Poor planning and inaction to blame for food insecurity


Rising food prices occasioned by poor harvests is shining the spotlight on the reality that Kenya is far from fulfilling the promise in the Constitution that every person has the right to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality.

While the present food crisis is largely being blamed on delayed and below-average long rains (March–May), the problem of food insecurity has persisted, with lack of strategic planning and actions playing as big a role as severe climatic conditions and over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture.

There is a need to reform the current fertiliser subsidy program to ensure that it is efficient, transparent and well targeted.

Nothing can explain the perennial food shortages experienced even in periods following bumper harvests better than poor planning and inaction. Little else can justify the fact that the number of Kenyans facing extreme hunger is expected to increase to 2.5 million by July this year, up from the current 1.1 million, yet Kenya produced a record 44.6 million bags of maize in 2018, according to a Nation Newsplex review of cereal production data going back to 1960. The second-highest harvest of the staple is 42.5 million bags in 2015, and even then the country faced food shortages the following year.

Moreover, the country’s general food security situation has been on a steady decline. Today, more Kenyans are food-insecure and undernourished than a decade ago, reveals a Newsplex review of food security data. The number of hungry (undernourished) Kenyans is growing, reaching almost 12 million in 2017, or one in every four people. The figure was a 15 percentage-point increase from more than 10 million a decade ago, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

At the same time, the number of severely food-insecure Kenyans facing serious constraints on their ability to obtain safe, nutritious and sufficient food went up from 15 million in 2014 /2016 to more than 17 million in 2016/2017, also a 15 percentage-point increase.

With an undernourishment rate of 24 percent, a slight improvement from 28 percent a decade ago, Kenya was the 24th most undernourished country in the world out of 167 surveyed and 18th out of 45 countries in Africa. But despite the decline in the undernourishment rate, which is, however, higher than Africa’s 20 percent, the prevalence of severely food-insecure Kenyans jumped four percentage-points from 32 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2017, resulting in Kenya’s ranking as the eighth-worst on the indicator globally.

The prevalence of undernourishment is the main hunger indicator used by the FAO and measures the share of the population with a caloric (dietary energy) intake that is insufficient to meet the minimum energy requirements defined as necessary for a given population.

Data from the Finaccess Survey 2019 shows that one in three people went without food often in 2018.

Agricultural technology

The nutrition data shows that harsh or unfavourable climatic conditions can no longer be an excuse for food insecurity as all the four countries with the lowest undernourishment prevalence in Africa are located in the Sahara Desert. Morocco leads with four percent, followed by Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia (five percent each).

Their better performance is due to planning around hot and dry climatic conditions by embracing irrigation and adopting new technology in farming, resulting in better yields, unlike Kenya that heavily relies on rain-fed agriculture even as the approach continues to deliver poor results. For instance, FAO figures show that between 2007 and 2017, Kenya’s wheat yields dropped by more than a third, maize yields declined by 16 percentage-points and rice harvests per acre fell five percentage points.
Tying in position five with six percent is Mauritius, Mali, Ghana and South Africa.

Forty-six countries from all regions of the world except Africa have an undernourishment prevalence of less than 2.5 percent.

The World Bank’ latest Kenya Economic Update report finds that real agricultural value-added has declined relative to levels attained in 2006 due to weather-related shocks, prevalence of pests/disease and dwindling knowledge delivery systems such as the lack of extension services on adoption of modern technology.

Figures from the bank’s report indicate that while 83 percent of Kenya’s land area is arid and semi-arid, just two percent of arable land is under irrigation, compared with an average of six percent in sub-Saharan Africa and more than a third (37 percent) in Asia. “There is a need to reform the current fertiliser subsidy program to ensure that it is efficient, transparent and well targeted; invest in irrigation and water management infrastructure to build resilience in the sector; and leverage disruptive technologies to deliver agricultural services, including agro-weather and market information and advisory services” said Ladisy Chengula, World Bank lead agriculture economist, during the launch of the report.

The majority of people most vulnerable to climate shocks and natural hazards are the world’s 2.5 billion small-scale farmers, herders, fishers and forest-dependent communities, who derive their food and income from renewable natural resources, according to FAO. In Kenya, small-scale farmers produce about two-thirds of the food grown and agriculture is a major driver of growth for the Kenyan economy and is the dominant source of employment. According to the World Bank, agriculture contributes on average more than a fifth (22 percent) of gross domestic product (GDP), with more than half of the total labour force employed in the sector. “We found that productivity increases in the agriculture sector not only benefits poor households, it can potentially lift them out of poverty,” said Mr Chengula.

Forms of malnutrition

As little is being done to improve yield, storage and distribution of produce, malnutrition persists. In 2017, one in four (26 percent) children under five in Kenya were stunted (too short for their age) an improvement from a third (35 percent) in 2012 but still placing the country’s stunting record the 40th worst out of 77 countries for which data was available. Four percent of under-fives are wasted, the same proportion as the obese, while prevalence of obesity among adults was slightly higher at six percent. At the same time, the rate of anaemia among women of reproductive age was more than a quarter (27 percent).

Experts say stunting is not the main problem in itself but an important indicator that reflects the fact that the child has suffered from malnutrition during critical phases of physical, mental and functional developments during the first 1,000 days of the child’s life − starting with conception through foetal stages and birth up to two years of age. Most of these effects are irreversible. For instance, stunted girls are more likely to give birth to undernourished babies, thereby perpetuating the cycle of undernutrition and poverty. A stunted child also is more predisposed to obesity and other chronic diseases during adulthood.

Agricultural researchers from the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) have been working to produce drought-resistant crops to maximize crop outputs for smallholder farmers in Kenya’s rural areas. PHOTO | COURTESY/KALRO

Evidence from the first phase of the Cost of Hunger in Africa project study demonstrated that stunting contributes to at least one in 10 deaths among children younger than five years in Africa. Individuals who were stunted before their fifth birthday achieve about one year less of schooling compared to their non-stunted counterparts and the condition is associated with between seven to 16 percent of repetitions among schoolchildren. According to the study, stunting also contributes to reduction in workforces, with countries in Africa losing between two and 17 percent of their annual gross domestic product (GDP) because of childhood stunting.

Overall, Kenya is among 50 nations least able to feed her citizens, ranking 77th out of 119 countries, according to the 2018 Global Hunger Index (GHI). With a score of 23, it means the country suffers from a level of hunger that is serious. The index indicates the level of hunger and undernutrition in a country worldwide by looking at inadequate food supply, child undernutrition and child death rates. Scores under 10 are awarded to countries with low levels of hunger while countries that score over 50 have extremely alarming hunger levels.

According to FAO, the 2018 GHI scores for Africa south of the Sahara (29 percent) and South Asia (31 percent), the highest, merit special attention, especially the rates of undernourishment, stunting, wasting, and mortality in children, which are too high. Sub-Saharan Africa leads in undernourishment and child deaths, followed by South Asia. But South Asia has the highest child stunting and wasting rates followed by Africa.

Scores of the two regions, indicating serious levels of hunger, stand in stark contrast to those of other regions of the world, which range from about seven to 13 and indicate low or moderate hunger levels. Even farther from the poor performers are Western Europe, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, which are left out of the index because the prevalence of hunger is very low in these countries.

Forty-five of the 119 countries ranked have serious levels of hunger.

Six countries (Chad, Haiti, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Yemen, and Zambia) suffer from levels of hunger that are alarming, while one country, the Central African Republic (CAR), suffers from a level that is extremely alarming.
Thirteen countries could not be included because they lacked data on all four indicators measured.