Endowed with abundant rainfall, blessed with freshwater streams and lakes and above all fertile land, Kenya should be enviably an agrarian model. Disturbing statistics show that the East African nation is far from being a model. In times of drought, it shamelessly imports food from even desert nations to feed its starving population.
The country has not been able to meet its strategic grain reserve of eight million bags target with a stark reality that it has a reserve base of a paltry two million bags. Recently, one of the worst famines struck the nation due to debilitating drought and consequently the president appealed for urgent relief interventions. Staple crop, maize and other grains were imported from South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
However, it has since emerged that some of these imports were contaminated with aflatoxin thereby unfit for human consumption.
The Kenya Red Cross, the humanitarian aid agency that was tasked with distribution of the relief supplies distanced itself from blame of feeding 60,000 unsuspecting children with contaminated Unimix, let alone the unknown maize fed on the hungry in North Rift, Upper and Lower Eastern and Coast provinces.
It is no exaggeration that the rains in the country are both a blessing and curse to Kenyans. Now, post-harvest losses are imminent because farmers in the bread basket areas cannot access farms due to heavy rains. Slightly over three million bags of maize could be destroyed in the aftermath of these torrential rains pounding Trans-Nzoia, Uasin-Gishu, Nandi and Trans-Mara counties.
Investments in post-harvest management can forestall unnecessary losses and grain imports, a thing that will save the tax-payers funds that could be channelled to other basic needs.
The traditional reliance on natural sunshine to dry maize or wheat before transportation to National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) depots has been the bane of famer’s losses. The demands that farmers deliver crop for intake in the depots at moisture contents of between 13.5-14.5 percent are not only unrealistic but uneconomical.
Transportation costs incurred and the fees charged to dry the maize or wheat produce in the depots that are largely situated in towns such as Kitale, Eldoret and Kilgoris are prohibitive. Farmers in the North Rift in particular are staring hopelessly with the potential loss of their crop due to lack of adequate drying facilities.
The government, through NCPB must deliberately avail resources to purchase mobile drying facilities to be distributed to farmers to minimize costs of production. In so doing, I believe that the targeted 8 million bags of maize required in the country’s grain reserves can be attained within two years.
NCPB has since inception not assisted farmers during such catastrophic situations partly due to distance from the farms. It is incumbent upon the Ministry of Agriculture, that of Public Health, Special Programmes and in particular NCPB being a parastatals responsible for crop storage must design policies that will go a long way in minimizing crop losses and the risk of contamination which has seen an upsurge in cancer cases.
Improved crop varieties planted at the right time in the right places, dried and properly and adequately stored would solve the famine problem. The Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC) and its sister Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) should rise to the challenge and show the country that they are up to the task.
A government worth its name should devise structures that will assist farmers both in crop and livestock production. Workable policies to enhance extension services provide subsidies on farm inputs and implements, seed capitals/loans with long term repayment periods, free post harvest handling services among others must be put in place urgently.
Further, the government, through relevant ministries and government departments must quickly design Insurance covers to farmers in both crop and animal production to cushion them from loses in the event of natural calamities such as heavy rains, flooding or drought. This idea has been in the cards for far too long yet farmers continue to incur heavy losses from climatic calamities.
Equally, the government must re-introduce the Guaranteed Minimum Returns (GMR’s) of the 1960s to enable farmers recoup their investments in the event of natural disasters. All these must be implemented now if the government intends to achieve the set goals in the Millennium Development (MDG’s) and the much touted Vision 2030 in terms of food security.
It is not in doubt that with the right policies in place, the country would be able to feed itself and export surplus to less fortunate nations. The will and the resources are there in plenty to ensure that the country is never again plunged into catastrophes like famine.
It should not be lost on us that the former government purchased and distributed tractors to the country’s districts to help farmers prepare additional large tracts of land for cultivation even in non agricultural areas in a deliberate effort to address perennial food shortages and meet strategic grain reserve target.
In light of the foregoing, an urgent deliberate policy shift must be put in place if the country has to sustain its economic back-bone, agriculture.
The writer is MP for Cherangany [email protected]