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HomeFood Law and PoliticsStrategies for transforming Kenya’s food systems

Strategies for transforming Kenya’s food systems

Kenya is facing increasingly complex food and nutrition security problems which makes it easy to rely on the ideas and associated funding, terms and conditions of global philanthropic giants committed to ending hunger. Producing and providing food is a power game that Kenya’s smallholder farmers are losing. Daniel Maingi joins a growing movement of scientists arguing that agroecology infused with traditional-indigenous agricultural knowledge, holds the best potential to overcome years of destructive and unsustainable agriculture in Kenya.

The uneven distribution of hunger and nutrition reflects the unequal distribution of power in global food systems. Power is defined as, “the degree of control over the material, human, intellectual and financial resources exercised in the social, economic and political relations between individuals and groups” (VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002, p. 39). In food systems, power is exercised through concentrations of capital and market share that allow agri-food corporations to influence the price of food and food inputs as well as supply or quality.

This power is wielded through and by, government offices, international organisations, or public-private partnerships (PPPs), which can influence, implement or block food policies and with their intellectual or organisational resources, can shape debates and mobilise public opinion over decisions about household food expenditure. In the food system, this differential power appears in various forms, levels and spaces, ranging from who has the financial muscle to decide what to get for dinner tonight, for example, all the way up to whose voice gets heard in debates about international food regulations and policy frameworks.

In 2016, there were about 800 million people who experienced chronic hunger and over 2 billion who were overweight or obese worldwide (Hamano et al., 2017). In Kenya, approximately 25% of the population i.e. more than 10 million people experience chronic food insecurity. While the country faces ongoing crises of undernutrition and child stunting, rates of adult obesity are high, and recently it was estimated to be at 26% nationally. In Central Kenya, research showed that 47% of women were overweight in 2014 (Demmler, Ecker, & Qaim, 2017). These deep contradictions are now commonly referred to as the ‘double nutrition burden,’ and it is obvious that Kenya’s food and nutrition security problem is fast-becoming increasingly complex and affecting more people every day.

Philanthro-capitalism and the Scramble for the Control of Local Food Systems

For the past 15 years, it is this backdrop that has dominated the discourse on the use of biotechnology, policies and legislation that govern food security and food sovereignty in Kenya, and indeed in Africa. The entrance of the Gates-Rockefeller funded, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) which has its headquarters in Nairobi, has further muddied the waters and created a rift that has revealed the great complexity in the nature of the current food politics in the world (Toenniessen, Adesina, & DeVries, 2008).

Pro-biotech genetically modified foods (GMO) groups have accused governments and ‘slow technology adapters,’ including groups that practice natural farming methods such as agroecology and permaculture, of being responsible for causing starvation in Africa. They have gone further to label as anti-science, civil society and smallholder farmers in Africa who reject the adoption of industrial and chemical-intensive models of agriculture (Paarlberg, 2009).

Kenya, admired by many developing countries, has in the last 5 years passed a number of laws that severely curtail farmers’ rights to freely save, sell and exchange their farmer owned seeds, while giving immense power and space to both local and multi-national private interests in the agriculture sector on issues such as seed trading and breeders’ rights protection.

AGRA amongst others, are key players in the efforts to harmonise Africa’s agricultural policies and legal frameworks through regional economic commissions (RECs), in order to facilitate the entrance and privileging of multi-national corporations in the local food system (Obenland, 2014). We are firmly in a period of corporate, profit-driven, agricultural and rural development strategies at the expense of smallholder farmers across the continent – the majority of them being women – and who are primarily responsible for Africa’s food production.

New forms of funding from global philanthropic giants such as the Gates Foundation have shifted and reduced the need for traditional bi-lateral and multi-lateral government agreements and instead, have emerged to fill this role through neoliberal philanthropy. Philanthropy is not neutral.

It is clear that political and ideological commitments of these new structures of ‘charity’ continue in the capitalist tradition of putting profits over people, food and environmental justice.

From Tragedy to Farce

Since the food crisis of 2008, many governments have had to grapple with the enormous task of providing food and decent jobs to their citizens, in an age of multiple inter-connected crises of climate, finance, water and energy. For reasons of national security, foreign exchange conservation and protectionism, countries have aimed to achieve ‘food self-sufficiency’ – the ability to produce enough food to feed the populace, through domestic channels alone (Clapp, 2017). Ironically, and during a time when Kenya was experiencing a severe drought and famine amidst the world food crisis, the government allowed the government of Qatar to acquire 40,000 hectares of irrigated land to grow food for Qatari citizens (Von Braun, & Meinzen-Dick, 2009).

This was a critical turning point in the local food justice discussions. There was fierce criticism from civil society groups on the government’s inability to forge a concrete path that would allow Kenyans to achieve the Right to Food, but instead, the state was further compounding existing problems of land injustice by selling land to foreign governments.

In 2009, the Kenyan government illegally imported 280,000 tons of GMO maize from South Africa – most of which was unfit for human consumption (Thatiah, 2009) – and at this point, it was evident that the path to food security in Kenya was littered with missteps. Additionally, the Ministry of Agriculture abandoned the blue print set in Kenya’s Vision 2030 (a development framework that remains contested in certain corners because of its uncritical embrace of neoliberalism) that envisioned 80,000 acres being put under irrigation, annually. Instead, the ministry opted to try and meet Kenya’s food security needs as well as to fulfil a campaign manifesto, by focusing on one mega-irrigation project covering one million acres – the Galana-Kulalu Food Security Project (Ombaka, 2014).

The project became steeped in controversy over costs and viability, to the point where the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture subsequently called for its total suspension (Nado, 2017). Over the past few years, it has become clear that the project is a subpar approach to making Kenya food secure and driven by questionable (political) motives.

