Ideas & Debate

Key challenges to tackle in the agriculture sector

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Agriculture Secretary Peter Munya. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • In the past few months the Ministry of Agriculture appears to be on the right track in reforming a sector which has mostly lacked effective marketing support systems, denying the sector the opportunity to rise to its highest potential.
  • Agriculture is the number one economic sector that holds key to unlocking mass employment, while strengthening food security and forex earnings.
  • This article tries to identify areas where I think the current Agriculture Secretary Peter Munya has initiated positive changes and where improvements are still pending.

In the past few months the Ministry of Agriculture appears to be on the right track in reforming a sector which has mostly lacked effective marketing support systems, denying the sector the opportunity to rise to its highest potential. Agriculture is the number one economic sector that holds key to unlocking mass employment, while strengthening food security and forex earnings.

This article tries to identify areas where I think the current Agriculture Secretary Peter Munya has initiated positive changes and where improvements are still pending. I am an active farmer who doubles up as a consultant in the energy sector.

The big story in agriculture is certainly the ongoing launch of a modern cotton sub-sector, having accepted the technological pluses offered by genetically modified (GM) cotton.

Pushing for legal approval of GM cotton was a major achievement in itself, but the real proof of success is how the CS stewards the establishment of efficient farmers’ co-operatives and ginneries capacity, and also how he develops winning investor partnerships to establish a successful cotton value chain including textile industries for local and export demands.

When successfully accomplished, the cotton story will be a perfect case study of agro-industrialisation, and a value adding marketing system that benefits the farmer and the economy in general.

The recent banning of secondhand clothes imports will create much-needed opportunity to expand demands for a local cotton textile industry.

Recently the ministry correctly intervened to salvage the dairy industry where low producer prices nearly crippled the sector. However, to achieve price stability and sustainability the ministry should first ensure that we have in place fiscal measures that sufficiently discourage imports, and secondly install adequate powder milk capacity to routinely lift seasonal surpluses from the market.

The milk story is intertwined with the fate of the animal feeds industry. If animal feeds economics are bad and if supply chains are inadequate and reliant on imports, then the dairy sector will always suffer from chronic poor economics. Local growing of animal feeds inputs is perhaps the most urgent pending action item in the livestock subsector.

A national master plan is needed to establish capacity to grow protein and starch inputs which are today mostly imported. Until this is done, taxation of imported inputs should be reasonably low as a policy, and always ring-fenced as such.

The CS is evidently reforming the coffee subsector where KPCU (Kenya Planters Cooperative Union), the apex coffee farmer’s institution, is undergoing revival to mostly support the coffee farmers through their co-operatives, the way it worked in the old days before the co-operatives were hijacked by private coffee millers. Revival and strengthening of coffee co-operative systems is also a critical success factor, and should proceed in parallel with KPCU reforms.

I am always at a loss to understand the underlying conflicts in the maize sub-sector where vested interests and cartels are always at war. Whatever policy and institutional reforms that the CS undertakes, he should ensure that food security and affordability are sustained even if it means imports.

The CS appears knowledgeable and prepared for the much- awaited reforms in the tea and sugar sub-sectors to re-align the interests of farmers, processers and marketers. Where conclusive studies have been completed, implementation of reforms should commence.

As a farmer, I can vouch that we have a number of crippling nuisances that are making it difficult to sustain productivity and returns in agriculture. Animal diseases (foot and mouth, lumpy skin, swine fever) are not sufficiently co-ordinated for containment and this is a major concern and setback. The locust threat remains a major issue, while the army worm remains a costly pest.

Kenyans are generally very enterprising people when it comes to agriculture, and one can discern this in the Saturday newspapers farming pages. The ministry of agriculture should harness this interest and enterprise by creating appropriate support and marketing systems that ensure sustainable and profitable farming.

Finally, I wish to encourage the CS and his team to continue with the ongoing reforms while prioritising those that give early and impactful results to the overall economy especially employment and food security. Agriculture has been a lost opportunity for many years. It is also a very political area.