So much land, yet so many people hungry

Last year 1.3 million Kenyans faced starvation, according to the World Bank, and that is likely to increase because maize production dropped 20-30 per cent due to insufficient long rains and armyworm infestation.

Kenya produces less than 40 million bags of maize a year, against demand of 51 million bags. It imports eight million bags of maize a year, more recently due to drought.

The government allocation of Sh15 billion to agriculture this financial year is only six per cent to Gross Domestic Product against recommended 10 per cent as per Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in 2003

The country is chronically food insecure, yet it could drastically reduce food imports and has the potential to feed itself. These goals are distant.

The reasons for hunger and food shortage are numerous and complex. Other than drought, vast tracts of arable land lie idle, many owned by parastatals and private individuals. Shortsighted land policies don’t penalise owners of unused fertile land. Smallholder farmers’ parcels are too small for efficient agriculture.

Seed varieties are poor — many experts recommend GMO crops. Inputs like fertiliser are inadequate and costly, storage is lacking or inadequate. There’s a lot of waste. Transport and distribution are poor.

These problems plague much of Sub-Saharan Africa, which contains almost 60 per cent of the world’s uncultivated land, according to FAO. If used for high-yield agriculture, the continent could be a global food basket.

A recent World Bank assessment of policies and institutions supporting growth and poverty reduction scores Kenya very low on land and agriculture policies. While the continental score is 3.2 out of 6.0, Kenya only managed 2.5. However, Kenya’s overall CPIA score of 3.8 was Eastern Africa’s second best to Rwanda which scored 4.0.

Every Kenyan has the right to own property, however, this has greatly contributed to a decline in cultivated land. Land owed by smallholders farmers — accounting for 70 per cent of national food production — is steadily shrinking, lowering production.

The Agriculture ministry says at least 60,000 acres of fertile land are controlled by individuals and parastatals. Then there are vast tracts of arid and semi-arid land that should be irrigated.

In December last year, the government threatened to punish owners of idle fertile land by demanding higher taxes.

Agriculture CS Willy Bett says his ministry and that of Lands will draft a law raising taxes on unused fertile land.

“If you have land you’re not using, it’s in order that we compel you to lease it. If not, you’ll pay penalties,” Bett said.

The state says a land use master plan under Vision 2030 will put more land under cultivation.


Eighty per cent of Kenya is arid and semi-arid land, much of which can be reclaimed through irrigation and made productive through modern farming. Israel, much of which is desert, is an example of turning the desert green through drip irrigation and other technologies. Now it exports food.

Yields from irrigated farms are 90 per cent higher than those from nearby rain-fed farms, the World Bank says.

And yet, only seven per cent of Kenya’s ASAL is irrigated. Less than 1.8 per cent of maize crops are irrigated, despite it being a staple.

More than water is needed

Even so, the World Bank argues that poor land governance may be the root of the food security problem in Kenya and the continent.

It cites a litany of problems. “Limited access to agricultural advisory services, technical knowledge, market information, training, quality inputs and capital are among the chief obstacles to smallholders farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa to improving productivity, increasing incomes and strengthening food security,” says the report ‘Securing Africa’s Land for Shared Prosperity’.

According to the World Economic Forum, Africa must invest in research into plant breeding to develop high-yield crops specific to its soils

”It is high time the continent adopts genetically modified crops that are high-yielding and resistant to pests and diseases. This presents Africa with an opportunity to address food insecurity. It is also cost-effective as it reduces pesticide use by 37 per cent, increases yields by 22 per cent and farmer profits by 68 per cent,” says Mark Jones, lead researcher for the World Economic Forum.

Kenya banned import and production of GMOs in 2012, citing health issues. It recently allowed production of BT cotton.

More than 50 per cent of crop yield is determined by genetic potential, experts say, the rest by proper agronomy, use of inputs like fertiliser, and natural conditions.

Proper use of fertilisers is needed, says Vincent Were, senior research officer at the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organisation.

Africa has the world’s lowest fertiliser consumption, accounting for only two per cent of global consumption, The FAO says. This despite having 20 per cent of the world’s population. Lack of fertiliser is attributed to lack of stable affordable supply.

Further, information technology can boost production by as much as 30 per cent since it supports better crops, fertiliser and pesticide selection. According to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Africa need to harness opportunities that come with the internet.

There’s waste.

AGRA president Agnes Kabatila says Kenya can reduce food insecurity by reducing waste. At least 30 per cent of food produced globally goes to waste annually. It could feed at least three billion people. Kenyan farmers lose at least 20 per cent of their harvest due to poor storage, including proper silos and refrigeration.

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