Food crisis: Why Kenya can't feed itself

Alice Amana sorts through sorghum harvested from the Natirae farm along the banks of River Turkwel in Turkana County.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Even for the country’s highlands that support agriculture, not all of the land is utilised fully.
  • Poor farming methods characterised by poor seedlings, lack of mechanisation, minimal support and high cost of inputs has backpedalled efforts to feed the country.

As Kenyans go to the ballot today, many will be voting with the hope of a lower cost of living. The rising cost of food has become one of the sorest pain points in Kenya in recent months and a big talking point in this election.

Kenyans are hungry. More than half the country is staring at starvation. Cries for relief have never been louder. Affordability of food items is a matter of survival for millions of Kenya who will troop to polling stations today.

In 2019, Kenya ranked 86th out of 117 countries on the 2019 Global Hunger Index, underscoring the enormity of the food catastrophe the country is staring at.

Regionally, only South Sudan (75 per cent) and Somalia (50 per cent) are faring worse, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

Women and children starving to death in their manyattas in northern Kenya is as much the story of Kenya as any other; an occurrence to expect every year. So predictable is the devastation that Kenyans have become nearly numb to this loss of life.

The problem may have hit acute levels now, but Kenya has never quite been able to feed its population since independence.

Ironically, agriculture is the “backbone” of the country’s economy, constituting about 33 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and supporting the livelihoods of about 75 per cent of Kenyans.

So, why can’t Kenya feed itself?

Experts attribute Kenya’s current food woes to a cocktail of factors, including fundamental governance blunders, obsession with maize and wheat foods, a population implosion, corruption, degradation of agricultural land and climate change. 

Foremost, 8.3 million farmers in rural Kenya farm to feed their families. With unpredictable rainfall patterns amid a changing climate, these subsistence farmers are now struggling to grow enough food for their families.

“I’ve never bought maize flour in my household until recently,” laments Monica Waithera from Tumaini in Nyandarua, an agriculturally-endowed county. “I used to grow enough maize, beans and potatoes for my family, who are all adults now. These days the harvest is so poor and barely enough for my husband and our last-born son.”

For large-scale farmers of wheat and maize in Narok, Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia and Nakuru counties, the high cost of production is forcing them to scale down or abandon farming altogether.

Farmers in Narok say they grow wheat ‘‘because we have nothing else to do with our land”. It is what they have done all their life. One farmer tears up talking about the cost of seeds, fertiliser and sprays.

Elsewhere in this county on Simon ole Poror’s sprawling farm in Rotian on the foots of Mau Forest, only about 15 dairy cows graze today. When Simon started dairy farming in the 1990s, his stock was about 50 animals. He had the choice to increase the herd to hundreds. He chose not to.

Instead, the dairy farmer has been reducing his stock gradually as the cost of farming becomes unbearable. “Buying feeds, salt and medicine is agonising these days. You pay more for supplements during every visit to the shop. The returns from sale of milk are nothing compared to the inputs,” he says with resignation. Many like him here have given up.

Further down the plains of Narok County, the hopelessness of beef farmers is palpable. One farmer told Healthy Nation that were land not his family’s, beef farming would be the most unfeasible farming to do. “We sell a mature animal to slaughterhouses at between Sh50,000 and Sh70,000. By the time the animal is ready, you will have spent almost double the amount to feed and treat it,” he added.

The situation is not helped by drying water pans and dams, forcing farmers to buy water for their animals, thus compounding the cost of farming.

In the last 30 years, Kenya’s population has been multiplying at an average of one million per year, World Bank statistics show. But even with more than 50 million mouths to feed today, the size of farmlands has remained relatively intact. The methods of farming the same old ones.

The solution? Importation of grain, namely maize, wheat and rice, from the region and overseas. The bulk of rice consumed in Kenya, about 400,000 tonnes (or 70 per cent) per year, comes from Asia, to supplement local production that stands at between 35,000 and 50,000 tonnes, according to state data.

Then there is wheat, another grain that has become a staple for Kenyans, almost surpassing maize. In 2021, Kenya’s wheat consumption hit the 2.4 million tonnes at a time the country produced only 100,000 metric tonnes of the grain – merely five per cent of local needs.

For as long as the country can buy grain from elsewhere, Kenyans are assured of maize and wheat flour on the shelves. But therein lies perhaps the trickiest problem in the country’s food security.

