To confront food prices dilemma, control imports

Kisumu residents when they protested ovedr high food prices. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

Recently, there has been a vigorous debate by farmers largely from North Rift, our main food basket, urging the government to stop intended food imports, before all domestically produced maize has been sold.

Currently, the price of maize is between Sh5,000 and Sh5,400 per 90 kilogramme bag which translates to between Sh200 and Sh250 per 2 kilogramme of maize flour packet. Rice farmers in Mwea have expressed similar sentiments claiming they will have a harvest big enough to feed the country until the next season, hence no need for importation. But the truth is even in normal years when the country is not affected by drought, Kenya imports about 30 per cent of its maize needs and about 80 per cent of rice needs. Farmers are not generally averse to food imports but they know imports will dampen their producer prices and consumers may prefer cheaper imports.

Indeed, farmers should be paid prices that commensurate with the high cost of production, that for example this year was occasioned by high cost of seeds and fertiliser in the last planting season coupled by poor rains. This is the only way farmers will produce more food next season.

On the other hand, paying farmers high producer prices means consumers will continue to pay dearly for food particularly maize. Currently, consumers are paying the highest maize flour prices.

Ironically, recent data by Tegemeo Institute showed about half (52 per cent) of farmers are also net food buyers meaning they sell at the harvest season but end up buying more from the market.

The implications are that all consumers including half of the population of farmers will benefit from low food prices. Incidentally, most consumers particularly the urban poor spend over 70 per cent of their income on food leaving almost nothing for other non-food basic items including health, education and shelter. Savings and investments, are out of reach for this group. 

This situation Kenya is facing is referred to in food security circles as a Typical Food Security Dilemma. Meaning farmers demand for high, remunerative prices to remain in production while consumers clamour for low food prices. This is not unique to Kenya; many Asian countries went through such in the past. Indonesia, Vietnam and others had a difficult time in 1970s.

A book by Joe Studwell titled, “How Asia Works” enumerates what these countries did to overcome their food security dilemma. Obviously, the long-term solution is to enhance crop productivity - producing more per unit area as a way of reducing production costs. Producers will then make money without raising food prices. In Africa, countries such as Zambia, Rwanda and Ethiopia have overcome such crises.

But in the meantime, we have to deal with making both farmers and consumers happy. The answer lies with the policy direction that the government should take to attain this win-win situation. Under the circumstances, the government must be prepared to allocate resources into this endeavour.

The writer is a food security expert and former governor of Kiambu County. [email protected]