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Opinion: To attain food security, the government needs to take back control of the smallholder farmers

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By Anne Muriuki

He wore the crown and this meant that in Ruguru Location, Mathira Constituency, Central Province, he was the government. He was Bwana Chief Karangi, in the post-independence period when Kenyans, who had been in internment villages, were settling in their farms.

Bwana Chief was in all sectors, but it is mainly in agriculture where he single-handedly swept off any resistance that the Ministry of Agriculture would face in implementing concepts that were new to the citizens.

This genre of Chief presided over a form of benevolent dictatorship that helped Kenya take its baby steps in agriculture and become food secure.

He would give a don’t-you-dare deadline of, “I don’t want to see any active bulls in this location.”


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With this, even the prize winning bulls named Uhuru were castrated or sold. This cleared the way for the introduction of Artificial Insemination Services and marked the beginning of the dairy sector.

“There will be communal work on Tuesday for construction of the cattle dip.”

Behind his back there would be bickering – didn’t forced labor end with independence? But all households sent able-bodied member(s) to the site.

And when the cattle dip became operational, all livestock were taken to the dip, ensuring that the tick-borne diseases were communally controlled.

Be it making terraces on slopy land or selecting pioneer farmers for training at Wambugu Farmers Training Centre, this genre of Chief presided over a form of benevolent dictatorship that helped Kenya take its baby steps in agriculture and become food secure.

His edicts were, whenever necessary, reinforced by invoking the names of Bwana (District Officer) D.O and (District Commissioner) D.C, who were believed to be on a direct cable to the President.

The whole executive arm of the government was aware that for a newly independent country, food security was the bedrock on which other development services such as health, education, security and financial growth were based.

Having started on such a high note, how did we lose the agriculture momentum, such that Kenya at 55 years can’t feed herself?

How do we square off that in 2018, one of the major roles of the chief – we long did away with the Bwana – is in the distribution of relief food, even in areas that were once food secure?

While I can’t put my finger on the exact period, somewhere in the 80’s, the country became complacent, possibly based on optimism that the momentum of the 70’s would continue on advisory services from the Ministry of Agriculture, without the heavy hand from the executive.

With this, farmers no longer felt obliged to take up any recommendations offered by the ministry, and communal platforms like mass roll out of new seed varieties were lost. Knock, knock who’s there? Famine.

This is the situation that I found during my brief tenure at the agriculture extension service in the 90’s.

By the time we were enacting the new constitution and devolution, the farmer was a twig carrying member of the haki yetu (our rights) brigade and could therefore protest for his right to, for example; keep feed-guzzling breeds of dairy cattle on the utopian promise that it can get 40 ltrs of milk/day/cow, even when the cows are underfed due to lack of quality animal feeds; not sell livestock at their prime only to see them wiped off by drought; and keep quails – enough.

To appease the haki yetu citizens, the government became politically correct in its communication with farmers. Instead of the dare-you edicts of the Bwana Chief, farmers are “encouraged” to plant early; and use of certified seeds and drought-resistant crops is “recommended”.

These words are euphemisms for – run your farms as you see fit. And with pleasure, farmers are doing just that! Is it a wonder that most of our research findings from organizations such as KALRO have not yet found their way into our plates?

In Kenya, agriculture is not cool idea but a food fact.

Sticking with the twigs, the farmers – I am one – will wave them on serikali tusaidie (government help us) demonstrations for the supply of quality livestock feeds, better prices for farm produce, searching for buyers of last resort for emaciated livestock and supply of subsidized fertilizer.

True, there are problems in agriculture, especially in supply and marketing, and it is OK that farmers seek help from the government.

But the long term effects of government intervention are not felt because as soon as a problem is solved, however partial, farmers revert to haki yetu mode.

If we are to attain sustainable food security as envisioned in the Big Four agenda, the government needs to take back control of the small holder agriculture sector. A good starting point is by ending this see-sawing of haki yetu and serikali tusaidie. This can no longer be done on political goodwill but on benevolent dictatorship.

I see some raised pitchforks ready to defend our democratic principles – peace; from now onwards let’s use the term political good force instead of benevolent dictatorship.

Should we adopt political good force, Kenya will be in good company – particularly of a certain desert country which considers food security as its national security. It is the leading destination for benchmarking agriculture tours for our leaders and dairy farmers.

I wonder if they get the memo that down there farming is done by the government’s book, otherwise it is borderline of treason? Figured out the country?

I suggest that we slow down on promoting the agribusiness/agripreneurs model and focus on making farming households food secure.

But to give credit to our government, it has successfully used political good force to reform the transport sector (matatus) and Saccos.

Also in the education sector, without promotion or encouragement, but by an order with a deadline, even the six-figure fees alternative curriculum schools painted their buses yellow just like the what’s-its-name D.E.B. school. Is this not the kind of political good force that would be worth deploying for food security?

At the risk of disinviting myself to the agriculture conferences that will spill off from the Big Four agenda – I hear there is big money and grant proposal writers are busy – I suggest that we slow down on promoting the agribusiness/agripreneurs model and focus on making farming households food secure.

By over emphasizing on agribusiness, we are making agriculture to be seen as a strictly transactional endeavor, which undervalues the food that is grown for family consumption.
But if farming households are food secure, count on them to sell any surplus produce and explore avenues of value addition.

Our current agribusiness mentality possibly accounts for greenhouses, dairy cattle sheds and other farming ventures, which though started with a lot of pomp and a lot of money, are abandoned once the agripreneurs can’t handle the challenges that come with farming.

Besides unless we are focusing on Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs), large scale agribusinesses can’t be done in our once high potential agriculture areas due to uncontrolled subdivision of land.

President Uhuru on his final term was made for this moment – he can make sustainable food security his mission, implemented through the lowest administrative office.

In the age of mobile phones, Google, apps and big data do we need the Chief in the Big Four agenda?

The good news first: The mobile phone, with a wider reach, has made obsolete the position of village carrier, who was Bwana Chief’s PA and the dreaded village snitch – so they said.

The bad news: Some of the agriculture based M-apps (cousins to M-pesa) and the internet has a credibility problem and lacks the enforcement factor that the Bwana Chief had.

On data – unless it is broken down to bits that the farmers can connect with and apply within their situation, the spread sheets and power point presentations are best kept for conferences.

For a country where there is a thin line between policy and politics (votes), political good force in agriculture can only be led by someone with nothing to lose.

President Uhuru on his final term was made for this moment – he can make sustainable food security his mission, implemented through the lowest administrative office.

Is he not best suited to force for managed grasslands in ASALs? Demand that every farming household plant one (1) tissue culture banana? Force dairy farmers to keep cattle breeds with better feed conversion? Change the narrative that for Kenya, agriculture is not cool idea but a food fact?

And just so he knows, we will complain and resist, but if he succeeds (which he can), we will complain on why he didn’t reform agriculture on his first term.

As for the county governments which are very vote prone and without the longevity and recognition of the national government, they can handle the technical/advisory role.

Reality is that while nearly every farmer knows his chief, few know their County Executive for Agriculture.

If we get it wrong with agriculture reforms in the Big Four agenda, we might render credence to the street legend that the five year cost of Kenya’s donor and government funded projects, researches and conferences/seminars on agriculture could give every Kenyan about Sh20m?! And could I get my share in the form of a tractor? I will not ask for change. Thank you.

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