Kenya should take action to control declining agricultural production and curb food imports

  • 26 Apr 2023
  • 5 Mins Read
  • 〜 by Warothe Kiru

Kenya recorded a decline in the growth of the agricultural sector last year, on account of unfavourable weather conditions that led to a reduction in both crops and livestock performance. The production of maize in 2022 was 3,204,000 tonnes, which is a drop, compared to the 3,321,000 tonnes achieved in 2021. This illustrated a perpetual maize deficit production potential. There was also a high deficit in wheat (70 percent) and rice (80 percent), fish, meat and cooking oil, a shortfall that was met through imports.

“Food import bill rose 18 percent to Ksh183.93 billion from Ksh155.42 billion in the corresponding period in 2021. During that period, wheat led the pack in import value at Ksh54.94 billion, rice was second at Ksh26.94 billion, followed by maize, Kenya’s staple food, with a bill of Ksh20.71 billion, and sugar made the country spend Ksh19.12 billion,” stated Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) in an earlier report.

Equally, the latest data collated by the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) shows that expenditure on imports rose 16.21 percent to Ksh2.49 trillion on the back of the increased costs of importing fuel and food. The import fee is equivalent to 73.45 percent of the Ksh3.39 trillion original budget for the current 2022/23 fiscal year which ends in June.
In a bid to cushion Kenyans from high prices of maize flour and avert a food crisis, the government is importing 150,000 tonnes of rice, 125,000 tonnes of cooking oil, 200,000 tonnes of sugar, 50,000 tonnes of wheat, and 80,000 tonnes of beans through the Kenya National Trading Corporation (KNTC).
The duty-free maize, rice, cooking oil, and sugar imports are intended to help reduce local retail prices of commodities.

Food security

It is estimated that over 30 percent of harvested crops, 25 percent of fish, 14 percent of meat, and 40 percent of dairy along the value chain are lost due to poor post-harvest management, inadequate and inappropriate storage facilities, as well as poor produce handling. Agriculture experts recommend developing marketing infrastructures across the country and providing necessary facilities and amenities like value-addition facilities, storage facilities, water
supply, and ICT facilities. President William Ruto, while speaking during the Dakar 2 Summit, Feed Africa: Food
Sovereignty and Resilience, in Senegal in January noted that Africa has the potential to produce surplus food and process it for export, adding that this will generate more income and create
jobs, especially for the youth.

“We should not be discussing food shortage 60 years after independence. Upscaling of agriculture in the continent would require the right input, technology, enhanced irrigation, and mechanisation,” said President Ruto. He added that young people are also critical in the revival of the country’s agriculture. “Crucially, the greater the infusion of technology, the better the returns,” the President said.

Maize is the most widely consumed commodity with its availability considered synonymous with food security. As a result of low production and inadequate local supplies, Kenya continues to rely on imports of certain common staples to bridge the supply gap. Despite these production challenges, there are 9.2 million hectares in Kenya with good potential for irrigated agriculture, but only 54,000 acres are currently under irrigation, primarily for flowers
and horticulture, and only because of private sector efforts. However, opportunities exist for public-private partnerships (PPPs) in large agricultural projects. Rice has become an important cereal for consumption in the country.

However, most of the rice consumed in the country is imported from Pakistan, Vietnam, other Asian countries, and from the region. In 2021, the production of rice decreased by 22 percent from 130,000 tonnes in 2020 to 101,649
tonnes in 2021. This was attributed to insufficient rainfall and water for irrigation in the national irrigation schemes, and in some areas flooding. Similarly, the area planted decreased from 28,276 ha in 2020 to 25,548 ha in 2021.
This has led to increased imports of rice to 596,000 tonnes from 582,000 tonnes imported in 2020. Exports also decreased in the same period to 424,000 tonnes from 438,000 tonnes in 2020.

The value of locally produced rice in 2021 was Ksh5.7 billion compared to Ksh6.1 billion in 2020. The value of imported rice grew to Ksh29.9 billion in 2021 compared to Ksh25.8 billion in 2020. The value of exported rice in 2021 was Ksh17.5 million compared to Ksh26.5 million in 2020 – leading to a decrease in the balance of payments.
Additionally, Irish potatoes have become the second most important food crop in the country. In 2021, the production of Irish potatoes increased from 1,859,776 tonnes in 2020 to 2,107,824 tonnes with the area under production also increasing from 176,252 ha in 2020 to 214,600 ha in 2021.

The increase in production was attributed to the promotion of the potato value chain by programmes and easy access to certified seeds and higher yielding varieties and opening of new land for cultivation. However, productivity decreased from 10.5 tonnes per hectare in 2020 to 9.8 tonnes/ha in 2021, due to the poor rainfall, unfavourable weather conditions, and high costs of farm inputs. Official data indicates that there was an increase in Irish potato consumption from 1,562,628 tonnes in 2020 to 1,727,286 tonnes in 2022.

On livestock enterprise, dairy production is the second largest livestock enterprise after meat production with a GDP per capita consumption of 110 litres annually – this is the highest among other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Annual demand for milk is approximately 5 billion litres per annum. In 2021, milk production was 4.64 billion kg of milk worth Ksh236.74 billion, an increase of 15 percent in quantity and 30 percent in value compared to 2020. The formally marketed milk in 2021 also registered an increase of 17 percent in quantity from 684.38 million kg in 2020 to 801.91 million kg in 2021 and 27 percent in value from Ksh23.95 billion to Ksh30.47 billion.

This significant increase in milk production and the formal market is attributed to favourable prices by the processors during the year leading to an increase in the use of inputs for better productivity. Demand for beef, as well as other meats such as chevon, mutton, pork, rabbit, poultry, and camel, have been increasing over the past five years. Regrettably, the sector is dominated by pastoral livestock keepers who are severely affected by climate shocks such as drought.

The country’s small-scale farmers usually adopt a highly complex and risk-averse decision-making approach to their farming to protect their limited incomes. This, combined with difficulties in accessing low-cost, flexible finance, means they are often unwilling or unable to invest in inputs that could have a great impact on productivity and incomes such as fertilizers and lime that match soils, seeds of higher value crops, livestock health inputs, fish feed, extension services, and mechanization. Without these investments in productivity-enhancing inputs, small-scale farmer incomes are limited.

Way forward
Given Kenya’s slowing production growth, coupled with population increase, Kenya will need to intensify crop-based food production. When considering Kenya’s overall agroclimatic potential, more than 15 percent of the overall land mass is classified as high-potential agriculture zones, with a further 20 percent classified as medium potential zones, able to sustainably farm livestock and drought-tolerant crops.

An additional 90 million acres are classified as marginal agriculture-potential zones, predominantly suitable for ranching and pastoralism, where land is available. An opportunity exists to expand Kenya’s agriculture production on available, arable land through large-scale commercial farming, and reduce Kenya’s food deficit. A survey conducted by CBK last month – the CBK Agricultural Sector Report for March 2023, aimed at obtaining indicative information on the recent trends in prices and output of agricultural commodities in various markets and farms across the country – revealed that there is a need for extension officers to start visiting farms to provide professional advice. “This would ensure that the seeds and fertilizer availed to farmers fit the environmental conditions for best yields,” the report stated.

The report which drew respondents from wholesale and retail markets, and farms in major towns across the country further suggested that, on irrigation, there should be sinking of boreholes and erection of the pivot centre irrigation method which farmers consider to be more effective in watering their farms. “This would help supplement the ongoing government programmes on the establishment of dams.”