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Food security

Struggling smallholders

by Dagmar Milerova Praskova

In depth

Herding goats in Ngoiroro, Rift Valley, Kenya.

Herding goats in Ngoiroro, Rift Valley, Kenya.

The current state of food security in Kenya is ironic. The country has the most advanced economy in East Africa; yet, almost one-half of the Kenyan population lives below the poverty line, and many depend on food aid. Signing a new trade agreement with the European Union may make matters worse.

In Kenya, the agricultural sector employs over 70 % of the population and plays a key role in the economy. Approximately 80 % of the country’s people live in rural areas and are directly or indirectly involved in farming. Crop irrigation depends mostly on rainwater, which is unreliable. As a consequence, many Kenyans regularly lack food and depend on food aid.

The International Food Research Policy Institute (IFPRI) is running the Food Security Portal, which states that Kenya, especially from 2008 onwards, has been facing "severe food insecurity problems" which "are depicted by a high proportion of the population having no access to food in the right amounts and quality." Other experts estimate that the number of people living in these conditions may range up to 10 million, which is almost a quarter of the Kenyan population.


Who to blame

Economic, political and environmental factors have an impact on food security. Relevant issues include poverty, food-price volatility, an under-financed agricultural sector and poor infrastructure in general.

Smallholder farms usually have less than four hectares of land. Poor Kenyans only have limited access to loans. They also lack adequate access to modern technology, and they are largely deprived of information, health care and education. As poor families in Kenya spend approximately 40 % to 60 % of their income on food, even small price increases have a major impact. Due to the fact that the country imports staples such as wheat, rice and maize, world-market prices are relevant. During the food crisis of 2007 the price for rice increased by 165 %, for wheat by 88 % and for maize by 59 %.

In the past two decades, government expenditure on agriculture has dropped dramatically. It is now less than five percent of the national budget. Things used to be different. In the early 1990s, the share was 10 %, the highest level in Kenyan history. Developing rural markets and roads, improving irrigation and related investments are key to ensuring national food security. Poor infrastructure makes transport slow and expensive, so it is difficult to distribute produce from regions with ample food production to areas where the need is great.

In principle, Kenya’s leaders know better. Kenya signed the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in 2003. The declaration was drafted in the context of the African Union’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and included a commitment to allocate 10 % of the national budget to agriculture and to boost agricultural production by six percent annually. Unfortunately, Kenya did not live up to this pledge.

Politically, Kenya lacks stability, as was seen during the post-election ethnic violence in 2007/08. Good governance, eradication of corruption and structural reforms need to be addressed urgently. Whether the newly introduced counties – a new level of sub-national government – will make a difference remains to be seen.

In any case, the smallholder farmers’ access to land and necessary natural resources remains a fundamental issue. Leases and acquisitions of agricultural land by wealthy investors – a phenomenon known as land grabbing – affect many small farmers who lose their livelihoods. Such deals typically concern Kenya’s prosperous and biodiverse regions and reduce the opportunities for poor people to earn their living. And yet, the Kenyan government regards direct-foreign investment as strategic and tries to attract investors to the country by facilitating access to large strips of land.

Climate change is of obvious relevance too. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), East Africa is one of the world regions most threatened by the impacts of climate change. By 2020, food production in this area is forecast to drop by up to 50 %. There are now more frequent and worse cases of drought, less rainfall as well as more widespread flooding due to unpredictable precipitation. All of these events hurt the almost entirely rain-fed Kenyan agriculture. In the past, East Africa used to experience an intense drought every 10 to 15 years.

Now they are occurring every two to three years. Droughts directly hamper the production of staple crops, but they also have an impact on pastoralists who no longer find appropriate pastures for grazing their livestock. Dwindling natural resources, quickly progressing land degradation, desertification and a lack of water not only reduce production, they create conflicts over resources. For instance, there are clashes of smallholders with pastoralists over the use of land and water.


Agricultural trade

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) rates Kenya as a net-food importing developing country (NFIDC). At the same time, the country exports great quantities of vegetables and exotic fruits. The country’s target markets include Britain, France, the Netherlands and Spain.

Smallholders have a stake in the export business. In 2004, their share of fruit and vegetable exports was 60 %. That share has since been cut in half to 30 %. The reason was that Kenya introduced higher standards for export products in a response to demands made by British supermarket chains. Smallholders struggle to meet those standards.

Kenya is also one of the three biggest world tea exporters, the third largest African producer of coffee and the major cut-flowers exporter for Europe. Accordingly, cash crops are increasingly crowding out food crops. Smallholders’ livelihoods are affected negatively.

The East African Community, to which Kenya belongs, is negotiating an Eco­nomic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU. Smallholders are alarmed. They fear that trade liberalisation will mean tougher competition due to cheap imports, especially of wheat, maize, dairy goods and meat. Domestic producers are at risk of being displaced.

Because the Kenyan environment is not favourable for agriculture, smallholder farms cannot produce at low costs. Poor infrastructure and lack of public services compound the problems. The sad truth is that farmers don’t find new livelihoods if they are forced to discontinue their business.

Another downside of the EPA would be less government revenue due to the elimination of customs tariffs. A likely consequence would be even less funding for essential rural infrastructure. Kenya must shore up its system of public finance.

Kenya is not a least-developed country. Unless the EPA is ratified, the EU will treat it as it treats Brazil, India and South Africa, countries with more advanced agriculture. Duty rates would rise for many Kenyan imports to Europe because, so far, Kenya gets the same preferential treatment all EAC members get according to an interim EPA. Duty rates on tea and coffee would remain at zero, however, which shows how strong European interest in these commodities is. Kenya’s agriculture is increasingly geared to serving foreign needs, rather than pro­moting food security domestically.


For a brighter future

The Kenyan government should prioritise the agriculture sector and smallholders’ staple-food production. It must direct more resources towards agriculture, thereby strengthening small producers of food, supporting local rural agricultural associations and introducing adaptation measures in response to climate change.

The European Union and the other global actors must also re-evaluate their stand. A growing number of European politicians acknowledge the negative aspects of EPAs. A critical junction has been reached for deciding on the direction of trade relations between the EU and less developed countries. The EU must respect the original commitment to cooperate with its former colonies, and work on achieving global development goals. The EU should also hold private-sector actors from Europe accountable for the impact they have in Africa. It is necessary to draft and adopt binding international rules for responsible investment in the agricultural sector.

According to Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, hunger is a political problem and it can be solved only through political decision. Change of behaviour is not only needed in Kenya but in the entire global food system.


Dagmar Milerova Praskova is an analyst at the independent think-tank Glopolis in Prague.
[email protected]