The Man-Made Monster Called Food Insecurity
Of all the basic needs a man can have, food is the most important. For those of us who have experienced the ravaging effects of poverty, we know only too well the punishment that hunger can inflict on the body. Hunger deprives the brain of its abilities and can turn a potential academic giant into a cretin. Hunger can make the best dressed man cry for help. Hunger deprives human beings of their dignity.
The need to put food on the table is the reason many people are soaked by the rains and blasted by the winds; it is the reason many husbands stay away from their wives and children for days at a time; it is why so many spend hardly any time in their houses they rent, and why many employees brave insults from their employers and terrible working conditions.
Food is key to human life – without it, there can be no life. This is why food security is the central responsibility of any given nation. Indeed, good insecurity can enslave an entire country and turn it into a laughing stock.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers a society or a country to be food secure “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to adequate, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and preferences for an active and healthy life”. Food security is therefore not just the physical availability of food commodities but also accessibility in terms of affordability of adequate and nutritious quantities.
Based on the WHO criteria, and the reports and records showing that a significant number of Kenyans die of hunger every year, it is a foregone conclusion that Kenya is food insecure. Indeed, hunger has this country firmly in its grip. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the ability to put food on the table was not guaranteed for everyone. We must ask ourselves why, despite advanced food production technologies in many parts of the world, our country continues to extend a begging bowl so it can feed its citizens.
Africa has remained behind largely because of the failures and miscalculations of our leaders. These missteps are largely to blame for the dire food situation in most parts of the continent. Sadly, food is more a privilege than a basic need for many Africans. This inability to have adequate food or to choose what to eat is therefore a strong indicator of poverty – if an individual cannot satisfy his stomach, how can he satisfy his other needs?
The determinants of food security include food availability, food accessibility, food stability, food utilisation and good nutrition. For our country to be food insecure, therefore, we must be lacking in one or more of these determinants in varying degrees. While analysing the factors affecting food security, we should also seek to answer why Kenya was more food secure in the past than it is today.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, most families in the rural areas practised farming – the majority were mixed subsistence food farmers. They planted different food crops and kept livestock, which made them almost self-sufficient. This practice, which was supported by large farmlands and a relatively low population at the time, also resulted in the production of good quantities of food in the rural areas.
As more young people embraced formal education and migrated to urban centres, farming took a nosedive because many moved on to white-collar jobs. The urban migrants in essence became dependent on rural farmers whose numbers and farm sizes started to dwindle, thereby causing a mismatch between food production and demand.
It is on record that our government has long pursued self-sufficiency in the production and supply of foods such as maize, wheat, rice, beans, milk and meat. It is therefore baffling that several years on, our dream of becoming food secure remains an illusion, with the hunger situation worsening daily.
Analysts have argued that food insecurity remains a problem in our country because of the mismatch between demand and supply that started to be felt with increased urban migration and a growing population. Most times, the supply of food falls short of demand and this occurs both at household and national levels.
Over the years, successive governments have been getting things wrong while attempting to make the country food secure. Their strategies have included everything from punitive taxation regimes to poorly executed food production programmes.
The insufficient supply of food is also the result of poor economic performance, poverty, drought, floods, human conflict and land degradation among other factors, including those that affect production such as lack of farming incentives or inputs and machinery, and poor storage or processing facilities.
Food accessibility is determined by the ability to physically access food as well as the ability to purchase it. This means poor road networks and other transport infrastructure negatively affect access to food, while poverty or lack of purchasing power make it difficult to access desired foods in the required quantities.
To attain stability in food supply, all farmers, including those who engage in various forms of food trade and food processing, must be consistent in their activities. These activities must in turn be enhanced and supported to cater for population growth.
Agriculture remains the backbone of Kenya’s economy therefore adequate and sound policies with commensurate investments are important for food security. Unfortunately, farmers have often been discouraged by the lack of support from the government. This has sometimes been due to skewed resource allocation based on politics or corruption. We recently witnessed a situation in which traders who also happened to be well-connected politicians imported maize and supplied it to the National Cereals and Produce Board for colossal sums of money to the chagrin of farmers whose maize is often left rotting on the farms or in makeshift stores.
Fishermen and fishmongers from Nyanza region have put up with inadequate fish storage and processing facilities for decades, making their trade a painful venture as these facilities have traditionally been available only in Thika Town, more than 350 kilometres away from Lake Victoria.
Meanwhile, sugarcane farmers who supply cane to sugar factories have been made to suffer as their dues go unpaid for months, sinking them into the depths of poverty. As this is happening, unscrupulous merchants working in cahoots with political kingpins continue to import sugar – whose quality has been questioned even in Parliament – for sale to unsuspecting citizens. Sadly, we are yet to see anyone brought to book for these crimes. This practice has seen many cane farmers make the decision to invest their efforts in other crops.
Over the years, successive governments have been getting things wrong while attempting to make the country food secure. Their strategies have included everything from punitive taxation regimes to poorly executed food production programmes. For instance, the Kulalu-Galana model irrigation scheme, which has gobbled up close to Sh6 billion, has yet to produce any meaningful maize harvests more than six years after the programme was launched.
To bolster our self-esteem as a people, we need to be able to feed ourselves. One way is to stop our over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture and focus more on irrigation because this is controllable. Another measure is to grow traditional foods such as potatoes, cassava and groundnuts; these efforts should be encouraged and supported by the national and county governments.
In addition, food wastage must be avoided or at the very least minimised. Families and individuals must learn to consume food in a manner that ensures whatever is available lasts as long as possible. Kenyans should also embrace the practice of eating balanced diets; all these measures can and will achieve the goal of enhancing food security.
The writer is a medical doctor.