Cheap maize imports blow to local farmers

Farmers sort maize after drying them at Rock Centre area in Uasin Gishu County, April 15, 2020. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

The overlap between Covid-19 and maize imports in Kenya is a precursor for a serious crisis. The experience so far from the Covid-19 challenge is that there is need to strengthen local systems. We need to build strong healthcare systems, strong food systems and strong social protection mechanisms. Strengthening our food system does not happen by relying on the importation of our staple food. As much as I commend the government’s efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, it is time to take lessons from this crisis.

Our healthcare has been broken for a long time, just like our food system. The government’s decision to import maize especially during this time when our farmers are still stocking maize is a total failure. To beat Covid-19, there is a need for strong local systems. That includes supporting local farmers, especially smallholders who work tirelessly to feed this country.

Smallholder farmers have been struggling to overcome the challenges presented by the climate crisis. Extreme weather events such as droughts and floods have significantly affected their activities. Recently, they have been hit by pest infestation; the desert locusts. All these challenges they face have been met by the government’s inadequate support to help them build resilience.

Over the last decade, the government has focused on importing foodstuff at the expense of local farmers. The past decade has seen the government waste in investments and policies that support corporate agribusiness at the expense of smallholder farmers. Kenyans need food sovereignty to beat multiple challenges of climate breakdown and the emergence of pandemics. Strengthening our internal systems will help build the required resilience to win against these challenges. To win against the climate crisis and disease outbreaks, we need strong healthcare, food and resource governance systems.

If we fail to learn from the lessons we are picking during this time of Covid-19 that there would be situations where strong local systems will be required, we will continue depending on the outside world for our survival which is dangerous. Kenyans are already aware of how vulnerable dependence on imports can leave them. Smallholder farmers have been left to count losses in food waste as a result of cheap food imports.

These imported foods are not always the best. Kenyans have not forgotten cases of sugar laced with mercury, expired rice, sub-standard cooking oil and calcium carbide ripened fruits. Not long ago, several well-known brands of maize flour were taken off supermarket shelves after a warning about unsafe levels of aflatoxin. The government is well aware of these challenges. It is worrying that even with all these experiences, with all the lessons that we have learned from the Covid-19, the government chooses to import maize instead of strengthening the local food system by buying the cereal from our farmers.

Crises such as climate change and Covid-19 will make basic commodities’ prices go up. Scientists have warned that the climate crisis will affect the productivity of major crops such as maize. Considering that maize is our staple food, it is important that investments are made to support local smallholder farmers to overcome this looming challenge. Add this to Covid-19, our farmers need more support more than ever to keep feeding our country. If this is not done urgently we are staring in the face of another big crisis after Covid-19; food crisis. The future does not have to look like this. There are multiple actions that can be taken to ensure that Kenya has the capacity to feed itself and attain food security. These measures do not include relying on food imports.

There is need to move away from systems that support industrialised food production and importation of cheap foodstuff from other parts of the world to systems that invest in our local production, supporting our local smallholder farmers for sustenance. We can strengthen the resilience of local food industries by enhancing our local value chain – from raw materials to finished products.

Kenyan smallholder farmers are already experimenting with models that help them build resilience to climate challenges. Models that are built around agroecological practices. Models that allow them to form cooperatives to share and co-create solutions. These models need to be supported through research and training, infrastructural development, tax reliefs and investment. Policies and programmes that focus on supporting local systems, our healthcare system, our small-holder farmers that work so hard amidst these crises to feed Kenyans will be effective in helping overcome the crises of climate change and other disasters such as the current Covid-19.

Mr Wemanya is a Greenpeace Africa campaigner

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