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HomeFood Law and PoliticsWhat Ails Kenya’s Food System? A Policy Perspective

What Ails Kenya’s Food System? A Policy Perspective

Achieving food and nutrition security is an international and national goal. Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) seeks to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030.

The right to food is enshrined in the 2010 Constitution, with Article 43(1)c stating that every person has the right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality. This is reinforced with respect to children in Article 53.

Such a high-level and rights-based approach ensures that food security is treated as a right and not a favor. Given the high numbers of those suffering from extreme hunger and malnutrition, Kenya is far from achieving food security. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the fragility of our food system. What are some of the factors contributing to this sad situation?  

Narrow understanding of food security and the food system

Food security is more than just a full stomach. Food security exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

This points to several dimensions of food security that need to be taken into account e.g., availability of adequate and quality food, access to the food, i.e. the socio-economic and politico-legal arrangements that enable citizens to gain possession of and utilize the food, and stability – resilience of the food system to environmental, market or other types of shocks.

Unfortunately, our food policies focus on increasing agricultural productivity and yields at the expense of the other equally important dimensions of food security such as access and sustainability.

This has led to the prioritization of only a few food crops (e.g. maize) and the promotion of conventional agricultural methods that use a lot of inputs such as synthetic fertilizers and agro-chemicals, which have detrimental impacts on soils, ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health.

The food system is a complex web of activities and sectors involving the production, processing, transport, and consumption of food and is best conceptualized as an eco-agri-food-health system. It is often lost on many that apart from ending hunger and malnutrition, SDG 2 roots for sustainable food systems that maintain ecosystems and genetic diversity of seeds and enhance resilience and adaptation to climate change. Adoption of agroecology is among strategies that can help transform our food system into a more eco-friendly, resilient, and inclusive one.

Lack of farmer-centered and pro-poor policies

Most Kenyans are aware of the often repeated (and generally true) statistics: Agriculture employs most of the Kenyan population – especially in the rural areas, supports all other sectors and contribute significantly to GDP, over 80% of Kenyan farmers are small-scale, with women providing most of the farm labor, and so on. Most Kenyans are also poor and therefore highly vulnerable. Simple logic and the tenets of democracy would dictate that policies should reflect and address the needs of these poor and vulnerable majority. However, the policies in place show otherwise. For example, more than 80% of small-scale farmers rely on the informal seed sector comprised of own-saved seeds, exchanges with neighbours, and local seed markets. Yet the country’s seed laws, and regulations do not recognise and in fact criminalises the informal seed sector.

It is illegal to sell uncertified seeds in Kenya, including the traditional seeds sold in local seed markets. The conservation and use of local crop varieties through informal seed systems provide a wealth of crop genetic diversity and is recognized as critical for climate change adaptation. Small-scale farmers know how to sustainably produce enough food, but the economic and political rules that govern their food system are often set against them. The capture of the food system and policies by the elite and corporate interests is quite well known but is rarely acknowledged.       

Kenya is famous for developing ‘good’ policies which are poorly implemented. Policies are simply statements of intent. If not implemented, the good policies simply remain good intentions. The poor implementation can be attributed to several factors. Impractical implementation plans or strategies, some of which simply repeat the policy statements, is one factor. Few and poorly designed incentive structures is another. Policies require social, economic, and fiscal incentives and disincentives to implement, and these need to be designed with the intended behavior change in mind. Moreover, many policies are simply not implemented either due to a lack of political will, poor coordination mechanisms, or lack of financing.

However, without adequate financing, policies cannot be effectively implemented. In 2003, African countries committed to allocate at least 10% of their national budgets to agriculture. Kenya allocates less than 4% of the national budget to agriculture, a situation replicated across the counties. The budgetary allocation to agriculture is consistently low compared to other sectors and is mostly spent on recurrent expenditure. The perennial little investment in agriculture, poor implementation of existing policies which, in most instances, prioritize the interests of a minority elite and corporates, and the narrow interpretation of food security leads to the unfortunate conclusion that, despite the repeated invocation of statistics, there is little appreciation of the role of agriculture in national development by the policy system.  

Achieving food and nutrition security requires appreciation of its multidimensional nature and implementation of pro-poor and eco-friendly food policies. The FAO’s Guidelines on Right to Food identify nineteen areas that need to be addressed to have an enabling environment and accountability for the right to food. Long-term political will, a change of policy mindset, and a multisectoral and multistakeholder approach is necessary.

More importantly, taking back control of the food system by farmers, communities and citizens will be crucial in the realization of the right to food.

Opinion editorial by; Dr. Oulu, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi (UoN) and coordinator of the Intersectoral Forum on Agrobiodiversity and Agroecology (ISFAA).

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