Lasting solution to food security woes needed

A customer picks a packet of maize flour at Samrat Supermarket in Nyeri. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A customer picks a packet of maize flour at Samrat Supermarket in Nyeri. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Following several weeks of public debate, culminating in discussions by the National Assembly, the price of maize flour was reduced to Sh90 for a two kilogramme packet. The debate had taken a partisan political position between government and the opposition.

Two years ago, a group of researchers from the University of Nairobi appeared before the National Assembly’s Agriculture committee to convince them to pass a Food Security Bill.

The Bill had earlier on been passed by the Senate. We had robust discussions on the Bill and the role of various government agencies in ensuring the country has adequate quantities of food for its population and its diverse needs.

Unfortunately, the Bill did not get beyond the committee deliberations. In the midst of the current discussions on the prices of maize flour I revisited those discussions, which had been informed by a study that had been undertaken by the African Women’s Studies Centre whose finding demonstrated the extent of food insecurity in Kenya.

This, despite the historical position of many parts of the country as being food baskets.

For too long the country has relied on rain-fed agriculture. However, with increased changes in climatic conditions, relying on rain alone cannot guarantee sufficient production of food crops to sustain the needs of the population.

This partly explains the Galana-Kulalu project. Had the project delivered on its promise, the current food shortages would not have occurred.

We may argue about the reasons for non-fulfillment of the projects potential for hours on end. The fact remains that its failure is now evident from the shortage of maize flour and exorbitant prices that forced the current interventions.

The reduction of prices is welcome for all Kenyans. With the state of the economy and ugali (maize meal dish) occupying a prominent place in the diet of most Kenyans, a reduction of Sh70 has significant impact on the budgets of many families. It is, therefore, a welcome relief.

However, it is not a sustainable solution. The country has to go back and look at its policies on agriculture and food production. Food security is likely to be a continuing challenge if we do not take far-reaching measures to address it.

Our land for agricultural production is not increasing. Yet our food demands continue to grow as a result of the growing population. Feeding the increased numbers on the basis of the same land mass requires changes in our agricultural practices.

Climate change has become a reality in our national discourse and lives. This affects planting seasons and harvest yields.

Despite this, many rural communities still plant crop varieties that are susceptible to climatic changes. This is despite discussions on the need for adaptation measures. The result is reduced yields negatively impacting on food security.

Questions must also be asked regarding our strategic grain reserves. The idea behind the reserve is to act as a cushion for period such as these when production does not meet demand.

Legislators have to prioritize finding lasting solutions to the country’s food security situation. Hopefully this will involve a relook at the Food Security Bill.

We have to avoid a reactive approach to this problem. Without a holistic and robust strategy, Kenyans may enjoy the reduced food prices for a time, but the food security situation will remain dire.

In any case, subsidies as a policy tool have been subject of intense debate within the context of the negotiations under the World Trade Organisation and Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union. The tool has, under these arrangements been discouraged.

Unga prices have come down. Kenyans continue to debate whether this is a good move or not. The debate must, however move to how to avoid high prices of such commodities in the future.

The focus has to be on increasing productivity, avoiding overreliance on rain-fed agriculture, diversifying our food crops, responding to the challenges of climate change and other environmental issues and building a more robust grain reserve in the country.

These will require increased policy, legislative and financial interventions. This must be an urgent task for Parliament once the electioneering process ends.