Food Security Under Threat in Kenya

Population growth and low agricultural productivity are deepening Kenya’s dependence on food imports.

Posted on 06/19/18
By Lily Welborn | Via ISS Today

Kenya’s agricultural sector has struggled to keep pace with consumption since the late 1990s. (Photo by Neil Palmer, CIAT, CC license)

In Kenya, food consumption is outpacing food production. According to a new Institute for Security Studies report, annual agricultural production will need to increase by an estimated 75% from 2015 levels in order to meet consumption in 2030.


Kenya’s agricultural sector, the eighth largest in Africa by volume, has struggled to keep pace with consumption since the late 1990s. However, the difference between food supply and demand remained less than two million metric tons until 2009 (see Figure 1).


And according to the International Futures (IFs) forecasting system housed at the Frederick S Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver, the gap between consumption and production is projected to widen going forward. IFs forecasts that agricultural consumption in Kenya will exceed production by nearly 20 million metric tons by 2040. This means that imports would have to meet roughly 25% of agricultural demand.


Low productivity in the agricultural sector and rapid population growth are two key dynamics responsible for this growing divergence. Figure 2 shows that Kenya has a lower average yield than other lower-middle-income and upper-middle-income countries. While Kenya’s average yield is forecast to moderately improve over the coming decades, it will probably remain comparatively low.


Meanwhile, its population of over 50 million people is growing faster than those of other lower-middle-income countries and upper-middle-income countries. By 2030, Kenya’s population is projected to rise by 15 million people – a roughly 30% increase.

A number of factors contribute to low productivity in Kenya’s agricultural sector. Only about 2% of arable land is equipped for irrigation. Farmers struggle to gain access to adequate seed, fertilizer, and other inputs. Uptake of new technology is low. The effects of climate change – a source of a grave, albeit familiar, concern for many people in Kenya and in East Africa generally –present formidable threats to farmers and pastoralists.


Barring a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity, Kenya will need to import more agricultural goods, particularly cereals and other crops, to meet the needs of the growing population. Agricultural imports currently supply 11% of domestic agricultural requirements. It is projected that Kenya will have to import more than 20% of the agricultural goods required to meet consumption by 2030.


High dependence on agricultural imports renders countries vulnerable to fluctuations in global markets, increased national debt and variable weather patterns and can contribute to food insecurity. A spike in maize prices, for example, could leave many people in Kenya unable to purchase sufficient food. People who are poor or who already face obstacles to obtaining adequate nutrition are particularly at risk of experiencing recurring food crises.


The populations of Kenya’s arid and semi-arid counties – and in the Horn of Africa more generally – are already facing food crises. Poor or failed rains have resulted in chronic drought in seven of the past 10 years. In 2017, the government declared a national drought emergency for all 23 of Kenya’s arid and semi-arid counties.


Around 3.4 million Kenyans are severely food insecure while 309 000 have been internally displaced due to food insecurity and drought. Large swathes of Marsabit and Turkana counties have reached ‘crisis’ levels of hunger, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system, and are increasingly vulnerable to ‘emergency’ levels. This is one step away from famine.


An estimated 175 000 children have been absent from pre-primary and primary school due to drought and large numbers of animal deaths have been reported in Turkana, Marsabit, Samburu and Mandera counties.


Against a backdrop of climate uncertainty, the low productivity of the agricultural sector is stark. And while boosting the productivity of the agricultural sector alone will not solve the issue of food insecurity in Kenya, it can increase productivity and reduce the growing gap with consumption.


This is an achievable goal for Kenya. Public-private partnership investment in agriculture in arid and semi-arid areas is a key strategy for boosting productivity in the sector, according to Gituro Wainaina, former acting director-general of the country’s Vision 2030 development programme delivery secretariat.


Enhancing investment in climate change adaptation measures such as water pans and low-cost, small-scale irrigation projects, and in post-harvest technologies, can also improve yields and reduce losses. Improving smallholder farmers’ access to markets through better supply chain management is also critical to making agriculture more productive.


Through these efforts, Kenya may increase agricultural productivity, lessen its dependence on agricultural imports and, in turn, contribute to strengthening food security across the country.


Lily Welborn is a Researcher, African Futures and Innovation Program, ISS Pretoria

This article first appeared in ISS Today and is being reproduced under a special arrangement. Click here to go to the original.

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