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Develop a working strategy that supports our local food systems

Nancy Cherotich with her baby on the back preparing her farm for planting at Nessuit area in Njoro on February 10, 2021.[Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

That Kenya is now importing more food at the expense of consumers is not a surprise to anyone who has been in a supermarket recently.

The cost of basic food stuff has gone up, some, like cooking oil, to eye-watering levels. Many households are having to tighten already tight belts in order to put a meal on the table.

Kenya’s local food producers have over the years suffered recurring setbacks in their trade, forcing the country to import food to fill the gap. As reported by the Business Daily on August 23, 2021, the current food import bill stands at an unprecedented Sh103.34 billion between January and June this year.

Up to 84 per cent of fish is imported with the largest percentage (70 per cent) coming from China alone. This has largely been attributed to underlying issues on policy and market systems development which have not fully addressed inputs supply, optimal utilisation of available water resources, breeds improvement and diversification, among other factors.

Good harvest

It is not just a fish problem. Earlier this year, maize farmers from Bomet and Narok counties decried the supply of substandard seeds from rogue suppliers. These counties have just one production season which means that farmers who did not realise good harvest due to the substandard seeds will have to wait for a whole year without any produce. Hence the need to import more maize from Uganda and Tanzania.

The National Treasury is not funding agriculture to the optimal 10 per cent of the national budgetary allocations required to address these concerns. Budgetary shortfalls coupled with the effects from Covid-19 and the East African locust invasion as well as the impending famine and the 2022 elections are pushing more Kenyans into food insecurity.

For Kenya to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Reduced Inequalities and Climate Action, agriculture must be positioned as a key driver to overcome current challenges. Proper investment in the sector and primarily in the entire food system should therefore be non-negotiable.

Digital interventions

There is an urgent need to restrategise efforts whilst scaling up proven initiatives at different levels of the food system. The support that farmers require has remained constant over time: Access to inputs, technology, information, finance and markets. Different digital interventions have proven that it is possible to provide access to all four of these at scale and at low costs.

From provision of satellite weather-based information, for insurance, to apps that link farmers to markets, to non-traditional digital credit scoring that offers farmers with little to no banking history with access to finance, these innovations can open up the world for Kenyan farmers.

A majority of these innovative interventions have been provided by the private sector with varying degrees of success. The government and development partners need to now step in and identify where they can support the private sector in order for these solutions to be provided at scale with the goal of improving primary production.

Agri-SMEs link farms to the market and may arguably be one of the most important pieces of the food system. This sector, which has been called the ‘Hidden Middle’ due to being hidden from policy discussions, shared its top agendas for action through the 2020 Agribusiness Outlook Survey commissioned by AGRA. Among these were the need for flexible financing structures and reducing the cost of money. Not surprisingly, the sector called for increased government spending on agriculture as well as a downstream recommendation to increase the productivity of smallholder farms.

In addition, Kenya Association of Manufacturers Deep Dive report on Manufacturing under the ‘Big 4 agenda’ identified several opportunities for agri-manufacturing including vegetable and fruits and fish processing among others. Several policy interventions were also recommended including the need for conducive lending rates and enhanced corporate governance at institutions, including commercial banks. 

The government needs to review its annual budget allocation in order to boost production whilst ensuring enactment and implementation of policies that will improve Kenya’s food systems, including ensuring that the sector is transparent enough so that profits from the market find their way to the farmers.

Trade under the African Continental Free Trade Area has began with the aim of providing better opportunities for traders, businesses, farmers and consumers by consolidating the continent into one trade area through reducing and ultimately eliminating tariffs on traded goods.

Manufacturing capacities

Kenya will need to improve its production and manufacturing capacities in order to take advantage of the benefits that the trade agreement promises, key of which is the opportunity to tap into regional markets. 

It is clear that there are numerous starting points that relevant stakeholders can begin to work on to improve the food production and processing capacities and by extension, provide a better negotiating ground for Kenya as it trades with its regional and international partners. We cannot continue to lament about the high imports while our production is not competitive enough in a liberal market. We urgently need to develop a working strategy that focuses and supports our local food systems.

The writers are fellows at the African Food Fellowship. 

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