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.



White gold and the women who mine it


It is no secret that food security in Kenya is intimately linked with the maize crop. Introduced to Kenya by the Portuguese, maize has grown to be the most popular enterprise among farming households. Among these households, there are those who grow maize primarily for subsistence use and only engage in commercial activities during times of surplus. Then there are those who grow maize for commercial purposes. This latter group can further be divided into small scale and large scale farming households, the dividing line being the acreage of land cultivated. However, the uniting factor among these players in the maize sector is pricing. All farmers wait with baited breath for the government to set the price at which National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) should purchase maize from the farmers. Then the long lines in Uasin Gishu and Trans Zoia counties form. The drivers spend several nights and days in queues waiting to offload their white gold. Women make a fortune cooking and selling food to men- who in all likelihood have not had a change of clothes for two, three or even fourteen days. Then there are those scrupulous business men who offer to buy maize from Lorry drivers in cash. In turn, the drivers sell the maize to NCPB in the name of the concerned businessman. The allure of cash in hand is wrought by the fact that NCPB does not pay in cash. Usually farmers have to wait for a month or two to receive their hard-earned money. Meanwhile, their children are waiting to report to school and as the routine goes, they cannot report without school fees, in most cases, the whole sum. This just adds fuel to the farmer’s need for immediate cash. Oh, I almost forgot one other player in the maize sub sector during sale-the prostitute. She travels from afar and rents a room in town (read Eldoret, Moi’s Bridge and Kitale). In the evening she ensures that the “hard working” farmer is all smiles. In turn, she gets the chance to relieve him of his pocket’s contents. This goes on while a hungry child and a loving wife wait for the triumphant return of a supposedly caring father and a supposedly loving husband.
In spite of this doleful picture, there is a glimmer of hope. There are certain farmers who are true patriots. They are aware that the country depends on them for food sufficiency. They have also taken steps to improve their lot by seeking to adopt the latest technology in food production and in most cases, on their own account with minimal or no assistance from the government. And yes, they love their families too. So much that they have taught them the tools of the trade. The wife and the children all contribute to the household income and that farmer ensures that they are adequately rewarded. Forgive me if I come across as a male chauvinist, maize farming is a male dominated sector. Women still have little or no access to land. In the few cases where they do have access, the land is so fragmented that engaging in any meaningful agricultural business is next to impossible. It is with this background that the few women maize farmers are by all definitions, swimming upstream. They are discriminated against in accessing inputs such as seeds and subsidized fertilizers. Now do not get me wrong. This discrimination is not systemic. The government process in accessing such inputs is gender sensitive. However, it is the mind set of implementing authorities that needs an overhaul. It is about time that women are seen as able agribusiness persons that they are. It is about time that they are recognized and their opinions sought in agricultural policy making. I strongly believe that one overlooked factor in efforts by government to become food secure is Gender and Agricultural Development. It is a public secret that women constitute 80% of the workforce that contributes towards agricultural production. Yet, they access less than 20% of the proceeds from agriculture. I believe I am wrong. Please correct me if I am-they access much less than 20%, don’t they?  Could it be less than 10 %? This sad phenomenon is not limited to maize alone, is it? Recall the bonuses that tea farmers received during the hard times for the Kenyan shilling against the American dollar?  Recall the women of Limuru and other tea growing areas lamenting about the disappearing acts of their husbands after receiving those hefty perks?  Pathetic is what I can say. Absolutely pathetic! I am too angry to continue writing this article so let me end on this point-give the woman farmer a chance in the corridors of power, in the farm, in the market and the war against food insecurity would be halfway won.