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Time to rethink our farming models has come

By David Kigochi | July 11th 2020

One of the key lessons Kenya has learnt from the deadly coronavirus pandemic is the need for food security at the national and household level.

According to the Food and Agricultural Oganisation (FAO), food security exists when all people have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meet their dietary needs.

But in many developing countries, food insecurity remains a problem though the respective governments have repeatedly pledged to address the issue.

In Kenya, food insecurity was the reason the government hesitated on imposing a total lockdown in regions such as Kibra after the virus cases soared, fearing social unrest.

But the silver lining in this dark cloud is that President Uhuru Kenyatta, long before the outbreak of Covid-19, identified food security alongside affordable housing, manufacturing and affordable healthcare as the key cogs to define his legacy.

Increased hunger was reported as the most immediate impact of the virus on the poor, highlighting the need for measures to ensure food security.

Sadly, though, agriculture is the mainstay of the Kenya’s economy: it contributes 24 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 27 per cent of GDP indirectly through linkages with manufacturing, distribution and other service related sectors and approximately 45 per cent of government revenue being derived from it. Yet past governments have given the sector inadequate attention.

This is besides the sector contributing over 75 per cent of industrial raw materials and more than 50 per cent of the export earnings and being the largest employer in the economy, accounting for 60 per cent of the total employment.

With the focus now on the Big Four agenda, it is time to reverse this trend. To do so, the government should borrow a leaf from food secure countries on how to transform the sector.

The best country to learn this from is Israel, whose two thirds of the land is semi-arid or arid and much of the soil is of poor quality. But despite the handicaps, it has not only managed to create a remarkable agricultural transformation, ensuring national food security and establishing thriving export industries, but also emerged as a global leader in agriculture.

Israel’s agricultural transformation is credited to prudent use of research findings. In its early years, the country allocated 30 per cent of its national budget to agriculture and water.

This culminated in early investment in a robust and targeted agro-industrial policy with dedicated and well-run crop boards that ensured specific sub-sectors, such as fruit and vegetables, could flourish in competitive markets.

Farmers were organised into well-managed cooperatives (Kibbutzim and Moshavim), while private farmers were represented by an influential farmers’ association.

This connection to a larger unit of production was critical to facilitating their bargaining power, enabling them to compete and giving them access to finance, research, training, farm inputs and markets.

The country also adopted a market-oriented approach, with the market serving as a guiding star for planning, prioritisation and coordination for both the government and farmers.

There was also parallel development of both the domestic market for food self-sufficiency and the international export market for economic growth.

Even today, the country keeps researching on how to improve its competitive advantage in target value chains. This is how it has come to lead the world in numerous products including dates, pomegranates, oranges and tomatoes.

Key to this approach is the golden triangle: the close relationship between researchers, agricultural extension workers and farmers. As Farmers Party, we submit that it is time Kenya leverages on Israel to address the challenges facing the sector.

Besides corruption and mismanagement, other challenges facing the agricultural sector include falling farm size due to subdivisions. Government spending on agricultural research has also fallen steadily over the past decades.

Many farmers find it difficult to access credit, and when they do, the interest is too high. Lack of ready market is another challenge which is made worse by expensive farm inputs.

It is time the government allocated agriculture 30 per cent of the budget and also made use of research findings gathering dust in shelves.

- The writer is the Farmers Party leader. [email protected]

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