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Curse of drought and polls worsens Kenya’s food crisis

By Dominic Omondi | Dec 14th 2021 | 6 min read
By Dominic Omondi | December 14th 2021

Government Spokesman Colonel (Rtd.) Cyrus Oguna distributing assorted foodstuff to residents in Mogotio, Baringo county on October 26, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]


It is not uncommon for the laws of nature to conspire with those of man to torment humanity.


And so, oftentimes the drought cycle in Kenya will coincide with the election season, leaving policymakers in a Catch-22 situation. 

“It is as if we were bewitched. Elections always come with drought,” says Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute, a public policy think-tank.

Such a turn of events is usually a nightmare for the sitting Agriculture Cabinet secretary. It is a conspiracy that cost former Agriculture CS Willy Bett his job.

He never saw it coming. “I can assure you we have enough food to last us between now and June,” Mr Bett told journalists on January 17, 2017.

“That is why we are not talking about maize imports at the moment, we have not reached that level yet. We are still comfortable.” 

Four months later on May 12, 2017, a ship belonging to UK-based Holbud docked at the Mombasa port loaded with 33,000 tonnes of Mexican maize imported by a consortium of millers.

The cargo came into the country under the ill-conceived maize subsidy programme, which saw dealmakers illegally pocket billions of shillings at the expense of taxpayers and farmers.

As soon as President Uhuru Kenyatta was re-elected, Bett was demoted to an ambassador.  

But the factors that led to Bett’s ouster - a potent mix of drought and election - is ominous. There is no market for producers and consumers in this environment.

Politicians from crop-growing areas will not stomach any attempt to import cheap cereals from outside the region to plug the deficit, if there will be one.

But this will not assuage urban consumers who have to dig deeper into their pockets to buy food, which is running out of stock.   

For the politically active urban consumers, the government should use all the tools at its disposal - including cutting the import duty on maize or giving them tax cuts - to bring down the cost of food, which takes up more than a third of the budget of Nairobi’s poor households.

Unfortunately, as it happened in 2017, importation of cereals from outside the East African Community during the dry season could also boomerang.

Critics believe such a programme is prone to exploitation as it opens a window for all sorts of brokers to flood the market with cheap imports at the expense of farmers.

Once again, just as in the lead-up to the 2017 elections, the country is grappling with drought. The October-December short rains in 2020 and the March-May long rains this year were inadequate.

Coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, insecurity, pests and diseases, these factors have caused humanitarian needs to rapidly rise in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) of Kenya, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha).

In some parts of North Eastern, livestock is dying for lack of water and pasture. Even wildlife has not been spared.  

Close to 2.7 million people from ASALs are at risk of starvation. Across the country, the drought threatens to inflame a food security crisis.

And just like Bett before him, the current Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperative CS Peter Munya is bullish.

He is on record saying the country has enough maize, a staple for many families. The challenge, he said, is the inability of Kenyans to stock up because of a cash crunch caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The purchasing power that has been eroded by the Covid-19 situation and the drought is what must be addressed,” said Mr Munya.

But according to Kipkorir Arap Menjo, a director at Kenya Farmers Association, the yield of maize in the so-called grain belt has been low due to unpredictable rains.

The long rains delayed, hitting farmers from Trans Nzoia, Uasin Gishu and Nandi hard.

Mr Menjo does not believe the country has enough maize. “It can’t be enough because the farmers with enough maize are few. I know they will end up importing. That one is inevitable,” he said.

He said that most cereal dealers are combing the villages looking for maize. Millers are also offering a higher price than the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB).

After supporting the economy last year during a period when the negative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic crippled the service sector, agriculture contracted in the first and second quarters of this year.

University of Nairobi economics lecturer Joy Kiiru is bemused by Munya’s remarks.

“I can see hungry people in the midst of enough food,” said Dr Kiiru. She believes the politics of unga (maize flour) will soon take centre stage in next year’s elections.

“If the rains continue misbehaving like they are trying to… this drought is going to be persistent and by next year, food is going to be a real issue,” she said.

In the second quarter of this year, agriculture contracted by 0.9 per cent compared to growth of 4.9 per cent in the first three months of 2020.

This was the worst second quarter performance in crop farming and livestock-keeping activities since 2017, also an election year and a period when the country experienced a dry spell.

However, the drop in production was more acute in tea production as opposed to cereals such as maize, which are critical for the country’s food security.

Indeed, the quantities of imported maize in the first three months of this year declined by 56.6 per cent from 136,100 tonnes to 59,000 tonnes in the same period last year.

But the government has a good reason to play down the degree of food scarcity in the country. It is broke.

“The biggest problem for the government right now is lack of money more than lack of food,” said Tegemeo’s Dr Njagi, noting that the government has not replenished its reserves in the recent past.

The government currently has a programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that does not allow it to spend on subsidies like it did in 2017.

The three-year programme is aimed at improving the country’s public finances by increasing tax revenues and reducing spending, especially non-essential spending.

This will narrow the gap between the country’s tax revenues and its spending budget, or fiscal deficit.

NCPB is offering farmers Sh2,700 for a 90-kilogramme bag of maize, while millers are offering Sh2,829, said Menjo.

“Why are they (millers) ready to offer more if there is enough maize?” he wondered.

So far, the government has committed to sending cash directly to households in the 23 hunger-stricken counties.

At the centre of this storm is Munya, the former Meru Governor.

The outspoken CS, who has initiated far-reaching changes aimed at dismantling cartels in the tea and coffee sectors, faces a bigger test should the drought get worse.  

At the moment, it seems like the crippling effects of the drought are restricted to the 23 countries. But soon, they could spill over to urban centres, which are increasingly turning into Kenya’s political hotspots.

Food prices increased at an average of 10.6 per cent in October compared to 5.8 per cent in the same month last year, according to official data.

Prices of food have been rising since January as the country runs out of last year’s bumper supply.

On the other end, prices of fuel, which hit the rich and the middle class hardest, have been trending downwards.

Very soon, an ‘unga revolution’ in the informal settlements in urban centres might take hold.

The fear, says Kiiru, is that any new policies might come at a higher price for consumers in future.

In 2017, through the subsidy programme, the price of a two-kilogramme packet of unga dropped to as low as Sh70. The voters were happy.

But they would later pay the price. The government had planned to use Sh6 billion for the subsidy programme but ended up using an additional Sh8.2 billion.

Moreover, the market was flooded with cheap maize from Mexico at the expense of local farmers.

The only consolation is that President Kenyatta is not seeking re-election and is unlikely to make populist declarations that might come back to haunt voters.

But on the other hand, he has his legacy to protect.

“He needs to leave a legacy, and a legacy with the Kenyan people, not with any politician,” said Kiiru.

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