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Counties hold the key to elusive food security

Groundnut farmers in Turkana. The county has embarked on teaching locals on groundnut production for food security. [Courtesy]

Is it not possible for Kenya to become world’s breadbasket? That can only happen if we start producing surplus food. Currently, we are producing less than what we need, then sell off to buy farm inputs. In 2019, Kenya imported maize worth Sh4.2 billion from Tanzania.

In 2020, we faced yet another maize deficit and imported approximately 277,350 tones (3.1 million 90kg bags), mostly from Uganda and Tanzania. This year, the deficit is so steep that Kenya will be forced to import beyond the East African community. Of course, there is an ungodly narrative behind these importations.

A deliberate food production revolution is what Kenya needs to feed her people, sell surplus food and turbo-charge the economy. Denmark, with a population of 5.5 million people produces food for 100 million people! They are world’s number one in food industry innovation. The genesis of this revolution is in our mindsets.

Primarily, we must move away from micro-production to macro-production. Smallholder farming in its current state cannot deliver surplus food and sustainable profits. We may not do away with small farms but we can do away with smallholder farming mentality and practices. This approach has worked well in Nigeria for a tomato agribusiness. 

Tomato Jos agro-processing company focuses on local production of high-quality tomato paste for the Nigerian market. Before building a factory for tomato paste production, the company planted high quality tomatoes. They integrated smallholder farmers into planting high quality tomatoes. They established a factory for processing the tomatoes into tomato paste. Through this model, smallholder tomato farmers were integrated into a large-scale tomato ecosystem.

If it can happen in Nigeria, it can happen here. One of our 47 counties can become a tomato superpower. That county can then enact conducive tomato investment policies and put in place a reliable infrastructure. Such action will attract investors who will set up world-class tomato processing factories like Tomato Jos.

Every county can specialise on one or two agricultural products, align their budgets to develop and become the best. Japan took this approach and eventually reaped handsome dividends. In 1979, the late Dr Morihiko Hiramatsu was Governor of ┼îita Prefecture, Japan’s equivalent of a county. He rolled out the ‘One Village One Product’ (OVOP) initiative. A village would select a product unique to its region and focus exclusively on it.

Our 47 counties can follow this model to detach its citizenry from poverty. For 53 years, I have witnessed my own lovely mother Deborah Kalua farm various crops and keep domestic animals. But she has never made money. Just like millions of Kenyans don’t we owe her a sustainable approach to her agricultural adventure?

Brazil’s food processing sector is worth at least Sh21 trillion. The sector supports about 36,100 companies, mostly SMEs. In the US, the food sector is responsible for 22.2 million jobs.

Are we not part of this global space where we can strategically replicate these food production strategies? As we match into the August elections, can’t we elect hands-on leaders and political parties who understand the effect of climate change and captain an agricultural revolution?  Think green, act green.

The writer is Green Africa Foundation founder.