Outrage and Inspire
Roger Thurow

Kipnai, Kenya  - August 13,2011

It is less than two hundred miles from the village of Kabuchai, where Sanet Biketi began his maize harvest last week, to the village of Kipnai, where hunger reigns.  Yet there was none of the surplus production of Kabuchai’s farmers on offer at an emergency food distribution in Kipnai this week.  Instead, the food came from farms far more distant.

There were yellow split peas and maize and fortified vegetable oil from the U.S., and maize from Uganda purchased by the World Food Program with donations from Japan.  The imported food was carried to Kipnai by trucks that had come from the Kenyan port of Mombasa, which is clear on the other side of the country.

The couple hundred people lined up in Kipnai were clearly in need of the food.  They were men and women, heads of households, struggling to feed their families amid a disastrous drought.  They were thin and lethargic, each a story of woe.

“This year, it didn’t rain on time, so I didn’t plant any maize.  No one planted maize,” said Salina Achau, a 43-year-old mother of six who would normally plant a half acre of maize.  She did plant some millet, a sturdier grain.  “But it withered and died,” she said.

She was sitting in the shade of a small bush, holding her youngest child in her arms.  A loose fitting yellow dress couldn’t hide prominent shoulder and collar bones.  Her limbs were like twigs, her face tired and meager.  She said her family hadn’t eaten maize, their staple food, for three weeks; that maize had been shared among her women’s group which was able to pool money to make a small purchase at the market a three-hour walk from Kipnai.  “We try and support each other,” Salina said.

Salina welcomed the relief food, delivered by the World Food Program and distributed by World Vision, no matter where it came from.  “We are grateful,” she said after receiving her ration of maize, peas and vegetable oil, which she estimated would last her family about two weeks.  “Imagine being fed by a foreign country.  It’s something great.”

Meanwhile, in Kabuchai, maize prices were tumbling as the bountiful harvest began.  The price for the standard two kilogram measure of maize had fallen from 150 shillings to between 60 and 80.  For the farmers of Kabuchai, it was something not so great.

“This maize should be going for over 200 shillings, given the demand in the country,” Sanet Biketi said while peeling the husks off his cobs.

A 15 minute walk from the Biketi shamba, Pamela Wangila was selling maize for 80 shillings at her shop in the Kabuchai market.  She is a farmer herself, confounded by the price movements.

“We wish the government could come and buy from us at higher prices rather than importing from other countries,” she said.  “Here we have a surplus and this maize is from Kenya.  The Kenyans who eat it will enjoy it better than maize from elsewhere.”

George Masinde, a county councilor, strolled past the shop and stopped for a chat on the veranda.  “The price, it’s a major concern,” he said.  “When you go to the government shops and buy fertilizer at the time of planting, the price is so high.  Now at the time of harvest, the government brings in maize and drives down prices.  They should give our farmers the first priority and if there isn’t enough maize here, then they can import.”

He shook his head in wonder, and said, “We’ve now got a surplus here and people in our country are hungry.”

The contrasting scenes in Kabuchai and Kipnai provide a classic illustration of the bizarre economics of feast and famine in Africa.  It is the continent’s great paradox, where shortage and surplus can exist side by side.

The only silver lining of the hunger spreading through the Horn of Africa would be if the poor smallholder farmers of Kenya, who battle hunger themselves before their harvests come in, could reap higher prices for their surplus maize spurred by the tremendous demand for food.  It is what the normal economics of supply and demand would dictate.  But the market, which should direct the food from the surplus areas to the shortage areas, doesn’t function normally here.  Horrible infrastructure – namely wretched farm to market roads – disturbs the distribution, and the influx of free food aid and government imports distorts the supply side of the equation.

It all presents more evidence of the need to invest in long-term agriculture development in Africa, so more and better food can be produced, while also spending on emergency feeding.  And it offers another example of how food aid can be reformed to do as the residents of Kabuchai suggest: first buy local food that is available, which will provide incentive for farmers to keep growing more, and then bring in food aid if the local supply isn’t enough.

A glimpse of how this would work was on display at the Kipnai food distribution.  Among the hundreds of bags of maize and peas from foreign lands were several bags emblazoned with the words “Purchase for Progress.”  This program, known as P4P, is operated by the World Food Program and uses donations from other countries to buy food grown by smallholder farmers near the hunger zones.  The P4P maize distributed at Kipnai was grown by farmers in the southern part of Kenya.  The program is just beginning to organize in the western area where the Kabuchai farmers live.

Salina Achau didn’t know which bags her food aid came from.  But, she said, “it would be good if Kenyans could feed Kenyans.”  Looking at the hardscrabble landscape around her, she doubted that could happen.  “I don’t think Kenya can feed itself,” she ventured.

In the more fertile area of Kabuchai, Sanet Biketi said he and his neighbors would give it a shot.  “If we have enough of a working market,” he said during his harvest, “we can be successful farmers and we can produce even more.”

 


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