Kenya relies on only 10% of her landmass for food while 89% of the country’s landmass, home to 36% of the country’s population, is arid and semi-arid land (ASAL) and over 3 million people are severely food-insecure.
The country’s food is produced by millions of smallholder farmers on land as small as quarter an acre, practicing rain-fed agriculture with inefficient traditional farming methods. The result is record shortfalls in food supply due to poor harvests. Irrigation could help, but only 19% (105,000 ha) of our potential has been developed.
Agricultural production in developed countries is profitable due to higher productivity, an area of concern for Kenya. We produce 2 tons of maize per hectare compared to global averages of 4 tons and 12 tons in USA. Average sorghum production in Kenya is 1 (One) Ton compared to 10 tons per Hectare in USA.
1 billion dollar food import bill
This shortfall in production magnifies vulnerability of an-already food-insecure population. Spikes in staple food prices and increased imports have led to the rise in our import bill, by 12.55%, to Kes. 109 billion (US$ 1.08 billion) in June 2018.
The bulk of these imports are staples like maize, wheat, rice and sugar that can be produced locally. Maize imports increased to nearly 800% (1.2 million tons) in 2017 while sugar imports increased by nearly 655,500 in the same year.
An overhaul of the agricultural sector is thus necessary, if the country is to achieve food self-sufficiency and security.
Not rocket science
Transforming agriculture, reducing food deficit and nutritional challenges facing the country is not rocket science. Development partners like Africa Harvest, a non-profit organization specializing in the development and deployment of improved agricultural technologies in Africa to increase productivity, have expertise and experience that can be called upon.
Banana production in Kenya, hit a high of 1 million MT of fruit a year in 1987 and then declined to a low of 500,000 MT in 1995 due to pests and diseases. In response to this challenge, Africa Harvest pioneered tissue culture (TC) banana technology and gradually developed the value chain in Kenya and East Africa over the last two decades.
This technology and investment in good agronomic trainings enhanced access superior banana varieties with enhanced pest and disease resistance and increased yields; from an average of 14 to 32 tons per Hectare.
Banana production has since increased steadily to current levels of between 1.2 and 1.4 Million MT of fruit, annually.
By introducing sorghum varieties with a ready market and training smallholder farmers on good agronomic practices, Africa Harvest has also helped spurs increase in sorghum productivity by 4 times, in some cases, while linking farmers to ready markets, diversifying utilization and increasing household consumption of the grain.
The experience with sorghum farmers in Tharaka Nithi demonstrates how the import bill can be reduced through targeted investments in crops like Sorghum. Commercial off-takers like East African Maltings Limited (EAML) looking to reduce their cost of raw materials, can benefit through large volumes of high quality sorghum grain, delivered in a timely manner.
Working with partners in the value chain, Africa Harvest introduced improved sorghum varieties from research done by KALRO and ICRISAT, with funding from IFAD.
Training in good agronomic practices helped increase productivity from 400 kg to an average of 2 tons per Ha. Introduction of the aggregator model helped enhance access to mechanization for land ploughing and grain threshing and increase volumes, assure quality and timely grain delivery to EAML.
Incomes improved, as prices increased from Ksh5 to Ksh33 per kilogram while EAML benefited through increased supply of raw materials from local sources, reducing imports and improving local economies.
These models can be applied to rice, beans, wheat, potato and others crops, thus enhancing production, productivity and concurrently reducing the import bill.
With food security as a key pillar in the Big Four Agenda for sustainable development, deliberate action to support adoption of early-maturing drought-, pest- and disease-tolerant varieties and the use of good agronomic practices is required.
Policy and capacity support to increase the use of inputs like fertilizer and other soil fertility approaches, increasing mechanization and expanding irrigation are also required. Investment in the agriculture sector and the participation of all stakeholders, for enhanced results and sustainability are thus key.
Increasing rice production to 400,000 tons by 2022, from the current 81,198 tons, calls for increasing acreage under rice and investment in climate-resilient varieties, like the upland rice, through introduction of drought-tolerant varieties grown without the need for irrigation.
To help fast track this goal, Kenya requires to be a member country of AfricaRice. This will enhance access to improved varieties, including the Nericas, and the opportunity to improve local varieties of rice through joint research and development activities.
The Green Revolution in India (late 1960s) transformed the country from dependency on food imports, mainly rice and wheat from the USA, to self-sufficiency through drastic policy changes by decision-makers to invest in agricultural production by reallocating the funds spent on food imports.
High yielding rice and wheat varieties from research were introduced, investments made in farmer training, mechanization, irrigation, postharvest grain storage facilities, and improved transport infrastructure for grain aggregation and market distribution.
These approaches and the lessons learnt can be replicated in Kenya.
One approach would be to reallocate sectoral budgets towards local production, technology and infrastructural development, financial access, pest and disease surveillance and diet diversification to reduce over-dependence on maize.
Partnerships with donors and investors as well as directing support to high-value and climate-resilient value chains like sorghum and Millets is critical to success. Diversifying production into crops like cassava and sorghum with industrial potential in starch, ethanol and animal feeds, can help open up new markets, reduce the import bill and promote manufacturing. Developing and strengthening markets, supported by increased productivity and linkages with private sector players will enhance overall success and sustainability.
Views expressed in this article do not represent the opinion of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.