Neymar and Maize: The Peculiar Similarities

Neymarstock-photo-young-ears-of-corn-against-the-sky-149104505

I truly empathise with Brazil and her fans all over the world. Although I am no doctor, it seems to me that a fractured vertebra is no small matter. So much so that Neymar would have to miss out on the rest of World Cup. Brazil Coach Luis Felipe Scolari and the Brazilian team laid a lot of hope on the young man.

It was obvious right from the start that the game revolved around Neymar’s performance. Balls were fed to him from both flanks of the field. It seemed all players were under strict instruction to look out for the boy whenever they obtained possession of the ball. The coach has tried to lay the blame of Neymar’s injury on the Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, who allowed several rugged challenges from both sides to go unpunished throughout the match between Brazil and Colombia. However, I think the referee was just trying to allow the game flow without many stoppages. Neymar’s injury should fall squarely on the Brazil Coach. He is the one who thrust the boy into the limelight, and allowed him to take centre stage; even when there was clear indication of his being increasingly fouled throughout the world Cup matches. The pressure to perform was clearly weighing heavy on Neymar. He is without a doubt the poster boy of the Brazil team. However, placing too much importance on one individual, no matter how good, is bound to have its consequences.

This phenomenon is not restricted to soccer talent management only. It is also true in matters food and nutrition security.

During my studies in Uganda, it was often quipped that the availability of a wide array of staples in Uganda was the key factor that prevented the occurrence of famine during Idi Amin’s presidency. Plantains, sweet potatoes, arrowroots, cassava, and maize are just but some of the many staples widely consumed by Ugandans. It is not uncommon for one to order a little bit of each, along with a desired stew such as groundnuts, beans and the like. It is true, without a single shadow of doubt, that Ugandans’ dietary diversity score is way up there. Cross over to Kenya, my beloved country, and the situation is the exact opposite. Our obsession with maize is unbridled.

In order to understand how maize came to take center stage in matters agriculture, a sneak peek into the past is helpful.

The maize crop was introduced to Kenya by the Portuguese in the 16th and 17th Century. However, it became an important commercial crop when adopted by the European settlers in the 18th century. The latter did away with the Portuguese variety that did well in the coastal areas and introduced varieties sought from South Africa which had higher yields.

Many European large scale farmers gravitated towards maize over cash crops like tea, coffee, sisal and pyrethrum. This was largely attributed to the lower initial financial costs required to engage in maize farming and the quicker returns. Moreover, maize did not require a high level of technical skills and management as did other crops.

The European famers were encouraged to grow maize by the then colonial government which offered them such incentives as special railway transport rebates and protection from vagaries of the world market. Furthermore, maize offered an easy means of feeding the African labour force employed in the vast farms. In the 1st and 2nd world war, the colonial government encouraged and supported the farmers to produce even more in the name of supporting British war efforts.

Such steps taken by the colonial government laid the foundation for a radical change in the tastes and preferences of Africans. Overtime, plantation workers and world war veterans preferred maize to traditional staples such as sorghum and millet. In Nyanza, stories were told of young men offering to work in European plantations not only earn money but also enjoy free rations of Ugali maize meal. And as they say, the rest is history.

Maize is now grown even in arid and semi-arid lands, areas which do not support the agronomical requirements of the crop. Agricultural research institutes are burning the midnight oil to develop drought resistant maize varieties. Although, these efforts are laudable it makes more sense to promote the adoption of crops such as sorghum and millet which have significantly lower water requirements than maize.

In peculiar similarity to the popular Neymar, the popular maize crop is beginning to give in. Farmers in the South Rift are beginning to shy away from the crop after incurring heavy losses attributed to necrosis disease. Yields have dwindled over the years due to declining soil fertility while human population has increased and consequently the per capita consumption of maize. Hence, farmers in Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu County, the major maize production areas, are also beginning to look to other high value crops owing to declining profits in maize production. Due to climate change, rain fed maize yields are expected to fall drastically. Consequently, it is predicted that come 2050, world prices for maize would increase by 52-55%.

