Food security is a continuous journey to be walked over years of implementing consistent and sustainable strategies which are well resourced and monitored. And this has apparently not been the case in Kenya.
Year after year, and government after government, we have mostly pre-occupied ourselves with historical problems in various crop subsectors (sugar, coffee, tea, maize, among others) which are yet to be decisively resolved, and this has denied Kenya the opportunity of focusing on new opportunities in global markets, practices and technologies.
Agriculture has become the lost opportunity which we wrongly believed was to blossom with devolution. When and why the tables turned and Kenya became a net importer of food (sugar, maize, milk, animal feed inputs, and others) from Uganda and Tanzania is an issue we need our agricultural economists to analyse and give us an honest opinion.
Are we blindly obeying regional import/export trade protocols while others are not? Or has Kenya simply fallen behind in feeding its people and producing surpluses for exports.
For those of us who witnessed the agricultural revolution in the years (1960s) immediately after independence, we observed a country that correctly believed in its ability to make agriculture the main GDP driver, key employment agency and source of incomes for families. National policies, budgets, and political mobilisation successfully targeted agriculture as the foundation of national socio-economic development.
The three ministries that made it happen were agriculture, co-operatives and trade with strategies and efforts all synchronised to empower and motivate the farmer to drive agriculture. The Treasury supported with budgets and fiscal interventions to make it happen. Institutions were set up to provide credit and markets for produce including processing while guarding against imports that harmed local production.
President Jomo Kenyatta had clear and emphatic messages on agriculture, enterprise and the power of Kenyan “sweat” whenever he addressed the public, giving agriculture the necessary political focus. This trend was significantly disrupted during President Moi’s era and never recreated by subsequent governments. And the food security and agriculture-based employment have continued to suffer, making it necessary to politically start the agricultural journey afresh.
Luckily the work is made easier by many Kenyans who have persisted in agriculture despite stresses of the system. However failure to keep farmers motivated is costing us a new highly discerning generation of Kenyans who are gradually steering away from agriculture. We need to capture this new generation before it is lost, otherwise the food security journey cannot be sustained.
We also have very enthusiastic supporters of agriculture (NGOs, development agencies and SMEs) who are ready to empower agriculture, but they have been waiting for government to come up with policies, strategies, and budgetary capacity to make it happen.
Firstly, the farmer should be the number one stakeholder who should benefit from his sweat ahead of other value chain players. It is unfair to have the farmers subsidise consumers, or a case where imports are allowed to put the farmer to loss. This is where the government comes in. If framers are left to free market forces in an imperfect market environment, food security cannot be achieved.
Secondly, there is need to have systems that ensure full produce value up to the level of exports. Agro-processing should be enabled and where processing factories have collapsed they need to be revived, modernised and protected from corrupt and/or vested interests.
Thirdly, farmers co-operatives have to be strengthened where they exist and started where they are absent to enhance marketing systems and create critical mass for farmers. Farmers should never have to endure middle-men exploits or loss of produce value due to absence of market access.
Fourthly, Kenya should be unapologetic about limiting competing agricultural imports from whichever country into Kenya. When making quid pro quo trade deals with regional partners it should never be at the expense of our agriculture.
My agricultural credentials are as a farmer who has gone through sector ups and downs. I was born into farming and never left farming, and currently I am in milk production in Mathira, Nyeri County.