Going beyond fertilizer subsidies to boost food security
The political goodwill of President William Ruto in the fight against food insecurity is commendable.
His dedication to empowering farmers by providing fertilizer subsidies is welcome. However, the current crisis is complex and a simplistic approach, such as simply making the soil fertile, could be an exercise in futility.
In addition to the challenges of food production, farmers face disrupted food supply chains and fragile or lost markets. To resolve this crisis, interventions on several fronts are necessary. These include promoting climate-smart agriculture, crop diversification and better land management.
All of these need to be strengthened through, among other things, up-to-date climate research and information, effective pest control and agricultural extension services. The government must look at the big picture and triple its current mitigation efforts in all its approaches. Let’s face it, rain-fed agriculture is getting more and more erratic.
To guard against this, the government needs to put in more dams to encourage irrigation and ensure continued food production. Meanwhile, there must be deliberate efforts to promote clean, renewable energy in food production, transportation, storage, and even cooking. For this, we must encourage the use of solar or wind-powered water pumps.
Unlike in the past when farmers looked at the sky and predicted the timing and amount of rain, the weather is very unpredictable these days. Therefore, as we invest in drought-tolerant seeds, we should pay attention to up-to-date climate information and, if necessary, obtain weather-based insurance to protect against losses.
As an agriculture-based economy, the government must put in place attractive policies and strive to invest in generating the necessary data, especially regarding what grows well where and solutions to common challenges, to inform commercial investors.
Several reports indicate that around 20% of Kenya’s cereals (maize and rice) are lost after harvest. About 50% of fruit does not reach the market due to its perishability.
As for roots and tubers, estimates rise to 40 percent. In other words, reducing post-harvest losses is a way to enhance food security. The solution should start with the mechanization of harvesting and the modernization of storage facilities.
Like most arid and semi-arid countries, we must strive to expand the areas dedicated to commercial agriculture, develop irrigated agriculture and prioritize yield inputs.
Farmers also need to be exposed to up-to-date information about market opportunities and alternatives. Besides directly empowering individual farmers, there is a need to foster mega-collaborations in various sub-sectors of the production and value chain.
Recently, Kenyans discovered that a popular fast food restaurant franchise was importing potatoes, chicken and even spices from Europe in an effort to “maintain standards”. We must, for example, encourage purchasing agreements between farmers and large food buyers.
-M. Malesi is a consulting editor