In order to avert food insecurity in the long term, I suggest a three-pronged solution. There should be a national nutrition education programme. This campaign should be sustained over a considerable period of time say five years. During this period, behaviour change regarding food choice especially of staples ought to be monitored and evaluated at previously agreed intervals. Perhaps, consumer research firms devoted to political polls that more often than not are of little public benefit can be put to good use. Secondly, protectionism around the maize crop should be completely removed. In its stead, incentives should be given to farmers to grow other staples such as millet, potatoes, sorghum and the like. Thirdly, research institutes should channel their time and energies to developing varieties of the aforementioned crops that are high yielding, disease and pest-resistant.

Contrary to taking the suggested measures, it will only be a matter of time before the maize crop completely gives in. Then, we will be left wondering why we did not heed the warnings the crop tried to give us that it was under too much pressure to perform.

NB: Historical information on maize largely obtained from Professor Mark Ollunga Odhiambo’s inaugural lecture: ‘The Kenyan Maize Sub-Sector Performance and Its Implications for Food Security Policy Dialogue.

 

 

 

 

My Apathy towards Galana/Kulalu Irrigation Project

Uhuru_Farming_400239306

President Kenyatta during launch of the irrigation project

Source: http://jamhurimagazine.com

I shudder every time I hear food insecurity and Galana/Kulalu mentioned in the same breath. For those not in the know, Galana/Kulalu is the new irrigation project in Kenya. During the campaigning period, Jubilee coalition promised to put one million acres under irrigation. This was seen as the silver bullet needed to stem increasing levels of food insecurity in the country. This, among other significant promises such as one laptop for every standard one pupil, saw the Jubilee coalition win the elections albeit with accusations of malpractice by the main opposition, CORD coalition. Now the Jubilee government has hit the ground running. And Galana/Kulalu irrigation scheme is one of its pet projects. A few details of the project are in order.

Firstly, how are the million acres divided between the various crops of food security concern?

  • 500,000 acres to grow maize and other rotational crops i.e. beans, sorghum…
  • 200,000 acres, sugarcane
  • 150,000 acres, beef and game animals and finishing
  • 50,000 acres, Horticulture production including potatoes, groundnuts, etc
  • 50,000 acres, dairy animals and value added products
  • 50,000 acres, orchards, mangoes, guavas, etc

 

Well, it is no surprise that maize takes the lion share. According to the latest government reports on the country’s food security, we have a shortfall of 10 million bags of maize (Food security in Kenya is equated to maize availability). This deficit should begin to bite in May, 2014. Considering that the first crop in Galana/Kulalu was expected to be planted in March, this shortfall cannot be met by the project. Hence, come May the government would be forced to remove duty on maize thus allowing for its cheap importation. Enter maize cartels, connected individuals and the politician out to make a kill and you have all the hallmarks of a scandal in the making. It is this that makes a good majority of the citizenry doubt the government’s figures on actual number of bags shortfall. Furthermore, if I have my intelligence correct, the Galana/Kulalu project would be leased out to potential individuals/organisations to grow the crops on behalf of the government. Going by how recent contracts have been handled, I am not quite sure that the irrigation project would not attract its fair share of political shenanigans. However, there are much more fundamental issues that make me sceptical of the project altogether.