Importation of grain into the country is subject to regulations and stability in countries of origin and, sometimes, the state of diplomatic relations between Kenya and countries that supply its grain. The slightest disruption hits the dinner table of most households across the country hard. The war between Ukraine and Russia, which has taken a heavy toll on wheat exports to Kenya, is a case in point that has pushed wheat flour prices to historical highs of Sh250 for a two-kilogramme packet.

In June this year, Tanzania imposed a fresh set of requirements for sale of maize to Kenya, including an export permit by traders. This would see more than 400 trucks stuck at the Namanga border as the export row hit fever-pitch. Some quarters claim the tedious clearance process is intended to minimise volumes of maize imported from Tanzania.

Meanwhile, Uganda, Kenya’s other main source of maize, has recently opted to sell its grain to South Sudan, where it is fetching higher prices, further roiling the already muddy waters of the country’s food security.

But that is only half the problem. Kenya imports maize from Malawi and Zambia, grain that is transported by road through Tanzania and, therefore, subject to the country’s custom control. This, essentially, puts Kenya’s ability to feed its people at the mercy of its Southwestern neighbour.

So dependent is Kenya on her neighbours that maize imports into the country constitute 58 per cent of all grain traded in the region. Any unforeseen eventuality or deliberate decision leading to closure of international borders would put Kenyans on the devastating brink of starvation.

Are Kenyans too fixated about certain food types?

The government thinks so. As of 2018, the average Kenyan consumed five kilos of maize meal per month, translating to 60 kilos per person per year. This consumption rate is expected to grow by an average of five per cent in the next 10 years.

When Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya recently said the country had better look into alternative food options, including traditional crops such as millet, sorghum, yams and cassava, he struck a raw nerve.

 “Kenyans should embrace other foods. Maize was brought by our colonisers; we cannot rely on it and forget what our forefathers fed on like sorghum and cassava,” he said.

But while the CS’s remarks triggered an uproar, realistically, this appears to be Kenya’s hope for food independence and security.

He added: “It is important to relook at what other food crops we have to farm to feed our people. We have many food varieties that can cater for our needs.”

But not in Evans Mutua’s household where chapati and ugali are virtually irreplaceable features on the menu. “We consume ugali for dinner every day. On Sunday, we change to chapati,” says the father of two sons and farmer from Nakuru County.

In his household, only the lunch menu varies. “We can have rice and beans or mukimo for lunch,’’ he says. His argument? The manual nature of farm work demands a starchy food. 

The high rate of urbanisation is also driving a culture of consumption at the expense of production of food. By 2020, 28 per cent of Kenyans were living in urban centres. More people are moving to towns, leaving farming to the older rural-folk.

In a country where the national mean age is 19 years, the average farmer is currently aged 68. There is now fear that when a famer like Waithera, 59, exits the scene, there will soon be no career farmers.

Kenya’s food crisis, though, goes beyond preferences, poor choices, human inaction and the blunders the country has made in efforts to feed its people. Only about 10 per cent of Kenya’s land mass, or about 5.8 million hectares, is suitable for farming, according to 2018 World Bank records.

The rest of the country (90 per cent) is arid and semi-arid. ASAL counties in Northern Kenya including Samburu, Mandera, Garissa, Tana River, Kitui, Turkana and Baringo, do not support farming. So dry are the regions that they sometimes go for two years without any rainfall. Whenever it rains, usually an average of less than 300 millimetres per year, the rainfall is too insufficient to support growth of pasture, much less crop farming.

For decades, communities in ASAL counties have reared livestock as their sole livelihood, often overstocking to minimise risk of loss. After decades of overgrazing, the areas are now experiencing chronic land degradation, soil erosion and almost irreversible loss of vegetation.

Staring at loss of their animals, herders are now invading ranches and farms with their animals where pasture is aplenty. The result? Bloody confrontations with farmers and other land owners.

 “The problem is too many people, too many cattle and too little planning,” argues wildlife activist Iain Douglas-Hamilton.

With climate change fuelling faster loss of pasture and droughts becoming longer, it is feared that the carnage of intercommunal attacks will worsen in the future.

Arable land in Kenya has expanded by 37 per cent from about 3.5 million hectares at independence. During this period, Kenya’s population has grown by about 400 per cent, 10 times more than the increase in land suitable for farming.

