The Horn of Africa Can Feed Itself

Posted on August 4, 2011


Originally published in The National:

In western Kenya, where plentiful rain has fallen this year, smallholder farmers are just beginning to harvest their maize. Many of the farmers that I know are expecting the best harvests of their lives. The towering maize stalks in their fields will yield 10 to 20 bags of produce per half-acre, enough to feed their families for the year and still have a surplus to sell at the market.

While these farmers are dreaming about what to do with their maize, elsewhere in Kenya, as well as across the border in Somalia, millions of people are suffering from the worst drought in 60 years. Some of these hungry people are within a day’s journey from farmers in western Kenya. Yet the Somalis walking weeks to reach the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya are being fed with international food aid. Why aren’t they eating surplus maize from western Kenya?

In theory, the local purchase of food aid seems like a win-win situation: farmers are linked to a market and international donors get more food for their money. The OECD estimates that local food aid is 33 per cent to 50 per cent less costly than food aid procured internationally. It can also reach the hungry much faster (35 days, as compared to 147 days for US food aid).

The problem is, local farmers are not producing enough food to feed the region’s hungry people. Kenya, for instance, is projecting a 2.1 million tonne cereals deficit for 2011/2012. Although the farmers I know are expecting great harvests, many others in the community are producing very little. They lack access and financing to buy good seed and fertiliser, agriculture training and linkages to markets.

These farmers should be producing food for their fellow Kenyans; instead, they don’t grow enough for their own families and are victims of the same food price spikes as the rest of the region’s population.

In fact, many Kenyan farmers are not so far removed from the hungry Somalis who are crossing the border in search of food. Each year, farmers across the country suffer a “hunger season” during the three months before harvest. During that time, they will skip meals, or even go days without eating. These farmers consume all their maize or have to sell it well before the next harvest, which means they must buy food when it is most expensive at the market.

Last August, just after harvest, the price for a 2 kilogram tin of maize, called a goro, was about 25 Kenya shillings (Dh1). By May, the price had spiked to 140 Kenya shillings, more than four times the harvest price.

Now, despite the need for food in northern Kenya and Somalia, the maize price is already falling in western Kenya. In Chwele District, maize is being sold as low as 60 Kenya shillings per goro.

Why doesn’t this price reflect the strong demand for food aid elsewhere in the region? According to a joint study including the Tegemeo Institute of Kenya’s Egerton University, maize prices are affected by the government’s interference in the maize marketing system, primarily through changing import tariffs and the purchase and sale prices set by the National Cereals and Produce Board. Although an influx of international food aid can distort markets, in Kenya it is only part of the problem.

For now, famine victims in Somalia and those suffering from drought in Kenya must be supplied with emergency food aid. But to prevent future famines, smallholder farmers like those in western Kenya need to successfully produce and sell enough food to feed the region. This will require a sustained investment in agriculture development for smallholder farmers.

Unfortunately, donor governments have neglected agriculture development for decades. When food prices spiked in 2008, the world suddenly became interested again. In 2009, the G8 pledged $22 billion (Dh80.8 billion) in funding to support agriculture development and global food security. Thus far, only 22 per cent of that funding has been disbursed, according to a new report from the ONE campaign, a grassroots organisation working towards the eradication poverty.

Investing in agriculture development is more cost-effective than spending on emergency food aid. The World Food Programme reports that it costs $0.50 per day to feed one famine victim. That is approximately $180 per year. The organisation that I work for, One Acre Fund, provides a service model that helps smallholder farm families double to triple their yields at a cost of roughly $100 per year. About $75 of that is paid by the farmer.

Is it better to give a farmer a $25 subsidy that allows that farmer to grow enough food for the family and to sell enough to feed another family, or to spend $1,200 a year to feed that family with food aid? No one would argue the latter. But in practice, every dollar that international donors are spending on famine relief is a dollar that could have gone toward meeting the G8’s $22 billion commitment.

About 60 per cent of the world’s unused arable land is in Africa, according to the McKinsey consulting firm. The arable land currently in use is generally not cultivated with improved seed or fertiliser, and has tremendous potential for yield increases.

We neglect Africa’s farmers at our peril. Today we need them to feed the hungry of the Horn of Africa. Over the next 40 years, we will need them to feed the world.

Posted in: The National