Small-scale farmers are key to food security
We often assume that the only way to resolve Kenya’s hunger problem is through large-scale commercial agriculture or through genetically modified food while the key to resolving the country’s ongoing food crisis is through small-scale farmers.
Kenya’s agriculture is predominantly small-scale farming and is carried out on farms averaging 0.2–3ha, mostly on a subsistence basis. Small-scale operations account for over 70% of agricultural production and meet about 75% of the national food demand. Therefore, the most important reason for supporting small-scale farming is its critical role in achieving food security, particularly for those who are vulnerable to chronic hunger or food poverty.
Food security is a condition in which, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, ‘all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (FAO 2002). Promisingly, the draft Food Security Bill 2014, currently before the national assembly, closely mirrors internationally accepted norms of defining food security.
Small-scale farming is the backbone of agriculture and food security because it prioritises food production. It not only feeds families, but also generates jobs and catalyses the growth of rural businesses, particularly in the sector of micro and small enterprises. It is also important in urban settings with peri-urban agriculture increasing the amount and quality of food available to people living in major towns.
As demand for food is growing in Kenya, rural and urban consumers are increasingly relying on small-scale farmers to secure their supply of agricultural commodities. These farmers are a central player in production of cereals (millet, rice, maize etc.), roots and tubers (cassava, yams etc.), production of seasonal fruits as well as breeding of poultry, cattle and fish. Increased small-scale agricultural production means more food enters the marketplace, leading to lower food prices. Moreover, it means small-scale farmers who are often also food poor farmers, are able to earn a living that allows them to reinvest in their farms and feed themselves and their families. Increased small-scale agricultural production supports the livelihoods of people on both ends of the food value chain.
More than 25% of food produced is lost in the entire post-harvest chain before reaching the consumer. These losses occur at every stage: harvest, drying, shelling, winnowing, sorting/packaging, storage and during transportation to the market and in-market storage. With the right equipment, knowledge and government support (both national and county), small-scale farmers would contribute to reducing post-harvest losses leading to gains in the quantity of food supply as well as agricultural income.
Extension services play a key role in disseminating knowledge and are critical in transforming subsistence farming to modern and economically viable agricultural ventures. However, there is limited access to extension services in most parts of the country with the national extension staff to farmer ratio standing at 1:1,500. This situation has hindered most farmers from keeping pace with technological advances. There is a need to recruit more extension staff to increase access of extension services to farmers.
Although Kenya has an established agricultural research system with well-trained scientists, use of modern science and technology by small-scale farmers is still limited. This constrains efforts to increase agricultural productivity as farmers continue to use outdated and ineffective technologies. If there existed adequate research-extension-farmer linkages to deliver on demand driven research, then small-scale farmers could continue to produce enough to feed the country and meet the increasing demand for food for consumption, product value addition and potentially, export.
Small-scale farmers however are being pushed into a small corner of the country’s farmland due to population growth and the pressure this poses on land and water resources; the subdivision of land where it is custom to divide land among children; private investment or national development projects that prioritise making room for real estate and infrastructure expansion or extractive industries (mining, oil and gas).
Improving food security depends on removing the socioeconomic and political barriers faced by small-scale farmers in expanding their productive capacity. Amongst other things these include making agricultural extension services available, improving financial and marketing services, access to land and security of tenure, improving farming infrastructure, education for farmers, access to health care and routing out members of public office or other groups that misappropriate funds for personal gain. At the very least, policies should be put in place that protect and promote projects and grassroots organisations that are successfully tackling some of the challenges of farming themselves.
Food security can be significantly improved by changing the way we think about – and who we think about – when we talk food production and distribution. We should challenge Kenyan leaders to make small-scale farming a priority, in an effort to transform the national food system and find creative solutions to the problem of chronic food poverty suffered by too many of our citizens.
By Muthoni Njenga. Muthoni supports the Route to Food initiative.
Image: Jennifer Atieno, Muhoroni Constituency, Kisumu. Photograph taken by Armstrong Too.