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Hungry Farmers: How market-oriented agriculture destabilises food security

A new scenario is emerging in the rural areas – farmers are crowding the markets to get their daily food supplies. One would assume that farmers, by the definition of their labour, should be able to produce a good proportion of the food they need to consume in their homes. It is estimated that small-scale farmers contribute about 70% to the national food basket, yet the average maize farmer in Kenya is a net buyer – able to grow enough to supply themselves for seven to nine months in a year, and the rest of the time they must buy from the market. This developing trend of farmers buying foods for consumption from the same market they sell, begs the question – what happened to growing for subsistence first before selling? It makes financial sense when farmers sell their produce for the purpose of acquiring money to meet other expenses like health and education but not so that they can buy food again. This clearly suggests that our farmers are being progressively influenced to innocently cope with and implement the “farming as a business” clarion call.

In their quest for better incomes and living conditions promised by the promoters of the “agribusiness model”, smallholder farmers are giving up their food sovereignty, which was uniquely flavoured by a wide range of food crops on small pieces of land and enough to feed their families. This approach has been referred to by agribusiness protagonists and “value-chain experts” as unprofitable. However, what makes better sense for farmers – is it getting profits or being able to feed themselves first? Why should they only produce one crop on their farms, sell because there is a good market for it and then line up to buy all the other food products they could have grown on their farms?

All this is happening at a time when the food markets in Kenya are not well structured, least of all in rural areas. Rural food markets are in many cases treated to the rejects from the city and nearby towns.  You rarely see the fresh spinach you see in the supermarkets and super-groceries in the rural food markets. Poor infrastructure and market systems only make rural food markets more inefficient and unreliable. The local food traders who dominate the food business in rural areas often have inadequate market information and planning skills with no ability or interest to expand to meet the growing demand of food fueled by overdependence of rural households on informal food markets.

Agribusiness is a vehicle to drive increased agricultural production and involvement of more people in food production handling and trade activities but there is need to maintain if not advance, the ability of farming households to produce their own food. Traditionally, local farmers have been feeding themselves by producing healthy food and selling the surplus to fund other household needs and necessities. This fact should not be corrupted for whatever reason. Let families make use of small kitchen gardens behind their houses to grow vegetables and spices to accompany their meals. The message we should be relaying to farmers is that food security starts at the household level and promoting family farming is one way of achieving this.

It’s important to ensure that the food sovereignty of smallholder farmers is not affected by our focus and drive towards commercial agriculture. We should not conflate the issue of food insecurity with an increasingly upscaled, commercialised and privatised model for agriculture – the latter is not a solution for the former. Smallholder farmers face chronic food insecurity since they do not have as much purchasing power as the employed folks do. The only way to ensure that these farmers are cushioned from the unpredictable market dynamics, which have become a common phenomenon in our country, is by encouraging them to produce first for their families before they can look to the market.

It is only when the food market has been streamlined, is reliable and offers sufficient information and transparency to all involved that we can talk about specialisation of small-scale farmers into value chain specific production. The idea of integrated farming, diversification and all year around production through water conservation, should be promoted in rural areas as it will help re-assure small-scale farmers with typically low purchasing power a meal of their choice. Let us not cross this bridge when we get there, nor cross it with closed eyes. Let us work together to enhance food security of the small farmer and his or her immediate networks by enabling and encoring them through policy implementation and budget allocation, to produce for themselves first.

By Emmanuel Atamba who is a Route to Food Youth Ambassador and Founder of Vijana Shambani Initiative



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