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Kenya: The country should brace for a food crisis

08 December 2001, The Standard

Nairobi:  Kenya is facing one of its worst food crises due to skyrocketing prices of farm inputs.

The cost of key farm inputs has gone up over the last few months, disrupting the supply of key commodities, including seeds, fertilisers and diesel. This has affected small and large-scale farmers alike.

The food crisis is worsened by the fact that more than 100,000 farmers are among the internally displaced people.

Experts say the rising cost of agricultural production has been worsened by the post-election violence, which interrupted the supply of key agricultural inputs.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has classified the scenario as "poor" with "unfavourable harvests" expected this year. Kenya has entered the list of countries in Eastern Africa where political unrest and conflict remain key obstacles to agricultural productivity.

Farmers have to contend with high costs of production with the average cost of grain production per hectare having risen by more than 49 per cent since January.

Farmers pay up to Sh18,150 to prepare an hectare for planting. The same cost Sh12,150 last year. At the same time, the country's food security hangs in the balance due to locust invasion threat.

Experts say the national strategic grain reserves, which have traditionally held three million bags of maize, might not be able to meet extra-demand if current stocks are sold by August.

Kenya recorded one of its highest maize harvests in 2006, when maize production hit 36 million bags, compared to 32 million bags in 2005. The poor yield in 2005 was as a result of a drought that hit parts of the country.

Experts estimate the impact of the post-election crisis on the farming communities might lead to a reduction in maize production by between 30 per cent to 40 per cent. This essentially means a loss of 14 million bags of maize.

The annual maize consumption is estimated at 32 billion bags of maize, out of which some 2.3 million bags were destroyed during the post-election chaos.

"Within days of the outbreak of violence, the cost of maize meal in Nairobi slums had increased by 50 per cent and in Kisumu slums by up to 300 per cent," said Mr Mohammed Qazilbash, senior manager for Care International's Emergency and Refugee Operations in Kenya.

"It is clear that enough damage has been done already to trigger a serious food crisis later this year," he said.

Care appealed for Sh15 million in early February to enable the organisation to buy and distribute seeds to the 7,000 farmers that it works with in Nyanza.

The post-election violence and displacements in the Rift Valley, Western and Nyanza provinces - key areas of agricultural production - made thousands of farmers not to harvest their maize and are unable to plant this season.

It is estimated that more than 20 per cent of the maize crop has been harvested.

The Kenya Cereals Growers Association estimates that the rising cost of farm inputs could affect the grain production by between 30 and 40 per cent. This would drastically weaken Kenya's ability to feed itself, given the ever-rising domestic demand for maize.

Mr Anthony Kioko, a programme officer with the Cereals Growers Association, says the rising cost of production would translate into lower acreage under cultivation as farmers attempt to meet the production demand.

The cost of fertiliser has gone up from around Sh1,500 in April last year to Sh4,000 this month.

"There would be less money at the end of the day and most farmers are finding that they have less cash to put into the crop, even if it is a profitable crop," Kioko told KTN.

Farmers face a critical balancing act. "Farmers are forced to reduce the acreage so that they can do a better job or put up with the same acreage with less inputs and do a worse job."

Where maize was harvested, it was not stored properly. People have been forced to eat much of the seed intended for planting.

"Failure to harvest and to plant will lead to significant production deficits, food shortages, and food prices rising out of reach of the poor," Qazilbash said.

The cost of seeds is set to shoot up before the next planting season even as farmers grapple with the high cost of fertilisers.

A source at the Kenya Seed Company said as the cost of fertilisers goes up, the cost of seeds will also go up as a result of the high cost of production.

"The cost of fertilisers has really gone up and some of our farmers are actually shying away from farming. But we are giving them hope," he said.

He said farmers also face high risks in excessive use of certain fertilisers. He said agricultural extension officers should help farmers choose the right fertilisers.

The immediate former Agriculture minister Mr Kipruto Kirwa has admitted that the National Cereals and Produce Board, which had earlier been directed to import fertilisers in bulk to sell to farmers, has not paid maize farmers.

The market price of maize remained stable most of last year until early this year when price fluctuations, blamed on Government's move to hike the cost of farmers' payouts, led to increase in the prices.

Prices began to increase in October and December last year to an average of Sh13,545 a tonne from Sh12,517 per tonne as a result of the Government's decision to buy maize at Sh13,545 a tonne.

FAO says the spill over effect of the increasing international food prices- especially for wheat, maize and rice - is partly contributing to the escalating domestic crop prices.

"The spill over effects of higher import prices also influenced the market. Recent post election disturbances are expected to worsen the situation," FAO said.

A survey carried out in February, warns that food insecurity "continues to accentuate" among the populations displaced by the post-election conflict and among the urban poor, whose employment chances got narrower.

The Kenya Food Security Survey - supported by more than 50 agencies, including the United Nations Food and FAO- shows that January rains appear to have salvaged some crops in south- eastern parts of the country.

However, substantial crop losses had occurred, complicating the situation.

Experts say the lesser the area under crop cultivation, the more food crisis risk the country faces.

Kenya will be forced to eat into its national grain reserves to feed the affected population, which is growing daily. This will leave Kenya unprepared and less able to deal with the worsening food shortages anticipated in six months, Qazilbash said.

Kenya's food monitoring situation has been cited as one of the weakest in Africa. UN experts say Kenya ranks poorly in food security co-ordination despite donor-funded efforts over the last decade to improve the food security.

The Government is reportedly lacking adequate food monitoring capacity other than a system put in place, with the help of donors, to track the food security in Eastern Kenya and selected arid and semi-arid districts.

Critics say it is unclear which department in the Ministry of Agriculture is tasked with food security co-ordination and analysis.

The Government, the critics say, relies on misleading and often confusing information prepared by experts.

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