12 February 2018

Kenya: Uhuru Kenyatta's 'Big Four' Plan - How to Grow More Food for a Growing Population

During last year's Jamhuri Day speech, President Uhuru Kenyatta revealed his legacy agenda under the banner the "Big Four".

The agenda focuses on food security, affordable housing, manufacturing and affordable healthcare as key pillars anchoring his development policies during his second and final term in office.

Starting this week, I will be analysing this agenda in a four-part series in this column. The aim is to critically look at each of the pillars and make suggestions on how best we can achieve these goals.

Today's column is dedicated to the analysis of the first pillar -- food security.

Food security is a vital cog in the economic growth of any country. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food security as a state "when all people have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets dietary needs and food preference for an active and healthy life at all times."

POPULATION AND LAND

Without such in any country, there will be social and economic instability.

There are several variables that impact food security. Key among them is population and land resources.

In 2018, Kenya's population is expected to hit 51 million, more than 13 million new lives since the last census of 2009, when the country had 36.8 million people.

If you carefully scrutinise the population density and the climate maps below, you can see that they mirror each other. In other words, the density of the population is higher in the most arable land inhabited by largely peasant farmers who own small pieces of land.

Yet, according to FAO, smallholder farmers contribute more than 80 percent of food supply in Africa, as well as in Kenya.

The nexus between population, land size and productivity was the subject of a 1997-2010 study by Milu Muyanga and T.S. Jayne in their paper Effects of Population Density on Smallholder Agricultural Production and Commercialization in Rural Kenya, through a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Michigan State University's Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics.

The study established that "farm productivity and incomes tend to rise with population density up to 600-650 persons per km2; beyond this threshold, rising population density is associated with sharp declines in farm productivity."

MINIMUM LAND SIZE

At the time, "14% of Kenya's rural population was residing in areas exceeding this population density." Although no new study has been undertaken, the additional 13 million people must have pushed the percentage of Kenyans living in areas that they will experience drastic productivity decline.

The study concluded that Kenya needed to explore the nature of institutional and policy reforms needed to address these development problems.

Indeed at the time, the then Lands minister Amos Kimunya came up with a policy on minimum land size but political pundits destroyed it before the public debated it.

As a result, there isn't much arable land in Kenya where farm mechanisation can help improve productivity.

In my view, for Kenya to be food secure, it is necessary to discourage further land subdivision and possibly start land consolidation to enable large-scale mechanised commercial production to meet the needs of the growing population.

DANGER OF RELYING ON PEASANT FARMERS

The danger of the continuing reliance on peasant farming is that a few Lords of Poverty have mastered ways of manipulating small-scale farmers and carting away huge sums of money.

Every year, we are told that farmers will get fertilizer but no one has ever questioned why yields are declining if the farmers are using fertilizer.

The truth is that more than 70 percent of fertilizer in the country is counterfeit. Even government officials cannot explain how or who imports such fertilizer.

In the past few years farmers have lost their entire crop as a result of maize lethal necrosis, a seed-borne disease that may have entered the country due to regulatory failure. The liberalised seed market must be subjected to a strict regulatory environment if we want to realise food security.

Other factors that impact food security include the high percentage of food that goes to waste due to poor storage and non-scientific methods of food preparation; cultural practices that undermine the health of the people; farming methods; consumption patterns; and poor logistics in moving food from areas of surplus to deficient regions.

FOOD STORAGE OPTIONS

Between harvest and the dining table, more than 50 percent of food goes to waste. Much of this can be eliminated.

The Ministry of Agriculture has been talking about hermetic storage bags (used for food preservation to reduce post-harvest losses) but the fear persists of unscrupulous businessmen flooding the market with counterfeits.

There are also galvanized small grain storage bins that can provide secure storage for medium enterprises.

Essentially, the technologies to eliminate as much as 30 percent of waste exist.

Other types of food waste results from failure to align food preparation and consumption. Tons of unwanted food ends up in waste dumps while millions of people go hungry.

Many people cook more food than they consume due to cultural beliefs that if every bit of food is consumed you must be selfish. This causes even the poor to waste large quantities of food even when hunger looms.

Before the 1950s, land use in Africa was communal. As independence approached, many African countries adopted new land-use methods of individual ownership.

TAXES ON UNUSED LAND

Today, it is not uncommon to find large, unused tracts of arable land owned by a single individual.

This anomaly must be corrected through land-use policy interventions like paying taxes for not-utilisation of land.

At the same time, a lot of land lies idle and unused in places like Nakuru, Uasin Gishu, Laikipia and Trans Nzoia because people who hold titles to it cannot access it for purposes of farming owing to hostilities from communities claiming it as their ancestral land, gazing lands or forest lands.

This poses a serious threat to food security. Counties where this is happening and the national government should perhaps be made to pay annual rent at market rates to the titleholders for failing to facilitate the use of the land. This process should start with a census of such inaccessible land.

Traditional methods of farming can no longer support the growing population. Adoption of new methods is imperative and for this to work, the mind-set on large-scale production must become part of the farmer's DNA.

COMMODITY EXCHANGES

This cannot happen without sustained training programmes through incubation and financial support to undertake initial projects in productive areas as well as an intensified programme to use irrigation methods to expand farming into arid and semi-arid lands.

Other programmes like dairy and beef production are essential especially in areas with a high incidence of children with stunted growth.

Perhaps the weakest link in our food security is the distribution from low to high-surplus areas. Through incentives, the government must encourage the private sector to develop commodities exchanges to help with the logistics of food to reach those who need it throughout the country.

Already there are start-ups building supply chain networks but they may need policy support to distribute food to sparsely populated areas that may not be attractive to invest in.

Lastly, there is a need to encourage people through education to diversify their foods. In most cases when people say there is hunger, they mean there isn't enough maize.

OTHER FOOD OPTIONS

Yet, at the same time, there are potatoes, rice and other foods that are not culturally considered as "food".

Making Kenya food-secure does not need to be a complicated affair with billions of resources being deployed. We simply need prudent policy changes, political will and tax incentives to stimulate the agricultural sector.

Parliament should by now be crafting new legislation, especially on land use, stiffer penalties for those manipulating the sector for their own benefit.

With proper policy measures, strict standards, assisting farmers to reduce post-harvest losses, irrigation (arid and semi-arid lands), adjusting cultural practices, improving farming methods, we can attain food security.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi's School of Business.

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