Kenya’s food situation is worsening despite intervention by the government.
A myriad of problems ranging from corruption, weak policies, armyworm invasion, cartels, post-harvest wastage, outdated farming practices and declining soil fertility are to blame for the country’s perpetual woes.
This trend casts doubt on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda of making Kenya self-reliant in food production .
Experts say the country lost up to 10 million bags of maize last year due to post-harvest losses as a result of the armyworm infestation that the government took too long to respond to adequately. In addition, farmers could be holding another 15 million bags due to cash crunch at the National Cereals and Produce Board.
“If we dealt with the pests and handled harvests better, we would not be having this crisis today. We would have enough food to tide us over until the next harvest,” said Dr Dennis Otieno, a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute.
The government blames lack of enough extension officers and shrinking acreage under the maize cover due to land subdivision for the reduction in production.
“A lot of extension officers have retired and we have not had a serious recruitment to replace them. These officers have been important in the sense that they help farmers with good agronomical practices to spur production,” says Johnson Irungu, director of crops in the Ministry of Agriculture.
Dr Irungu says since a major recruitment for extension officers was done in 2006, there have not been any significant staffing of the officials to replace a huge chunk of personnel that has retired.
Between 2011 and 2012, the Ministry of Agriculture introduced a programme that would see farmers supplied with farm inputs and trained on good agnomical practices. The programme dubbed Good Agricultural Practices saw the government provide farm inputs for free to farmers with one acre. The farmers were also trained on good agronomical practices under level one of this scheme. At level two, the government offered training and organised farmers in groups, and linked them to markets.
The move saw Kenya produce a record 41.9 million bags of maize in 2012, the highest to have been achieved in 34 years, according to data from Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. The programme was, however, scaled down in 2013 following management change at the ministry, and with devolution, most of the agricultural functions were devolved.
This saw maize production decline in 2014 to 40.7 million bags and 39 million bags in 2015 before hitting a low of 32 million bags in 2017, according to projection by the ministry last year.
On Thursday, Red Cross started a campaign to raise Sh1 billion to feed 3.4 million Kenyans facing hunger. “We are keen on escalating our interventions through direct cash transfers, health and nutrition outreaches, rehabilitation of key communal watering points, animal offtake among others,” Red Cross secretary-general Abbas Gullet said. This comes two months after the government ended the Sh6 billion flour subsidy programme, which was introduced in May last year.
Devolution CS Eugene Wamalwa has said the government will spend Sh3.8 billion between now and April to fight hunger. National Disaster Management Authority chief executive officer James Oduor says the drought situation has been precipitated by poor performance of maize in the last crop season.
The government has pumped billions in agriculture in a bid to make Kenya self-sufficient in food production, but despite this, the country has not been able to feed itself, and mainly relies on imports to bridge annual deficits.
The presence of arable land, incentives to farmers and a relatively good weather has not helped in lifting production.
Dr Irungu says soil acidity remains a big challenge in Kenya’s breadbasket of North Rift as continuous use of acidic fertiliser has compromised the quality of soil.
In 2013, the government conducted a nationwide soil testing exercise that revealed that more than 80 per cent of the country’s land is not suitable for farming due to high acidity levels. However, enough efforts have not been made to address the issue, which can only be corrected by use of lime.
Farmers enjoy subsidised fertiliser from the government at half the price of prevailing market rates. After harvesting, they also enjoy higher prices on their produce. This year, the government is buying maize at Sh3,200 per 90kg bag, which is way higher than the global average of Sh1,500.
Dr Otieno says reports by Tegemeo Institute suggest that farmers in the North Rift are hoarding maize because the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) is unable to buy it from them, and has been known to delay payments in the past due to insufficient funds.
“Around 15 million bags of maize were harvested in December, which should have been well beyond what we need to tide us over until the next harvest in May. Unfortunately, farmers have decided to hold onto their maize because NCPB is not financed well enough to pay them, therefore creating an artificial shortage of the crop,” he said.
But Ministry of Agriculture officials have dismissed the claims, saying farmers have been selling maize to NCPB at high rates experienced since 2008.
“We have received three million bags of maize from the December harvest, and we have so far paid the farmers Sh7 billion. It is inaccurate to say farmers are hoarding because the NCPB cannot pay,” he said.
He said the ministry has reduced post-harvest losses by transporting maize to market for farmers for free and by providing improved storage facilities.
But according to Dr Jane Ambuko, a senior lecturer in the department of plant science and crop protection at the University of Nairobi, these efforts just scratch the surface. She told Nation that Kenya will continue to experience perennial food shortage unless it figures out how to stem food loss after harvest.
“Conservative estimates say we lose up to 30 per cent of food to post harvest losses, a gap the government has been slow to address. No matter how much we invest in production, we will not defeat hunger if we don’t deal with food storage,” she said.
Aflatoxins have routinely been found in cereals in Kenya and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation recently warned that the country could be looking at an aflatoxin outbreak in five counties unless quick measures are taken.
These are some of the factors that have seen Kenya in the midst of yet another crippling drought despite the development of an early warning system.
Last year, the country was forced to import maize from Mexico after the food situation worsened in a move that saw a 90 kilogramme bag of maize sold at Sh5,000, forcing the government to release all the buffer stocks held at Strategic Food Reserve (SFR) to ease the pressure. This was the second time in a decade for the country to import maize outside East African Com following a serious shortage in 2010.
Tegemeo Institute of Research has faulted the government for not stocking enough maize at SFR, which worsens the situation in times of drought. “SFR is supposed to have a stock that can last the country for at least three months when there is severe shortage of grain,” said Dr Miltone Ayieko, a director at the institute.