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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Discontent on the rise as greedy politicians steal state maize

Kenyan politicians have lost all shame as they out-do each other in squeezing the last drop of blood from the country’s long-suffering citizens.

It is now emerging that politicians and their allies are putting pressure on the state-owned National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) to stop selling staple grains to milling companies.

Instead, the NCPB is forced to sell to the politicians at low prices so that they can demand hefty profit margins from millers.

As a result, consumer prices for maize meal have risen from Kshs85 (US1.1) to Kshs120 ($1.5) within a week. The price increase is disastrous in a country where more than half the population is surviving on less than $1 per day.

Kenya’s supermarket shelves are empty, an eerie resemblance to the situation in Zimbabwe. As a result of this unprecedented state of affairs, massive discontent is brewing among the Kenyan populace, as a greedy ruling elite plots the next orgy of rape, murder and ethnic cleansing.

In recent weeks, Kenyan legislators and judges have resisted paying taxes even as manual labourers earning a few dollars a day bear the burden of financing a bloated 42 member cabinet.

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Below are excerpts of the story from the Daily Nation (click here for the full story).
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A racket involving senior politicians and businessmen has been blamed for the artificial shortage of maize and maize flour that has hit many parts of the country.

Investigations by the Nation indicate that the politicians have been buying maize from the cereals board and selling it to millers at exorbitant prices.

Letters from the Ministry of Agriculture are being used by the cartel to authorize the purchase of maize from the National Cereals and Produce Board. The cartel later resells the maize to millers at a higher price.

The shortage of maize has seen the price of the staple maize meal shoot from an average Sh85 a week ago to Sh120 for the two-kg packet.

Sources have revealed that those in the cartel, including a number of MPs, have made millions of shillings from the dubious deals.

On Monday, Prime Minister Raila Odinga held a crisis meeting with a Cabinet sub-committee on food security where they decided that middlemen be pushed out of the maize business.

Fears are also emerging that the cartel has been engaging in similar dealings for sugar and fertiliser, whose prices have been on the increase since the beginning of the year.

The politicians and businessmen are said to be buying a 90-kg bag of maize at Sh1,700 ($21.8) and selling it to the millers at between Sh2,200 and Sh2,700 ($28.2 – $34.6).

It is, however, believed that the politicians are not using their money in the shady deals. Instead, they have been acting as brokers. According to one reliable source, several associates of the politicians showed up three weeks ago at the cereals board depots with letters authorizing them to buy 25,000 bags of maize each.

After the dubious deal, each of the politicians earned between Sh12.5 million and Sh25 million ($160,000 – $320,000) depending on the price at which they sold the maize.

The price of maize flour has shot up by up to 50 per cent in the recent past to retail at Sh120. Millers have warned of an acute shortage of the product that was selling at between Sh80 and Sh85 only a week ago.

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Land debate in Kenya marred by politics

Debate over a new land policy for Kenya is mired in controversy, fuelled by civil society activists and reflective of the country’s political divide.

A recreational park in Kiambu, just north of Nairobi. The privately-owned park was once a coffee farm.

A recreational park in Kiambu, just north of Nairobi. The privately-owned park was once a coffee farm.

A new national land policy proposes a ceiling on individual land ownership to ensure no single individual owns too much land. The policy proposes the repossession of idle land for the settling of the landless and reduction of colonial era 999 year land leases to 99 years. There will also be a tax on idle land, especially in urban areas. Foreign ownership of land will be restricted in order to give greater opportunities for Kenyans to own land.

If the new land policy is implemented, powers of allocation of land will be devolved to local authorities. Under current laws, the President and the Commissioner for Lands can allocate public land without involving local authorities. In past years, the law was used to reward political cronies of past presidents with public plots. Land set aside for schools, roads, churches and sanitation facilities was literally up for grabs. The result was a growth in unplanned settlements lacking playgrounds, parking areas or space for mains services.