To begin with, Galana/Kulalu straddles the Tana River and Kilifi Counties of the Coastal region of Kenya. The area is predominantly semi-arid except for the eastern edge which receives annual mean rainfall of 625mm. The rest of the area receives approximately 250mm of rainfall annually. Furthermore, the area sits at an average altitude of 270m above sea level. Soils in the area are mostly sandy loams although some parts have red clay and black cotton soils. Considering that half of project area would be allocated to maize production, it is prudent to consider the basic requirements for growing of maize. Maize requires copious amounts of water (500-800mm). This would not be a problem since water can easily be sourced from Galana/Sabaki river or alternatively from River Tana. Despite maize doing well in various soils, it does not do so much well in sandy soils and it is prone to water logging. Hence, great care would be required during irrigation especially during flowering and yield formation periods. Water logging during flowering can reduce grain yields by 50 percent or more. All in all, let us suppose, for argument’s sake that yields in Galana/Kulalu would be slightly lower than Trans Nzoia’s (20-30 bags/ acre) which is Kenya’s maize basket. Never mind that this has greatly reduced in recent times due to increasing soil acidity. Suppose that an optimistic view of Galana/Kulalu is taken, say 15-20 bags/acre. This would give a yield of 7.5-10 million bags tops. Suppose that 5% of this yield is lost post-harvest (substantial maize losses in semi-arid environments range from 10-20%, 5-10% and 0-5% due to pest, poor storage and disease respectively) we are looking at 7.125-9.5 million bags. This leaves a minimum shortfall of 500,000 bags only. Not bad, one might say. Nonetheless, the “ifs” are too big to ignore.

Secondly, it is crucial to consider the complexity and various facets of food security as captured in the 2009 World Summit on Food Security: “ Food Security exists when all people at all times have physical, social and economical access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active  and healthy life”. Four pillars of food security have been identified. These are Food Availability, Food Access, Food Stability and Food Utilisation.

four_pillars_of_food_security

Source: http://www.newsustainabilityinc.com/2014/01/14/can-rural-agriculture-solve-global-food-insecurity/

These pillars, along with dimensions such as vulnerability and shocks are adequately used as indicators of food security as shown below

Food Security Indicators

Click for a larger view

Source: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ESS_FSN_Indicator_1

Judging from the definition and suite of indicators of food security, it is quite evident that much emphasis is being put on availability at the expense of other pillars such as physical access and utilisation. All you have to consider is the state of the roads and networks, access to improved water sources and sanitation facilities, as well as availability of thriving markets and you will find that areas lacking in such are notorious for cases of acute food insecurity even when other parts of the country enjoy bountiful harvests.

The above scenario is corroborated by UNICEF’s conceptual framework on the causes of malnutrition.

 

malnutrition causes

Source: http://www.foodsecurity.gov.kh/conceptual-framework-malnutrition

It is appreciated that inadequate dietary intake and disease are the immediate causes of malnutrition. However, the basic causes of malnutrition are political, economic, social and cultural structures. Hence, any endeavour to prevent malnutrition by addressing its immediate or underlying causes without giving adequate attention to its basic causes is treating the symptom rather than the cause of the disease. The areas notorious for food insecurity are the very same that have been politically, economically and socially marginalised since colonial times. They have been least represented in national governance, denied equal opportunities of pursuing education, least empowered to grow economically and continually denied their political freedom to air their grievances. This chronic marginalisation has been made evident through glaring inequalities, cries for secession and of course, chronic food insecurity. Unless they are resolved, efforts such as Galana/Kulalu irrigation project, no matter how noble the intentions behind them, will be gone with the wind.

 

 

 

2013: Year in Review

It is that time of the year when we must take stock of the year passed and measure our hopes for the New Year. 2013 was without a doubt a year of pivotal events, especially in my homeland Kenya. We had a peaceful general election in March- the first under the new constitution. We celebrated 50 years of independence hence joining a throng of other African nations that have achieved the same in the recent past. However, in spite of these positive developments, Kenya and other African nations are still bedevilled by hunger, corruption, disease, ill-governance, conflict and poverty.  This is reflected in the global reports of 2013. I will elaborate on some that focus on hunger.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2013

The GHI measures and tracks hunger globally and by region and country. It is computed by the international Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and employs three main indicators i.e. undernourishment, child underweight and child mortality. In 2013, the worst performing regions were South Asia and Africa South of the Sahara.  South Asia had the highest GHI score and this was attributed to social inequality and the low nutritional, educational, and social status of women.

