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Fortunes dwindle in agriculture

A combination of local and international forces has led to a fall in agricultural production.
Henry Neondo

Agriculture has always been seen as the engine of growth for Kenya by successive governments and according to the ministry of agriculture, 80 per cent of Kenyans rely on farming for their livelihood.

These figures however are higher in Arid and Semi Arid Lands [ ASALs ] , which account for about 80 per cent of the 575, 000sq. Km of Kenya’s land mass, 28 per cent of the 30 million humans, 75 per cent of the estimated 31 million livestock population.

The livestock sector accounts for 90 per cent of employment and more than 95 per cent of family incomes. In spite of their enormous livestock resources, these areas have the highest incidence of poverty in Kenya.

Locally, poor infrastructure and services such as roads, healthcare, education, access to credit, markets and information makes farming non-profitable and non-attractive to the youth.

Internationally, globalisation and non-control of price of commodity of what they produce continue to drive poverty levels higher, as production costs of agricultural goods tend to surpass gains from sales.

And according to the UN-Habitat, "this has led to rapid urbanisation of Kenya as most youths end in markets and towns as they seek to make a living in any form but farming".

But this says the UN-Habitat, led to a proliferation of problems that bedevil urban planning, leading to more than 50 per cent of Kenyan urban dwellers to live in slums.

According to Walter Odhiambo and Damiano Kulundu of the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), poverty in Kenya is largely a rural phenomenon but the proportion of the poor who live in urban areas is rising fast.

In 1992, the proportion of urban poor was estimated at 29 per cent compared to 42 per cent in rural areas. In 1997, the figure had risen to 49 per cent compared to 52 per cent in rural areas. Substantial urban poverty not only limits the scope for mobilising the revenue of urban authorities but more importantly also it limits the effective demand for housing and other basic urban services due to low income.

But this to Ambassador Ali Muchumu, Managing Director of the Netherlands based Common Fund for Commodity, this confusion is a result of the failure by the international community to handle agricultural commodity prices and making terms of trade friendly to Africans.

Farming in Kenya over the last decades has seen dwindling in production levels, crumbling marketing channels and operated in the absence of credit facilities to farmers. For example, the livestock sector contributing about 10 per cent to the country’s GDP and employing close to 50 per cent of the agriculture labour force has yet to realise its full potential.

Livestock population in Kenya is estimated at 13 million cattle, 10.4 million goats, 8 million sheep, 800, 000 camels, 300,000 pigs and 600, 000 donkeys. It is a major provider of livelihood to majority of Kenyans in rural areas hence meant to alleviate poverty and improved standards of living.

On farming, Dr. Stella H. Mikalitsa, Lecturer, university of Nairobi, says "majority of subsistence agriculture in Kenya, supporting over 80 per cent of the population still rely on natural moisture, often unreliable, using very rudimentary farm tools and operate without credit, thus exposing many to perennial food insecurity".

The result has been widespread poverty, now estimated to be over 50 per cent across the country. For example, Mikalitsa says that the average daily per calorie supply dropped from 2025 in 1987 to a critical 1, 977 in Kenya in 1997. This is below the WHO minimum of 2100cal, the sub Saharan Africa of 2183 and 2, 650 cal. for developing countries' minimum.

Yet technologies that would boost food production exist within and without the region. She says that the need to utilise these technologies cannot be over emphasised. Farm sizes continue to dwindle and environmental degradation is at its highest in the region thus ever reducing capacity for lands to produce food for the increasing population.

Dr. Mikalitsa says that enhancing productivity growth in small farms through technologies with low import content and low capital intensity, assisting households on marginal farms to engage in productive activities and giving the landless and marginal farmers access to productive assets are salient points that keep eluding successive Kenyan governments.

She adds that increased use of animal traction, small cost effective tractors, fertilisers, better seeds and simple irrigation should be part of the process of increasing productivity of the increasing small farms.

Mikalitsa says that in order to create wealth and reduce increased poverty in Kenya, it is necessary for the government to look for ways of increasing the income from the agricultural sector, which is the main provider of employment.

But she notes that use of improved technologies may not be feasible let alone being adequate. There is need for the government to provide and increase credit to farmers that would avail much needed funds for the purchase of cheap irrigation equipment, improved seed and insecticides.

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