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How local farmers are losing the battle at the dinner table

By Dominic Omondi | October 11th 2020

Local farmers are gradually losing the scramble to fill Kenyans’ plates as foreign-produced food take a bigger space in the pot.

This comes as the government embarks on an ambitious plan to ensure every citizen gets enough nutritious food, creating an expansive market for over six million farming families.

Even as the food market has grown in leaps and bounds over the last decade, a good chunk of it has been snapped up by foreign producers.

The pie or pizza your child relishes is likely courtesy of wheat farmers in Russia, Ukraine and Canada. Chances the rice used to prepare your chicken biriani is from Mwea, Kirinyaga County, are also slim.

Most likely the rice left the paddies of Pakistan and crossed oceans before landing into your plate.

Local farmers have also been losing to their peers in Uganda and Tanzania whose fruits and vegetables are dominating the stalls of Mama Mboga across the country.

Kenya, a nation whose growing population’s appetite and tastes have surged, is struggling to feed itself.

Unable to boost production to meet its insatiable demand, the country has opened its borders for uninhibited inflow of all kinds of foods.

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Its import dependency ratio (IDR), a measure of the extent to which a country is dependent on food imports over its domestic supply, has worsened.

For every Sh100 Kenya used to import in 2008, only seven was spent on foodstuff. This fraction has since gone up to Sh10. 

Most of the food imports have been cereals such as wheat, rice and maize which are critical to feeding the nation.

According to data by United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda have lower cereal imports dependency ratios, meaning most of the commodities their citizens consume are produced locally.

With a three-year average of 32.7 per cent between 2011 and 2013, Kenya has the highest cereals IDR, topping Africa’s average of 28.9 per cent.

Fish, whose importation, especially from China, has always touched a raw nerve, actually has had one of the highest IDRs.

In 2014, only 19.4 per cent of fish eaten in the country was imported but this surged to over a third two years later.

Thousands of Kenyans have thus ditched farming, turning their shambas into the concrete jungle that is the burgeoning real estate.

Besides inefficient production by local farmers, studies show the growers are also grappling with a change in dietary habits by a much richer consumer who lives in fast-paced cities and is exposed to a wide variety of foods around the world through the ubiquitous Internet.  

A status report by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) titled, ‘Feeding Africa’s Cities’ looked at the opportunities, challenges and policies to linking African farmers with the expanding urban food markets.

Agra, a non-governmental organisation affiliated to Bill and Melinda Gates, found that the most rapidly growing urban food markets as “processed, prepared and perishable foods — especially dairy, poultry, meat, fish and horticulture”.

As more Kenyans find themselves in urban settings where they are too busy to prepare traditional dishes such as ugali, they have increasingly shifted to non-maize processed foods, especially those made of wheat.

For example, while the per capita consumption of maize stagnated at 69kg in 10 years, that of wheat and wheat products more than doubled from 16.3kg in 2008 to 41.8kg in 2019.

Maize and maize products used to be the most consumed food item a decade ago. This has since shifted to milk, with the average Kenyan taking close to 100 litres of milk every year.

However, production of milk has not kept up with this consumption. Ugandan farmers have quickly filled the gap.

The value of milk imports surged 63 times in 10 years to Sh5.8 billion in 2018. And unlike before when Tanzania and Mauritius were also exporters of milk to Kenya, now virtually all the milk that Kenya imports comes from Uganda.

But the challenges have also included a skewed political economy.

“Tax evasion and mislabeling of imported produce as ‘local’ enables importers to undercut the domestic market,” reads part of the report by Agra.

Agra notes that there is a need for transparency and rules-based approach at the Strategic Grain Reserve, for example.

Much of the food Kenya has imported is processed, with its value more than doubling in the 10 years to 2008 to Sh88 billion. Most processed foods come from Europe and Asia.

Some of the processed foodstuff such as processed tea, tomato paste and tropical fruits might as well have left Kenya in raw form.

For example, in 2016 Kenya imported processed tomatoes worth Sh666 million after exporting raw ones valued at Sh5.9 million to countries such as Qatar.

Majority of the processed tomatoes came from China. Other countries  Kenya imported processed tomatoes from include the UAE, Italy and Egypt.

In 2016, tropical fruits such as mangoes worth Sh10 billion were exported to France, Netherlands, Germany, the UK, UAE and other European and Middle East countries.

Yet, the country spent Sh634 million to import fruit juice from South Africa, UAE, Egypt, the UK and Spain where Kenya had sold its raw fruits.

The same year, Kenya imported processed fish worth Sh1.5 billion from China, Thailand and UAE, according to data from the United Nations.

Imports of primary foods such as maize, onions, tomatoes, garlic, beans, eggs, tea, milk and citrus fruits have increased eight-fold in the last 10 years in value - from Sh3 billion in 2008 to Sh25 billion in 2018. Most of these foods and beverages come from Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

A devolved function, agriculture has been abandoned by both the county and national governments, with each pointing an accusing finger at the other.

Kenyan farmers are not equipped with the right information to help them increase yields, according to a World Bank report.

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