When my grandfather worked as a milkman in Lord Gordon’s farm near Tigoni before the dawn of independence, he would tell his children to take small bites of ugali with large gulps of fresh milk. However, when he moved his family to the Rift Valley after independence, his fortunes changed drastically. He started telling his children to take large bites of the maize meal with small sips of milk. My uncle and aunt who were born before independence are taller and more muscular than their siblings who were born afterwards.
It is more than 50 years since independence and the same dietary challenges that confronted my extended family and the poor in rural Kenya and urban slums have not changed. In some parts of the country, families do not have enough to feed their children. As a result, the government, the church, and other players in education have had to provide free lunch to keep such children in school.
And too often, especially in towns, the high cost of food prevents the poor from enjoying three meals a day although such towns are not necessarily classified hunger or famine zones.
The Cabinet secretary for Devolution has announced that there are 1.6 million Kenyans who are facing starvation. That means that one in 20 Kenyans might go to bed hungry tonight. Either they do not know where their next meal will come from or they know without a doubt that the meagre portion available to them will be little more than maize and its variants. And most likely, it will have been given to them by the local chief or a non-profit organisation. We used to joke that in some families, the situation would become so dire that they would make uji to escort the main meal of ugali down unwilling throats. But the reports of starvation in some parts of Kenya are not a laughing matter.
Besides taking immediate action to supply relief food to families in the hardest-hit areas, policymakers and political leaders must implement long-term strategies to ensure every county is, at the very least, self-sufficient in food production. There is a need for more deliberate action to harvest rainwater and use it to increase food production and boost livestock farming in areas conducive to this form of agriculture. Some of you may have noticed that the regions hardest hit by food shortages are also not served by good roads. That means even if food were in plenty a few kilometres away, it would be difficult to get supplies to the affected areas – because there is simply no way to get there.
Kenya should borrow a leaf from Japan, whose population is well over 126 million but where food shortage is unheard of. Before Japan started investing in infrastructure, there were large areas that were “really remote”, as one Japanese scholar put it. The coming of roads and railways meant that every part of that country became accessible.
For Kenya, what this would mean is that a livestock keeper in northern Kenya should be able to transport his animals before drought becomes severe and sell them to abattoirs in any part of the country for the best price and at the lowest cost.
Policymakers should also put in place a model to make food affordable, even among the very poor. In most of Europe, the cost of food is low. Regardless of one’s job, one can still walk to a meat market and go home with enough food to feed one’s family for a week. Not so here because wages are low and food prices high relative to income.
Finally, Kenya has expressed its intention to join the league of newly industrialised, middle-income economies by 2030. There is not a single country in this bracket where the threat of mass starvation hangs over its citizens like the sword of Damocles. Indeed, all such countries have made food so easily accessible and affordable that their problems are no longer associated with too little but too much. They managed to do that by encouraging innovations that increase the shelf life of food.
Adding value to agricultural produce ensures that supplies are consistent everywhere throughout the year. This lowers the likelihood of price spikes. In the long run, this would benefit the poor because it stabilises the cost of food.
Of course, value-addition also means farmers in one part of the country would not be saddled with surplus when other regions are grappling with food scarcity.
Ng’ang’a Mbugua is deputy managing editor, 'Daily Nation'.