Ideas & Debate

Agriculture tips for election manifestos


In a media full of high-octane electioneering, a few news items on agriculture attracted my attention last week. There was the expanded Kisumu Airport launching direct exports of assorted agricultural produce, initially using our national air carrier.

In Nairobi, a meeting was taking place to operationalise increased agricultural exports to China, apparently, an agenda item recently discussed in a high-level diplomatic meeting between Kenya and China.

Also, there was the humorous story of imported potato chips, a debate that is finally translating into an opportunity for our farmers to modernise production standards while accessing new markets. And a month earlier there was an inaugural export of life sheep to the Middle East.

These are just a few among tens of potentially missed opportunities by Kenya to revive and expand agriculture to levels of excellence modelled by our founding economists in the 1960/70s.

Agriculture feeds the nation, employs millions, supports agro-industries while fetching foreign exchange through exports. Despite these economic pluses Kenya has not optimised or stretched agriculture far enough.

Since its collapse in 1980/90s agriculture did not attract proportionate budgetary and policy prioritization. It is only recently in 2020 that there has been visible high-level focus to revive agriculture, with positive results emerging in a number of crop sectors which include tea, coffee , livestock, potatoes, pyrethrum, maize, and sugar.

However much of this revival is still work in progress to be continued by the incoming government. I will here below attempt listing must-do action items that should be included in any election manifesto.

Food security should feature prominently in any manifesto. Kenya can and should produce sufficient grains, oil crops, and livestock products to feed itself at consumer prices commensurate with household incomes.

However, to create a sustainable productive capacity farmers will need to be sufficiently insulated from regional and offshore imports. This should be an overriding policy that may require revisiting and where necessary renegotiating regional trade protocols.

Food production in neighbouring countries enjoy much better climates and soils, always making it difficult for Kenya to compete on prices.

Specifically, sufficient local production capacity should be created to produce grains and oil crops (soya, sunflower, canola, cottonseed ) to support both human consumption and formulations of animal feeds. Kenya should target being self-sufficient in both.

Sustainable availability and affordability of fertilisers should be a priority and may require PPP investments to locally manufacture fertilisers. Farmers cannot plan seasonal planting on the basis of fertilisers on the high seas, and uncertain prices.

With changing climate patterns and planting times farm inputs should mostly be in stores not in transit.

Kenya has performed well in the production of flowers, vegetables, and fruits for export mostly because of private capital and management. These should be supported to multiply production, jobs, and export earnings.

Areas of support should include the provision of infrastructure (roads, airports), affordable energy, enabling regulatory and fiscal frameworks, and diplomatic support in overseas markets, focusing increasingly on China with whom we have a screaming trade imbalance. Kenya horticulture should be enabled to compete in global markets.

Emulating the successful sorghum/brewing case study between farmers and EABL in Nyanza counties, many more such projects should be established to link agricultural production and value-adding industrialisation using private investor capital.

And this should start with the accelerated revival of crops such as sugar, cotton, pyrethrum among others which include processing industries in their value chains.

For whatever economic theory or approach that election contenders chose, there is nothing more basic and grassroots than anchoring the economy on millions of acres of soil, where most Kenyans are domiciled.

Through the county governments, agricultural master plans should target creating capacity to produce more and better to employ and feed more people, improve household incomes, while selling surpluses to earn precious dollars. This will also help in expanding the tax base.

Upping budgetary allocation to agriculture will need to be an uncontested priority. Agricultural revival should also be smartly planned to attract climate funding from many ready and willing sources. Retraining of farmers will be necessary to achieve the best practices of modern agriculture.

My agriculture credentials. I am a Chemical Engineer domiciled in the energy sector, but I have actively practiced farming for over thirty years. I am also the Chairman of Pyrethrum Processing Company of Kenya, focused on reviving the pyrethrum crop.