Africa Business Communities

[Column] Bob Koigi: Pause and reflect on role of inputs in breaking hunger cycle

On average Kenya imported around 500,000 metric tons of fertilizer each year to sate growing demand by farmers both large and small scale, emerging as the second largest fertilizer market in Africa after South Africa in overall tonnage.

Infact reports indicate that Kenyan farmers use the highest average of fertilizer per hectare continentally with an average of 32 kilos per hectare.

This, as a result of nutrient deprived soils that have taken a toll on yields. But the imports have birthed an avalanche of woes from late arrival of the imported fertilizer to delayed planting and harvesting which has had catastrophic effects on food security situation in Kenya.

Now hold on to that thought. Maize, Kenya;s staple food, is representative of the seed situation in the country. Produced by over 80 percent of smallholder farmers and consumed by up to 90 percent of the population, Kenya cannot live without maize; at least not for now.

This was evident in the 2010 production dip due to failed rains that saw over 10 million Kenyans without food, a situation that led former president Mwai Kibaki to declare the hunger a national disaster.

Maize consumption in Kenya is higher than that of its regional peers standing at 103kgs per person per year. The year on year demand for maize has been on an upward trajectory and currently stands at 37 percent according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization.

Kenya produces 28 million bags of maize against an annual consumption of 37 million bags. To bridge the shortfall, it has to import. And there lies the problem.

Fertilizer and seeds are the two most important agricultural inputs in food production. One cannot do well without the other. Yet the country is always at the mercy of the imports.

It is a sorry situation well captured in a trail of events starting from farmers waiting days on end at the government depots to receive subsidized fertilizers to no avail. And with seeds from previous harvests, farmers get busy on the farms, toiling, weeding then waiting. The script never changes. Yields remain dismally poor and the cycle repeats itself.

Yet report after report hail Kenya as the continental agricultural powerhouse comfortably capable of feeding its people and the world. But the answer lies in going back to the basics. It is actually possible to ensure year round uninterrupted supply of key agricultural inputs if we got our house in order.

For starters, we government should incentivize the supply of these key inputs especially to private companies. With over 70 per cent of Kenyans relying on agriculture, the sector is too important to be left to government alone.

Public private partnerships have always been the panacea that has unlocked major hurdles in tackling hunger world over. It is indeed commendable to see the private sector stepping up to the plate especially with the introduction of initiatives that seeks to celebrate farmers through an award scheme.

In just five years, the award scheme has been pivotal in motivating farmers who have become ambassadors of agriculture and crucial in reaching even more populace, especially the youth.

With the global population projected to hit nine billion in 2050, putting pressure on food even as agricultural land dwindles, there will be growing pressure from farmers to feed this burgeoning population. The call is to get smart in how we produce food. It can be done. Let us do it.

Multiple award winning Kenyan journalist Bob Koigi is the Chief Editor East Africa at Africa Business Communities


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