Smart agribusiness key to unlocking Kenya’s potential

13th Jul, 2017

Kenya has in the past two decades been oscillating between periods of abundance and tottering on the brink of drought and famine. In 2008, an estimated 1.3 million people in rural areas and 3.5 – 4 million in urban areas were food insecure. Approximately 100,000 more became malnourished as a result of that food crisis.

Almost two decades later, the cycle continues, and the number of Kenyans needing food aid has doubled in the last three months to three million, the Red Cross said recently.

“Unless we do something about our food security, we shall always find ourselves in this situation,” Francis Karin, a researcher with food security policy think-tank Tegemeo Institute said.

This, Karin says, will only change when the continent learns to deal effectively with the underlying causes of food insecurity.

Tegemeo says poverty, drought, conflict, and over-reliance on rain fed agriculture and a host of other issues such as inaccessibility to land all contribute to the country’s inability to feed herself. Solutions are not too far away, but moving from food insecurity will require a radical mental shift, experts say.

“We must change the narrative around African agriculture, which employs two-thirds of the population and accounts for nearly a quarter of the GDP. Agriculture is not a way of life, or a social sector. Agriculture is a business,” Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank said at a recent food security summit in Dakar Senegal.

He believes agriculture should be treated as a business that will help countries diversify their economies, reduce their dependency on food imports, create jobs and revive rural areas. For this to happen, massive investment needs to be redirected to the sector.

“It is time that ministers of Finance across the continent see the sector for what it is: the sector with the best potential to bring about macro-economic and fiscal stabilization,” Adesina said.

The value of food and agribusiness market is estimated to reach $1 trillion by 2030, providing an enormous opportunity for Kenya to unlock its agricultural and agribusiness potential and capture this market.

“We have to get the basics right for us to achieve this,” Karin says. “For instance, we need to make sure there’s a clear path from farm to market.”

In Kenya, food basket regions in Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia, Nandi, Nyahururu remain dogged by poor roads, impassable during the rainy seasons leading to spoilage of farm produce. With devolution though, many of these regions are being opened up.

Only 20% of the country’s land is arable and production is below the potential. Most farmers work without modern seeds and technology or adequate financial or extension services. A majority of these depend on rain for their crops to grow to maturity.

“There has been a move to transition from rain fed agriculture through the establishment of mega irrigation projects such as the Galana Kulalu,” Karin says. “This shows that we are at least thinking about feeding the future.”

The Galana Kulalu project aims to use water from Kenya’s two longest rivers, Galana and Tana, via a series of dams and pipes, to grow enough food to cushion Kenyans from hunger. Maize from the irrigation scheme has been donated to malnourished families.

As global weather patterns shift, the country needs to stay ahead of the curve in terms of research.

“Research must be encouraged. We have brilliant minds that can develop different crop varieties that will thrive no matter what nature throws our way,” says Karin.

Short term solutions too have been sought. Government continues to implement an effective well targeted farm input subsidy scheme for the vulnerable. Currently there is a duty waiver on imported maize from the private sector.

Feeding an estimated 44 million people will also depend on how Kenya capitalizes on having a thriving youthful, technologically advanced population willing to bet on agriculture not only as a traditional practice passed on from generation to generation but also as a business worth investing in.

Because of this, Kenya’s tech space has seen surges in numbers of entrepreneurs itching to solve what they think are shortcomings through technology.

Currently farmers can get the best price for their produce, access credit and get near accurate weather forecasts by dialing simple codes on their handsets. Once such application is M-Farm which seeks to address lack of transparency with regard to the pricing of farm produce.

“We have the brains and the resources to make Kenya food secure,” Karin says. “But are we bold enough to make the necessary changes to do so?”


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