Governments should focus on small-scale farmers for food security – Experts

Food security

Ms Pauline Kinyua, Tegemeo Cereals Company project manager, recording farmers' produce for aggregation and storage before market. 

Photo credit: Peter Musa I Nation Media Group

Increasing the budget allocation to support small holder farmers’ linkages with modern technology and research findings is critical, in their contribution of 80 per cent of the total food consumed within Sub Saharan Africa.  

Experts in food sufficiency are urging governments in East Africa to increase budget allocation, explaining that the intervention will bridge the existing gap between these farmers and knowledge specialists in technology.

They should increase allocation on research and innovation, resulting in food sufficiency through increased food production, and enabling communities fight hunger, poverty and malnutrition in the wake of climate change, especially in arid and semi arid areas.  

“Bringing researchers and food production technology experts closer to the farmer will not only enhance communities’ self-driven capacity to produce enough for themselves, but it will also uplift their economic wellbeing through selling the surplus within well managed market forces, locally and internationally,” says Dr Sofia Boqvist, Programme Officer for Agriculture for Food Security 2030 (AgriFoSe2030), a Swedish funded programme that supports agricultural activities within Sub Saharan Africa. 

Further, integrating modern technologies in food production and management in areas that experience adverse weather conditions, will make them become much resilient in the wake of climate change, as well as build the region’s overall food capacity through putting more land under agriculture. 

Dr Boqvist adds that, governments have recognised the role of small holder food producers in food security, alleviating poverty, and improving rural livelihoods, as they contribute approximately 40 per cent of the total world food.

However, she adds that, for them to become more productive, profitable, and environmentally and socially sustainable, they need a transformative agenda which is a complex process, and one that should be tailored according to each country’s specific conditions for it to be fully effective. This agenda should be rooted in science to be within the best available knowledge. 

Kenya’s 2022 Integrated Food Security report states that about 3.5 million people (24 per cent of the arid and semi arid areas population) faced high levels of acute food insecurity, with about 2.7 million of them experiencing food crisis.  

Also, according to the Kenya’s National Guideline for Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition, malnutrition remains a threat in developing countries, with levels of acute malnutrition in arid and semi arid areas consistently remaining above the emergency threshold of 15 per cent.

Of concern has been the high infant and under five mortality rates half of which is attributable to malnutrition as the main underlying cause. 

Dr Boqvist, speaking on the sidelines of a food security assessment report released in April this year and prepared under the auspices of AgriFoSe2030, for which she was team head, added that building the capacity of communities through farmer-friendly communication will play a key role in impacting the latest scientific knowledge to support and transform their practices. 

The report, prepared by food production specialists, researchers and policymakers drawn from East Africa, states that countries in the region are still grappling with pro-longed drought effects, with more than 15 million people facing severe food and water shortages. 

It goes on to explain that, many of the people affected live within a vicinity where their pangs of hunger can be alleviated, if only food production, post harvest management, distribution and marketing can be matched with a seamless well-organised system to empower the food producers make food consistently available, affordable, and accessible in various marketplaces within populations.  

The field-research experience report recommends regular surveillance to be carried out alongside predictable weather management measures within farmers’ holdings, including in arid and semi arid communities, to provide adequate mitigation for food security.

These should be matched with easily adaptable technological innovations, some of which could be known locally by the farmers and the food processors. 

Dr Anderson Kehbila, Programme Leader, Natural Resources and Ecosystems at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Africa Centre, adds that providing smallholder farmers with seasonal forecast to help them plan for crop type and region variety, planting dates, and harvesting time will contribute to quantity and quality of farm produce. 

Mr Peter Mutegi, founder and managing director of Tegemeo Cereals Aggregation Company in Tharaka Nithi County, specialising in bio-certified seed production, food processing, and niche marketing of farmers’ produce for sorghum, green grams and pearl millet, agrees there is need to empower small holder farmers with knowledge and skills from land preparation to post harvest and in market timing. 

Mr Mutegi, who started with a five-acre farm but has since increased his acreage to 520 currently, says that he and other farmers encountered myriad problems, causing him to start the Tegemeo organisation to have them addressed. “The small holder farmers lacked appropriate farming skills, access to quality seeds and inputs, financial support and post-harvest skills. I realised that, although the market was huge, their potential to produce and meet the market needs would never be realised unless I did something to help them,” he recalls of his journey from 2008, when he started his farming. 

Upon realising the challenges that were facing farmers in his Tharaka-Nithi county which is in a low rainfall area, Mr Mutegi, a crop production expert, started operating a farmer training programme and also distributing inputs to their convenience, recovering his cost from the small holders’ harvest. 

Out of their model experience, Mr Mutegi says, many farmers’ groups can be formed to pull together resources, thus enhancing market-driven production. However, they need food preservation skills, market access and financial literacy.  

He says that, building of individual farmer capacity is necessary in areas including insurance policy, climate service information for climate change risk reduction, how to focus on low-risk markets, equitable access to mechanised farming, connecting farmers to domestic and international market actors through effective information channels and marketing platforms. 

“From my little beginning experience, I have now managed to bring together 14,800 members who are supplying cereals to Tegemeo Company. We have also acquired equipment for use in certified quality seeds’ preparation,” says Mr Mutegi, adding that so far they have been exporting the farmers produce. 

Dr Kehbila notes that promoting indigenous food crops over exotic ones is the way to go.

This is because indigenous fruits and vegetables are well-adaptable to harsh climatic conditions and resist disease infestation. They are inexpensive and rich sources of protein, carotenoids, vitamin C, and dietary fiber, proving to be a timely mitigation for malnutrition within the local communities.

Their ability to produce seed under tropical conditions, where exotic species often fail, makes them easy to seasonally produce. 

AgriFose2030 programme was funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and 60 million Swedish Crowns (Ksh790m) was allocated to carry out farmer empowerment projects within Sub Saharan Africa for the period between 2021 and 2023. 

The report concludes that, without proper and timely government-backed interventions, countries in East Africa are staring at perennial food crisis, propelled by climate change effects which have brought about unpredictable weather patterns, affecting rain-fed agriculture. 

Furthermore, economic meltdown linked to Covid-19, and the persistent Russia-Ukraine conflict which has contributed to increase in costs of agricultural supplies and transportation, have lead to inflation and thus higher food prices.