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Long rains failure to hit household budgets hardest

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Summary

  • Agriculture, which is the biggest contributor to Kenya’s economy, relies heavily on favourable weather to boost yields.
  • The weatherman has projected late arrival and poor distribution of the March-April-May long rains, which is the country’s main planting season.
  • This is expected to hurt food production and livestock feeds, further squeezing household budgets of the poor and middle class amid stagnant wages.
  • The Treasury is also set to feel the heat through having to set aside funds for food relief and possible subsidies to cushion the most vulnerable.
  • More than one million Kenyans in drought-hit areas are already relying on food aid for survival.

The delayed onset of the long-rain season has set the stage for tough economic times, with households most likely to feel the pinch through increased cost of basic food items.

Agriculture, which is the biggest contributor to Kenya’s economy, relies heavily on favourable weather to boost yields.

The weatherman has projected late arrival and poor distribution of the March-April-May long rains, which is the country’s main planting season.

This is expected to hurt food production and livestock feeds, further squeezing household budgets of the poor and middle class amid stagnant wages.

The Treasury is also set to feel the heat through having to set aside funds for food relief and possible subsidies to cushion the most vulnerable.

More than one million Kenyans in drought-hit areas are already relying on food aid for survival.

The Food Security and Nutrition Working Group (FSNWG), a food security and nutrition platform championed by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and IGAD’s Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC), yesterday listed Kenya among countries staring at a major food crisis this year.

“The delay in the start of the March to June long rains, coupled with forecasted rainfall deficits in April, are building on already dry conditions due to poor October to December rains over some parts of the Greater Horn of Africa,” the firm said in a statement.

“The poor performance of the last season’s (October) short rains already led to below-average crop production and deteriorating pastures in some agro-pastoral and marginal mixed farming areas.”

Some 10.7 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda’s Karamoja region are already battling with food insecurity, the Nairobi-based agency said.

Although the food insecure population is lower than the 15.3 million people that were hit by the debilitating drought from late 2016 through the first half of 2017, FSNWG warned of a high risk of the food situation worsening, citing forecasted rainfall deficits.

The Kenya Meteorological Department last month warned that the delayed long rains will be poorly distributed when they finally arrive.

Kenya’s food basket areas such as highlands West of the Rift Valley, Central and South Rift Valley as well as the Central Highlands and the Lake Victoria Basin are yet to start receiving sufficient rainfall for planting.

The areas have largely recorded sunny intervals and unevenly distributed rains in parts of the Central and Western highlands, dimming prospects of a repeat of last year’s bumper harvest.

Planting in the agriculture-rich region usually starts in March, with some farmers already having done “dry planting” awaiting rainfall.

Reduced agricultural output in the first three months of the year has partly pushed private sector activity as measured by the monthly Stanbic Bank Kenya Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) to a 16-month low.

“The drop in the PMI doesn’t really come as a surprise as agricultural productivity is usually weaker in the first quarter,” Stanbic Kenya regional economist Jibran Qureishi said Wednesday. “Nonetheless, as the long rains commence probably from April, higher output from the agriculture sub-sector is likely to underpin private sector activity.”

Quick intervention

Dr Miltone Ayieko, director of Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, said all indications are pointing to reduced agricultural production this year compared with 2018.

The unresolved price dispute for maize bought by the country’s food reserve, the National Cereal and Produce Board, and delayed procurement of subsidised fertilizer, Dr Ayieko said, are likely to compound the country’s food production this year.

“The unresolved price issue means the farmers may not have sufficient money to buy (farm) inputs and that is likely to lead to less production,” he said on phone. “It’s, however, still too early to say there will be a food crisis. What we need is a clear up-to-date information on what the prediction for weather going forward is.”

A persistent drought in the country is a major jolt to the Treasury’s expenditure plans.

Poor weather for example prompted subsidies and waiver of import duties between mid-May and December 2017 to smoothen purchase of such foods as maize, milk powder and sugar from abroad to meet demand and ease rising prices that followed a biting drought.

The subsidy programme cost the taxpayers about Sh7.6 billion in foregone duty paid to traders.

The National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) last month said Mandera, West Pokot, Kilifi, Laikipia, Nyeri, Garissa, Turkana, Marsabit, Samburu, Tana River, Isiolo, Kitui and Wajir counties are in the grip of drought and need quick intervention.

On March 18, the Treasury set aside Sh2 billion to facilitate food relief programmes in the hardest-hit Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL) counties which are worst-hit by drought, following a meeting chaired by Deputy President William Ruto.

There have been reports of famine-related deaths in some of the ASAL counties, but authorities have disputed this, insisting the country has sufficient food that is unevenly distributed.

“Dry conditions and high temperatures, between January and March, have already led to deteriorations in pastures and water availability in these areas, affecting livestock body conditions, reducing milk production, and leading to earlier-than-normal livestock migration,” FSNWG said.

“Crop production would also be below average in marginal agricultural areas of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.”

Food scarcity will push up prices, raising the cost of living as measured by inflation where food has a weighting of 36.04 percent.

This will result in an upward pressure on cost of other items, including loans.