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January 18, 2019

Kenya can attain food security

NCPB workers inspecting old maize stocks at the NCPB in Eldoret. /FILE
NCPB workers inspecting old maize stocks at the NCPB in Eldoret. /FILE

The last one year has been a tumultuous time for Kenyan agriculture. A prolonged drought, armyworm invasion, presidential elections and a food subsidy programme to ensure Kenyans do not go hungry. Kenya tackled these challenges head-on and weathered the volatility, having learnt a number of lessons.

The task of providing affordable food for more than 48 million Kenyans should not be underrated. It was arguably the single largest food import programme in recent Kenyan history, if not ever. This mission required the collaboration of all actors along the international

and Kenyan food supply chain. Of course, with an operation of this scale, there were challenges and hiccups. Initially, there were reports of inadequate supply of subsidised flour to some of the more remote locations and on some supermarket shelves. The port of Mombasa strained under the extra cargo and quickly became congested so that importers’ vessels waited as long as one month for a berth. At more than Sh1 million per day demurrage, the private sector faced a bill running into hundreds of millions of shillings. Now that the subsidy programme has ended, Kenya is looking forward to how it can improve the food security situation and mitigate as many hazards as possible.

The next season does not come without its risks. Farmers are expected to battle with armyworm and are reported to lack funds to buy inputs as a result of delayed payments from the NCPB. Kenyan millers are also waiting for billions of shillings owed to them as a hangover from the subsidy. As a result, millers’ liquidity is in crisis, reducing their ability to purchase raw materials that could eventually force them to cut production, exacerbating fragility of food security.

The fertiliser subsidy programme continues with the aim of facilitating improved access to fertiliser at affordable prices to help increase yields. Fertiliser adoption is consequently increasing and innovative blending plants are coming online to add further to improving soil quality and fertiliser effectiveness to specific crops and soils. However, fertiliser is only one element of a successful and functioning food system.

World agricultural yields continue to increase and crop prices decrease as a result of improved use of technologies and scientific research. Meanwhile, Kenya is lagging behind but its advantage is the ability to tap into this already available knowledge and expertise.

Irrigation technology has turned parts of the world considered deserts into productive land able to grow two or three crops a year. Seed technologies have led to exponential yield increases, improved tolerance to drought and lower application of chemicals.

Market linkages between farmers and buyers are crucial to develop efficiencies in the Kenyan food chain. The government cannot be left to do everything on its own. Encouraging private sector competition is fundamental in the development of agriculture.

The private sector profit motive is key to driving the agricultural market through basic economics of supply and demand. Free markets are catalysts for efficient delivery of goods from excess areas to deficit through the all-encompassing indicator — price.

Kenya has seen an abundance of rainfall over the last few months with figures more than 200 per cent higher than normal for this time of year. If the country pulls together, then there are immense opportunities on the horizon.

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