The Sahel region was noted to be prone to hunger due to a number of factors. These included sporadic rainfall, locust infestation, crop shortages, and high and volatile food prices. These affected the food and nutrition security of the region negatively. Furthermore, conflict in countries such as Mali and Northern Nigeria exacerbated the situation. However, despite this grim picture, Ghana stood tall as it was among the top ten best performers in terms of improving her GHI score since 1990. It goes without saying that Ghana is one of the most stable democracies in Africa. Studies have proved there is a very strong positive association between democracy and food and nutrition security. Perhaps this is why Ghana attracts an even rosier review in The State of Food Insecurity in the world, 2013. However, I am anticipating. We will come to that later.

Some countries exhibited significant increases in their GHI scores, the worst performers, all of them in Africa, are Burundi, Comoros and Eritrea. The report attributes increased hunger in Burundi and Comoros since 1990 to prolonged conflict and political instability.

The following are excerpts of what the report says of some African countries:

  • The three countries with extremely alarming 2013 GHI scores—Burundi, Comoros, and Eritrea— are in Africa south of the Sahara.
  • Burundi, Comoros, and Eritrea currently have the highest proportion of undernourished people—more than 60 percent of the population
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo, with a population of more than 60 million, still appears as a grey area on the map because reliable data on undernourishment are lacking and the level of hunger cannot be assessed- High-quality data for the Democratic Republic of Congo, as for other likely hunger hot spots such as (Afghanistan) and Somalia, are badly needed.
  • Mali, Sierra Leone, and Somalia have the highest under-five mortality rate, ranging from approximately 18 to about 19 %.
  • The HIV and AIDS epidemic, along with high income inequality, has severely undermined food security in Swaziland despite growth in national income. Because of drought, more than one-quarter of the population depended on emergency food aid in 2006–2007, and the country’s GDP per capita declined between 2007 and 2010. High unemployment, overgrazing, soil depletion, and the risk of future droughts and floods pose persistent challenges.

 

The State of Food Insecurity in the World; the multiple dimensions of food security, 2013

This annual report communicates progress made towards achieving the 2001 Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on Hunger i.e. halve the proportion of hungry people in the total population and the even more ambitious 1996 World Food Summit(WFS) goal on hunger i.e. halve the number of hungry people. It should be noted that both goals have 1990 as the starting year and 2015 as the target year. However, the WFS goal is harder to achieve because of the high rates of population growth in many hunger-affected countries. The report estimated that to meet the WFS target, the number of hungry people in developing regions would have to be reduced to 498 million by 2015, a goal that is out of reach at the global level.

In 2011-2013, 842 million people i.e. 12 % of the total world’s population were unable to meet their dietary requirements. This means that one in eight people were likely to have suffered from chronic hunger.

Africa remained the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment (on in four people) within which the sub-Saharan region had the highest (24.8%) prevalence of undernourishment.  The report concludes that Africa is not on track to achieve the MDG hunger target. Nonetheless, Ghana goes against the grain. It had met its 2015 MDG hunger target by 2000–02. By 2011-2013, less than 5 % of its population were undernourished. It was also well on track to meet its MDG poverty target before 2015. This impressive record in a region not known to post such is attributed to a robust economic growth (its GDP grew by an average of 4.5% a year since 1983 and by an impressive 14 % in 2011), market reforms and favourable terms of trade and investment climate. However, all this would not be possible without the peace and political stability that Ghana enjoys. In fact, I dare say, this is the impetus that fuelled Ghana to meeting the MDG hunger target by 2000-02.

In stark contrast to Ghana, Uganda records a dismal performance on its progress to meet the MDG hunger target. Firstly, the prevalence of undernourishment has been increasing since the early 2000. This is attributed to discordance between food production and population growth. Uganda has an annual population growth of 3.2%, one of the highest in the world. This rate combined with a declining food production per capita, unequal distribution and access to food have rendered one third of Uganda’s population to be chronically undernourished.

