Ideas & Debate

Food prices surge calls for agriculture transformation


The dramatic increase in food prices this year has been a significant step backward for food security in Kenya. It has also pushed an overwhelming number of Kenyans into financial distress at a time when many households are yet to fully recover from the adverse economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ongoing war in Ukraine is the main catalyst for the surge in global food prices that is not only affecting Kenya, but virtually every country around the world. Ukraine and Russia account for around 30 percent of the world’s wheat and barley, 25 percent of its maize, and more than 50 percent of its sunflower, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN).

Because of the war and the resulting Western sanctions on Russia, the global supply of these critical commodities has been severely constrained, a situation that has been worsened by continued disruptions in global supply chains as a result of Covid-19. This has sent food prices around the world through the roof.

Overall, the Ukraine crisis risks pushing up to 1.7 billion people or one fifth of the world’s population into poverty and hunger on a scale not seen since the Second World War, according to a report on the impact of the war by the UN. It goes without saying that we must put up a spirited fight to ensure that no Kenyan is part of this grim statistic.

The war in Ukraine has revealed the soft underbelly of globalisation and demonstrated that every country needs to take final responsibility for its own food security to safeguard its citizens’ welfare when global markets fail. Kenya must take up this challenge wholeheartedly, cognisant of the fact that food security is a right guaranteed to all Kenyans under Article 43 of the Constitution of Kenya.

In the short-term, measures such as lowering duties on imported food and farm inputs as well as introducing subsidies on basic staples like cooking oil and flour could provide relief for distressed households. However, what happens when state coffers run dry, or if the crisis in Ukraine worsens?

While there are certainly no easy answers to the current food price predicament, one potentially game-changing solution lies in rethinking our approach to agriculture. Our methods of farming and marketing our produce need to catch up with present realities.

Farming backed by science is the way to go. Sadly, there’s a lot of catching up that’s needed in this regard in Kenya. We, for example, rely too heavily on rain-fed agriculture despite the fact there is empirical evidence that shows irrigation leads to significantly higher and more sustainable crop yields.

With rains becoming more unpredictable due to climate shocks such as droughts, we must adopt irrigation at a massive scale to become more food secure.

It is telling that the 2022 Economic Survey notes that growth in the agriculture sector decelerated from 5.2 percent recorded in 2020 to negative 0.1 percent in 2021 due to unfavourable weather conditions that resulted in reduced crop and livestock production.

Agricultural extension services also need to be restored. Kenya has signed many technical support bilateral agreements that can be used to enhance the availability and quality of agricultural extension services.

We also need to leverage on our national competitive advantages in finance and technology to bridge financing gaps in agriculture. This is long overdue. Farmers account for as much as 53 percent of Kenya’s labour force, according to the World Bank.

Majority of them, however, lack access to finance for inputs and risk management products such as insurance. This is unconscionable in a country where you only need an ID and a mobile money wallet to access a loan from the dozens of mobile lending apps available in the market.

Finally, we also need to expand our focus beyond the exportation of cash crops like coffee, tea and horticultural produce. A good starting point would be import substitution of processed agro-products sourced externally. We must start thinking of how we can process food domestically that we otherwise import as finished products.

Increased local food processing will not only provide a more secure food source in an uncertain world, but also create skilled jobs and enable us to venture into more lucrative segments of regional and global food export markets.

The potential in agriculture cannot be overstated. We recently overtook South Africa to be the leading exporter of avocado in Africa. We need to see this excellence in other agricultural sectors too, including those that can allow us to solve the food security crisis.

A country must be able to feed itself before it can truly take control of its own destiny. The surge in food prices should be a sobering wake-up call for us to revitalise our agricultural sector and take charge of our food security.