What you need to know:
- The question of how to transform and begin to feed ourselves from our soil is troubling, because we continue to undermine our image when we cannot use our ample land to feed ourselves.
- When the President announced his legacy agenda, he effectively declared war regarding the four issues. This meant that the “generals” (his team of CSs and PSs) would lay the groundwork, do some reconnaissance and make an assault on the problems with solid solutions.
- Any reforms in the agricultural sector should include scrapping it altogether and empowering farmers with micro-storage facilities, a commodities exchange and technology to track and trace cereals to the smallest unit. This is what will lower the cost of food and ensure food security.
- For immediate effect, the government should waive the student loans of agricultural experts willing to work in remote parts of the country and help improve yields. It is now more than ever before that we need experts in agriculture to provide food for a bulging population.
My article in this column last week on why farmers must embrace technology, and more specifically big data, attracted sharp reactions from readers.
One of my colleagues, Prof Nancy Karanja, who teaches soil science at the College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences, wrote this:
Good afternoon Prof. I have just read your article in the Nation concerning the need for farmers to embrace technology. Few comments: On potato production costs per acre/ha is exaggerated. Embracing technology is one thing; working under supporting environment is another. The ongoing drama on maize and sugar is enough to scare any right thinking Kenyan/youth to consider agriculture. Can we first transform ourselves and get committed to feeding ourselves from our soil rather than supporting farmers outside Kenya. No wonder we have only 4 students who are joining agriculture in September!
Prof Karanja raises five fundamental issues. The first is that we do not have the correct data on cost of production, which is tragic because instead of farmers making wealth, they are getting deeper into poverty.
The second is creating a supportive environment for farmers to succeed. Extension services helped farmers to improve productivity in the 1970s so much that the economy grew at more than seven per cent, with virtually all of the growth coming from agriculture.
Third is the rising level of voracity and lack of values where fellow Kenyans are importing harmful products and selling counterfeits to their own folks without regard to humanity and local produce.
The irony of this is that the government has in the past poured resources into sugar factories to buttress them up.
Just last year hundreds of tonnes of maize had to be destroyed only to create space for imports at the expense of locally produced maize.
Fourth, the question of how to transform and begin to feed ourselves from our soil is troubling, because we continue to undermine our image when we cannot use our ample land to feed ourselves.
This issue is of great concern not just now but for the past 50 years of independence. At independence our founders promised that freedom was our gateway to self-determination.
Meaning that we would prove to the world that our leadership would guarantee the people a better life than we had under colonial rule.
Lastly, the number of students registering to study agriculture in our universities is declining. This has far-reaching implications.
If we do not develop the capacity to produce enough food for the bulging population, we are not just failing to plan but courting disaster.
DEFINING THE PROBLEM
All these things are happening when the President has set his priority on food security. To meet the President’s objectives, we must review all systems and create the necessary incentives.
Considering the foregoing, we are simply in trouble. It is not the time to argue about the fundamentals.
When the President announced his legacy agenda, he effectively declared war regarding the four issues. This meant that the “generals” (his team of CSs and PSs) would lay the groundwork, do some reconnaissance and make an assault on the problems with solid solutions.
To get these solutions they should by now have gathered information from experts by clearly defining the problem and come up with a suggested solution.
In agriculture, for example, despite many initiatives by government and the donor community, yields continue to decline.
Poverty, which we are supposed to eliminate by 2030, at least through achieving Sustainable Development Goals, is on the rise.
By now someone should have conceded that the current food strategy is not working. It cannot work if the farmers play no role in the inputs that would lead to better yield.
It cannot work if more than 70 per cent of fertiliser sold to farmers is contraband. It cannot work if a majority of Kenyans are greedy capitalist brokers (hustlers) that seek to make a buck within the shortest time possible.
There is a serious structural problem that must be dealt with for us to ensure food security.
We must deal with the broker mentality and shift the mind-set towards working for a collective good (what Prof Karanja refers to as transforming ourselves and getting committed to feeding ourselves) to safeguard our image at home and abroad.
There is no greater honour than self-determination. Where we can feed all our people without begging because we have the wherewithal to feed the world.
It is possible to streamline the supply chains and remove the brokers. If farmers have good storage for their produce, they will have no reason to sell their cereals to the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB).
This agency was meant to be the solution to storage and marketing problems faced by farmers. Instead, it has become a major problem in itself.
Any reforms in the sector should include scrapping it altogether and empowering farmers with micro-storage facilities, a commodities exchange and technology to track and trace cereals to the smallest unit. This is what will lower the cost of food and ensure food security.
Farming methods have changed. Use of technology is becoming an imperative. Farmers would require sustained support.
As such, the government must continue to support greater capacity building by waiving fees for students studying agriculture on condition that they serve the government for at least three years post-graduation.
WAIVING STUDENTS LOANS FOR EXPERTS
For immediate effect, the government should waive the student loans of agricultural experts willing to work in remote parts of the country and help improve yields. It is now more than ever before that we need experts in agriculture to provide food for a bulging population.
Such a strategy should equally be extended to other Big Four agenda issues like in health. A promise to waive student loans for doctors willing to work in rural areas will help ease the problem and reduce the likely dependence on foreign doctors.
This will be a more sustainable solution than the emerging practice of hiring foreign medics at exorbitant cost. However, there is a need to analyse each of the issues more clearly with the use of data to make informed choices.
Clearly, we have structural problems in our attempt to ensure food security. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and hope that some magic will happen.
We must confront it to the satisfaction of stakeholders or else we wait to hear excuses why this and that did not happen.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said, “Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth... these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women's empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all.”
Let’s work towards a better collective future by solving the problem of food insecurity, for by solving it, we shall have solved many of our problems.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito