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November 19, 2018

WYCLIFFE MUGA: We're on the brink of an agricultural apocalypse

Agriculture
Agriculture

The past few months have been a very unusual period, politically speaking.

Traditionally, one year after a general election, the election would have long been forgotten, and we would all have been back to our usual routines. But not this time. Barely a weekend passes but we have political rallies (mostly disguised as church services) held in one corner of the country or another. And there is actually a very spirited debate going on, as to whether President Uhuru Kenyatta owes it to his deputy, William Ruto, to support him in the 2022 presidential race.

You would think that the only problem we face as a nation is that of whom to elect as our next President, since — after all — our leaders seem to hardly pay attention to anything else. But we do have problems, which are much greater than that. I would refer in particular to the ongoing agricultural apocalypse, which has brought devastating poverty all over the Kenyan countryside.

To understand this phenomenon, first note that what we inherited from our colonial rulers was a purely agrarian economy. And — for the 70 per cent of our population who live in rural areas — we have not since moved very far beyond that.

Now, after Independence we had a remarkably successful transfer of the existing large farms from the ‘white settlers’ to the indigenous communities.

Literally millions of acres were transferred in an orderly manner from the settlers who had legal title to them, to locals who used the standard vehicle of those days — the land-buying company — to purchase this land.

Thereafter these large ‘settler’ plantations were subdivided into smallholdings for individual members, creating a land-owning peasantry of a kind which Africans in many countries around the continent would envy.

But the nature of agricultural production has changed since then. Thanks to various advanced technologies over the last 50 years or so, the global production of every kind of cereal or vegetable has not only greatly increased, but has also become more efficient.

In other words, it is both easier and cheaper to produce most of the crops which we Kenyans now grow on those small farms,which the majority of us live on. Farming is now a global industry, while we are still stuck with the village-level, peasant mode of production. This is why you hear bitter complaints not only from those who grow sugarcane, but also from those who grow rice, coffee, wheat or maize.

The proximate causes of their anguish may differ, but the root cause is the same: That the world produces so much of these crops, and at such low prices that our farmers simply cannot compete. Added to that, the rich countries — almost all of which have powerful agriculture lobbies — greatly subsidise farm produce to make it possible for their farmers to earn a living.

Consider what one well-placed commentator had to say about the former US President Barack Obama — on an earlier visit to Kenya, back in 2006, when he was Senator Obama of Illinois:

“…a reporter raised an issue – dealing with American protectionism that hurts Kenyan farmers. Why, asked the reporter, do Americans retain farm subsidies and tariffs that prevent Kenyan farmers from competing in the world’s biggest market?

Obama’s response? He talked about the soybean farmers in Illinois, and said, “It’s important to me to be sure I’m looking out for their interests. It’s part of my job.” Absolutely incredible.

For, in July 2006 the European Union and five nations, including the United States and Japan, met in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the elimination of farm subsidies and agricultural tariffs. After all, in 2002, the World Bank estimated that African exports would increase by almost $2.5 billion if the US, Europe, Japan and Canada eliminated their agricultural tariffs…African farmers run up against farmers in wealthy nations whose laws ensure their success at the expense of Third World farmers.”

And so, I would ask: between our stone-age agricultural practices, and the tariffs and subsidies imposed by the very markets we would hope to supply with our most valuable agricultural produce, what chance has the small-scale Kenyan farmer?

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