William Ruto's plan to transform agriculture, earn foreign exchange

President William Ruto inspects a guard of honor during the 59th Mashujaa Day celebrations at Uhuru Gardens, Nairobi. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

President William Ruto has offered a variety of promises to the agricultural sector that might revamp an area that urgently needs State intervention to feed a hungry nation and generate foreign exchange.

Speaking at the Mashujaa Day fete at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi, the Head of Sate promised to continue financing fertilizer import subsidy in the short run and a joint East African manufacturing operation in the medium term.

"Agriculture, as the lead sector to the economic transformation of our country, is the place to start, owing to its potential for high and quick returns on investment," said the president while acknowledging that the sector was in dire straits a country grappling with a severe food shortage and unaffordable inputs.

While in the campaigns when he was estranged from the Government of his predecessor and Jubilee party mate Uhuru Kenyatta, he had blamed failed State policies, this time the president blamed a prolonged drought in Kenya and the larger Horn of Africa region - the worst in nearly half a century, with three years of failed rains.

He also cited the most expensive global fertiliser prices in recent years but said relief food had been sent to the most vulnerable populations in Northern Kenya and his government had launched a fertilizer subsidy that would make life more bearable to farmers.

"Our government's first intervention to address the fertilizer challenge and make it available to counties and regions that plant in the short rain season, was to import 1.5 million 50 kilogramme bags and distribute them at a lower cost of Sh3,500," said President Ruto.

"We have also made arrangements to make another six million bags of various types of fertilizer available for the long rains season."

He added that county governments had been asked to help in the last-mile delivery to centres close to farmers to help the prices remain affordable to farmers even where huge lifting costs are involved.

"In the medium term, the Government plans to have fertiliser manufactured (locally) in partnership with EAC countries in our region," he added.

President Ruto said the long term solution to the national food crisis was putting more land under irrigation cutting the over reliance on unpredictable rain fed agriculture. Ruto's govermment is seeking to construct 100 dams under a public-private partnership to progressively irrigate three million acres already identified as arable land.

"In the next three years, the government plans to double the land under irrigation to 1.4 million acres," said the Head of State.

"Of these, 200,000 acres will be under rice irrigation and 500,000 under other food crops. Rice production in Bunyala, the Tana Delta, Rohole in Garissa, Mwea and Ahero will take priority."

He admitted that a commitment by the Jubilee government to construct 50 large dams had been badly hit by financing hiccups due to the huge capital outlay against competing budgetary priorities - or simply put a tight budget. He also promised to reinstate the stalled milk coolers' programme with distribution of 650 milk coolers in a policy that has identified dairy and livestock economy as sub-sectors with the quickest economic turnaround time and potentially key in improving food security, creating jobs and boosting exports.

On seed production, the president said the Government will work with local research institutions and both the public and private sectors to scale up seed multiplication for all crops. But his speech kept off the controversial Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) crops issue with a zero mention of the same even after a recent announcement on the lift of ban on cultivation of this type of crops.

The president also spoke passionately about climate change blaming it for the three year drought cycle that has left pastoralist communities grappling with scarcity of pasture and on food aid saying this was the worst similar situation in the last 40 years. The current drought, he said had seen the country lose some 2.5 heads of livestock.

He proposed some interesting intervention include encouraging and helping tree planting Kenyans to earn carbon credit when they hit the target of planting 300 trees in their farms.

He promised that the Ministry of Environment officials will be under instructions to issue certificates to Kenyans who achieve the planting of 300 trees in their farms.

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