Erratic rains leave Kenya in panic as maize shortage looms from April

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Posted Sunday, January 17 2010 at 12:48

More than four million Kenyans will face acute shortage of their staple food - maize meal - as early as April this year.

Egerton University's research arm Tegemeo Institute says Kenya's food security situation remains precarious as the country stares at a potential food crisis occasioned by erratic rains during the supposedly long rains season.

Due to the alarming maize shortage, Kenya will have to depend heavily on neighbouring countries for its imports. According to Tegemeo maize researcher, Francis Karin, the country's maize reserve will only last upto the first quarter of 2010.

"From April, Kenya will have to engage in substantial maize imports in order to save its people from starvation. The situation will only be better once major harvests are realised towards the end of the year in September and October," Mr Karin told The EastAfrican.

The situation, the think-tank says, has been exacerbated by the failed El Nino rains whose occurrence many farmers had pegged their hopes in to enhance their maize harvest.

The country's food security situation is further complicated by continued export bans in neighboring Tanzania and Uganda which are likely to reduce crossborder maize inflows by approximately 46 per cent.

Food and Agricultural Organisation count inefficient market competition, lack of enough agricultural extension systems and poor infrastructure among issues affecting Kenya's maize outputs.

Production from the long rains usually account for 85 per cent of the national production, which is currently estimated to be 30 million bags. As a result of the intermittent rains this year, this production level is set to fall below that of last year. Estimates by Tegemeo Research Institute places the long rains production at 18 million bags. This represents 65 per cent of the Ministry of Agriculture's target of 28 million bags.

Crop performance analysis carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture shows that the country's major production zones will record massive maize declines. South Rift, Eastern and Central province as well as North Rift have a crop performance average rate of 50 per cent, Nyanza's lowlands recorded 60 per cent production decline while the highlands had a 35 per cent decline. Western and Central registered 30 per cent and 70 per cent decline, respectively.

10m bags short

On average, out of the country's 1.3 million hectares of land under maize cultivation this year, the country achieved 18.2 million bags of maize, representing an average of 14.3 bags per hectare. This is 65 per cent of Kenya's target of 28 million bags.

According to Regional Agricultural Trade Intelligence Network (Ratin), maize production will decline by over four per cent next year "due to poor rains, inappropriate distribution and early cessation, soil degradation and pest and vermin prevalence."

As a result of the imminent food shortage, Kenya now has to turn to its traditional East African counterparts, Zambia and South Africa to fill its rising maize demand gap. Statistics show that Uganda's second season harvesting, which started in November, could substantially improve the country's production. On the other hand, Rwanda's production is projected to increase due to rains experienced in October and November.

In 2008/09 Kenya imported more than 1.5 million metric tonnes of both white and yellow maize. Most of the white maize originated from South Africa and accounted for 70 per cent of total maize imports. This year, however, seems tricky for Kenyans as maize production estimates in South Africa for 2009/10 is expected to be below normal as a result of an expected El Nino condition.

Beginning this year, FAO says it will ensure that humanitarian interventions are "well-coordinated and that sufficient information on food security and planned activities" is available to ensure adequate response to needs.

"Specifically, FAO is appealing for funds to assist vulnerable pastoralist communities and small-scale farmers by supporting the Government of Kenya in the co-ordination of humanitarian food security interventions, grassroots priority setting, preparedness and response planning. Funds provided would facilitate the restoration of livestock assets of drought-affected communities through disease surveillance and control, fodder production, training and restocking activities." FAO regional representative Castro Camarada said.

According to Dr Camarada, the proposed activities will also prepare beneficiaries to take advantage of the expected upcoming rains through interventions.