More Kenyans to face chronic food shortages

Even as Kenya maintains that efforts to halve hunger by 2015 are on course, the number of people experiencing chronic food shortages - 15.4 million, or 40 per cent of the population - is on the rise.

This number will grow further if the high population growth, averaging three per cent per annum, continues unchecked.

"Lower birth rates, along with better management of land and water resources, are necessary to avert chronic food shortages," a Ministry of Agriculture report warns.

The report links the inaccessibility to food to poverty, which stands at 46 per cent.

"The profile of food insecurity of the Kenyan population has changed in the past 10 years. Most farmers are net buyers of staple food, living on relatively small farms with other farm and non-farm sources of income," says the report.

The high population growth has exerted pressure on available land, leading to increased land fragmentation and degradation. The country has thus been transformed from a net exporter to a net importer of food, eating up a chunk of the country's foreign exchange earnings.

The national supply of staple foods last year was insufficient, with the country, for example, producing 2.4 million tonnes of maize against a national requirement of 3.1 million tonnes and 219,301 tonnes of wheat against a national requirement of 900,000 tonnes.

Rice production is also low at 42,202 tonnes against a national requirement of 280,000 tonnes.

"The country is therefore food deficit and barely achieves the daily recommended rate of 2,250 kilocalories per capita," adds the report entitled Population and Food Supply Chain Constraint in Kenya.

The situation, the report says, worsens during periods of drought, heavy rains and floods when the number of those in urgent need of food aid increases sharply.

Food production is expected to decline in the current short rains, due to a prolonged dry spell caused by the La Nina phenomenon forming in the Pacific Ocean, classified as weak to moderate but expected to strengthen with time.

Poor rain

Poor distribution of rain is expected to affect crop production countrywide. Most affected will be counties in North Eastern, Eastern and Coast provinces.

According to the Agriculture Ministry, the country expects to harvest three million bags of maize or less during the current short rains period.

The ministry says efforts to increase food production and consumption have been undermined by rapid population growth, rural-urban migration and unequal land distribution. Other factors are shrinking land holdings, deepening rural poverty and widespread land degradation.

To reverse the situation and ensure the country is on track in meeting the MDGs, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute director, Dr Ephraim Mukisira, called for increased investment in agriculture to enable research institutions to develop high yielding varies of crops and high quality breeds of livestock.

Dr Mukisira proposed the strengthening of agricultural extension services to educate and help farmers in adopting modern technology and crop varieties.

"Kenya must also move from being a primary producer and add value to its products to improve nutritional status, create employment and increase income," he added.

The declining wheat production and the ban on exports by Russia, the leading exporter of the crop, for example, prompted an immediate price increase of wheat products in the last quarter of the year.

There is a need for maize imports to supplement local production, and prevent an increase in prices as witnessed in 2008. The ministry projects that about 1.5 million bags will be imported from the East African region by the private sector in the period between September and June 2011.

However, despite imports, the increase in the numbers of the hungry will be a major setback in the achievement of Vision 2030, given that agriculture is one of the key sectors expected to play a major role in the transformation of the country from a low to a middle income economy.

Also worrying is the fact that some of the flagship projects in the agriculture sector food production, under the Vision 2030 framework, are behind schedule due to various problems, both administrative and financial.