Why Treasury is getting it wrong on agriculture
Doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results, it is said, can only be folly.
Unfortunately, this appears to be the default approach of the National Treasury, when it comes to the national budget process, and particularly on initiatives aimed at reforming the agriculture sector.
The sector is the backbone of the economy and cornerstone in ensuring food and nutrition security — a key imperative for survival and economic productivity. Access to quality food is a human right enshrined in the Constitution, hence the need to focus all efforts towards producing adequate food that can be available to all at an affordable price.
Despite government obligations to take steps with a view to progressively achieving the full realisation of the right to food, budget allocation to agriculture follows the same pattern. Even after public participation is invited in shaping the Budget Policy Statement and submissions made by different actors, these recommendations are totally disregarded in the final document. The drafters of the statement, it appears, have a script that they would never depart from.
It is no wonder all this does not move the needle with regard to ensuring that the right to food, which is enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya under article 43 (c) (1), is guaranteed to all.
Environmentally conscious agricultural production suffers greatly, the safety of food for consumers is at rock bottom, livelihoods of farmers are in jeopardy, and Kenya’s ability to meet the food needs of future generations is increasingly unlikely.
According to the Global Hunger Index 2018, one out of three Kenyans suffers from severe food insecurity and poor nutrition. It is ironic that the critical role of this sector is not lost on the government, which has earmarked it as a priority under the Big Four Agenda.
That the gains in agriculture are worrying is not for lack of ideas of how to break the chain of hunger. It is all about more talk and less action, or action but with the wrong focus; and stubborn unwillingness to take others’ ideas into consideration.
Proposals, such as the need to finance big-ticket agriculture projects with the potential to enhance food security and proper investment across the value chain, are never followed through, particularly when it comes to putting significant funding behind them. From submissions made to allocate Sh40.6 billion, only Sh7.7 billion made it in the statement. The question we should be asking ourselves in the first place is whether big agriculture projects are an effective solution to chronic food and nutrition insecurity, when we are working in a context where the majority of farmers are smallholders and the problem of food security is not one of production, but rather a problem of distribution and economic access.
Even the need to address the plight of smallholder farmers is nothing but words that ring hollow, hence the vulnerability of these farmers and the sector as a whole to the vagaries of the weather. There is no meaningful political commitment to institute small-scale irrigation projects, enhance access to and knowledge about, ecological ways of farming, alongside other measures that will improve our situation.
The same goes for post-harvest losses, why are we so set on the production side of this equation when an estimated 40 per cent of the food that is produced ends up going to waste. These are the reasons that contribution of agriculture to the country’s GDP slowed down to a measly 1.7 per cent, from the previous year’s 4.1 per cent, according to the Economic Survey 2018 Highlights.
Things will remain bleak unless the all-talk trend is replaced with the correct actions to address familiar challenges. The recently released 2019 Budget Policy Statement continues on the same path, waxing lyrical about the government’s plan to increase food production, boost smallholder productivity and reduce the cost of food.
However, it fails to concretise this. This is an issue of grave concern because it is this document that sets out broad strategic priorities and policy goals to guide budgeting for national and county governments.
The National Treasury, it appears, is only interested in ticking a box, as required by the Public Finance Management Act (2012). This is a mockery of the sanctity of public participation.
Until talk is matched with action, and the views of other stakeholders are taken seriously we will continue doing the same thing over and over – while wondering why many Kenyans still struggle to access quality food and our human right remains an illusion.
By Lillian Onyango, Brand and Media Coordinator at the Route to Food Initiative