Will dollar shortage end Kenya’s food import craze?

On a ride through Kajiado County, the seemingly endless stretch of dusty shrubland, and hot dry soil with no sighting of livestock herds make it hard to imagine anyone could farm and gainfully eke a living out here.

A severe drought has resulted in an immense toll on the pastoralists and agro-pastoralists, who rely on both crops but largely on livestock as their economic mainstay. The locals have seen their animals—cattle, goats, and sheep—dying en masse with over 2.5 million livestock deaths recorded across Kenya’s arid and semiarid lands.

Increasingly, entire families in the largely pastoralist county are being pushed to pursue different livelihoods as traditional means of economic sustenance and resources become unreliable in the face of changing weather patterns.

But on arrival at Nkama village, Kuku Ward in Kajiado South Sub-county, a different picture emerges; a classic example of how climate smart adaptation can yield plenty for the people of Kenya to eat, stop importing food that costs up to Kes183.93 billion, and instead start exporting, in turn earning the much-needed foreign exchange, a pain point for traders and policymakers at the Treasury today.

In Nkama, a village neighbouring the Kenya-Tanzania Loitoktok border post, a seven-acre model farm is offering valuable lessons on how the community and country can make meaningful strides toward food security in the face of changing weather patterns, which are partly due to adverse effects of climate change.

And if scaled to a commercial level, the production would yield enough for export markets, earning farmers in Kenya tidy incomes.

On the farm, I find well-tended plots with a variety of hybrid crops all flourishing at different stages of growth, a pointer to the level of skill deployed. From rows of French beans to flowering tomatoes to fast-growing cabbage heads and carrot plants, the vegetables offer a firm reminder to policymakers that the region can turn from lack to playing a vital role in the production of food for both subsistence and commercial purposes.

Kenya’s food production has been on the decline due to overdependence on rain, in turn forcing the country to order food supplies from other regions with January data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) showing food import bill increased 18 percent to Kes183.93 billion from Kes155.42 in a corresponding period in 2021.

The increase was the highest on record since 2017 when the bill stood at Kes185.22 billion indicating heightened food import costs due to a depreciating Shilling amid biting drought coupled with the government’s laxity and inaction in rolling out policy measures aimed at increasing food production via climate smart initiatives.

To import food from foreign countries, traders and the government have to buy the greenback, worsening an already severe situation that has seen the Kenya Shilling lose massively against the US dollar in the markets where it is currently exchanging at over Kes140.

Read also: In Kenya, ‘Nikw’a ngwete’ famine of dying while holding money unfolds

The months ahead look hopeless with even the scarce dollars now worthless due to acute shortage of products in the global market as well: “The maize is not available anywhere in the world. The CS for Agriculture Mithika Linturi and the PS were in Zambia which produces maize and there is no maize available. The only maize that is available is in South Africa and we are in competition with Angola and Rwanda. The maize in Brazil, bringing it here the cost is too high,” Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua revealed during a roundtable media interview on Sunday, March 12.

These revelations by Kenya’s second-in-command leave a lot to be desired on why East Africa’s largest economy remains practically unable to produce enough for her population of over 50 million through climate-smart technologies.

Perhaps, lessons from Nkama farm might help. The people behind the success of this model farm are women and the youth, who have spent months here learning best crop management practices with a view to replicating the same in their home farms as well as how to successfully run agribusinesses as individuals and or groups.

By going for the youth, Safaricom Foundation, GIZ and the other private sector partners are also seeking to solve the puzzle of joblessness and lack of income-generating opportunities, especially among women and the youth, by harnessing opportunities in agriculture sector, which contributes on average 21.4 percent of the GDP directly and offers the highest employment multiplier effect in Kenya’s economy.

Managing kitchen gardens and beekeeping, skills that can go a long way in improving livelihoods and nutrition at the family level in the county of about 1.2 million people were also core lessons on this farm under Wezesha Agri program, an initiative on economic empowerment by Safaricom Foundation in liaison with Kajiado County, Digifarm Ltd, Africa In-Store Solutions, and GIZ through the Energising Development Kenya (EnDev).

