STOP SGR and put food on the table

One cannot go to bed hungry and think about investing for development. This is as true for individuals and households as it is for a country. Let us go back to our farms and start from the basics

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The effects of the ongoing drought in Kenya's north are catastrophic.

By Kenyatta Otieno

Development is a monster. It is as big as an elephant but sometimes everyone is blind to it. Everyone tries to touch it from where he is and the interpretation you get comes in many shades, depending on level of education, exposure and political persuasion. I will draw back from this elephant and look at development from the eyes of a son of a peasant with big dreams.

Jubilee Government (or the as our President says, Uhuru Kenyatta’s government) has been shouting about the Standard Gauge Railway, and other infrastructural developments, as their achievement in their first term in office. Deputy President William Ruto has been the most vocal in this area. And they are right: these projects are not bad; the problem is in timing and priorities.

The country is facing a serious drought. Reports put the number of goats that have died in Marsabit County at 400,000. I come from a semi-arid area and if goats can die, then things are not just thick; they are solid. Then reports have been popping of how maize flour now costs more than wheat flour. There can never be better indicators of our food security – or lack thereof – than these ones.

Food is at the bottom of the basic needs. It is the basic of basics; you can lack shelter and clothing but if you have food, you will survive. The only thing that beats food in the basic of basics is water, but that is part of food anyway. Classifying a household that cannot afford food as poor is to pamper a sorry state. A household that cannot afford food is as good as wiped out. It means its occupants cannot do anything else.

At an individual level, on those days I am unable to put food on the table I cannot even think about sex, which experts say a man thinks about almost all of the time. If a person cannot provide food for his family, it means he cannot climb higher in the hierarchy of needs. The next level of needs involves a sense of belonging, followed by social respect. If one cannot be food-sufficient, one cannot have a family, cannot work and cannot acquire property.

Considering the case of Kenya, claiming that we will develop without first sorting food insecurity is a pipe dream. It is like a street urchin shouting about the car he owns when his food is a product of charity. We have our priorities upside down. If Kenya were a household, the head of the home would suspend these mega infrastructure projects to look for a solution to the food crisis first. But what is happening is akin to taking a loan to buy a car when the family is sleeping hungry.

The Galana-Kulalu Irrigation project, which was supposed to beef up our grain reserve, has not performed as expected. I will not go into allegations of corruption because that is a national pass time. This is the project that should have taken precedence over the rest.

This brings me to our obsession with maize; we need some social engineering to get us out of maize addiction. Planting maize has become psychological for many Kenyans. Currently maize cultivation makes sense in parts Rift Valley and surrounding areas yet everyone with land and some rain elsewhere wants to plant maize.

Tap into passion for farming

Our economy rests on agriculture. The majority of our population depends on some form of subsistence agriculture. This means that, to develop as a country, we must put our money in agriculture where it will impact a majority of Kenyans. The farmers will reap big while the industrial workers will have access to quality food at affordable prices. We can find ways of exporting the surplus.

There is a growing number of young people who engage in agriculture today. The media has realised this and today every newspaper has a weekly pullout for farmers. It is becoming the new cool because, as people migrate to urban centres, there is an ever-growing demand for food. This is a generation that we can tap into to set up a revolution. All we will need are facilities and infrastructure geared towards agriculture. The government must now invest in the Ministry of Agriculture in terms of personnel and equipment. The new generation of farmers are “Google” farmers, and I can bet many of them have never interacted with agricultural extension officers.

In my line of duty, I went to the border of Kiambu and Nairobi Counties somewhere next to the Northern Bypass some time back. A developer was preparing ground to convert about 100 acres of coffee plantation into a school. This is part of the few areas near Nairobi where you can get big chunks of fertile land. I immediately imagined the government acquiring land in this area and leasing it to these “Google” farmers. Then I thought of government acquiring land, and I stopped there.

In the fading Vision 2030, Kenya hopes to become a middle-income economy by 2030. This means that, by then, we should be on our way to industrialisation. There is no better way and place to begin industrialisation than in agriculture. As an agricultural country, we still import hoes, spades and pangas – the most basic of farming tools that do not require sophisticated knowledge to make.

There has been growth in production of animal feeds cutters and maize shellers locally. These are fabricated locally then fitted with electric motors or petrol engines. This is clear demonstration that, our path to industrialisation lies in agriculture. The next frontier will be value addition on farm produce. We have never invested thought in this area beyond the common products like dairy produce, tea and grain.

No magic bullets

When global fast food outlet KFC came into the local market, they initially imported potatoes from Egypt. Kenyans were surprised that our potatoes do not meet international standards. I sincerely hope some keen farmer has seen and seized the opportunity to grow potatoes for KFC as they open outlets across Africa. To benefit from agriculture, we must produce for export. This will mean cutting down our acreage on maize and produce what we can export.

Let us not lie to ourselves that projects like SGR are the magic bullet to take us into middle-income bracket. SGR will only take us to Vision 2030 if it can ferry potatoes from Kinangop via the dry pot of Naivasha for the export market. As long as we have put it up with imports in mind, then it is going to help other countries – and especially China – to achieve their economic targets at our expense.

You cannot go to bed hungry and think of investing for development. This is true for individuals and households as it is true for a country. Let us go back to our farms and start from the basics. The last time I checked, experts were still doing studies on the Turkana aquifers… does anyone else see what I am? ^

The writer is a practicing
Hydrogeologist

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