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Help farmers produce food inexpensively

By The Standard | October 30th 2016

The government’s resolve to purchase maize from farmers at a higher price is good news to growers grappling with adverse weather conditions and the high cost of inputs. These factors have contributed significantly to making growing corn unprofitable to a large section of farmers. Deputy President William Ruto was spot on when he said the cost of production was unsustainably high for farmers. He said going forward, the government would purchase a 90-kilogramme bag of maize at Sh3,000, up from Sh2,800. Not too long ago farmers were being paid Sh2,300 for a 90-kilogramme bag of maize, but this limited their profit margins, triggering protests in the North Rift over the low maize prices offered by the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB).

Although it has been argued that protectionism encourages inefficiencies and leaves players vulnerable when the safety net is withdrawn, a case must be made for formulation of policies that promote food security. When a government is in control of variables that can boost farm yields, it behooves it to encourage farmers to raise production to levels that can provide adequate yields for the local market.

Sometimes governments are not in control of the trade environment in which farmers operate. A government may not be in control of the tariff structure on account of trade agreements with other partners. In the sugar sub-sector, for instance, Comesa determines the import tariffs. Kenya just managed to negotiate a trade deal with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa that would allow the country to limit imports from the regional trade bloc to protect the local industry for another year.

Fortunately for maize farmers, most of the variables that can be manipulated to improve outputs are within the government’s control. And this is why Deputy President Ruto’s announcement will serve to encourage farmers to raise their production levels. Mr Ruto also announced that the government would purchase 150,000 metric tonnes of fertilisers which will be sold to farmers at a subsidised price before the next planting season. To encourage local production of fertiliser, 50,000 metric tonnes will be sourced from local manufacturers.

Local fertiliser manufacturers must exploit this opportunity to offer quality products by producing fertilisers that are suitable for the soils where they will be selling these products. But even as the State moves to cushion farmers from the high cost of production, authorities could intervene more directly to protect growers from exploitation by middlemen. The most common complaints by farmers is that brokers often step in and buy their produce at low prices then sell this crop to the NCPB at higher prices. The NCPB must stop dealing with brokers and find a way of identifying legitimate farmers and ensure that the only produce it purchases is sold to it by these farmers, not middlemen.

The drought and famine that are ravaging huge parts of the country today is a reminder that every effort must be made to ensure that farmers are protected.

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