RECHA & NZOKA: Combating a triple threat to Kenya’s food security

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020 00:00 | By

John Recha and Oscar Nzoka

Climate change, unsustainable farming practices, and increased food prices due to supply chain disruptions caused by Covid-19 form a deadly combination that will exacerbate food insecurity in Kenya.

Changes in weather seasons, high frequency of extreme events such as floods, droughts, disease infestation and pest invasions like the desert locusts and army worms, are crippling the ability of most Kenyans to feed themselves.

Scientists attribute the causes of climate change to a number of human activities including deforestation, unsustainable livestock farming practices, improper use of nitrogen-based fertilisers, and poor manure management which increase the concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide gases in the atmosphere.  

Adding to the threat is the pandemic, which until the recent phased reopening, has disrupted food supply channels because the country’s food system heavily relies on transportation to consumers and smaller retailers in urban areas.

The 2020/21 budget cut on the agriculture sector is also a threat amplifier that could jeopardise efforts towards attaining food and nutrition security in the country by 2022. 

For example, potato is one of Kenya’s most important food crop after maize due to its nutritional value, high yields and relatively short growth periods of only about 90-120 days.

It has progressively become a valuable source of cash for small-scale farmers, cooperatives, SMEs and others along the value chain. 

Potatoes generate considerable employment with over 800,000 farmers growing it, and an estimated 2.5 million people employed at various level of the value chain including inputs, production, marketing, processing, trade and consumption. 

Despite its economic potential, potato yields have continued to decline due to erratic rains, floods, droughts and soil infertility.

This has also affected quantity and quality of potatoes required by aggregators and processors. 

The current average yield in Kenya is approximately eight tonnes per hectare, significantly lower than other African and global benchmarks at 20-40 tonnes per hectare.

This has reduced smallholders’ profitability and industry competitiveness.

Although, the highlands where potatoes are cultivated tend to have sufficient rain, its irregularity adversely affects yields especially when it fails to come during the crucial growing stage of the crop. 

This is aggravated by poor farming practices such as shallow bed preparation, failure to plant in ridges, use of both inappropriate and inadequate quantities of fertiliser than is recommended and use of poor-quality seeds.

Hindered by a lack of awareness and availability of expert guidance, small farmers continue to be exposed to climate-related risks eroding food security and overall crop resilience to climate change.  

Improving food security requires partnership between private sector actors in various food value chains and government institutions to review and develop crop specific climate smart training manuals and aids that will be used by extension service providers and farmers. 

Climate smart agricultural practices and access to certified seeds supported with extension services will more likely generate more productivity at farmer level, improve food security and ultimately lead to increased incomes at all levels of the value chain.

The increase in income will reinforce uptake of new technology and improved farming practices that will boost smallholder farmers’ resilience to climate change.

The Climate Resilient Agribusiness for Tomorrow (CRAFT) project is one of the interventions working in partnership with private sector actors and the government to provide climate smart training manuals on good agriculture practices as well as certified short cycle potato seed suitable to the farmers in different agro-ecological zones.

The project also provides auxiliary services such as soil testing and mechanization in soil tillage technology to protect soil quality.

— Recha is a scientist, CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food security. Nzoka is a climate smart innovation advisor, SNV Netherlands Development Organisation

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