Kenya is among the unfortunate sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries that are likely to face a food crisis in the next five to 10 years unless some drastic policy interventions are made.
The government seems to be aware of this lurking danger. President Kenyatta, in his speech to the nation on his second inauguration, made some far-reaching policy proposals with respect to agriculture, land ownership and land use. The following is an extract from the President’s speech:
We shall take steps to address idle arable land ownership and utilization. We shall take steps to encourage and facilitate large-scale commercial agriculture to help diversify our staples. We shall redesign subsidies to the sector to ensure they target improvements in food yields and production quality. We shall provide, together with other actors, key enablers within the farming process that will address distribution, wastage, storage and value-addition of agricultural commodities.
This may be the turning point to effectively managing the country’s resources, considering that in the past, planning has been an anathema.
POOR LAND USE
The President’s proposals come on the heels of a freshly launched National Spatial Plan that will ensure seamless implementation and compliance with planned resource utilisation.
The NSP “establishes the National Spatial Structure as a framework to achieve integrated and sustainable spatial development of the country. … It shall also be the basis for preparation of lower tier development plans to achieve integrated and sustainable land use planning and to promote harmony and mutual cooperation in planning in the country.”
This is a welcome move, considering that agricultural productivity has been in decline due to poor land use practices.
Multiple sources of data (see for example, the World Bank’s 2010 study Achieving Shared Prosperity in Kenya) over several years show that while in the 1980s farmers could easily harvest more than 40 ninety-kilogram bags of maize per hectare, today farmers can hardly harvest 20 bags from a similar piece of land.
Excessive subdivision of land, soil erosion and climate change undermine productivity and creates more poor people.
In a country where more than 80 per cent of land is either arid or semi-arid, such policy proposals are overdue.
The little arable land that Kenya has must be put to use in the most productive way possible.
To fully benefit from the new policy proposals, land consolidation to create large tracts suitable for mechanised farming must be encouraged.
There will be a need for new business models especially in developing modern supply chains that will create new employment for displaced subsistence farmers.
The thinking that subsistence farmers can be made productive must be discarded because it will never guarantee the development of an effective agribusiness model.
Years of subsidies to the subsistence farmer have yielded nothing but pain.
Post-harvest losses from subsistence farmers still hover around 50 percent due to poor storage of grain and an undeveloped supply chain.
Sub-Saharan Africa is perhaps the only part of the world where consumers compete with weevils (Sitophilus granarius) in the consumption of stored grain.
The policy proposal also comes at a time when new technologies to sustainably manage land are widely available.
A 2006 World Bank study, Sustainable Land Management: Challenges, Opportunities, and Trade-offs, noted that, “these technologies will integrate the management of land, water, biodiversity, and other environmental resources to meet human needs while ensuring the long-term sustainability of ecosystem services and livelihoods.”
There are other emerging technologies like blockchain and Global Positioning System (GPS) that can be used to better manage land resources.
Blockchain (an open, distributed public ledger that records transactions between two parties in an efficient, verifiable and permanent way) is widely used to secure different types of transactions.
Its application in land management promises to do away with fraud. With the technology, it will be easy to establish land ownership and with GPS, it will be easier to monitor land use.
Land is a major factor of production that should not be left to individual decision-making when millions of people languish in poverty.
If large-scale land owners are not utilising their land, then they should at the minimum pay tax for non-use.
It is only through technology that the country can effectively manage the land resources in the most effective way.
Better land resource management will reduce conflict between pastoralists and game reserves.
We now have more livestock than the available land resources can support in an environment that is perennially affected by drought.
NEW BUSINESS MODELS
In order to balance between conservation and enabling pastoralists to keep their livestock, new business models must be adopted if Kenya is to realise sustainable development.
There is greater logic in adopting zero grazing by supplying hay and other animal feeds to pastoralists so as to make them more productive and be able to commercialize their livestock.
In the coming days, the President’s speech should be broken down into different policy statements to address the many promises it contained.
Where it needs legislation, Parliament should embark on creating new laws governing land and its use. In particular, lawmakers must address the issue of illegal occupation of land.
There are many people in Kenya who hold titles to land they cannot access because it is being forcibly occupied by other people.
Parliament must also enact legislation to ensure that land owners put at least 10 per cent of their land under trees.
Let there be no selfish interests as has been in the past when legislating sensitive land matters.
CORRECTING PAST MISTAKES
President Kenyatta, in this second term, has nothing to fear. It is his moment to create a lasting legacy by ensuring that future generations will be assured of food security.
If we continue to pursue the current agricultural and land policy framework, Kenya will certainly slide into a state of food insecurity.
There are no two ways here. Change is imperative and the President got it right in his policy proposals. He now needs our support.
Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”
Let us use this olive branch offered by President Kenyatta to ensure that we restore our water towers, purify the air we breathe and strengthen the people.
We have this opportunity to correct past planning mistakes and start all over again to better plan for future generations.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.