Why Kenya’s food basket is nearly empty

A child sits on harvested maize.Data from the Ministry of Agriculture indicates that national maize stocks rose from 13.08 million bags of 90kg each in September to 14.4 million bags last month.

Photo/Reuters/File

In the Roman calendar, the 15th day of March is mystical. Also known as the Ides of March, the day was a festive one dedicated to Mars, the Roman god of war and also an agricultural guardian.

Here in Kenya, March 15 was the date Meshack Maiyo traditionally planted his maize crop.

The farmer from Chebarus village, Moiben location, Eldoret East, does not not see the connection between the date and Roman mysticism. But he did understand that by planting his maize by that date, he was assured of a good harvest.

More predictable

Experience had taught him that a week after he sowed maize, the rains would fall.

He did not need the weatherman to tell him so. “The climate was a lot more predictable those days,” he recalled wistfully.

That was in the 1970s and 1980s at the peak of his farming career.

Then came the 1990s, the decade of his nightmares. “My dreams withered with that decade, and it seems they have turned to ashes in the new millennia,” he said.

Well, the 90s were both blessed and cursed, depending on whom you ask. The decade brought about unprecedented political turbulence that set in motion drastic changes on Kenya’s political landscape.

It was in 1991 that political pluralism was re-introduced, for example.

But the 1990s will be remembered by most Kenyan farmers as the period when the farming enterprise in most parts of the country collapsed. “It brought a lot of misery – bad weather, poor prices, corruption – everything bad,” Mr Maiyo said bitterly.

Mr Maiyo is just one of a multitude of erstwhile successful farmers across the North Rift region who are now among the poor in society.

“At the height of my farming success, I had at least Sh1 million in the bank at any given time. Today, Sh1,000 in my pocket is a privilege.”

As the country battles biting drought that is putting more than three million people at the risk of starvation, the Sunday Nation asked Mr Maiyo what he thinks caused his downfall and by extension that of many other farmers across the country.

“I don’t know,” he began. “It’s a cocktail of reasons. I cannot just pinpoint one of them as the sole reason. Maybe it was the subsidies. Maybe the corruption. Maybe the climate change. Maybe farms were larger then.”

Economic and agricultural experts agree with each of his reasons.

The advent of globalisation forced Kenya to open its markets, which allowed other countries to export their agricultural products to the country, including those Kenyaalready grows like maize and wheat.

This ate up the profit margins of local farmers who found themselves unable to compete with farmers across the globe whose produce sold for less because of great efficiency and the superior technologies they used as well as subsidies granted to them by their governments.

Corruption, which had sunk deep roots in Kenyan agriculture, strangled local agricultural institutions. Key institutions like the Kenya Farmers’ Association and the Agricultural Finance Corporation collapsed under the weight of mismanagement.

But Mr Maiyo knows very well these are not the only things that have created food insecurity in the country.

These are the larger aspects of the problem, he said, but there are large, unreported aspects that have contributed just as much to the current situation.

For example, he has seen the negative effects of subdivision of fertile farmlands in Uasin Gishu County.

“There were huge tracts of land in the 1980s. But today people are growing maize on two-acre plots. How will the tractors move in them?” he asks.

The problem

The story is not confined to Mr Maiyo’s Uasin Gishu County; it is the same tale in all agriculturally rich areas in Kenya.

Trans Nzoia, Narok, Nandi, Kericho, Sotik and other fertile areas are all grappling with the same problem.

Current figures are hard to come by, but a 2006 national report on agrarian reforms and rural development notes that 75 per cent of arable farms in the country are under three acres in size.

As a result, agricultural production is estimated to have fallen by 15 per cent over the past two decades due to acute subdivision of fertile farms across the country.

“It is a runaway problem,” said Dr Mary Kipsat, dean of Moi University’s school of business and economics.
This acute subdivision is a direct result of the increasing population in these areas.

According to the 2009 census, Kenya’s population grew by about 10 million over the decade. Statistics also show that the greatest population increase was in these fertile areas.

Complicating things further is the customary law that obliges fathers to give land to their children as inheritance.

This practice has forced households to divide large tracts of family land into smaller pieces that are not viable for agricultural production.

“Most farmers would have loved to remain with their huge tracts since the farms are more profitable that way, but cultural practices have become a huge impediment,” said Kipkorir Menjo, a former director of the defunct Kenya Farmers’ Association.

Due to population increase and the huge demand for land, vegetation is being cleared at an alarming rate to make room for human settlement.

One direct consequence of this is aggravated erosion on farm soil whose nutrients have already been depleted through years of farming.

And, as science has proved beyond doubt, the less the vegetation, the less the rainfall, a fact farmers, especially in Uasin Gishu, can attest to.
The county, estimated to produce five per cent of Kenya’s cereals, has suffered erratic rainfall since 2000 after about 90,000 hectares of wattle trees belonging to Lonrho East Africa were cleared when the company wound up its operations and sold its land.

Decreased and unpredictable rains have wreaked havoc on the plans and dreams of many farmers in Uasin Gishu. “We have miserable rainfall nowadays,” Mr Menjo said. “If anything, Uasin Gishu is slowly becoming a semi-desert.”

In fact, the 2006 national report on agrarian reforms and rural development stated that desertification was spreading into erstwhile fertile farms in Kenya at the rate of between 300,000 to 400,000 hectares a year.

The cumulative consequence of all these factors – acute land subdivision, high population growth rate and erratic rainfall – are already manifesting themselves as farmers abandon food crop farming in the North Rift at an alarming rate.

Disillusioned by low returns from growing wheat and maize on their small farms, an increasing number of farmers are opting for horticulture.

Today it is not uncommon to find farms holding passion fruit rather than maize or wheat in Uasin Gishu.

Some are abandoning farming altogether in favour of small-scale businesses in towns, while others have switched to mixed farming for subsistence only.
This has led to a drastic reduction in the area under cereal and pulse production, adversely affecting national food production.

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