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FOOD INSECURITY IN KENYA

by Mildred Arackha

There is a French proverb that says "A good meal ought to begin with hunger". In Africa, as always preconceived, hunger stalks every breathing moment of millions of it's people, therefore presumably, the continent experiences "good meals" more than any other part of the world, or does it?

To an average Kenyan family able to provide the three basic necessities of life namely food, water and clothing. The question of food security is exemplified by the assurance that the next meal is definitely going to hit the dinning table. Food insecurity therefore, rears it's ugly head when no aroma seems to be coming from the cooking stove with no hope that the situation might change.

Many factors contribute to persistent food insecurity in Kenya. Like other African countries and obviously many countries in the world, the question of food security borders mainly on the question of productivity and by extension land.

Mr. Mahboub Maalim, the chairman of the Kenya Food Security Committee, sums the land equation thus: "Kenya's population almost stands at 32 million. 70% of Kenya's land is arid acreage. This area experiences between 180 - 200 millilitres of rain a year. About 13% of this land is semi-arid which records accumulative rainfall of around 350 millilitres a year. The remaining 20% portion of land which basically encompasses the agricultural sector is what has now been invaded by over-population..."

In the last 20 years, Kenya has seen an upsurge in population like never before. In the early 1960's with the capital city Nairobi having only 6,000 inhabitants, the issue of exploitation of agricultural productive land was elusive. Come the 90's and Nairobi alone has over 3 million people not to mention the obvious increase in other areas. There has therefore been an expansion of urban areas all over the country with equal expansions in the rural areas where the pressure for extra shelter persists.

Today, due to this "scramble for acreage", agricultural productive land has decreased. Currently, there are 3 million small scale farmers in the country threatened by this decrease in acreage. Kenya's food security is also threatened by decrease of land allocated for research. There is need for this land to be retained and sustained for future research to ensure high quality seeds and improved yields.

Natural disasters are also a constant threat to Kenya's food security. Since 1991, owing to a steady misfortune of natural calamities, the state of the food security has been languishing in disarray. The country has been hit worst by three droughts and one spell of El-nino weather patterns that have provoked calls for international assistance in terms of relief food.

Two years ago following prolonged drought, 23 million Kenyans from 44 districts were provided with relief food. The severe dry spell seriously undermined food security for over 4.4 million people particularly in pastured areas resulting in massive relief operations. This relief dependency has also been enhanced by the civil and political strife coupled by rampant hunger in neighbouring Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. While grappling with empty granaries, Kenya heavily shoulders the responsibility of feeding hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their conflicted countries. Lessons hard-learned from such occurrences, has caused the government under the Ministry of Agriculture to formulate a Kenya Disaster Management framework aimed at building capacity to safeguard food security.

Together with the World Food, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations program were and are still instrumental in assisting areas of food insecurity. FAO summarises the situation thus: "...the problems may not be as serious now, but relief food will still be required at least until the main harvest season at the end of the year".

As much as the government and marketing food policies are to blame for food insecurity in Kenya, flaws by the private sector in handling the same have also been dissatisfactory. In the resent years, Kenya's major foreign exchange earner, coffee, has marked drastic declines owing to political and private interference. Repeated crop failure over the last three years and instability in the coffee sub-sector has reduced the population of agricultural productive areas to paupers and to rely on food hand-outs. This has also been worsened by the planning aspects of the private sector that have left little room for growth. After facing-off persistent crises in the tea and coffee industries, the government has completely vacated it's influence in these industries and only participates in the regulatory levels.

Currently, the situation looks hopeful and within time, Kenya with solid government innovations like improved budgeting and improved policy implementation will recapture it's position in the international market. In Kenya, it is almost taken for granted that the staple food is maize. According to Mr. Mahboub Maalim of the Kenya Food Security Committee, this mentality interferes with the accuracy of the food security situation in the country. "Many people automatically think of maize as a staple food for our country. Unfortunately, maize is not even a traditional foodstuff. Our foods are sorghum, millet and cassava. This diversion from the traditional foodstuffs has led to the over-grown dependency on a foodstuff that we have no capacity to produce. There is therefore the need to create awareness for farmers to focus more on producing our real staple foods that have somehow been sidelined". Currently the FAO prospects for the 2001 that crops are uncertain because abundant crop preparations in April have given way to drier than normal may and June. This has affected early planted crops. An estimated 1 million hectares of maize, wheat, millet, sorghum pulses, roots and tubers were planted. This contribute to at least 50% of caloric intake for Kenyans.

"Initial forecasts for the maize crop alone of about 2.34 million tones may now be difficult to achieve" the FAO report states. According to this report, the country requires 4.4 million tones of wheat, rice, maize, beans etc. but will only produce 2.2 million tones. Therefore, most of the foods to fill the deficit of 2.2 million tones will be sourced as commercial imports while at least 0.76 million tonnes are expected in terms of food aid.

The plot thickens however because only 167,000 tonnes of food aid have been pledged of which only 127,000 have been delivered. Another 7,000 tonnes in donor-financed imports has already been secured for local use. In retrospect, a looming food shortage is imminent not unless the much needed donor imports is fully realised. Kenya's agricultural sector has not been spared the devastation of the H.I.V./Aids scourge either. The pandemic has taken a heavy toll amongst the productive members of society leaving a huge human resource deficit. Some families can no longer attend to their farms due to ill-health and the need to care for ailing relatives. A substantial amount of money that could have been invested in farming is being diverted to health-care bills of H.I.V./Aids cases and burial expenses.

Like any other country, Kenya struggles to alleviate prolonged poverty, curtail corruption, improve it's infrastructure as well as formulate and implement policies that would guarantee the sustainability of food security in the country. A country, once christened the most fertile land in the region, and coming from a continent festooned with the most fertile soils and conducive weather in the world, the future looks hopeful in terms of crop production thanks to new innovative activities and development awareness programmes in place.

Mildred Ngesa Arackha is a Senior Feature Writer at East African Standard in Nairobi, Kenya.