Critics of the new laws say that universal ownership of land is a myth that Kenya is attempting to achieve at the expense of land rights. There is little idle land in the country, says representatives of land owners, and it cannot be enough to settle all the landless in Kenya. The Kenya Land Alliance, a body representing land owners, says the law is a threat to property rights and likely to stifle investment.

Ranchers in Laikipia and Machakos have also come up against the proposed land laws. The ranchers say that most of their land is semi arid and therefore unsuitable for the settlement of subsistence farmers. In Taita Taveta, owners of expansive sisal estates also cite the harsh climate of the area as unsuitable for settling the landless. “If you settle people there, they will be depending on famine relief every year,” a resident of the area told the Nairobi Chronicle.

Land owners have asked the government and civil society activists to observe global trends in land ownership in order to avert a catastrophe. Statistics indicate that though the number of farmers in the United States declined in the 20th Century, American food production went up. By 2006, there were less than 3 million farmers out of a total population of close to 300 million. “It just goes to show that it is not necessary for every Tom, Dick and Harriet to own land,” argue land owners, “politicians are using land as a scapegoat for poverty, because it is easy to blame land owners for the poverty of the majority.”

Tied with the ownership of land in Kenya is the controversy over ancestral land rights. Minister for Lands, Dr James Orengo is quoted as saying that the constitutional provision that gives Kenyans the right to live and work anywhere is, “not right.” According to Dr Orengo, people should only own land within their ethnic homelands. It is this kind of logic that is largely blamed for ethnic and political clashes that have rocked the Kenya intermittently since the 1990s. This year, close to 1,500 people died when disputed elections led to ethnic clashes. Over 350,000 were evicted from their homes on grounds that they were not indigenous to those areas.

Further to the debate on land laws, Dr Orengo, said last week that the government will not renew leasehold titles that are currently expiring. Most urban leaseholds run for 99 years, meaning the leases expiring today were issued in the 1900s. Many parcels of land within the Nairobi city centre were issued back then. The announcement sparked anxiety among property owners, forcing Dr Orengo to clarify that extensions will be given especially if the land had been extensively developed. For instance, said Dr Orengo, if there was a skyscraper on the land, then an extension was likely to be given.

A growing population still clinging to traditional values is exerting pressure on the land. Every household desires to own a piece of land for psychological security and satisfaction. Consequently, forests have been cut down to make way for settlements with drastic results on weather patterns. Encroachment on forest land has resulted in the drying up of rivers and longer dry spells. In other parts of the country, populations are spreading to low-lying drylands where food harvests can never be enough even with good rains. Land parcels, traditionally handed over and divided among sons, have become to small for meaningful agricultural activities.

Politicians in Kenya use land to win over voters, hence the politicization of the land debate. Few politicians have the courage to tell their people that the era of free land is over. Its hardly surprising, then, that politicians are in the fore-front in demanding that the government confiscate land from ranchers, multinational plantations and commercial farmers. Some politicians even threatened to lead “Zimbabwe-style” land invasions to recover what they refer to as ancestral lands.

As the land debate rages, agricultural production in Kenya has been in steady decline. Kenya produces less of most commodities than it did thirty years ago. This includes coffee, tea, milk, wheat, barley, cotton and pyrethrum. From being a net exporter, the Kenya of today is a net importer of food. Even maize has to be imported to satisfy national demand due to a larger population.

The only agricultural sector that has grown in recent years is the export of flowers and french beans, collectively referred to as horticulture. The horticultural industry is wholly private-sector driven. It was began by commercial farmers who used fresh water from Lake Naivasha to irrigate the volcanic flatlands of the Rift Valley floor. Currently, horticulture has become so huge that it earns Kenya more money than tourism.

Lake Naivasha is a unique terrestrial phenomenon: its a fresh water lake without an outlet. But apart from geographical lessons, Kenya’s politicians can take home vital truths on the management of Kenya’s land resources for the ultimate benefit of all its people.