Oct 17, 2008

World - Kenya pays the cost of bad farming policy

By Peter Greste in Nairobi

Anthony Kimani Muhia is as ambitious as he is entrepreneurial. The 32-year-old farmer from central Kenya has figured out much of what's wrong with the country's farming system, and he's determined to change it, starting with himself.

His plot of land feels not much bigger than a handkerchief – about ¾ of an acre – but he’s been using it to find new ways of farming that might help him, his family and his community escape the poverty trap.

For all its tiny size, the farm is impressive.

There is the traditional stand of bananas surrounding an 8th of an acre of maize shoots, but the other half of the land has been turned over to horticulture, with rows of spinach, Chinese cabbage, and tomatoes.

All of them are radical departures from the usual subsistence crops that the community has depended on for generations.

Photo gallery: Maize - from harvest to market

“The biggest problem we have is inheritance,” he said.

“Every father divides his land amongst his sons, and now plots are so small that it’s almost impossible to survive, let alone make a living.

"We've got to come up with a way of combining and consolidating farms into communal plots so we can benefit from economies of scale."

And for Anthony, the issue of land reform lies at the heart of Kenya’s food crisis.

Small farm headaches

“The problem for small farmers like myself is that we have to buy our inputs in very small quantities. That means we get no bulk discount for seed or fertiliser.

"We can't afford to improve our infrastructure with things like irrigation systems, so we're dependent on rain, and there's no way we could ever think big machines like tractors."

Anthony showed me his meagre maize harvest: about half a bag of dried white maize – the staple that keeps most of Africa's poor alive.

He shook his head in frustration: "The agronomists tell us we should be getting about three bags of maize for a plot my size. That's what they harvest in the US or Europe. But here, we get one sixth of that."

About half the maize that ends up in Kenya’s markets comes from small farmers like Anthony Muhia. Ironically, that tends to inflate the impact of rising prices for inputs like seed and fertiliser.

“Because subsistence farmers pay a premium for buying small quantities of their inputs, any rise in costs has a disproportionate impact on the price of their produce in markets,” said agricultural economist Dr Julius Okello.

“Ultimately it’s the consumers who pay, but it also makes it impossible for small farmers to improve themselves or their farms.”

Even getting produce to market is a problem.

Because small farmers can’t afford to hire a truck, brokers come by every week or so to buy from the farm gate and move the goods to town, adding their own premium in the process.

Self-inflicted inflation

Dr Okello acknowledges that the global rise in food prices has had its impact in Africa, but he also argues that most of the problem is self-inflicted; that Africa’s own unique circumstances have added to the crisis and pushed domestic prices far higher than they should be.

“The continuous subdivision of land is the starting point. We’ve never had a proper land policy in Kenya, so the farms are chopped into smaller and smaller pieces that are impossible to survive on.

“But the food distribution system – the infrastructure – is very poor, so it is very expensive to move things like maize from where there’s a surplus, to where it’s needed. Why would you organise a truck to get your maize to Nairobi, when it’ll probably break down on the bad roads along the way?”

“And on top of it all, we’ve got retrogressive trade policies. The (Kenyan) government has just announced a ban on maize exports, but all that will do is create a black market for smuggled grain that will drive prices up even higher. Either way, the consumer pays.”

Election violence

And in Nairobi the problems have been compounded by a drought, and the post election violence of early this year.

The trouble erupted after disputed elections, and tens of thousands of farmers were forced from their properties and had their crops destroyed in the process. Many still haven’t gone back to their land.

In Nairobi, trader after trader in the grain market shook their head when I asked for maize.

“It’s impossible,” said one stall-holder who gave her name as Margaret. “We haven’t had maize for ages. You just can’t find it. Of course, the season is over, but we’ve always been able to get hold of some for our customers in past years. And the price is just too high… It was about 15 shillings (20 US cents) a kilo last year. Now it is about 25 shillings – almost double.”

Margaret pulled out a small bag of “mixed grains” – maize and beans together, selling now for about 50 shillings a kilo.

“That’s it. That’s all I have,” she said. “But people here – they want pure maize. And we have nothing to sell.”

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