Ideas & Debate

Restrict competing imports in quest for food security

A lot of convincing is needed that our lakes and fish-farming cannot meet local demand for fish. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A lot of convincing is needed that our lakes and fish-farming cannot meet local demand for fish. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Last week, a Cabinet secretary appeared to find nothing awkward in importing tilapia as long as there was a shortage and that import taxes were paid.

This, I thought, was an unfortunate statement coming at a time the government was launching the four-pillar development plan that includes food security.

The CS’s opinion was also insensitive to the fish sub-sector stakeholders who appear convinced that these imports, mainly from China, are significantly threatening their enterprises.

A lot of convincing is needed that indeed our lakes, the Indian Ocean economic zone, and fish-farming cannot meet local demand for fish.

However, if indeed there is a genuine shortage of fish, then we have a serious problem with the promotion and husbandry of the fisheries sub-sector.

The CS should have explained the steps, if any, that the government is taking to ensure that local demand for fish is met while also planning to produce surpluses for exports through value adding processing.

The tilapia case study is a perfect example of how unrestricted imports can make it difficult for the government to achieve food security and agro-industries goals.

Tough and resolute decisions on protection of local production from imports will have to be made if we are to deliver food security, value adding processing and jobs.

In this respect let us not shy away from borrowing from the US President Trump’s recent expedient trade actions to restrict imports which he believes are impairing US local production and jobs creation.

If we do not restrict imports of those items that we can produce locally, then we shall be “exporting” our jobs to the countries that are dumping their goods into our country. We shall also be surrendering the opportunity to strengthen our productive capacity.

Selective deterrent import tariffs will need to be considered to protect production and enterprise in our agriculture, livestock and fisheries economic sub-sectors.

A country can only comfortably participate in unrestricted globalised trade on equal terms. But Kenya is unequal when compared with the likes of China with whom we have a lopsided balance of trade.

History tells us that whenever we experience inflows of food imports that compete with local enterprise, there are profiteering vested interests lurking in the background.

Unfortunately, the authorities usually find sophisticated justifications for such imports instead of looking for creative local solutions.

Accommodation of vested interests often has the negative impact of retarding national food production and food security objectives. And we have seen it play out in imports of grains, sugar, poultry, potatoes and now fish.

There are, of course, times when real shortages exist, but instead of looking for alternative local solutions, we tend to rush to imports.

Going back to the specific tilapia case study, I see no reason the national and county governments cannot mobilise local enterprises to increase fish production from fresh water lakes and aquaculture.

There was an article in last Saturday Nation’s Seeds of Gold that listed five main challenges in aquaculture fish value chain.

These are low productivity; limited supply of fingerlings; limited value addition; limited quality feeds; and limited market access. The fisheries authorities should be focusing on seeking solutions to these challenges before justifying imports.

I have also seen good and practical suggestions on how to step up commercialisation of fish industry from the Indian Ocean under the banner of Blue Economy.

Kenya has many desktop solutions from conferences and study reports on how to step up food production capacity and jobs.

However, for unexplained reasons, Kenya appears to have problems with implementation and follow-through.

And I think this is what the Jubilee government will need to brainstorm about to ensure that the four-pillar development plan is effectively delivered with measurable results.

Finally, to achieve food security objectives, the government will need to articulate a policy that can effectively protect Kenya’s food production from competing imports. This will give us opportunities to develop local solutions and capacity for food self-sufficiency and exports.