In 2017, Kenya, the only middle-income economy in the East African region, embarrassingly struggled to feed herself.
As food security deteriorated to a 10-year low, the country turned to her poor neighbours including Uganda and Tanzania to plug the deficit, reports the Standard.
But the search for missing food did not end at the next-door neighbours; the country crossed the high seas, bringing in ship-loads of white maize from Mexico and yellow maize from Ukraine and Russia in a desperate bid to satiate the hungry population.
The result was a staggering KSh245.3 billion (UShs9 trillion) spent on importation of food and beverage, more than double the expenditure in 2016 (Sh114.6 billion) and the highest she has ever spent on the broad economic category over the last 10 years.
A whopping KSh42 billion (UShs1.55 trillion) was spent on importing maize, as the country burnt hard-to-come-by foreign currency in a cereal it can easily produce in plenty.
Kenya imported about eight million bags of white maize from North America.
The rest came from South Africa and Uganda. Billions were also spent on importation of yellow maize from Ukraine and Russia.
Tomato farmers, currently watching helplessly as their produce rots in farms with floods rendering their farms inaccessible, might be surprised to learn that last year, the country imported 21,000 tonnes of tomatoes, or more than three times what was imported in 2016.
In 2016, six tonnes of the vegetable was imported. Most tomatoes – and beans too – came from Tanzania. Despite a frosty trade relation between the two countries which saw exports to Dar es Salaam dip by 18 per cent from KSh34.8 billion (UShs1.28 trillion) in 2016 to Sh28.5 billion (UShs1 trillion), goods coming from Tanzania increased by 66 per cent to KSh17.2 billion (UShs635bn) in 2017 from KSh12.8 billion (UShs472.6bn) the year before.
Imports from Uganda more than doubled from KSh19.3 billion (UShs712.7bn) to Sh42 billion (UShs1.55 trillion) as importers rushed to Kampala for milk and milk products, maize and beans, which were disappearing from the Kenyan market.
The country’s food security – measured by looking at both availability and affordability of food – deteriorated.
Suddenly, a typical Kenyan dish comprised of ugali prepared with maize from Mexico, and sukuma wiki spiced with tomatoes and beans from Tanzania.
This, according to Dr Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute, is expensive. “If we were a rich country, there would be no problem with importing food. But we are not rich,” he says.
But, perhaps, Kenya, a low-middle-income country, is suffering from illusions of grandeur.
“How many people have well-paying jobs to buy food?” posed Dr Njagi, noting that the country is already grappling with increased cases of workers’ strikes.
He said even farmers cannot feed themselves. Net consumers These farmers are, in the words of Dr Scholastica Odhiambo, an Economics lecturer at Maseno University, “net consumers, rather than net producers.”
Switzerland, Italy, Japan and South Korea are some of the countries with a lower Self-Sufficiency Ratio (SSR) – the extent to which a country relies on food it produces itself – compared to Kenya’s but they are far wealthier.
Last year, Kenya’s dependency on imported food surged to 43 per cent from 29.4 per cent. Basically, for every Sh100 you spent on food, Sh42 went to some imported food while some of this money could have benefited a struggling local farmer.
This plunged Kenya’s SSR to 60.3 per cent, easily the lowest in over 10 years.
Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) attributed the high Import Dependency Ratio (IDR) to increased imports of vegetable products occasioned by food deficits experienced in the country.
While it is true that a drought that swept through the country is to blame, Dr Joy Mueni, an Economics lecturer at University of Nairobi, insists it is a lame excuse to give in the 21st century.
Moreover, the drought did not affect Kenya alone, but the whole region, including countries that Kenya ran to for assistance. Dr Mueni believes Kenya is just unprepared so much that a heavy downpour is as much a curse as a drought.
She says when it does not rain, fewer produce reaches the market, a good chunk of it having died for lack of enough moisture.
But when it rains, more crops die in the farms as the roads become inaccessible. The country, says Mueni, could increase its production by over 85 per cent by simply addressing the problem of inaccessibility – tackling supply constraint to get produce from the areas of plenty to areas of deficiency.
“Kenya should also modernise the agriculture sector by not letting waters go to waste, as it is happening currently,” she says. The agricultural sector, which President Uhuru Kenyatta has identified as one of the pillars in his Big Four agenda, has been on a decline recently. Dr Odhiambo says the reduction in land acreage, especially in what is the country’s breadbasket for tomatoes in the formerly Central Kenya highlands, is partly to blame for our declining production.
Instead, land in these areas is diverted into real estate. “Now, we are getting most of our tomatoes and onions from Tanzania,” says Odhiambo. Two major reasons for reduced acreage in areas such as Kiambu include an explosion in population and increased urbanistion, says Dr Njagi.