Last week I wrote an article on ‘Why Agriculture Should Top in Uhuru’s Big Four Agenda’. It was published by the Saturday Nation on 5th January 2019 and based on your feedback this week; I will be focusing on possible interventions to revive the agricultural sector in Kenya. In about four decades, our country has moved from a food surplus country to a net food importer. The main reasons behind this are adverse climatic conditions, increased population and prevalence of pests and diseases. First of all, let’s agree that Kenya’s agricultural sector is on its death bed. I say this with a lot of respect to the steps being taken by the government. From news on fake fertilizers, money meant to pay maize farmers ending in the pockets of unscrupulous middlemen and recent increase in taxation of farm inputs, the government leaves a lot to be desired in the agricultural sector.
In production, the government should come up with measures that will help farmers increase productivity per acre or animal. First, the government needs to invest in irrigation projects to provide water for farming purposes. One of the issues bedeviling our agricultural sector is over reliance on rain fed agriculture which due to climate change and adverse weather patterns has become unreliable. This in essence does not mean expensive irrigation projects, they could be community owned water pans targeting to harvest water during rainy seasons.
Subsidies in quality farm inputs are another key area that the government could tap in. Some economists have argued against subsidies in that they prevent free and liberal trade for commodities. But in my preview, subsidies protect stabilize markets and help rural farmers. The subsidies should be in form of quality seeds and fertilizers. Even the US spends over $ 20 billion dollars on subsidies every year. The only difference is that our subsidies should be designed to help small scale farmers who are the majority and face the risk of going hungry. For this to work transparency is key as corruption has rendered quality programs ineffective.
The importance of high yield quality seeds cannot be understated with research showing that it determines 50% of crop yield with the rest going to other factors like proper use of inputs, weather and proper agronomy. These seeds should be locally produced and resistant to pests and diseases which are very prevalent in Kenya. Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) funded the Seed Enterprise Management Institute (SEMI) at University of Nairobi where African farmers are trained on seed production and management.
The government should also review its taxation policy of farm inputs. Most farmers are complaining that the recent increase in cost of pesticides and herbicides have lowered their margins. Last year, I observed huge trucks coming from Tanzania bringing in onions, tomatoes and cabbages to Kongowea market in Mombasa County. These commodities were cheaper compared to the locally produced and therefore driving our farmers out of business. Some of the reasons put forward to explain this is a friendlier taxation policy in Tanzania and cheap water for farming. Whereas, some people have argued for control of such imports, recent liberalization moves such as the East Africa Single Customs Territory and the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) would be a step in the wrong direction.
The government should also avail accurate and timely agronomic information to farmers. This would ensure farmers make informed decisions such as what variety of crop to plant let’s say in low rain season. Equally, it should also ensure that information moves from the farmers to the decision makers in an efficient manner. The success of the Community Health Strategy with community volunteers could be borrowed by the Agriculture ministry. This would ensure that at the village level, there’s a farmer properly trained and working closely with agriculture extension officers. They could also be used as trainers for sustainable agricultural practices to other farmers.
Infrastructural development is also important in transforming our agricultural sector. This entails proper feeder roads at the village level and improved whole sale markets. Last year during the long rains, one of the reasons food commodity prices increased in Kenya was due to challenges in transporting it to the market. This also led to huge wastage as some of it got spoilt in the farms. In 2017, Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reported that food worth Kes 150 billion went to waste as farmers could not store or transport it to the market.
The government also needs an overhaul of the land tenure system. Most rural farmers in Kenya do not legally own the land they refer as theirs. This includes where initial owners died and the beneficiaries subdivided the land casually. Transfer of land rights from family to individual contributes to tenure security which is a vital component in agricultural productivity. Farmers who have land titles in their names are assured that the investment benefits will accrue to them.
There are several interventions I strongly believe could transform our agriculture to ensure food security and make it a profitable venture. We cannot rule out the role of the private sector. They can link farmers to their value chains, train them on food safety standards, establish contract farming plans that benefit the farmer and use local agricultural raw materials for their industries. The finance institutions should also innovate to develop credit products specially designed for farmers. They should also look for ways to deepen agricultural insurance to cover for potential losses.
These interventions among others like value addition and value chain development could lead to an agricultural revolution that is market driven and addresses not only agricultural production but the entire food system. But for now our agriculture ministry continues to be led by a man who values his sharp suits and rich mother tongue proverbs than concern for farmers.