The hunger season is especially cruel this year.
Farmers in this part of Africa call this time of year the hunger season because household stockpiles of food are dwindling and disappearing before the next harvest arrives in a couple of months. They cope, if you can call it that, by rationing portions and skipping meals.
This daily desperation has been deepened by the global rise in food prices. “Rise” is hardly the word to use in Kenya. “Skyrocket” is much more appropriate.
The cost of maize, the national staple, is up six-fold since the beginning of the year. In January, consumers were paying a bit more than 20 shillings for the standard household measure of 2 kilograms. Now, the price is 120. That’s higher than anyone can remember.
I’ve asked Leonida Wanyama, one of the maize farmers I’ve been following this year, to keep a diary of her maize purchases and meals. The fact that a maize farmer is buying maize is one of Africa’s paradoxes. The combination of pressure to pay bills and avoid shabby storage conditions that can quickly lead to spoilage often forces farmers to sell any surplus production shortly after harvest, when prices are generally at their lowest. Then they re-enter the market as buyers, paying ever-higher prices as the year goes on for the commodity they themselves produce. In January, Leonida sold most of her maize – about one metric ton -- for nearly 30 shillings per 2kg. She needed to make a down-payment on her son’s high school tuition fees. Then she entered the market to buy maize to feed her family – maize in various forms is the mainstay of many Kenyan meals, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner.
By mid-February, the price was approaching 50 shillings.
By mid-March it was 85 shillings, which put it over the $1 level.
On March 22, Leonida noted that she paid 90 shillings .
On April 18, she paid 95 shillings.
On May 1, she wrote the shocking figure of 120 shillings in her notebook.
And there it has hovered, at the equivalent of $1.50, which is more than the average smallholder farmer in Kenya earns in a day. The result: there are days when Leonida and her family go without food, relying only on a cup of weak tea for breakfast and for dinner. Her stockpiles of potatoes, sweet potatoes and cassava have largely disappeared. When she can scratch together money by selling milk from her cows, or selling a chicken or a calf, it buys less food now than it did a few months ago. The hunger season drags on and on. Energy is sapped. Children have difficulty focusing in school. Adults are less productive at work. Farmers have little strength to do the vital weeding of their crops.
Kenya, which imports maize to satisfy national demand, is impacted heavily by the global price (as is much of Africa). There are also various domestic reasons pushing up the price: lower maize production last year, drought in several areas of the country, inefficient distribution from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity.
At last week’s Chicago Council Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security, rising food prices and the imperative to reverse the decades-long neglect of agriculture development was front and center. But most of the discussions, in a conference center in Washington DC, were in the abstract. Here, on the small farms of western Kenya where the hunger season is biting hard, the issue is viscously real.
Several symposium speakers talked about the impact of malnutrition on the mental development of children under five. Here, the newspapers routinely cite the national statistic that about one in every three children suffers stunted growth, both physically and mentally. On the homesteads of the smallholder farmers, these numbers come to life, a very listless life.
Yet it is these smallholder farmers who are indispensable to us all if the world is to meet the challenge of doubling food production by 2050 to satisfy the demand of a growing population. At the symposium, World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran said, “The world can’t feed itself over the next 30 years without the African farmer.”
This week, Oxfam amplified that imperative as it launched a new campaign to reform the global food system so that smallholder farmers will have the tools and the incentives to be as productive as possible. And to help prevent a global hunger season.