These partners have been pulling resources and expertise together to enable the youth in Kenya to carry out profitable agribusiness ventures through the adoption of climate-smart practices such as tapping solar energy for drip irrigation, value addition and access to timely information on markets through mobile apps.

Lynda Kasina, Safaricom Foundation Trustee says that since its inception in 2019, Wezesha program has been stepping up the participation of women and youth in economic activities through the use of innovative agricultural practices, and better advisory on how to get better returns for their produce.

“Wezesha program had a special focus on women in Kajiado County. They have been trained in innovative practices in agriculture. The young people, who are graduating today, are expected to replicate this in other places within the county on their farms,” explained Ms Kasina.

With a target to provide gainful agribusiness jobs to 100,000 youth in three years, the partners are set to map the initiative in other counties, providing the youth and women with critical skills on crop production from the selection of quality seeds, best use of pesticides, post-harvest management as well as how to market their produce and run businesses.

“I would like to start farming tomatoes. I have learned that there is a huge variety of tomatoes. I have also learned that tomatoes fetch good prices in the market,” said Lucas Muthini, who is one of the 279 graduates of Wezesha programme.

In addition, the graduates will be transitioning to Digifarm program, which offers better access to agri inputs, credit to jumpstart their entreprises, as well as market linkages to sell their produce.

Joseph Nakodo, 23, a youth leader in the Entonet area of Kajiado South and a Wezesha graduate plans to scale up maize production on his 10-acre farm with the skills gathered from the program that also seeks to wean the community from overreliance on rain-fed farming. At the moment, Joseph’s challenge remains access to reliable water to irrigate his farm.

“Nilielezwa kwamba hizi kemikali za mimea sio vyema kuziita dawa, hii huwa ni sumu. Hivyo basi inatupaswa kuwa waangalifu wakati tunazitumia kwa shamba. (I was taught that pesticides are simply poison, and therefore, as a farmer, I have to exercise caution when using them on crops in the farm),” said Muchira Muthoni, a youth, who is looking forward to take a leap of faith in carrot farming.

Muthoni says she has done market surveys and realized carrot farming can be a good venture providing employment to herself and others within her home area.

Kajiado South sub-county is located at Kenya’s border with Tanzania where authorities keep fighting illegal movement and use of farm chemicals.

To date, in collaboration with the county government’s ministry of agriculture extension officers, a total of 484 farmers have received skills on good agricultural practices, home economics targeting mothers, agribusiness entrepreneurship, safe use of crop inputs as well as group dynamics with a view to encourage projects as chamas or cooperatives.

The beneficiaries are, however, grappling with the challenge of accessing reliable water for crop farming, a challenge that the county government is equally struggling with.

According to Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries CEC Jackline Koin, Kajiado County is setting up water canals, and water pans for water distribution and rainwater harvesting. The water is, however, yet to reach large parts of the 21,293 km² county.

Nolturesh water pipeline is now serving some of the remote places with key arteries at Oloitokitok, Iltilal, Imaroro and Mashuru. Over 11,000 households have been connected to the Nolturesh water pipeline since 2017, the county says in its website.

Between 2017 and 2020, Kajiado completed drilling 74 boreholes while works on 15 more were ongoing. In the period, the county also equipped and installed water tanks on 89 old boreholes while also setting up nine water pans. Three water canaling projects were also completed during the years under focus.

The water projects saw a reduction of the distance covered by people to get water from an average of 15km to about 8km and increased the population of people getting clean and safe drinking water from 35 percent to 45 percent, implying that over half of the county’s population is struggling to get water.

With farms using water supply from Mount Kilimanjaro as well as from boreholes, Kajiado has beaten the odds managing to become the second-highest producer of tomatoes in Kenya. But Ms Koin observes that the ongoing severe drought has seen water tables drop even further.

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