, NAIROBI, September 15 – When someone says there is a food shortage in the country, chances are that they are referring to a scarcity of maize.
Maize has become such an integral part of Kenyans’ diet that deficit of the commodity amounts to famine. It is the third most important cereal crop in the world after wheat and rice.
It is estimated that 85 percent of the population depends on maize as the primary source of food and this presents challenges in meeting food requirements for the growing population.
Over the years, maize production in Kenya has continued to decline. Experts predict a six million bags deficit in 2009, with production falling to a projected 24 million bags.
In 1984 a massive maize shortage experienced in the country led to the importation of yellow maize. Kenya faced another deficit 10 years later and again in 2004, when the nation had to import about two million bags.
The situation is no different four years down the line as the country has had to import about three million bags of maize to feed its population.
Food stocks have been depleted the world over, as countries such as the USA use food crops for bio-fuel production.
The post-election crisis, which saw many farmers in the Rift Valley – Kenya’s food basket -, uprooted from their farms and the high cost of production has just compounded the local situation.
These trends have made experts to push for alternative food crops that would reduce the over-dependence on maize. Traditional crops such as millet, cassava, arrowroots and sweet potatoes top the list for these scientists.
Kenya Society for Agricultural Professionals Chairman Paul Mbuni says the potential for such foods is very high although the country has not been able to exploit it fully.
Citing the swampy areas that are good for production of arrowroots, Mbuni laments that rice, wheat and maize have replaced the traditional crops.
He argues that if the production of these foods e.g. finger millets and sorghum was doubled, then the country would reduce the maize requirement from the current 30 million bags per year to about 20 million.
“It’s all about balancing. If the tastes and preferences of our people can shift to traditional crops, then we may not require that high proportion of maize,” he stresses.
Cereal Growers Association Chief Executive David Nyameino concurs, adding that that consumers need to diversify their eating habits.
Many people say that the consumers’ eating habits dictate what the farmer will grow, giving rise to the question; how do you trigger demand for these traditional crops?
Nyameino says leaders should be at the forefront to market the crops, which do not require large tracts of land, and are resistant to drought and pest, by highlighting their health benefits.
Parents should also encourage their children to start consuming such foods by leading by example.
He adds that the government should research more on these crops as well as provide financial support to farmers.
Nyameino further advises the government to develop a strategy for the importation of yellow maize as animal feeds, while white maize is left for human consumption.
“There is need for concerted efforts by the government, and the private sector to work together to diversify food production so that we can tackle the food insecurity in the country,” he adds.
“Investors need to process food like cassava, package it in an attractive way and market it to people. The health aspects should always be highlighted,” he adds.
The government, on its part, cannot be wholly accused of laxity.
It has shown a commitment to encourage an increase in food production.
Recently the government announced that it would spend Sh70.5 million to distribute neglected crop seeds like cassava, sweet potatoes and sorghum to various parts of the country before the end of October.
Through the project dubbed the “Orphan Crop Seeds Distribution”, the government plans to help farmers expand the food resource base.