Ideas & Debate

Restrict imports to realise food security dream

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A truck loaded with imported maize from Tanzania in Mombasa in August 2019. PHOTO | LABAN WALLOGA

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Summary

  • Superior climatic patterns in Uganda, and favourable land tenure systems and economies of scale in Tanzania permit the two neighbours to produce food at much lower unit costs.
  • In addition, over several decades of crop sector mismanagement, Kenya lost critical value chain capacity for a number of essential food crops.
  • Kenya has begun corrections, and what it now requires is protection from regional imports to allow the country to regain lost ground.

It will be a tall order for Kenya to achieve food security without some form of restrictions on imports of competing food commodities.

EAC free trade protocols may indeed be in conflict with Kenya’s policies and plans to create local capacity and value chain systems for sustainable food security, grassroots agricultural jobs, and incomes for thousands of Kenyans dependent on agriculture.

It is an honest admission that over time, Kenya lost food production competitiveness with regional imports often landed at prices lower than our production costs.

It is also true that our regional neighbours do enjoy competitive crop production advantages over Kenya.

Superior climatic patterns in Uganda, and favourable land tenure systems and economies of scale in Tanzania permit the two neighbours to produce food at much lower unit costs.

In addition, over several decades of crop sector mismanagement, Kenya lost critical value chain capacity for a number of essential food crops.

Kenya has begun corrections, and what it now requires is protection from regional imports to allow the country to regain lost ground. Allowing free inflow of food imports will, in the long run, kill whatever agricultural capacity we have left.

Restriction on regional imports may unfortunately mean consumers initially paying higher prices for local produce. A worthy sacrifice for achieving sustainable food availability and affordability in the long term.

Generally, food imports from whatever source should be incremental to balance genuine seasonal shortfalls.

With clear regulations and plans, quick turnarounds can be achieved to increase and/or stabilise food production capacity in Kenya, including competitive production unit costs.

Somehow and luckily, the Kenyan farmer has done it before , and all he now needs is guarantee of sustainable market and stable prices which are above production costs.

And this will invariably involve reliable value chain systems and protection from free inflow of competing imports. Modern technologies and economies of scale will reinforce the farmer to increase yields and reduce unit costs.

In early 2020 the dairy industry was under enormous stress with unrestricted inflow of low-priced milk imports at a time when the country was producing enough milk to meet demands.

Processors dropped producer prices and farmers pulled back. The ministry of agriculture intervened and imposed a ban on imports and set a minimum producer price based on milk production costs.

The sector has since stabilised while keeping the consumer prices fairly unchanged. This is a perfect case study of imports restrictions that have helped food security and the farmer.

It is the grains sector that needs intensive efforts to achieve self-sufficiency to assure food security. Specifically, maize is needed for both human consumption and for animal feeds , and the two demands are usually in serious competition , especially when shortfalls arise.

Kenya cannot afford to have maize shortages nor high consumer prices, two factors that are used to justify imports.

Security of supply and affordability are best achieved through self-sufficiency and by the Kenyan farmer who should as a policy be shielded from imports competition.

The Kenyan farmer should be the prime pillar for our food security. Grains imports should not be routine trade, but occasional to balance seasonal variations, which can also be managed through systems for strategic food stocks.

As we address grains supply, we should also simultaneously address how and when Kenya will be self-sufficient in production of oil/protein grains ( soya and sunflower ).

These can and should be produced by Kenyan farmers , and not routinely trucked from neighboring countries. The livestock industry ( dairy , pork, poultry ) cannot thrive without sufficient local capacity for maize, and protein crops.

Kenya has recently initiated interventions to protect the sugar sub-sector from imports. However, such interventions should be accompanied by firm plans to increase local production at reasonable unit costs .

Other food items screaming for protection against imports are rice, fish, and poultry products.

Yes the EAC trade rules may be correctly applicable for manufactured goods , however we may need to interrogate the equity of such rules when it comes to self-determination to achieve national food security . This is a good starting point for those crafting economic manifestos for 2022 elections.