, NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 9 – The drive to keep Kenyans from starving is now targeting up to two million more hungry citizens, most of them in urban centres.
At the same time a government think-tank is calling for a change in cereals-type consumption by Kenyans as one way of making the country less vulnerable to hunger attacks.
The executive director of the Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) Dr Moses Ikiara says the current food crisis has unnecessarily centred on maize and rice.
He recommends a move towards the more drought-resistant cereals, roots and tubers, among them sorghum, cassava and millet.
“Maize occupies 79 per cent of all land under cash crops. To continue with this is to use land non-optimally,” he says.
The remarks come in the wake of reports that 10 million Kenyans face the risk of starvation because of escalating price of cereals and the continued failure of short-rains.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has indicated that they are currently working towards doubling the number of those on their feeding programme from the current two million to four million individuals.
Most of the new people who will be receiving food aid will be based in urban areas. WFP spokesperson Peter Smerdon says the failure of the short rains for the fourth straight year has left large parts of the country reeling on the verge of starvation.
He explains that the two fold food crisis is both due to lack of food as well unaffordable price of foods where they are available.
“We are alarmed at the situation because already we are feeding two million people. Right now we are trying to determine exactly how many hungry mouths more we will have to feed. It appears we may soon be feeding a total of four million people,” Mr Smerdon says.
Kenya’s escalating food crisis has been compounded by reports that politicians and uninvited brokers have helped manufacture the crisis through corruption.
“It is an amazing thing, for the government to commit to buying maize from farmers and giving it to millers, but then in the process creating middlemen who then get paid for doing an unnecessary task,” Dr Ikiara says.
He has described the crisis as the result of a policy, institutional and marketing failure.
Mr Smerdon attributed the lack of rainfall partly to global warming. “The rains are declining and are no longer as regularly spaced as they used to be. They come either at the wrong time or are too much or too little,” he sys.
This situation leads Dr Ikiara to suggest that reliance on rain-fed agriculture is outmoded for current needs.
“We need to focus big-time on irrigation. Think of Tana River. There is plenty of water that can do wonders for the starving folk over there. The river is a mighty potential and can open up the whole of Northern Kenya.”
Northern Kenya is one of the most arid parts of the country and is near-perpetually on a feeding programme of one kind or another.
“The arid and semi-arid parts of this country suffer the most in case of rains disruption,” says Mr Smerdon. “Irrigation and reforestation would be wonderful blessings but both are extremely expensive. But there is a crying need for long-term developments to avoid a repeat of this food insecurity situation.”
Saying to rectify the situation calls for a massive improvement of agricultural productivity, Dr Ikiara suggest that irrigation is the best solution since Kenya has very little land remaining for expansion. “The only areas remaining are the arid and semi-arid tracts, which then call for irrigation,” he says.
Dr Ikiara says the food crisis is an indictment of the system, which, he says, should have foreseen the problem years in advance. “All the signs were there,” he remarks and refers to a series of “barometers” used to measure a nation’s distance from starvation.
“Kenya’s hunger index has improved by only five per cent between the years 1992 and 2007. Over the same period, Ghana’s improved by 48 per cent and Uganda’s by 41 per cent. Cereal Import Dependence Ratio, which measures a country’s dependence on imported cereal, did improve, falling from 30 per cent in year 2000 to 21 per cent in 2006 and even the Per Capita Agricultural Production went up. But the current crisis indicates that the improvements, good as they were, were never sustained. This, clearly, is a failure of policy.”
Even more major is institutional failure. “We create institutions that we are always unable to sustain,” Mr Ikiara remarks. “We never equip them with enough resources to carry out their mandates in full capacity.”
In agriculture, for instance, he suggests a massive restructuring that would merge some institutions and scrap others. A major institutional malady is in governance where corruption reigns supreme. “People should feel shamed to be hoarding food while other citizens are dying of starvation.”
Dr Ikiara says although the global food price index has been climbing, Kenya has experienced an especially exaggerated increase. “Kenya maize is more expensive than the rest of the world’s. In the last three years, Kenya’s food index has more than doubled. That should have been a signal for an impending crisis.”
He explains that research has established that poor households spend 75 per cent of their incomes on food. “If you have a case where the food index is relentlessly climbing, you can tell you’re going to have a problem because incomes remain stagnant and you can see that soon households will be spending 100 per cent or more of their incomes on food.”
Dr Ikiara says the market has also been a failure. The forces of liberalisation have not worked well in the food market, instead giving rise to cartels, while poor infrastructure has meant that transport of commodities between surplus and deficit areas had been hampered.
“It has worked in the mobile communication sector. Even when there were only two players, prices fell steeply and now virtually every Kenyan is able to afford a mobile communication gadget. But the same stabilisation of prices has not happened in the food sector. It indicates there is a problem.”
While the government grapples with the challenge of feeding an increasingly restless and starving nation, WFP continues with its feeding programme and is putting in place mechanism to cover urban areas.
Both WFP and Kippra are agreed that some of the major long-term solutions must include bringing the youth into agriculture by developing rural areas so they do not have to migrate to urban centres, modernising agriculture to make it more attractive to the youth, and decentralising services from Nairobi to allow other parts of the country to develop.
Dr Ikiara further urges for the spreading of what he calls “safety nets” to protect the poor from the vagaries of the weather, improving household incomes by improving per capital agricultural production, speeding up rural electrification and helping various parts of the country sell a product that is their natural strength.