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Take the long view on famine threat

By | August 10th 2009

Cabinet revisits the food insecurity crisis just as humanitarian aid agencies report the drought is getting worse in arid and semi-arid areas. Pastoralists, the urban poor and farmers in marginal areas (those on the country’s less productive land) are bearing the worst of it.

A humanitarian crisis is looming in the North, North-East and South–Eastern regions among locals and refugees from the neighbouring countries. With the next harvest season, beginning in one month, practically written off as failed, importation of maize shall be a significant part of the emergency response. This makes it vital that weaknesses in procurement, transportation, production and distribution are addressed in tomorrow’s meeting.

There is no doubt many prudent measures are being taken to forestall famine (as defined by relief agencies using accepted magnitude and intensity scales). Last month, for instance, it was decided to keep the vital School Feeding Programme running through this month’s holiday, ensuring at least a million children get a meal a day for a longer period. And in June, the Government extended a suspension of duty on imported maize to the end of the year.

But the crisis response can be more efficient and, more importantly, measures to ensure Kenya is self-sufficient can be taken. As relief efforts are expected to continue for at least another year, an urgent review of policy on shortterm and long-term initiatives is needed when Cabinet meets.

Outdated targets

The last year in which we were reportedly self-sufficient in producing maize, the key staple, was three years ago. But it has since been pointed out the 32 million bag target we beat was set with a population of 30 million in mind. If you consider green maize harvested for silage, exports to Uganda and Tanzania, and higher demand from a larger population, it is clear we have always been in a precarious situation.

As such, the failure to reserve surpluses from bumper years and other policy missteps (say, the licensing of a grain-handling monopoly) are directly responsible for making this crisis worse. The problem became clear to all last year when destruction of planted crop and a reduction in replanted acreage coincided with food price increases globally. Government attempts to reduce the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable were often unsuccessful with a poorly-thought-out subsidy scheme leading to loss of hundreds of millions.

Focussing on the urgency of a looming crisis may distract Cabinet from the need to tackle long term food security issues. This is an area that stretches from bulk fertiliser procurement and delivery to seed varieties and storage. The presence of multiple chokepoints controlled by monopolies or rent-seeking bureaucrats partly explains why consumer prices rose alarmingly and remain high even as neighbouring countries have reported some respite.

Trucking of water using bowsers has been going on for a while in the North Eastern Province. At the same time boreholes and water pans have been constructed in pastoralist regions. Sadly, little can be done about lack of pasture and the travel needed to find it undoes work on disease-prevention. Right now, armed pastoralists who usually avoid wild animals because they carry ticks or disease have invaded some game reserves: Their stark choice is between sick or dead animals.

Clearly, pastoralism is unsustainable in the long run. Over the last two decades, we have seen a growing number of former pastoralists become entirely dependent on food aid after drought or disease wiped out their herds.

Hand to mouth

As with the farmers and consumers caught up in the insecurity crisis, these pastoralists need long term solutions. Government should, by all means, perfect the use of bowsers, fertiliser delivery, importation of maize, feeding of school children, stocking of strategic reserves and so on. But this should be accompanied by thinking on diversifying staple foods, streamlining supply chains for all inputs and outputs and providing alternative economic activities.

Only when the country is no longer living from hand to mouth shall we ever be food secure.

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