arable land, and larger average size of farms, more rainfall and is also producing more competitively for most agricultural produce.
On the contrary, Kenya has much less suitable arable land, with majority of the land being semi-arid and arid and therefore not very suited for agricultural production. Besides, the traditional food baskets of central and North Rift have suffered declining productivity due to monoculture practised for close to 100 years, since the colonial farmers opened up the farms and started large-scale farming of cereals — maize, wheat and barley — and other cash crops such as coffee and tea.
The soils have, therefore, acidified over the years and their capacity to uptake fertilisers to the plants has declined.
The farm sizes have also been reducing, as land has continued to be subdivided. The smaller the piece of land, the less economical it is. While in other parts of the world, agricultural land is consolidating to larger and more economical sizes, in Kenya it is getting smaller, meaning that the unit cost of production of agricultural produce is increasing, thus making Kenya uncompetitive.
Are policies in Kenya helping the average farmer?
Policies in Kenya are against agriculture and agribusiness. Kenya has introduced taxes on agricultural inputs, a thing that no other country in the world has done. In fact, other countries subsidise agricultural inputs to encourage production.
Tax regimes in Kenya have made it very uncompetitive to the extent that farm machinery and equipment are more expensive in Kenya than in neighbouring countries.
For example, a John Deere tractor is 25 per cent cheaper in Uganda than in Kenya, making it a lot cheaper to produce in Uganda. It’s the same with fertiliser and fuel.
Beside, taxes, which include cess among others, the devolution of agriculture is another serious challenge. It amounts to devolving food security.
Not all counties are well endowed with arable land and rainfall. Some are net buyers of food, while others are making it difficult for their farmers to market their produce by charging cess and [imposing] other trade barriers.
How has urbanisation affected agricultural production in Kenya?
Only one third of Kenya has good productivity potential. Yet even this has been decreasing over the years. A few years back, Kiambu and Thika were major agricultural areas. But now, all the agricultural land between Nairobi and these towns has been converted into buildings.
A few years back, Kenya had reserved rangelands and ranches that were producing beef for export and local consumption. These ranches lined up from Laikipia, Nyahururu, Machakos, Voi to Coast used to feed Kenya Meat Commission. They included the Embakasi Ranch, Maanzoni, Konza and Malili. Now they are no more and Kenya is importing over 60 per cent to 70 per cent of its beef from Somalia, Ethiopia and Tanzania.
Is Kenya safe relying on food from a neighbour’s farm?
Absolutely not. Should neighbours decide to close the borders, as has happened in the past, the consequences will be dire.
What is the way forward?
The challenges facing our agriculture can be fixed, quickly with the right resolve and political good will. However, action must be taken now, as waiting any longer might just move things to a point of no return.