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Let’s embrace change to break hunger cycle

By Jenny Luesby | November 12th 2013

By Jenny Luesby

Kenya: Change is so scary it seems, and to be fought wherever possible. Yet constructing a maize shortage every year isn’t a reality worth clinging to – unless you’re winning from the way things are.

So who are the winners, and why do we end up short on maize, and sugar, and food generally, in this land that the Food and Agricultural Organisation classes as so verdant, so lush and so capable of generating food that it could, alone, be the agricultural supply station for most of Africa?

The first big problem is our soil quality. Land that has been farmed for decades without attention to the nutrients in the soil ends up poor, even barren. Yet caring for soils is not an impossible matter.

Any kind of animal droppings can improve things; liquid fertilisers made by rotting weeds in water, or sowing land to nutrient rich ‘weeds’ that are then dug in: all help. There are even astonishing carbon makers that turn animal manure into carbon powder, biochar, that creates super-rich soils for centuries ahead: on a single dosing!

Their impact is almost instant too, as 300 farmers reported from Suba district, western Kenya, where, after dosing their soils with biochar, they saw an immediate doubling in their crop yields. Now double the agricultural output for the whole nation is double 25 per cent of GDP, which would mean we’re all singing — more food, more exports, more taxes, more roads, more clinics.

So what if we could all set to helping one another, in every community, by buying a biochar kiln, and taking turns, and every one of us enriched our soil for generations? The cost: $20 to $25 for a ‘Rutuba Kiln’.

Wasted subsidies

Or what about a nationwide programme to distribute Rutuba Kilns? For what nation can look back from hundreds of years of in-place, super-fertile soil?

As it is, it’s a matter on my mind, big time, after rereading last week the pillars of our Vision 2030 and looking at agriculture in particular. I know this set predates our current leadership, but really, how encouraging is our pillar of fertiliser subsidies, bearing in mind delivery to date? We spend between Sh3 billion and Sh4 billion a year getting virtually no fertiliser through to farmers, but benefiting someone, somewhere, somehow – just not our maize and food output??

For, yes, the maize shortage now ahead of us is being ascribed, once again, to the fact that only a tiny fraction of farmers got fertiliser at all. Yet with long-term super-rich soils, we could end the fertiliser imports and spend that Sh3bn a year on other things.

And the options are many. Take the little mentioned fact that 80 per cent of our maize is lost to a nasty little pest called stem borer. Yet the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute handily invented a super-cheap way to stop stem borer many years ago, which, it says, barely 1 per cent of farmers know about, or use.

Their brilliant invention was a grass seed sown between the maize rows, costing only shillings, but which the stem borer goes for and gets stuck to – quadrupling the maize yields in the now protected maize rows beside that ‘sticky grass’.

For sure, maize is far from all agriculture, but some quadrupling of output is nice, on top of a general doubling. So how about we spend Sh1 billion of that saved fertiliser subsidy on a massive information campaign on every community radio, in every newspaper, posters to every village and agrovet – sticky grass seed ends stem borer. Outcome: four times more maize with the same fertiliser, rains, people, seeds.

Food chain

For while I can see where there are people ‘eating’ off our lost fertiliser subsidies, who exactly wins from losing more than three-quarters of our maize to bugs – are we the ‘Unite to Feed All Stem Borer’ nation now: ‘Food Rights for the Stem Borer’?

Or maybe I’m underestimating the little food chain created by having to import maize virtually every year. And then there are handicaps that cost us even more. There’s the early harvesting that brings the maize in damp and sees it poisoned with aflatoxin fungus, killing men, women and children, and rendering swathes of crop unsellable and unuseable. There’s the market difficulties of organising sellers and buyers: perhaps an accelerated scheme of actually local commodity markets?

Instead, Vision 2030, has us stuck still with fertiliser subsidies as our agricultural flagship, alongside legislative reform, and nothing that has yet made my class of ‘visionary’. So we’ll plant without fertiliser, let the stem borer eat most of what grows, and then lose much of the rest to dampness fungus and chaotic or non-existent selling structures – and that’s before we start on sugar, or any super high-earning export crops.

Change can be an amazing thing when it doubles GDP for smallholders. It even renders the words ‘trickle down’ as nonsense. What’s to trickle down when you triple the incomes of smallholders everywhere, by stopping the feeding of the stem borer?

That extra income doesn’t trickle, it flows – and not down, but everywhere. It flows into school fees and books, furniture and fridges, sofas and banking services, insurance and cars.

Everyone can win from ‘Rutuba’ and grass seed. Small things, big vision...

The writer is Consulting Editor at The Standard Group.

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