At any given time, about six million Kenyans face various levels of food insecurity, ranging from mild to chronic.
To address the deteriorating situation, our production system needs radical transformation.
Needed urgently are farming models to transform the highly fragmented and unprofitable farms into successful small-scale commercial enterprises.
This has been successfully done in China, where a vibrant agriculture sector acted as a catalyst for economic growth. How did the dragon do it?
China’s open agriculture policies in the 1980s were not grandiose master plans or blueprints. Reforms were deliberate, piecemeal, and through trial and error. What worked at the local level was replicated nationally.
A suitable model for Kenya would be the community-based agricultural enterprises common in eastern China. The Asian country encouraged small-scale producers to merge their farms to form commercially viable production units. This model would be appropriate in rural areas, where land is highly fragmented.
At a conference on African agriculture and rural development at Nanjing University in China last month, the main concern was that many foreign agro companies willing to invest in Africa had little information on land tenure, laws, and investment policies.
Of course there are challenges that Kenya would face if it decided to implement radical land reforms. Firstly, the social-political problems: this model works well in China partly because all land there is government-owned, making reforms more flexible. Consequently, land ownership is not as emotional an issue as it is in Kenya. Farming in China is strictly an enterprise.
Secondly, our confused political economy of land and attendant corruption could discourage suitable investors. We need clear policies to safeguard the interests of both farmers and investors.
Thirdly, Kenya’s agriculture suffers a shortage of young labour. China is equally affected, but this is taken care of by technology. In Kenya, lack of technology could attract the large number of unemployed youths.
Collectivisation would be difficult in Kenya since the culture of private ownership is entrenched. However, farmers would be persuaded to support a model once they understand it and see its benefits.
Different models could be tried, for example the use of contract farming, where farmers are given inputs and assured of a market for particular products. This is already happening in some areas, but the main problem is lack of strong farmer organisations.
In counties where land is not demarcated, large-scale contract farming or land lease would be the best model. What is needed is proper farmer education and support structures.
Once strong policy, institutional, and industry support needed for successful agro-enterprise and technology transfer are in place, implementation of new models should not be a problem.
With her well trained personnel and experience with the cooperative movement, Kenya has the ideal conditions for a “green revolution”.
However, while we need more food, it should be remembered that modernising agriculture is not enough, neither is it an alternative to industrialisation.
The two complement each other.
Dr Mbataru teaches agribusiness at Kenyatta University. ([email protected])