State’s challenge in increasing exports while slowing imports

By Mbatau wa Ngai | Published Tue, January 10th 2017 at 00:00, Updated January 9th 2017 at 23:24 GMT +3

Despite whom we elect in the coming elections, Kenya will be increasing its exports while reducing imports.

This is the only way the country will get the headroom it needs to continue spending heavily on infrastructure development. To do this, the leadership — both county and national — may wish to consider five key strategies.

First, take a critical look at rain-fed and weather-dependent agricultural exports. It is no surprise that the country’s third-quarter revenues fell 12.3 per cent given the drop in the performance of tea, coffee and horticultural produce.

A visit to some of the successful coffee farmers across the country illustrates how better husbandry of the crop has the potential to increase production more than 10-fold, from an average of 2.5 kilogrammes a tree to 25 kilogrammes. The Kenya Coffee Planters Union (KPCU) had even talked about introducing a project that could raise productivity to 32 kilos a tree.

There is reason to believe that the judicious use of inputs appropriate for different regions where tea and horticultural crops are grown would produce similar results.

Admittedly, farmers would need to be trained on the quality of inputs they need, but this should not be a problem if the governments at both levels take up the challenge jointly. This would lead to the employment and deployment of personnel qualified to advice farmers on what needs to be done, and when.

The price tag on this project need not be prohibitive either, because farmers would be more than willing to defray the costs as long as they see enhanced results. And local international lenders have historically shown a willingness to lend money to farmers through the Government because they know repayment is guaranteed.

Adverse weather

Second, increase the variety of horticultural crops grown for export, with a bias towards those that are more tolerant of adverse weather conditions. Fruits, including mangoes, avocadoes, passion and various kinds of tomatoes, fit the bill particularly well.

The fruits have the added advantage of fetching premium prices and requiring less labour. Their return on investment is, therefore, relatively high.

Third, the Government needs to walk the talk on adding value to major agricultural exports. The few farmers’ co-operative societies that have managed to get foreign buyers for their processed produce should have opened the leadership’s eyes to the huge amounts the country can earn through value addition.

Analysts say leaders’ reluctance to do what they know to be the right thing may be due to the strong lobby mounted by local and foreign beneficiaries of the old colonial system. This system was created for the sole purpose of draining resources from the countryside to the capital for onward transmission to Europe and later America.

But this is the system that has to be broken if peasant farmers are to get a fair share of the wealth they help create.

Fourth, re-visit the clothing, textiles and apparels sector to determine the raw materials that can be produced locally. Then slap a punitive tax on manufacturers who insist on importing materials from their home countries.

A concerted effort to grow cotton would be particularly beneficial to the country, not only because most of the sector depends on cotton cloth, but other products made from the crop are equally valuable to humans and animals.

Obviously, for farmers to return to growing the crop they would need iron-clad assurances that they would be paid a better price than they were paid in the past. The Government could take up this responsibility from the private sector who bungled it in the past.

Finally, there is an urgent need to go through the country’s imports to determine what can be made locally. Ideally, this should be done in concert with manufacturers so they gear up to meet local demand after foreign supplies are chocked off by appropriate tariffs.

After all, this is the path America’s new president, Donald Trump, followed to victory.

nmbatau@gmail.com


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