But even for the country’s highlands that support agriculture, not all of the land is utilised fully. Poor farming methods characterised by poor seedlings, lack of mechanisation, minimal support and high cost of inputs has backpedalled efforts to feed the country.

Dr Sheila Ochugboju, the executive director for Alliance for Science, says Kenya lacks ‘‘proper governance structures and political will’’ to promote food production for its population. ‘‘We say agriculture is the backbone of our economies, which sounds great. But when you picture the average Kenyan farmer, there is nothing aspirational about them: they symbolise struggles and disappointment.’’

She adds: ‘‘How are we investing in farming to truly make it a pillar of our economies? Twenty years ago, the average American farmer fed eight to 10 people. Today, the same farmer feeds 1,000 people. Here, a farmer feeds about three people. We simply cannot feed ourselves.’’

So, how did Kenya put the responsibility of feeding its people on the hands of farmers in other countries?

Graft and mismanagement have played a part in Kenya’s current food crisis. The Galana Kulalu project scandal is alive in the minds of Kenyans.

In 2015, Kenya and Israel inked a deal to irrigate one million acres in Tana River and Kilifi counties. Under the Sh14.5 billion project, 200,000 acres would go to maize farming, generating Sh24 billion annually, according to projections. Kenya was on the path to food security.

Until arbitrary delays by Israeli contractor Green Arava, alleged sabotage by state officers, failed seasons and the eventual abandonment of the project nipped Kenya’s hope for food security in the bud. In total, Galana Kulalu sank Sh5.9 billion of taxpayers’ money.

For many years, extension officers moved around the country training farmers on good farming methods from seed choices to fertiliser and pesticide application. Those days are long gone. Their withdrawal coincided with skidding yields from farms.

Today, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) trains farmers in 14 counties on good agronomic practices, including agroforestry, use of improved seeds and application of blended fertilisers suitable for their agro-ecological zones.

This is done through village-based advisors (VBAs), who serve as extension officers. Already, Kiambu, Embu and Makueni counties have mainstreamed the VBA approach as part of their extension strategies.

 Dr Tilahun Amede, the head, resilience, climate and soil fertility at Agra, says: ‘‘This way, 80 per cent of farmers in our working areas have adopted yield-enhancing technologies. The majority of them are youth and women.’’ 

Is there hope for food security, though?

Dr Amede believes there is and proposes use of lime in areas with high acidity levels to treat the soil, planting of modern and high-yielding varieties of maize and proper water management methods in the Rift Valley and northern counties to deal with recurrent drought. 

‘‘Investment in critical infrastructure such as irrigation, market feeder roads, post-harvest storage and processing would boost productivity, improve market linkages, reduce post-harvest losses and enhance resilience of systems,’’ he says.

Kenyatta University lecturer and nutritionist Eunice Njogu says there needs to be “active effort” to make farming more attractive to young people to optimise food production. “This could involve leasing unused public land to young people to use, as has happened in France and Italy,” Njogu proposes. She adds that access to finance would enable them to purchase equipment and inputs and pay for farm labour.

On land degradation, Dr Amede says Kenya must relook at its natural resources base and protection of landscapes, by borrowing useful lessons in the region. ‘‘Rwanda and Ethiopia invested hugely in land and water management. They now have increased water availability in their farms and landscapes. This has also reduced the risk of soil erosion and resource degradation.’’

Might land clustering be Kenya’s solution to food security? Dr Amede says some countries are reaping benefits from this approach. He explains: ‘‘This helps to consolidate fragmented small-scale farms into large farms that can employ large-scale mechanised farming to attract investment and better market opportunities.’’

Two weeks ago, the Jubilee administration extended the import of duty-free maize by eight weeks until September. Whereas this offers some semblance of relief, Dr Ochugboju says more long-term solutions must be sought with urgency. ‘‘The government must put its money where its mouths is. Countries have been brought down by food riots.’’

The need to diversify Kenya’s food production base cannot be overstated, says Dr Amede. ‘‘We must develop and adopt new crop varieties. It also important to avail assorted seeds and seedlings to our farmers to boost their production.’’

While Kenyans may not drop wheat and maize-based foods from their menus in favour of cassava and yams in the short term, it remains to be seen what alternatives they will adopt in the long-term as the country’s  favourite starch sources become scarcer by the day amid a population explosion.