Ideas & Debate

Less agri-pessimism is central to fixing our food problem

Agriculture secretary Willy Bett (right) and other officials at the Mombasa port  last Friday to inspect a maize consignment from Mexico. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT
Agriculture secretary Willy Bett (right) and other officials at the Mombasa port last Friday to inspect a maize consignment from Mexico. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT 

A hungry man is an angry man, so food might as well be on the ballot paper as we head into the August General Election.

My constant refrain around Kenyans’ five basic needs remains — food, basic (Article 43) rights, jobs and income opportunities, participatory governance and safety, security and accessible justice. Fix these and you have a political job for life.

The cost of food is a function of demand and supply. The demand side is about consumer preference and the ability to pay. We love our ugali, but the cost of maize meal is out of reach.

On the supply side, we have an inefficient value chain from inputs like seed and fertiliser, but also land and soils, to outputs in marketed production. In between, we have a “black hole” of processing, intermediation, transport, storage and other costs.

The keywords in this black hole are “hustlers and middlemen”. The keywords at the output level are “market access”.

Farming methods don’t help, and inconsistent smallholder crop yields reflect 19th century approaches that contribute to soil exhaustion. But that’s only crops.

What about livestock and fisheries? What happened to the agri-business strategy that is a centerpiece of Vision 2030? Or the highly touted 2010-2020 Agriculture Sector Development Strategy that supposedly built on Vision 2030? Were these just words?

These are the hard questions Kenyans need to ask.

Meanwhile, Deputy President William Ruto claims that high food costs are the result of “external factors”, while President Kenyatta assures us he’s on the case; prices will come down.

As expected, the Nasa opposition is, literally, making hay while the sun shines. In response, the Jubilee administration has sprinted to Parliament to enact fiscal measures to cut food prices.

This despite the zero effect of zero-rating maize meal VAT in Treasury’s March 2017 Budget Statement. And a convoluted storyline that mixes up millers accessing the Strategic Food Reserve (as it is now known), hoarding by farmers, trader arbitrage and maize on the high seas.

Look out for a “special unga” price subsidy scheme akin to that introduced in 2008. That’s another “Maize Scandal” in the making. Recall that Kenyans’ everyday concerns have moved beyond unga to the prices of sugar and milk. Let’s hope this isn’t a “Breakfast Scandal”.

Yes, there’s drought across East Africa. But what are we doing about the market failure that distorts end-consumer prices through cartels and profiteers who infest and infect our crop, livestock and fisheries value chains? This is, put simply, a failure of governance, not crops.

At last year’s African Green Revolution Forum, President Kenyatta pledged $200 million (Sh20 billion) to help 150,000 young farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs gain access to markets, finance and insurance in the next five years. How’s that going?

What happened to those Jubilee manifesto promises around mechanisation, irrigation, land leases for agriculture, agricultural investment trusts, subsidised credit borrowing rates and guaranteed minimum returns to farmers? Fine, maybe that was voodoo economics.

So how are we doing on the eleven key result areas for agriculture defined in official government documentation? Think food security and safety plus value addition, enhanced incomes and sustainable enterprise development in crops, livestock and fisheries.

How has this results framework informed the agricultural division of labour between national and county governments?

Recall, agriculture is a devolved function, yet 80 per cent of taxpayer funding towards this sector in the past four years has resided in national government. Oh, how will we possibly fix our food agenda if we’re struggling with land reform?

Finally, how are we in a crisis given the stated achievements on the government’s delivery website in relation to strategic food reserves (maize and powdered milk), livestock, fish and horticultural market growth and impressive cooling and processing capacity growth in our dairy industry?

On achievements, is it true that our subsidised seed and fertiliser scheme resulted in faulty product? Mostly, is government’s response to rising food costs — drought-induced or not — systemically more lethargic the closer we are to elections?

Simply, are some people actually making money when there’s hunger on the streets? We may blame bureaucratic capitalists in government, profiteering millers and wheeler-dealing importers, middlemen and sundry traders. But this is a case study in government policy failure.

And it’s up to government to promote lasting solutions grounded in policy beyond glitzy projects and shady procurement. We can no longer afford the lethargic “agri-pessimism” that makes us look like a banana republic without the bananas!