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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Living in perpetual hunger

Lack of irrigation facilities, a lackluster government policy and abject poverty has subjected residents of some areas to a complete dependency on relief food. However, the process of relief distribution is flawed, making a section of the population live in perpetual hunger.
Zachary Ochieng

The famine and its devastating effects has been associated with the agricultural marginal areas of North Eastern and Eastern provinces, especially Ukambani. This has culminated in a situation where those areas are virtually on permanent relief programmes.

Sections of Nyanza, Western, Coast and the northern Rift Valley province, have been known to experience intermittent food shortfalls owing to drought or floods that have occasionally disrupted subsistence farming activities, leaving residents with no option but to appeal for famine relief.

Last month, the government provided 2500 bags of maize and beans to famine stricken residents of the Coastal Kilifi District. Area District Commissioner Oku Kaunya observed: “The failure of rains in the last two seasons has led to shortages in Kaloleni, Bamba and Ganze divisions”.

But still, North Eastern and Ukambani remain the showcase of the history of famine in the country, not only due to harsh climate but also due to lack of mechanisms to ensure self reliance in food. Apart from the unavoidable drought phenomenon, residents of these areas have been yearning for long lasting solutions to no avail, prompting widespread claims that the government has not been keen in helping those areas for political reasons.

Situated in the climatically volatile Eastern province that has seen non-kamba inhabited districts such as Moyale and Isiolo fall into the same administrative orbit, Ukambani – which comprises Machakos, Kitui, Makueni and Mwingi districts – is somewhat synonymous with famine, owing to recurrent crop failures, resulting into perpetual dependency on food handouts. The pathetic nature of perpetual hunger in the area was dramatically brought to the fore in 1997 when a boy was reported to have died after feeding on a dog’s carcass in Kitui.

Quite often, rains come late or in small amounts, resulting into all round crop failure. As a result, subsistence farming is almost grounding to a halt, since a number of area residents no longer bother to cultivate even if rains come, given the high probability of their efforts going to waste.

Paradoxically, Ukambani is described as an agro-ecological area, meaning that the area can be utilized for agricultural use since it lies between two major perennial rivers – Tana and Athi. Besides persistent calls for the establishment of an irrigation network, other solutions that have been floated include the need for the government to provide subsidies in seed and farm inputs so as to increase production that can enable farmers in the area to maintain sufficient food reserves.

But as numerous calls are made for the government to chip in and offer long- term solutions, other factors such as poverty and the inability to embrace crop diversification have played a significant part in the perennial famine in the area. Besides, it is not the question of ability to produce enough food to survive the next harvest since the area is hardly a food basket, but the lack of resources to afford a decent diet all year round.

“In terms of the total supply of food, there is no problem. The problem is with the vulnerable groups whose purchasing power has declined over the past few years”, avers Dr Mulinge Mukungu, an Agricultural Economist at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission in Nairobi. Prof Amartya Sen, an Economics Nobel laureate from India also concurs that famine is a result of poverty and not shortage of food. In his book “Poverty and Famines”(1981), Sen pointed out that it is not the availability of food but the absence of entitlement among the poor people that has been responsible for famines all over the world. He wrote: “If one person in eight starves regularly in the world, this is seen as the result of his inability to establish entitlement to enough food; the question of the physical availability of the food is not directly involved”. Sen further points out that famines are almost always man-made and says political will is needed to dismantle this obstacle of vested interests.

The two experts’ views hold true for Ukambani, since when it registers a bumper harvest as it did after the 1998 El Nino rains, farmers sell their harvests to businessmen outside the area, sometimes at extremely low prices, thus reverting to the cycle of famine relief dependency. This is due to poverty and no other source of income for upkeep.

Unlike Ukambani that presents some hope as far as self- reliance in food is concerned, the arid and predominantly pastoral North Eastern province – in addition to drought and insecurity due to cattle rustling and general banditry that have significantly affected the marginal farming activities in the area – suffers from a deplorable lack of infrastructure.

