How poor rains, high inputs may scuttle Ruto food security plan

Matungulu resident, Francis Musau in his maize farm on the outskirts of Tala town. Poor rainfall and prolonged dry spells have spelt doom on a majority of farmers who are now staring at poor harvests. [Erastus Mulwa, Standard]

To deal with the high cost of living, the immediate short-term prescription for President William Ruto appeared to be to increase maize production.

Indeed, one of the first things that his administration sorted was distribution of subsidised fertiliser, with the expectation that this would ease the cost for farmers when planting during the October-December Short Rains Season.

However, everything that could go wrong appears to be going wrong - the rains are unlikely to show up, the cost of petroleum products especially diesel that is key in agricultural processes remains high and so are other inputs affected by the Russian-Ukraine conflict.

Ruto has laughed off as ineffective the maize flour and fuel subsidies that had been put in place by the previous regime to cushion Kenyans from the high cost of living, offering that instead of subsidising consumption, his administration would subsidise production.

Production subsidies , with the first being fertiliser, are expected to play a critical role in bringing down the cost of living, the President argues.

But now the country appears to be headed for worse times as far as the cost of living is concerned with the new administration's plan to offset the causes of the current food crisis in the medium term being dealt a blow by weather forecasts.

The State-backed weatherman has issued dire warnings that the prolonged dry spell the country has been experiencing would persist, forecasting depressed rains over the season between October and December.

This comes as agricultural economists and experts warned this week that the fertiliser plan by the new administration, while well meaning, would do little to boost food security due to its inherent weaknesses.

"The 'Short Rains' October-November-December (OND) 2022 season constitutes an important rainfall season in Kenya, particularly in the Central and South-eastern regions of the country," said the Meteorological Department in its seasonal forecast.

"During OND 2022, it is expected that most parts of the country will experience depressed (below average) rainfall that will be poorly distributed in both time and space. However, isolated incidences of storms that could cause flash floods are likely to occur despite the expected depressed rains."

The warning by the local weatherman is shared by global agencies.

Could get worse

A recently issued joint alert by global meteorological agencies and humanitarian partners warned that the current extreme, widespread, and persistent multi-season drought affecting Kenya is unprecedented but could only get worse.

Four consecutive rainy seasons have failed, a climatic event not seen in at least 40 years.

The latest long-lead seasonal forecasts, supported by a broad consensus from meteorological experts, indicate that there is now a concrete risk that the October-December rainy season could also fail, they warned.

"Should these forecasts materialise, the already severe humanitarian emergency in the region would further deepen," the UN backed groups warned.

Depressed rains in previous planting seasons have already resulted in the significant reduction of farming activities in the country.

This is seen in the reduced use of fertiliser over the first half of this year.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), for instance, fertiliser imports dropped by almost half in the quarter to June this year, which could mean that farmers have been planting their crops without the critical input.

Or worse, that farmers have significantly reduced their agricultural activities due to unfavourable weather and the high cost of fertiliser, while others may have abandoned farming, at least for now.

Either way, this might mean that the food situation in the country is set to get worse.

Six months of fighting between Russia and Ukraine, two farming powerhouses, have plunged a teetering global food system into full-blown catastrophe, leaving millions of people in Kenya and the world starving.

The war is exacerbating a crisis already fuelled by climate change, soaring costs of living and a fertiliser price hike that is creating the most acute global food crisis in decades as captured by new reports by the World Bank and the IMF over the weekend.

According to the KNBS data imported chemical fertilisers - which include Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium - declined by 48 per cent to 98,915 tonnes between April and June compared to 191,944 tonnes in the same period last year.

This means that Kenyans are yet to see the end of the food crisis that has seen prices of essential foodstuffs, including maize flour rise sharply since the beginning of the year.

"It is the price that went up, so most of the importers cut back on purchases because they were not sure farmers would buy fertiliser," said said Dr Timothy Njagi Research Fellow and Development Economist at Egerton University's Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development.

According to the scholar, while fertiliser subsidies might boost production, they have in the past been tried and found wanting.

"The fertiliser subsidy was a necessary intervention. However, at the Institute, we critique the model used, as this was tried between 2008-2018 with no tangible gains," he told The Standard.

"We need the government to increase investments in agriculture, especially the amount to county governments to implement agricultural programmes."

Dr Njagi says there are numerous strategies available to the government to end food insecurity.

These include increasing investment in agricultural research, revamp of extension systems and helping farmers leverage on technology to increase productivity and reduce production costs.

The government can also help farmers access production technologies as well as mechanisation.

"Other areas include increasing investments in irrigation development, increase of investments in post-harvest storage and management, and aggregation of produce," adding that enhanced access to agricultural credit and helping farmers build resilience to climate change will also boost food security.

The drought that the country has been experiencing resulted in significant reduction in the local maize production, with the country turning to imports.

The quantity of imported maize in the second quarter of this year surged four fold, pushing up the import bill for cereals in the first six months to a record Sh65.1 billion.

KNBS data shows that the country imported 2.5 million 90kg bags of maize between April and June this year, compared to 656,227 bags in the second quarter of last year.

With inflation driven by rising prices for food, energy, and other consumer goods remaining a major headache for consumers and the new administration, it remains to be seen whether the government will increase support to farmers.

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