In mid-February, a few weeks before Kenya confirmed its first cases of Covid -19, the country was already stirring at yet another crisis; food scarcity.
The available maize stock at the time could barely last the country beyond June, the government warned, yet on the ground things were fast getting out of hand; an army of desert locusts –the worst in 70 years – that had emerged at the beginning of the year were quickly overtaking the country and threatened to wipe out acres of farmlands.
Six months earlier, climate change induced heavy rains and floods had wreaked havoc across the country, destroying several acres of crops ahead of their harvest. The situation would further deteriorate in the first quarter of the year after another round of heavy downpour began in western Kenya resulting in to serious floods that submerged homes and dozens of crop fields.
Elsewhere across the world, there were emerging reports of panic buying and hoarding of goods as the novel coronavirus that had just been declared a pandemic exposed the global food production and accessibility vulnerability. Sooner it become quite apparent that the virus was not only going to be a mere public health concern.
Fears that the global grain stockpiles could quickly be depleted as the virus disrupted global food production and distribution grew exceedingly. And shortages of animal feed, fertilisers, and pesticides were going to raise both the costs of farming and the risk of bad harvests further escalating the looming food crisis.
In Kenya where the government was considering a nationwide curfew and lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, the fear that food shortage could spiral into an ugly riot became rife and conspicuous.
A scene in Nairobi’s Kibra slums where scores of people were injured in a stampede while the residents scrambled for relief food offered a chilly image of how awful things could turn in the event that the country ran out of food.
Prof Hamadi Boga, Principal Secretary (PS) state department of agricultural research, recounted that with lockdown and movement restrictions, it became likely that the people who had been locked at home without food would soon become desperate and turn chaotic.
He reckoned that towards the lockdown, the government biggest worry was how to ensure the country remained food secure in the middle of the pandemic.
Realising that the lockdown would adversely affect the economy, the government set up a food security war room that included State, county officials, the private sector and civil society organisation to figure out challenges that could impact on food availability, access, distribution and cost, Prof Boga explained.
“We also had to look at whether the food was affordable, if production and processing was going on, as well as marketing , both internally and externally,” noted Prof Boga. “We also developed protocols for each part of the value chain to enable the actors to continue with business because we didn’t want the pandemic to turn into a food riot.”
Prof Boga, while addressing a panel of African experts during a webinar on promotion of agricultural technologies and innovations for agribusiness resilience in Africa organised by African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), said Kenya had been relying on technology, especially during this pandemic to monitor food commodity prices and distribution of agricultural inputs.
“We have been monitoring our food prices besides tracking our food balance sheet digitally and we are so far doing well and the country is food secure,” he said, adding that the market system was also kept open and the vulnerable groups were facilitated to access goods through the private sector, which eliminated the usual manual food aid distribution in trucks.
Food traders were also listed as essential service providers, essentially allowing free and steady flow of food commodities as the government prepared to impose food price control whenever need arose.
Beside hunger, dozens of people faced nutritional challenges as fresh vegetables and fruits become scarce following the pandemic.
Dr Martin Fregene, Africa development bank (AfDB) director of agriculture, observed that while more than six million people in West Africa and the Horn of Africa were food insecure before the Covid-19 outbreak, fresh vegetables became even scarcer in the wake of the pandemic as emphasis was put on longer-shelf life food commodities such as cereals.
“Immediately the Covid-19 struck the AfDB responded by releasing $7 billion (Sh755.1 billion) to support countries equip their health system and agriculture. For agriculture we worked with governments to ensure removal of any restriction in importation of food and farm inputs among other measures,” Dr Fregene said.
Kenya was among the beneficiaries of the fund.
Prof Ruth Oniang’o, a food and nutrition expert, noted that it was a wise decision not to restrict food movement and called for enhanced trade between African countries.
The silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic, according to her is how the continent can trade better with itself while focusing more on producing indigenous foods.
While hailing the government’s move to promote household food security through the one million kitchen garden initiative, Prof Oniang’o said it can be an essential source of healthy vegetables for many families.
Launched in June in a campaign to boost the country’s food supply, the Ministry of Agriculture distributed a 50 litre-water tank, a shade net, 10gms seeds of various crops and a solar drier for preservation of vegetables to each of the identified vulnerable households across 21 counties.
“We should not be talking about going back to normal after Covid-19, but we should instead need to see how to come out a better people. Improved hygiene and sanitation that has resulted to reduced cases of ailment across the country should for instance remain in place,” Prof Oniang’o said.
She also urged local universities to revise their curriculum and see if they are relevant.
While the government effectively managed to address the local food distribution system, exports proved quite challenging to manage due to the grounding of flights. Cargo flights also became too expensive for the local farmer to afford.
Nevertheless, local farmers are still managing to export their produce after the Kenyan government through Kenya Airways stepped in with a stimulus package.
But as coronavirus and other diseases remain a threat to the world, experts argue that technology in food production and distribution is going to be vital in the near future for efficiency of the agricultural sector.
Dr Dennis Kyetere, AATF executive director, said that agribusiness in Africa remains vulnerable to a number of challenges and technology could enhance the sector’s resilience in the wake of mounting threats such as Covid-19.
Already, the government plans to roll out an e-voucher platform for input distribution across the country. The platform through which some farmers are already benefiting from offers services such as soil testing, fertiliser and seeds and agrochemicals and other post-harvest technologies.
“Due to challenges in market, we have been talking to agri-tech food companies on last mile food deliveries to consumers especially in urban areas,” said Prof Boga.
Like other agricultural sectors, seed production was also hard hit by the pandemic, further threatening food availability in Kenya and beyond.
Justin Rakotoarisaona, African Seed Trade Association secretary-general, explained that the restriction of movement reduced available labour while the cost of seed production spiked.
“Seed delivery was also not timely. But we are happy that the seed sector has been considered as essential services which has quite helped. We have negotiated with the African Union not to restrict seed movement,” he said.