Conclusion

African countries performance in regard to ending hunger leaves a lot to be desired. While the continent boasts of having the largest tracts of unused arable land, it also holds the unenviable title of the continent with the highest number of hungry people. Much has been said of this discrepancy and quite a number of recommendations have been suggested. Despite of all these efforts, the changes over the years do not merit the investment made into bringing about those changes. As we measure the hopes that we have for the New Year, it is my sincere hope that we see much more political commitments made towards ending hunger globally and especially in Africa. It is also my sincere desire that we witness significant changes in the indicators of hunger in the foreseeable future. Perhaps approaching the year 2015, measuring of progress made towards MDGs and post-2015 development agenda will fuel efforts towards eliminating hunger. Meanwhile, remarks made by José Graziano da Silva (FAO Director-General), Kanayo F. Nwanze( IFAD President) and Ertharin Cousin (WFP Executive Director) in the foreword to The State of Food Insecurity in the world, 2013 ring ever so true…

“Ultimately, political stability, effective governance and, most importantly, uninterrupted long- term commitments to mainstreaming food security and nutrition in policies and programmes are key to the reduction of hunger and malnutrition”

NB: A more concise review of 2013 can be found at http://www.hunger-undernutrition.org/blog/2013/12/happy-new-year-a-look-back-at-2013.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Hunger-undernutritionBlog+%28Hunger-Undernutrition+Blog%29

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India’s Food Security bill and what Kenya can learn from it

India is going through what many may call ”interesting times”. In December 2011, the ruling party, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) introduced the National Food Security Bill in parliament. It consolidated several food programs that had proved successful in the country. However, the part that drew public attention was the grain distribution program which is arguably the most ambitious food program to be undertaken singly by any government in the world. It seeks to provide food (5kg grain/person/month) at subsidised prices to 800 million people at a cost of $22 billion annually. The identification of these 800 million people will be done by government officials. In a country where a quarter of the world’s hungry live in and has the second highest percentage of malnourished children, one might be forgiven for thinking this bill was going to be welcomed with open arms. Its reception has been quite the opposite. The opposition has claimed that the ruling party has just repackaged existing food programs and hurriedly introduced it to parliament. Furthermore, they are irked by the fact that the Prime Minister chose to use an ordinance to ensure the bill passed through the lower house. ”Ordinances are to be employed only in cases of emergency. What was so urgent that the bill could not wait 30 days to be discussed?” the opposition protested. All in all, it is the view of the opposition that this bill is UPA’s re-election strategy, designed to hoodwink India’s majority, the rural poor into electing UPA back to government come 2014.

In spite of all the dust this bill has raised, there remains a few voices that have chose to rise above it and offer sober judgment of the bill.

Jean Drèze, the co-author with Amartya Sen, of “An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions.” acknowledges that the bill might do some good only if there is sufficient political backing for it. However, he asserts that the battle for the right to food in India is far from over. Arvind Virmani, a former chief economic advisor to the government believes the bill will have little or no effect on malnutrition, poverty and hunger. This is because the most important cause of malnutrition in India is its abysmal state of public health, sanitation and hygiene. Most Indians do not have access to proper lavatories. This fact was wittingly captured by Amartya Sen during an interview by the Guardian when he remarked that the Indian government is more concerned with putting a mobile phone in an Indian’s hand than providing the same individual with a lavatory. Moreover, public knowledge on nutrition is wanting with the majority not possessing basic knowledge on nutrition matters.

While the debate rages on and the bill has been pruned first by the National Advisory Council and later by the government, the eastern state of Chhattisgarh has adopted the bill in its original form and is doing a commendable job in its implementation. Unlike the national food distribution system which is riddled with corruption and inefficiency, the new distribution system in Chhattisgarh state is regular, efficient and has a markedly lower leakage as compared to the national which stands at about 40 %. Majority of the poor households in Chhattisgarh are entitled to 34 kg of rice every month. The success of the system at the ground goes to show the extent to which the National Food Security bill can significantly reduce malnutrition levels in the country if implemented well. Ironically, Chhattisgarh state is ruled by the main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata.

