Kenya stares at food crisis as maize harvests drop

Thursday September 19 2019

 

By Daily Nation

Nairobi. Kenya is staring at a food-shortage crisis and tough economic times following projections of a sharp drop in the maize harvest this year.

Farmers will harvest only 33 million bags, compared with 44 million last year, the Ministry of Agriculture announced Wednesday.

Dry spell

This represents a drop of a quarter or 25 per cent of the harvest. The expected harvest is a fraction of the 52 million bags the government had targeted.

The sharp drop, attributed to reduced acreage under the crop, a devastating drought during the planting season and incessant attacks by the fall army worm, is expected to have ripple effects across the economy.

Agriculture Chief Administrative Secretary Andrew Tuimur, announcing the anticipated drop in maize production, disclosed that land under the crop shrank from 2.2 million hectares last year to 1.5 million hectares.

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There was also uneven germination of the crop due to a lengthy dry spell during the planting period.

The planting season in the North Rift region, the country’s main food basket, runs from March to May. This period, traditionally wet, experienced a prolonged drought and later erratic rainfall, resulting in uneven germination and withering of the crop.

Dr Johnstone Irungu, the director of crops in the Ministry of Agriculture, also explained that multiple infestation of the dreaded fall army worms damaged the crop.

Low morale

The North Rift region produces 80 per cent of the total national maize crop and the anticipated lower production spells doom for the country’s food security.

“We are dispatching a team of experts to carry out an assessment to find the full extent of the loss,” Dr Irungu said.

Dr Tuimur and Dr Irungu were speaking during an agribusiness exhibition at the University of Eldoret on Tuesday.

The government’s grim forecast is backed by the Agricultural Information Network, a service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has predicted lower yields for maize, as well as for wheat and rice — two other staple foods in Kenya.

The agency reported reduced acreage under cultivation of the key crops against increased consumption of the cereals. “Corn/maize production is forecast at 3.6 million tonnes in 2019-20 down from 4.05 million in 2018-19,” warns the USDA report.

It attributes the decline to low morale among farmers caused by a market crisis last season.

Tough times

The two bleak reports are in tandem with an earlier warning by the Parliamentary Budget Office of an all-time high inflation, signalling tough times for Kenyans already reeling under a high cost of living.

The projections came on the back of the latest Kenya National Bureau of Statistics figures that indicated only 78,400 new formal jobs were created in the economy last year, compared with 114,400 in 2017.

This was the slowest pace of formal job growth since 2012, when the economy churned out 75,000 official jobs.

“The economic growth projection of 6.2 per cent for 2019 appears to be premised on weak fundamentals,” the office had warned in the document titled “Unpacking the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure for 2019/20 and the Medium Term”.

It noted that the Treasury had pegged the 2019 economic growth projections on stable weather despite the already “very apparent poor performance of the March-April-May long rains season”.

Golden egg

The food shortage alert comes against the backdrop of criticism by experts on the continuing drop in investment in agriculture despite acknowledgment at the highest level that it is the goose that lays the golden egg.

While saying that a full assessment was needed to ascertain the extent of the impending crisis, Dr Timothy Njagi of the Tegemeo Institute of Agriculture and Development at Egerton University said in regions like Lower Eastern, crop failure was near-total.

While a maize deficit was expected to be filled by imports from the East African Community, millers say the quantities are very low because of high demand for the grain in Rwanda and northern Congo.

The mixed signals sent by the government on the supply of subsidised fertiliser has also been blamed for the projected drop in maize yields.

Sources in the Agriculture ministry and the National Cereals and Produce Board indicate that subsidised fertiliser arrived two months ago, long after maize farmers had planted the crop. The low-cost fertiliser is now lying at NCPB stores.

Many farmers missed out on the subsidised input, which usually sells for Sh1,800 (planting) and Sh1,500 (top dressing) after the government suspended importation of 150,000 metric tonnes this planting season.

Farmers were forced to dig deep into their pockets to buy the inputs from commercial suppliers, who increased the prices to as much as Sh3,200 per bag.

The country requires about 650,000 tonnes of fertiliser annually and the government had allocated Sh4.3 billion in the 2018/2019 approved budget.

Dishonest Agriculture ministry officials and senior county and national government staff have in the past come under criticism over irregular distribution of cheap government fertiliser, making it difficult for small-scale farmers to benefit from the scheme. Many farmers have also not recovered from repeated outbreaks of the fall army worm that ravaged parts of the country last season.

“The government needs to subsidise the production costs for such staples like maize and wheat to enable farmers to sustain production,” said Mr Kipruto Kirwa of Natwana village in Uasin Gishu County. “Otherwise such natural calamities like drought or floods, coupled with the skyrocketing costs of farm inputs, will discourage them from investing in the sector.”

Food stocks

He petitions the government to reintroduce the Guaranteed Minimum Returns scheme to cushion them from losses caused by natural calamities.

“It is almost impossible to wipe out the fall army worm and the control mechanisms are meant to minimise losses,” said Mr David Mwangi, the head of the Plant Protection Services at the Agriculture ministry.

The projected decline in maize production comes as the National Drought Management Authority says more than 2.6 million Kenyans are facing starvation as dry conditions continue in some parts and the food security situation deteriorates.

The most affected counties are Turkana, Mandera, Baringo, Wajir, Garissa, Marsabit and Tana River where most children and the elderly face acute malnutrition. In Kitui, Makueni, Kilifi and Meru North, many households have also depleted their food stocks.