The success of the post-independence smallholder agriculture sector in Kenya was mainly due to the presence of a powerful chief and a Ngirigacha (colloquial for Agriculture Extension Officer in Central Kenya). The pair reigned terror on farmers and with a threat to report any errant farmer to the D.O, they oversaw the most significant changes such as adoption of Artificial Insemination (A.I.), terracing of hilly lands and structured growing of crops.
The presence of a government force – not goodwill, made us food secure and it was the foundation of advancement in education, health and a vibrant rural economy.
The ’80s saw the introduction of SAPs (Structural Adjustments Programs) and government force “left” the farms on the belief that markets would control our food security. As markets do, they followed the money, which was not in food production but in importation. This marked the beginning of falling prices for locally produced foods.
By the ’90s and with readily available cheap food imports, the tone of communicating with farmers changed – whether it was in use of drought resistant varieties or early planting, farmers were “advised and encouraged” to take up the initiatives. The tough government must-do edicts were reserved for administrative issues like registration (IDs) or security.
Devolution accelerated the collapse of the sector by 47 cuts of Kizungu Mingi with agri conferences, launches with the accompanying lunches, professional branding and the not to be missed benching marking trips.
Consultants, NGOs and brokers jumped in, because there was money for everyone except for the farmer, whose cost of production continued to rise and his market was flooded by regional imports. With this, the warning was writ large on our flag that our being totally food insecure was a matter of when not if, it just needed a trigger – which in 2022 came with the failed rains and the Ukraine war.
The adverse effects of climate change found a sector that was dying. And while we must acknowledge its effects it would be disingenuous to use it as the only reason why distributing relief food, has become a job for our chiefs even in areas that were once self-sufficient in food.
Similarly the Ukraine war found a country that was so addicted to food imports, so our withdraw had to be unfortunately painful.
Understanding our agriculture history will hopefully make us acknowledge our mistakes, avoid knee jerk reactions and seek long term solutions that will make us food secure.
And as we welcome the promised subsidized fertilizer, we must recognize that just like the fuel subsidy it will eventually end. So now more than ever, we must put effort in rebuilding our soils, especially in ASALs where even if we had the biblical storms the soils are so ruined that they can’t store water.
In my opinion, the government force needs to be felt in our farms, the type of Michuki rules that brought a resemblance of order in our once chaotic PSV sector. This can work as shown by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis), which implements the tough export rules for our booming horticulture sector.
If farmers are guaranteed a local market coupled, with a review on the taxation of agri inputs to reduce the cost of production they would adhere to tough reforms. Also we can’t lure youth into farming on hype of technology and apps. If they can’t make a dignified living from farming, they will stick with the betting apps.
President Ruto can leverage on his experience as a former Minister of Agriculture and the awareness that food insecurity is an existential crisis which if not solved will hinder the implementation of his other agendas. Good luck Sir and this farmer needs it.