How rich Kenya was fed by her poor neighbours


In 2017, Kenya, the only middle-income economy in the East African region, embarrassingly struggled to feed herself.

As food security deteriorated to a 10-year low, the country turned to her poor neighbours including Uganda and Tanzania to plug the deficit.

But the search for missing food did not end at the next-door neighbours; the country crossed the high seas, bringing in ship-loads of white maize from Mexico and yellow maize from Ukraine and Russia in a desperate bid to satiate the hungry population.

The result was a staggering Sh245.3 billion spent on importation of food and beverage, more than double the expenditure in 2016 (Sh114.6 billion) and the highest she has ever spent on the broad economic category over the last 10 years.

A whopping Sh42 billion was spent on importing maize, as the country burnt hard-to-come-by foreign currency in a cereal it can easily produce in plenty.

Kenya imported about eight million bags of white maize from North America. The rest came from South Africa and Uganda. Billions were also spent on importation of yellow maize from Ukraine and Russia.

Tomato farmers, currently watching helplessly as their produce rots in farms with floods rendering their farms inaccessible, might be surprised to learn that last year, the country imported 21,000 tonnes of tomatoes, or more than three times what was imported in 2016.

In 2016, six tonnes of the vegetable was imported. Most tomatoes - and beans too - came from Tanzania.

Despite a frosty trade relation between the two countries which saw exports to Dar es Salaam dip by 18 per cent from Sh34.8 billion in 2016 to Sh28.5 billion, goods coming from Tanzania increased by 66 per cent to Sh17.2 billion in 2017 from Sh12.8 billion the year before.

Imports from Uganda more than doubled from Sh19.3 billion to Sh42 billion as importers rushed to Kampala for milk and milk products, maize and beans, which were disappearing from the Kenyan market.  

The country’s food security - measured by looking at both availability and affordability of food - deteriorated.

Suddenly, a typical Kenyan dish comprised of ugali prepared with maize from Mexico, and sukuma wiki spiced with tomatoes and beans from Tanzania.

This, according to Dr Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute, is expensive.

“If we were a rich country, there would be no problem with importing food. But we are not rich,” he says. But, perhaps, Kenya, a low-middle-income country, is suffering from illusions of grandeur.

“How many people have well-paying jobs to buy food?” posed Dr Njagi, noting that the country is already grappling with increased cases of workers’ strikes. He said even farmers cannot feed themselves.

Net consumers

These farmers are, in the words of Dr Scholastica Odhiambo, an Economics lecturer at Maseno University, “net consumers, rather than net producers.”

Switzerland, Italy, Japan and South Korea are some of the countries with a lower Self-Sufficiency Ratio (SSR) - the extent to which a country relies on food it produces itself - compared to Kenya’s but they are far wealthier.  

Last year, Kenya’s dependency on imported food surged to 43 per cent from 29.4 per cent. Basically, for every Sh100 you spent on food, Sh42 went to some imported food while some of this money could have benefited a struggling local farmer.

This plunged Kenya’s SSR to 60.3 per cent, easily the lowest in over 10 years.

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) attributed the high Import Dependency Ratio (IDR) to increased imports of vegetable products occasioned by food deficits experienced in the country.

While it is true that a drought that swept through the country is to blame, Dr Joy Mueni, an Economics lecturer at University of Nairobi, insists it is a lame excuse to give in the 21st century.

Moreover, the drought did not affect Kenya alone, but the whole region, including countries that Kenya ran to for assistance.

Dr Mueni believes Kenya is just unprepared. So much that a heavy downpour is as much a curse as a drought. She says when it does not rain, fewer produce reaches the market, a good chunk of it having died for lack of enough moisture.

But when it rains, more crops die in the farms as the roads become inaccessible.

The country, says Mueni, could increase its production by over 85 per cent by simply addressing the problem of inaccessibility - tackling supply constraint to get produce from the areas of plenty to areas of deficiency.

“Kenya should also modernise the agriculture sector by not letting waters go to waste, as it is happening currently,” she says.

The agricultural sector, which President Uhuru Kenyatta has identified as one of the pillars in his Big Four agenda, has been on a decline recently.

Dr Odhiambo says the reduction in land acreage, especially in what is the country’s breadbasket for tomatoes in the formerly Central Kenya highlands, is partly to blame for our declining production.

Instead, land in these areas is diverted into real estate.

“Now, we are getting most of our tomatoes and onions from Tanzania,” says Odhiambo.

Two major reasons for reduced acreage in areas such as Kiambu include an explosion in population and increased urbanistion, says Dr Njagi.

He says the areas around Nairobi are prime settlement for the increasing population, and there is not much that can be done to stop the conversion of the area into a concrete jungle.  

“We need to produce more under less land. As a farmer, you need to double what you are producing,” he says. “If you continue producing food at the same rate on the same piece of land, people will starve.”

That was the magic behind Latin America’s green revolution, or what in the West was known as the Agrarian Revolution.

Njagi says land intensification will go a long way in increasing production but it has to come with specialisation.

If a county is good at coffee, they should not grow maize. “People need to build skills around certain production,” he says.

He says that most people diversifying because of risks. Households are growing everything, and in the process, producing everything poorly.

There is also a poor land market. Land owners, for example, rent land for one season fearing that should they rent it out for 10 years, they can lose it.

Njagi says long tenures are good for planning and investment. “If you were to do large-scale farming, one year might be just enough for you to recover the costs. But if you have a long tenure, you can even sink a borehole.”

Extension services

But farmers are also grappling with such problems as lack of credit or expensive extension services, according to Odhiambo.

There is also no incentive for farmers to engage in large-scale farming.

Odhiambo says the difference in farm-gate and market prices has also discouraged farmers.

“For example, because tomatoes are highly perishable, farmers cannot get stuck with the produce. They, therefore, have to get middlemen, who sell it at a higher price and make a kill,” she says.

“Farmers have depressed prices which cannot sustain cropping.”

In addition, there is what economists call the cob-web cycle.  Farmers, seeing good prices this season, over-produce the next planting season only to bring the prices down again.

“And so the next season they will not produce as a result. And the cycle goes on,” says Odhiambo.

Last year, drought came with the fall army worm, which depressed maize harvests. But the biggest problem seems to be lack of Government goodwill. While education, health, agriculture and security are critical areas, agriculture and health have been devolved.

Devolution, unfortunately, has not improved food security. In Embu, for example, says Dr Odhiambo, farmers were given bad seeds with most counties having mis-aligned resources.

“County governments need to organise producer groups and evaluate the kind of agricultural products that can do well in their region,” she adds.


Njagi says investment in agriculture over the last five years has reduced by more than half. He blames this on the manner in which the country transitioned into devolution with counties spending most of the first five years trying to figure out their functions.

“The national government was also afraid of following up on services that had been devolved, lest they be blamed for over-reaching,” he says.

Even after prioritising agriculture under Big Four, allocation into the agricultural sector is still stuck at three per cent.

For the last five years’ allocation into agriculture has hovered around two and three per cent, a far cry from the Malabo Declaration which requires signatories, which include Kenya, to put at least 10 per cent of their budget into agriculture.

The last time the Government allocated five per cent was in 2010.

The Government does not necessarily need to be the investor in agriculture, but it can strengthen the environment to make it easier for the private sector to make profits, says Njagi.  

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