26 April 2008

Kenya: United Nations Launches Sh5.3 Billion Food Appeal

Nairobi — The United Nations is seeking Sh5.3 billion to deal with food shortages occasioned by expensive farm inputs and post-election violence in Kenya.

The World Food Programme - the UN agency concerned with food security in the world - has appealed for the funds to feed 1.2 million Kenyans, a fraction of them victims of the conflict after the disputed results of the December 27 elections. "We launched an appeal last week for $84 million for operations in Kenya throughout the year," said Mr Marcus Prior, the agency's spokesperson for East and Central Africa.

The appeal follows an assessment last month of the violence that claimed at least 1,200 lives and displaced 350,000 others in parts of Rift Valley, Western and Central provinces.

"We did look at the planting season but it's rather too early to make an assessment. Obviously, there has been disruption (in planting) in the Rift Valley Province," he said in reference to the region, largely considered Kenya's food basket but which was scoured by chaos last January. "We will carry out (another) assessment later in the year."

The appeal comes as the world is facing a food crisis that WFP executive director Josette Sheeran calls the "silent tsunami" in reference to the tidal wave caused by sea quake and that often kills scores of people and causes damage worth millions of shillings.

Reports from parts of Africa, Europe, Asia, and South America show that food scarcity is causing civil strife. The shortages result from expensive agricultural inputs (such as fertiliser) caused by escalating oil prices, and a move by the developed world to divert grains to make ethanol (the inexpensive alternative to petroleum).

"It's more profitable to make fuel (from maize) than to make food," says Dr Juma Mukhwana, the executive director of Sacred Africa, a non-governmental organisation involved in food security and commodity exchange prices in rural Kenya.

According to the Centre for International Cooperation's Alex Evans, "global food prices have risen by 80 per cent in the last three years". In Kenya, the shortages are evident in the doubling of prices of essential foods, including milk, flour and rice.

Yet the country's problem is worsened by the post-election fighting that displaced more than 100,000 farmers from their land to camps, according to Mr Paul Mbuni, the chairperson of the 8,000-member Kenya Society for Agricultural Professionals (KESAP).

"There will be a drastic decline in production of maize and wheat," said Mr Mbuni. "We expect a maize shortfall of eight million bags this year."

As authorities worry over the shortfall, reports indicate that Kenya's strategic food reserves are getting depleted fast as the Government feeds the 350,000 people displaced by the election conflict. "Of course the fact is that since January when clashes began, the Government has accessed a lot of food to the IDPs," says Mr Kipserem Maritim, the spokesperson of National Cereals and Produce Board, the country's grain store. "This has impacted on our reserves."

According to Agriculture minister William Ruto, the country has 3.5 million bags reserved at the NCPB for emergency. This is enough to feed the country until August, he said four days ago.

Kenyans consume 32 million bags of maize per year. Last year, 36 million bags of maize were produced meaning there was a surplus of about 4 million bags.

Now the Government seeks to mop up the extra grain still in farmers' hands. "We believe there are farmers out there holding onto food. We are appealing to them to bring it to us because we have the infrastructure and facilities to preserve the grain," Mr Maritim says. As yet, the board cannot quantify the maize still held by farmers. However, the response to the appeal has been "low" says Mr Maritim.

Commodity prices analysts say the response could be poor because maize farmers may be disposing of the produce to agents who are paying better than the Sh1,300 a bag offered by the NCPB.

At the same time, the Government has no plans to import cereals to counter the looming food shortage in the country, the Saturday Nation has established.

Instead, the Agriculture ministry is pegging hope on unharvested food crops in Kenya and neighbouring Tanzania.

"We expect maize harvests from Tanzania in June and from parts of Rift Valley and Western provinces in July," said permanent secretary Romano Kiome.

While acknowledging dwindling food stocks in the country, Dr Kiome said cereals in Canada, America and Australia were also selling at high prices. It will, therefore, mean the Government will have to exhaust all options possible before it can seek international imports. "We are keen on cross-border imports; it will be cheaper this way," said the PS.

Early this week, the Agriculture minister raised the red flag and said local food reserves could only last until August. This means Kenyans risk starvation in coming months if no decisive measures are taken soon. Already residents in some parts of Rift Valley like Samburu and West Pokot districts are experiencing food shortages.

The Government has laid down strategies to ensure productivity of food crops already in farms is enhanced while still facilitating planting of others. Farmers are set to be given top dressing (CAN) fertiliser to salvage crops planted in April.

Since the onset of long rains in February, the Government has distributed 350 tonnes of free seeds to internal refugees. "We are also seeking a way in which Kenya Seed Company can reduce seed prices by around 40 per cent," said Dr Kiome.

The PS further said the ministry had also distributed 21 tonnes of fertiliser to farmers especially in Rift Valley and assisted in ploughing 4,000 acres for free. "We are also helping them get farm tools. So far we have given them 14,000 tools," said Dr Kiome.

Maize and rice production was high in the last five years, but the gains made were reversed by post-election chaos. "About 3.5 million bags of maize were either burnt or destroyed during the violence hence the deficit," says Dr Kiome.

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