Lack of sufficient water resources for both humans and animals is a major problem in the region as the few water wells dry up immediately drought sets in. This forces the government and other relief agencies to respond with mobile water bowers that are hardly adequate.

Predominantly inhabited by the ethnic Somali, and whose residents cite lack of infrastructure as an example of deliberate neglect by the government, the region is still haunted by insecurity dating back to the early days of independence when a secessionist war raged, and more recently, spillover banditry from neighbouring Ethiopia and Somalia.

Whereas it can be acknowledged that famine has been a real threat to the Kenyan nation, it is still difficult to determine the extent of the problem because local politicians either exaggerate the problem or devalue its extent, depending on which side of the political spectrum they fall, thus obscuring the real situation.

Early 2000, several arid and semi-arid areas, notably Turkana and Wajir in the north and the eastern districts of Kitui and Mwingi faced food shortages following erratic rains in late 1999. While MPs Adan Keynan (Wajir West) and Bare Shill (Fafi) claimed that close to 100 people had died of starvation and more than 57000 needed relief assistance, Wajir District Commissioner Fred Musami insisted no one had died of hunger as did Sheriff Nassir, State Minister in charge of relief and rehabilitation.

Ironically, agriculture is the mainstay of the Kenyan economy and maize is the single most important staple crop. The country produces 2.3 million tones of maize a year and has yet to attain self-sufficiency in maize production. Several constraints have been cited. Chief among these is the rapidly growing population and the unpredictable weather.

Crop diseases and pests are also to blame. According to Dr Stephen Mugo, co-ordinator of the Insect Resistant Maize for Africa project at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), maize worth Sh 5.9 billion is lost every year to crop diseases and pests. “Whereas drought and low soil fertility sometimes cause losses of about 7 and 17 per cent of the total production, damage caused by diseases and pests ranges between 15 and 90 per cent”, says Mugo.

In a paper titled “Genetically Modified Food and Maize: Solution or problem”, Mugo argues that Kenya must now embrace biotechnology to produce maize strains with high disease tolerance capacity as well as resistance to adverse weather. He says biotechnology is the only solution to the problem of food security.

However, experts are almost unanimous that the main drawback in food security is unclear and misplaced government policy. In one of his papers published in the year 2000, Dr Hezron Nyangito of the Institute of Policy Analysis And Research (IPAR) wrote: “The food problem for marginal grain growing areas will not be resolved until marketing for alternatives, including cattle, is streamlined and policy formulated to boost income levels.”

If it were not for misplaced policies and lack of political commitment, Kenya could easily borrow a leaf from Israel, whose arid and semi arid land has been put to proper use. It began with the creation of the Israeli Agricultural Centre, an equivalent of KARI, which put a lot of effort into developing or co-opting a variety of technologies such as plant biotechnology, aquatic, pest control and seed technology. Then there was irrigation of extensive dry lands making up most of Israel. Scientific irrigation methods, including the super-efficient drip irrigation method were invented with remarkable results.

In the face of persistent hunger, most residents are forced to rely on relief food. But just like the government’s poor policies, the mechanisms of relief food distribution are equally flawed. The process of relief distribution has been riddled with controversies ranging from discrimination and favouritism on political grounds, commercialization and diversion of relief consignments to the contentious use of relief food to buy votes.

On a positive note, however, the government is currently reviewing the country’s national food policy to be in line with recent global developments, according to Agriculture Minister Bonaya Godana. “Some of the issues being looked at critically in the process of the review include increasing access to food, making food affordable to the people, disaster preparedness, maintenance of strategic food reserves and creation of income generation activities”, said Godana at a workshop on food security in Africa held at the UNEP – Habitat, Nairobi in June, 2002.

According to Godana, the nature of the problems and necessary strategies are well laid out in documents such as the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) 2001 – 2004, the current National Development Plan and the Poverty Eradication Plan, 2000 – 2015. But from past experience, these documents may just gather dust on the shelves as Kenyans continue starving.

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