Whether importing food or investing in mega-billion-dollar food production projects that are bound to fail, the government of Kenya has performed dismally with regards to helping Kenyans realise their Right to Food that is provided for in Article 43 of the Kenyan Constitution. Legislation in place serves to attract private corporations only interested in profit making rather than ensuring Kenyans are food secure.

In spite of decades of research by world class elite institutions based in Kenya such the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organization (KALRO) and in spite of AGRA’s own research work and promise of a ‘uniquely African green revolution’, Kenya continues to experience chronic food insecurity and recurring hunger crises.

Conventional industrial agriculture is increasingly relying on chemical intensive inputs such as certified hybrids seeds, pesticides and inorganic fertilisers. In spite of this, yields on average have continued to drop yearly, leaving policymakers baffled. The government of Kenya banned the use of DAP fertiliser especially in the grain basket of the Northern Rift, blaming a continuing yield decline of more than 30% to the acidifying effects of long term use of inorganic DAP input (Bii, 2017).

Local Strategies to Engender Food Rights at Individual and Community Levels

Food sovereignty is defined as the right of each nation or region to maintain and develop their capacity to produce basic food crops with the corresponding productive and cultural diversity, emphasising farmers’ access to land, seeds and water while focusing on local autonomy, local markets, local production-consumption cycles, energy and technological sovereignty, and farmer-to-farmer networks (Altieri, 2009).

In the last two decades, the realisation of the contribution of small-scale farmers to national food security in the face of climate change, economic and energy crises have led to the global embrace of the concept of food sovereignty and agro-ecologically based production systems (Altieri, Funes-Monzote, & Petersen, 2012). In Kenya, thousands of farmers and some civil society organisations including, Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN), the African Biodiversity Network (ABN), Participatory Land Use Management Association (PELUM), and some academic institutions like Kenyatta University, Egerton University and the University of Nairobi, have provided new approaches, education and technologies which blend agro-ecology and indigenous knowledge together to achieve higher levels of sustainable food production.

Central to their work has been a quest for nutritionally balanced foods that meet the cultural and gender sensitive needs of local communities (Benessia et al., 2012). These innovations enhance food self-sufficiency at the farm level, while conserving agro-biodiversity, soil and water resources.

In other words, agroecology infused with traditional indigenous agricultural knowledge, holds the best potential to overcome years of destructive and unsustainable western style industrial agriculture in Kenya.

Market Oriented Models vis-à-vis Self-sufficiency

In Kenya, the commodification of food and market deregulation has created unjust access to food, patriarchal control of farm profits, and shaped the monumental collapse of nutritionally balanced food that is available to the rural and urban poor. The government and agricultural industry’s uncritical support for ‘farming as a business’ campaigns, has led to a dispossession of smallholder farmers.

A privileging of market-centred value chains approach to agriculture production has the potential to over-produce and depress commodity prices, leading to increased rural poverty. In addition, it is clear that the Kenyan government policy and project support for small-scale farmers’ farming and businesses is dismal, benefiting mostly local large-scale farmers and foreign agri-investors.

To realise the spread of agro-ecological innovations and sustainable food self-sufficiency, Kenya needs major changes in policies, institutions, research and development approaches. Farmers’ rights to biodiversity needs to go beyond being enshrined in various pieces of legislation but actively promoted by county and national governments.

These plans must go beyond a basic aim of increasing food production and conserving natural resources. Importantly there must be a deliberate focus on women, with a bias toward women in rural areas, and the poor. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive identities and the intersections must be navigated with care.

Agroecological practices under food sovereignty, while focusing on food self-sufficiency at the community and often rural areas, must not ignore the food inequalities in urban and peri-urban centres. The drive for fresh, local and organic produce has the potential, for example, of increasing the incomes of local small-scale farmers as urban middle-class consumers are increasingly becoming aware of the envirosocio-economic benefits of consuming indigenous foods and vegetables that are grown sustainably.


Farmers’ rights include the protection of traditional knowledge relevant to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, the right to equitably participate in sharing benefits arising from the utilisation of plant genetic resources and the right to participate in making decisions at the national levels on matters related to the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources, for food and agriculture.

Another aspect, generally considered the most essential part of the farmer’s rights debate, is the right to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed. According to the Article 9.3 in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the right to save, use and exchange is “subject to national law and as appropriate” (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2009, p. 13). This implies that the implementation of a strict plant variety protection law could strongly limit these farmers’ rights with respect to protected varieties (De Jonge, 2014).

The Kenyan government should enact policies and invest in farmers with existing agroecological projects. This would boost farmers’ perception and their role in feeding themselves and their families first and then the nation. Large sections of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Authority Act 2013, the Crops Act 2013 and the Research Act 2013, need to be suspended as they criminalise farmers who opt to follow agro-ecological farming practices that are in line with their evolving traditional knowledge.

Finally, the government and its development partners need to carry out innovative research, concomitant with climate change resilience and that complements the already existing food producing and life-sustaining work of Kenya’s smallholder farmers. The results of the research and development initiatives should also be open source, available as public knowledge and collective commons, but protected as one of the farmers’ skills worthy of protection under the UNs multilateral system of access and benefit sharing (ABS.).


Daniel Maingi is an ardent agroecologist, consultant and the Director of Growth Partners Africa. Here, he leads a team partnering with grassroots communities on appropriate sustainable farming technologies that increase their food security, improve their livelihoods and protect the environment. For the past 15 years, he has worked with civil, community and church based organisations in Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Kenya and the USA, helping them champion people’s rights to food, genetic resources, land and water.

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