Kenya’s reliance on maize is a disaster in waiting

The Maize Lethal Necrotic (MLN) disease is at it again. Unlike the recent past, where its detrimental effects were only felt in the South Rift, MLN is encroaching speedily the country’s food baskets in the North Rift- Uasin-gishu and Trans Nzoia County. Crop scientists are hard at work in field stations trying to come up with seed varieties that are resistant to the disease. However, this might take two to three years before a certified seed variety is in the market. Thus, it seems that MLN will be around for a little while longer. While the scientists’ efforts are laudable, it is prudent to note that Kenya’s absolute reliance on maize as a food security crop is a disaster waiting to happen. History provides two examples of such.
The Irish expected a good harvest of their main staple, the potato in 1845. However, a strange disease hit the crop and resulted in 50% losses and doubling of farm gate prices. Nonetheless, the Irish planted potatoes the following year hoping they would get better yields. The crop totally failed. The disease later identified as potato blight, resulted in a famine that saw a million people die due to starvation and another million migrating to the neighbouring countries. It is estimated that the Irish population was depopulated by about 25%. Although Scientists managed to isolate the fungus that caused the blight, Phytophthora Infestans, it was not until 1882 that a remedy was discovered. This was almost 40 years after the famine had struck.
To a lesser degree, the Americans have also suffered the perils of over reliance on one crop. In the early 70s, Corn (maize) was hit by a blight that was later named the Southern Corn Leaf Blight. As in Ireland, the blight was caused by a fungus, Bipolaris maydis. Corn losses of up to 15 % were reported. This resulted in sharp increases of corn prices in the US. Considering that corn was also used as animal feed, the prices of beef rose sharply too. The rest of the world was not spared from these effects. The low production of Corn in the US exacerbated an already fragile world food market and hence contributed, though to a lesser extent, to the World Food Crisis of 1972-1974.
As new varieties are being sought to counter the spread of MLN, it is crucial that Kenyan farmers, especially small scale, be enticed away from maize into adoption of other crops that have enormous potential for food security. This can be achieved though market mechanisms that would ensure farmers make profit while feeding the nation. Crops such as sorghum, millet and cassava can greatly improve the farmer’s lot and boost food security. Secondly, Kenya scores poorly on household dietary diversity. There is need for an aggressive public awareness campaign on the contribution of other foods to the diet. By increasing consumer awareness of the importance of dietary diversification, there would be increased demand for foods other than maize. Lastly, because it might take a while before farmers move away from planting of maize, agricultural extension officers should be empowered to enable them reach more farmers and teach them good agricultural practices. This would go a long way in the prevention of MLN spread. 


All in all, it is pivotal that the role maize plays in Kenya’s food security outlook be scrutinized.


The US Food Aid reforms are a win-win for all

women receiving food aid in Ethiopia. Photo Courtesy:
The East African ran an article “US proposal on African food aid excites crop farmers” in the April 20th-26th Issue. It was quite understandable to note why the news on the US food aid reforms should be received with much enthusiasm among the East African farmers. One of the major demerits of food aid is that if it is not properly regulated, it becomes a significant disincentive to the local production of food in the recipient countries. Nonetheless, the current reforms offer numerous benefits to the three major parties involved i.e. the US government, Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs) and recipient countries.
The highlight of the reforms is that the US will procure more food aid outside of its boundaries, what is technically called untied food aid. It is a requirement by US law that 75 % of its food aid is sourced, fortified, processed, and bagged in the US. This means that only 25 % of American food aid can be sourced outside the US.The current food aid reforms propose raising this limit to 45 %. Another requirement of the US law is that 75 % of all tied American food aid must be transported on US flagged vessels. This law still stands.
By increasing local and regional procurement of food in and around recipient countries, the US will save considerable amounts of money. Costs associated with shipment will be greatly reduced. Furthermore, inefficiencies accrued due to the sale of food aid by PVOs to raise additional funds, a process known as monetisation, will be reduced substantially. The cost recovery rate, at or above cost of purchase and shipment, has been set at 70 %. This will deter most PVOs from monetisation of food aid. PVOs get to benefit greatly from more food aid in the form of cash. Initially, PVOs could only source 13% of food aid in the form of cash. The reforms propose that this be raised to 35 %. Thus, more money can be injected into Interventions such as food vouchers or cash transfers that have proven to be more effective than food aid distribution in some situations. This is especially so if the case of acute food insecurity is only in some pockets of a country as is usually the case in East Africa. PVOs can purchase food from areas of abundance and have it available and accessiblein areas of need preferably through market mechanisms. In 2004, cash transfers proved to have more impact in Indonesia when the Tsunami struck. Households that received cash as opposed to aid in the form of rice exhibited a higher dietary diversity score as they accessed more variety of fresh foods. Furthermore, intra-household gender relations were improved as decisions regarding household expenditure were jointly made. Alcohol consumption was also significantly lower in households that received cash over those that received rice.
Recipient countries stand to benefit in several ways. Firstly, the reforms carry a component of improved nutrition. This is most especially in the ready to eat therapeutic food that is most effective in the management of malnutrition in emergencies. Due to the reforms, it is estimated that 10-12 new products are being developed. These new products will go a long way in the prevention of deaths related to malnutrition that is highest in food related emergencies. Secondly, response to acute food shortages will be much faster. It is estimated that reaching people in need will be 11-14 weeks faster if food aid is purchased locally or cash based interventions adopted. Lastly, food economies in and around recipient countries will grow considerably since the market for their produce will be widened.
Indeed, the US food aid reforms are a win-win for all parties involved.