New Year clouded by famine fears

Kenyans welcomed 2009 with joyous celebrations across the country amidst worries over drought and famine.

Concerns for the country’s political stability took a back bench as fireworks, shouts and song filled the atmosphere. For many, this was the first New Year feast in two years.

Last year began with political and ethnic clashes following disputed electoral results. The violence was to last till March 2008 when a peace agreement was signed between President Mwai Kibaki and his rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

Amidst the ups and downs of coalition building, little attention was paid to the failure of seasonal rains. Most parts of Kenya, especially east of the Rift Valley, had very little rain in the second half of 2008. This is expected to worsen food shortages that have widely eroded the ratings of the Giant Coalition of Kibaki and Raila.

Just a few weeks ago, rumblings of discontent forced the government to take the unprecedented step of creating to different types of maize flour: one for the well-to-do and the other for the poor. By offering low-priced maize for the poor, Kenya was effectively getting into the food subsidy business which is currently the preserve of wealthier countries.

With clear signs of drought and the famine that goes with it, the government’s food subsidy bill is bound to rise astronomically. Already, the Treasury has ordered government ministries to shelve construction projects.

In their New Year speeches, President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga vowed to tackle high food prices. It remains to be seen how this will be accomplished without either running a gigantic debt or squeezing the earnings of farmers. The second option – lowering farm gate prices – is already running into problems.

While launching its subsidized brand of maize, the government banned millers from buying directly from farmers. Instead, farmers were to sell maize to the state-owned National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) at a fixed price. Maize farmers oppose the directive while wheat growers accuse the government of favouring maize farmers.

2008 food production was hurt by political violence. When the peace deal was signed in March, it was too late for the 2008 crop. Fertilizer stores had been looted and fresh supplies became extremely expensive. Those farmers not affected by violence could not afford fertilizer either, resulting in poor yields.

2009 food production will be affected by lack of rain and continued insecurity in the highly productive farmlands of the Rift Valley where ethnic clashes continue intermittently. Many farmers have not returned to their farms for fear of future attacks. All it takes is fallout between the president and prime minister before full scale violence resumes.

Meanwhile, the continued destruction of Kenya’s forest cover is negatively impacting food production. Once mighty rivers have become seasonal, many have dried altogether. Rainfall in former forest areas has declined dramatically and when it does rain, massive soil erosion is a consequence due to the lack of protective vegetative cover.

With clear evidence of food shortages, the government must import food but like everything else in Kenya, the importation process is mired in corruption and political intrigues.

It’s far from being a fair, transparent process.

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Price controls, subsidies to worsen food supply (previous article)
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