Ideas & Debate

Effect food policy to rein in Kenya’s perennial hunger

Balanced Diet . PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH
Balanced Diet . PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH  

We cannot get away from the food debate.

Recent opinions in the media have questioned Kenya’s continued resistance to the possibilities offered by biotechnology or lamented our failure to plan.

These are great queries.

Yet, on the ground, we were treated this week to the flagging off of recently offloaded rice and maize for transport to Nairobi using our newly-minted standard gauge railway (SGR).

A month ago, we observed a Cabinet secretary performing the light duties of maize inspection at the Mombasa port.

This week, we had another minister ‘playing’ clearing agent, station master and national quartermaster.

Apparently, 660,000 bags of maize — six days’ supply at 100,000 bags daily consumption — just arrived in Nairobi. Another 829,000 bags — eight days’ supply — is on the high seas.

This is ripe material for my imaginary forthcoming book, tentatively titled, ‘Life Lessons from the Blunderbuss Behaviour of Befuddled Bureaucrats Working and Living in the Land of Beelzebub’.

Think about it. According to press reports, our ‘unga crisis’ has led to the hurried formation of a joint coordination committee on “imports, clearance, transport and distribution of grains in the country”.

Its membership? Start with Kenya Ports Authority, Kenya Railways, Kenya Revenue Authority, National Cereals and Produce Board, Kenya Bureau of Standards. Throw in hotels, approved clearing agents, the National Police and millers.

Looking for a market to distort? Welcome to Kenya.

Our political sideshows, especially during the current electoral campaign period, do not help.

Indeed, we have enough paper on food solutions to cover the SGR’s 472-kilometre length twice over. Recall the glory days of NARC, and the 2004-2010 Strategy to Revitalise Agriculture (SRA).

Then fast forward to our current national mega-strategy — the 2010-2020 Agriculture Sector Development Strategy (ASDS).

The ASDS has two principal promises. First, increase the productivity, commercialisation and competitiveness of our agricultural commodities and enterprises.

Second, develop and manage key factors of production, such as, erm, water and land. That wasn’t the Grand Coalition Government’s only fine paperwork.

They also came up with a National Food and Nutrition Security Policy? In its own words, the policy aims to “achieve good nutrition for optimum health of all Kenyans; increase the quantity and quality of food available, accessible and affordable to all Kenyans at all times; and protect vulnerable populations using innovative and cost-effective safety nets linked to long-term development”.

Take a leap into the present. Under the current Jubilee administration, we have a draft national agricultural policy covering 15 major policy areas — food and nutrition, land use, production and productivity, post-harvest losses, water for agriculture, market access and marketing, agricultural inputs, agribusiness and value addition, research and development, extension services, finance and investment, institutional reforms, information and data management, labour practices in agriculture and insurance.

Phew! Take a deep breath and consider that the current administration has also drafted policies or sessional papers covering dairy development, root and tuber crops, irrigation and soil management.

Add a national policy on extension services that remains in a draft since the days of the grand coalition.

Consider that an implementation framework — government-speak for who does what and who pays — was developed in 2016 to give effect to aforementioned food and nutrition security policy. We also have a national youth policy on agriculture, drafted in 2015.

Where is the implementation, people? We even have a promising, emerging “policy to action” structure that aligns national and county governments — the Joint Agriculture Sector Consultation and Cooperation Mechanism — which recognises that while agriculture is largely devolved, food is a joint responsibility.

Yes, even with this plethora of policy, there remains room for improvement. Like providing a proper spatial context to our food strategy — the land is not increasing; average land holdings are reducing.

Or getting counties to prioritise agro-commodity value chains around viable choices that benefit the majority of households who are small-scale farmers.

Or educating, researching and innovating around traditional crops and crop varieties. Simply, bringing a “pro-poor, pro-people” perspective to our food agenda beyond faceless institutional reform.

But that isn’t really my point today. When our political leaders sound out on food — whether as crisis or non-crisis — recall their whereabouts when this policy paperwork happened. And where they’ll be the next time we’re in crisis, and urgently seeking “policy to action”.