I have always believed that developing nations such as Kenya can borrow a few lessons from India. For instance, the new form of governance in Kenya offers citizens opportunities to come up with solutions to problems that have bedeviled them since time immemorial. This a radical shift from the recent past where waiting for the central government to take action was the only option (Naomba Serikali Syndrome-NSS). Turkana County seems to lead the way by ensuring that the concept of food and nutrition security has been institutionalized. The county government has created a department whose sole mandate is to ensure that the inhabitants of Turkana County are food and nutrition secure.

In addition to developments at the county level, it is prudent to note that politics will always be closely linked with development. Whichever election period it is, there is always that one promise or proposed law that draws public attention; free Primary Education, free laptops for standard one students (the lowest class in Primary schooling in Kenya), etc. However, there is usually that promise concerning food and nutrition security that is often overlooked. In its manifesto, the ruling alliance, Jubilee, promised to put one million acres under irrigation to counter food insecurity in the country. Although faulted to only consider the supply side of food insecurity, it was a breakthrough of sorts. Efforts are being made to deliver on this promise but more remains to be done. The civil society, Non-governmental Organizations, the opposition, the media and the public at large need to keep the incumbent government on its toes thus ensuring that such noble programs are not drowned in political shenanigans.

The bill has now been passed by the Upper house in India. It now awaits accent by President Pranab Mukherjee before it becomes law. The global development players are watching India closely. If India succeeds in its implementation, it goes without saying that the program will be replicated elsewhere as well.

A Jittery leadership might be good for prevention of famine

The JKIA inferno brought to the fore the age-old debate about our country’s ineptitude in dealing with disasters. In an attempt to add a voice to this debate, I feel strongly that a jittery leadership is a pivotal factor in disaster management. And to defend this position, I call to mind the 1982 coup d’état attempt and the 1984/85 food emergency.

100 soldiers and more than 200 civilians are recorded to have died during the putshe attempt. However, in a curious twist of events, this failed attempt might have aided to avert what might have been a more fatal disaster-famine.

The 1984/85 food emergency was the worst to hit Kenya in the 20th Century. Livestock losses of up to 70% were recorded and production of major food security crops such as maize, wheat and potato dropped by 50%, 70% and 70% respectively. These very low yields and loss of livestock was caused by a drought that began with the failure of the short rains in northern and north-eastern Kenya in 1983. Only the central and western highlands received enough rain to produce maize. However, in 1984, the long rains almost completely failed, except in the narrow strip along the coast and in the western highlands. Hence, the drought was felt heavily in the Central highlands where a majority of natives were not enthusiastic about Moi’s presidency.

The failed coup d’état jolted President Moi to the realization that all was not well. Although, it was primarily planned by persons loyal to the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, rumours have it that a few Kikuyus within the disciplined forces were warming up for a coup but the Luos beat them to it. Hence, with this background in mind, President Moi acted fast to mitigate the effects of the drought as he feared deterioration of the drought into famine might result in discontent and political instability.

His government established an inter-ministerial drought response coordinating committee chaired by the Chief Secretary in his office. The committee moved swiftly to assess the situation, establish a government response policy, begin commercial imports of food, negotiate with the donor community for food assistance, and establish a Task Force to manage the food import and distribution program. The first shipment of yellow maize arrived in September 1984. It was 30% less costly than white maize and had a secondary positive effect of encouraging informal rationing by those consumers who had access to alternative food supplies.

The Planning Department of the Ministry of Finance and Planning collected information on the school feeding programs, commodity prices in various local markets, domestic commodity transport costs, livestock conditions, nutritional status of selected low income communities, voluntary organization programs and the status of the railway rolling stock. These were analysed and made available at all levels of personnel involved in the drought response. Unconditional relief in the form of free food rations were given out to vulnerable households in the affected areas. The identification of such households was carried out by the provincial administration which relied on relief committees and local chiefs. In 1985, the long rains were about average and drought emergency was considered over.

The government response to the 1984/85 food emergency was pivotal in the prevention of a famine and it was lauded the world over. However, an often overlooked fact is that a jittery presidency was fundamental to its success.