Bold strategies needed to tackle food security challenge

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Last week, the nation was confronted with the shocking news that the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) rejected 221 tonnes of potato seed out of the total 282 tonnes that had been shipped into the county for multiplication ahead of this year’s planting season.

The potato seeds were rejected after they were found to be infected by a harmful bacterial disease. Shortage of high quality seed could translate to lower production of potatoes, which is Kenya’s second most popular starch after maize. To make matters worse, 13 counties have been severely hit by drought and require immediate intervention to prevent widespread starvation. Looking at this chain of unfortunate events, there is plenty to suggest that Kenya should employ bolder, more effective strategies to tackle the food security challenge.

To be fair, there is already some impressive work that has started taking place. A good example is the newly launched Potato Seed Production Unit at Tumaini National Youth Service, Nyandarua County that has the capacity of producing 9,000 tonnes of seedlings annually. The plant is using aeroponics technology, a rapid seed multiplication technique for producing potato seed with a yield of up to 10 times higher than the traditional method. It is initiatives such as these that make one wonder why similar high impact agricultural projects are not being rolled across all the other counties in Kenya. Part of this could be attributed to the fact that, while Agricultural extension services have been devolved, agricultural research has largely remained a preserve of the national government. This has meant that the collective wisdom on matters agriculture has remained concentrated in Nairobi and has not been able to reach, empower and transform the ordinary farmer.

The missing link therefore lies in leveraging universities, particularly those with established Agriculture departments, with the objective of developing a deep understanding of the local conditions at the county level and prescribing the most effective projects that would have the maximum impact on the local community. Obviously for this model to succeed, universities will need to have access to regular funding and for this they might need to consider the land-grant model that has proved to be extremely successful in the United States.

Land-grant universities were conceived in America at a time when it was felt that there was a need to focus on the teaching of practical agricultural, military science and engineering courses in response to the industrial revolution. Through a series of legislations known as the Morrill Acts, came the funding of educational institutions that would be granted federally controlled land which they would sell and raise funds to establish an endowment that would consistently earn interest income to fund university research expenditure. Good examples of universities that thrived on this model include Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A second bold strategy that would greatly support food security would be in increasing the number of youths engaged in agriculture. Given that the average farmer in Kenya is above 60 years, there needs to be a serious push towards mentoring a new generation of food producers for Kenya. It used to be the case that agriculture was considered a low-quality profession that was meant for those without educational credentials. But those days are now long gone and there is now genuine sophistication that has been introduced to the practice of farming that has made it very attractive for youth. Perhaps this reality was best captured by the glamorous Safaricom Blaze Be Your Own Boss competition which was won by a 25-year-old potato farmer from Baringo County and the runner up being a beef farmer.

The main challenge preventing more youth from venturing into agriculture includes limited access to finance as well as lack of land. The Youth and Uwezo Fund ought to be made easily accessible to young farmers who can use it to buy quality farm inputs. Furthermore, they could use part of the proceeds to lease land from their parents who may be fast approaching retirement age and who could also benefit from extra income.

In the final analysis, Kenya can draw inspiration from the small nation of Ireland which has a population of only 5 million people but is able to produce food for 50 million people. Kenya has the rare opportunity to launch a Pan African food revolution that will change the narrative of a continent that is typically personified by a begging bowl, to one that has the capacity to feed the entire world. Only bold strategies can deliver this vision.

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