From many years of studying the politics and the economy of Kenya, I have long concluded that getting it right on agriculture — coming up with the most viable policies in this sector — is the most difficult challenge that any of our leaders face.
And, as I have had cause to mention before, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s prioritising of ‘food security’ as one of his Big Four items on the national agenda does not really do justice to the importance of agriculture policy.
Let me illustrate this with two items from the news reports of the past few days.
First, there was a news report earlier this week on the imminent introduction of GMO cotton to Kenyan farms. This follows years of controversy and debate on whether or not any crop said to be genetically modified should be allowed into Kenya at all.
Now if successful, this will revive the cotton industry and — by the massively improved output possible when farmers use GMO seeds — raise farm incomes substantially, possibly tripling such incomes in some places.
This will be a big step forward in our unending search for more productive small-scale agriculture and is an example of effective agriculture policy.
Indeed the ‘Big Four’ priority that might be impacted by this embrace of GMO cotton is manufacturing: The bulk of this cotton should ideally go into textile mills like the newly revived Rivatex, to produce cotton fabrics for the Export Processing Zones’ clothing factories. But the introduction of GMO cotton —though an outcome of agriculture policy — has nothing to do with ‘food security’.
Second was the report that the world’s largest silk producer, the China-based Guandong Sil-Tex Group, intends to establish in Kenya, a large silkworm farm (covering over 8,000 acres), which will create about 300,000 new jobs. This is reportedly an initiative of the President himself, as he is said to have met top officials of this company on his recent visit to China.
Once again, excellent news for the agriculture sector. But nothing to do with ‘food security’.
Which is not to say that there are no ongoing projects, which will at once improve farm incomes as well as ensure that the country has plenty of food. One such example is the Japanese International Cooperation Agency collaboration with Kenyan researchers to improve rice yields in the Mwea Irrigation Scheme. When fully implemented, this will greatly increase the income of rice farmers, and contribute to food security.
But this is an exception to a general rule — this general rule being that the bifurcation between agricultural productivity and ‘food security’ has long been a commonplace of economics. You can actually have plenty of food within your national borders thanks to your productive agriculture, and still have your poorer citizens starving to death.
A full 20 years ago, in 1998, Professor Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research into causes of famines in India in the first part of the 20th century.
As quoted in his Wikipedia page:
“In 1981, Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, a book in which he argued that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food. Sen also argued that the Bengal famine was caused by an urban economic boom that raised food prices, thereby causing millions of rural workers to starve to death when their wages did not keep up.
“Sen’s interest in famine stemmed from personal experience. As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, in which three million people perished. This staggering loss of life was unnecessary, Sen later concluded.
“He presents data that there was adequate food supply in Bengal then, but particular groups of people, including rural landless labourers and urban service providers like haircutters, did not have the means to buy food as its price rose rapidly due to factors including British military acquisition, panic buying, hoarding and price gouging, all connected to the war in the region.”