Agrarian aggression, revolution or regression: Which way Kenya’s agriculture?

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BY GAD WESONGA

To a resounding relieve for farmers in Kenya, the drought that was ravaging and scorching the country came to end during Easter celebrations. This erased the gloom that had engulfed the nation after the dreadful announcement by the weatherman that Kenyan rain was stuck in Tanzania.

The farmer’s despondency on planting is now temporarily suspended but the anxiety over the controversial draft proposal on crop and dairy production prevails. A journey through the proposed regulations draws emotive and mixed reactions. For Gerald Odamong, a Busia County-based farmer of many decades, this is agrarian aggression.

“What are the objectives of these regulations?” he poses apprehensively, adding that it will impoverish the majority of Kenyans who depend on subsistence farming.

On crop production, the punitive rules crafted by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Agriculture Food Authority (AFA) and county governments seek to control food production activities and   farming enterprise. Among the crops to be regulated are maize, barley, millet, wheat, oat, rye, triticale, grain amaranth, soya beans, peas, beans, sweet potatoes and cassava. These are the fulcrum of food production not only in Kenya but in East Africa in general. They define the food situation at any one time and dictate the health status of the general public. They are a critical economic factor. The regulations therefore will have far reaching effects on the lives and livelihood of a multitude.

The proposals further say that it would be illegal to use manure to produce food crops if the draft passes. Production of crops like maize, soya beans, peas, beans, sweet potatoes and cassava has been done using traditional methods and has sustained Kenyans ever since. These crops have ensured the peasant farmer is food secure and the surplus is shared with the neighbor at a subsidized fee. Both National and County governments have not offered any incentives to farmers to produce the above crops.

Classifying the above crops, as Scheduled crops and passing and enforcing the above regulations will seriously impair the country’s food security. Furthermore, it will increase malnutrition and mortality rate among the rural fork who eke out their living from ancestral lands.

On the issue of raw manure, Odamong wonders that it is even un-African to use human waste for crop production “It is a taboo and just require common sense, not legislation.”

Many farmers in subsistence practice complain that the use of commercial fertilizers has seriously depleted the minerals in the soil and the farmer has been able to increase the soil fertility through application of Cow dung and chicken waste. These methods have been used from time immemorial to produce crops. They are cheap and readily available. The peasant farmer cannot afford fertilizer which in itself causes soil degradation, cannot store water and becomes susceptible to leeching.

Javan Bwire, a graduate teacher in Literature who is a product of substance farming is of the opinion that the regulation on use of raw material is aimed at getting rid of organic farming indirectly. He asks:

“Between manure and fertilizer which one pollutes soil more than the other? And, if indeed this proposal is meant to reduce pollution in the said areas, why doesn’t it bar farmers from using fertilizers too yet, fertilizers contain more chemicals than raw manure?” he posses, adding that he is not aware of rampant cases of contaminated produce reported in Kenya that would trigger such legislations.

In addition, he is concerned that the draft says growers would be barred from using fertilizers that is not on the list recommended by the county government.

“Still I read mischief in this proposal. Why only recommended fertilizers? What if the county government recommends fertilizer A and bans the use of fertilizer B which has the same nutrient contents as A? And who will be suppliers of the recommended fertilizers if not the same people behind this draft and their friends?” he ponders.

The proposal, he avers, will create monopoly in processing and supply of fertilizer and will see the prices of fertilizers skyrocket beyond the reach of majority of small-scale farmers. It is in bad faith.

The ministry of agriculture, Javan says, is trying to get rid of substance farming using the back door since small-scale farmers who have been using manure and cannot afford to buy fertilizers will be forced to abandon agriculture due to high cost of inputs. This is likely to cause food shortage, especially in rural areas.

On Regulation 27(2) that outlaws the growing of crops in a risky area unless an assessment is done by AFA and the county government, many farmers are of the view that it is the responsibility of the government through its agencies to declare risky areas, gazette them as such and deal with the offenders and use those area with a history of flooding for rice production.

Record Keeping

The regulations also state that farmers will be required to maintain records of their activities, to be produced on demand. This is another concern for the subsistence farmers, majority of whom have low literacy levels. Will they have to hire clerks? Who will cater for these additional expenses?

Certification of Buyers

Regulation 9(1) and (2) states that “A person shall not process a scheduled crop without a certificate of registration form the AFA. A person shall not process a crop from a non registered grower or dealer.’’

Any person who contravenes the provision commits an offence and will be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding Sh10 million or imprisonment to a period not exceeding 5 years, or both.”

How do you think this provision is going to help the common mwananchi? In other words there will be no willing buyer-willing seller type of relationship between farmers and dealers. To make it worse, the Ministry of Agriculture through AFA may as well decide to frustrate dealers in the process of obtaining certificates. For instance, the trusted dealers by growers’ association might be denied the certificate or be given but on harsh conditions, which may, for instance, limit amounts of produce they are eligible to buy from farmers. On the other hand, the certificates issued to the dealers are likely to be renewed seasonally at a high cost which may force ‘small dealers’ to opt out of business.

A ten million shilling fine or five years imprisonment is already more than just a threat to the farmers. What role does the certificate play in selling of one’s produce? Is this not just a secrete way of increasing revenue collection from the poor farmers? Imagine a small-scale farmer paying Sh10m because he or she sold 50kgs of her own cereal without a certificate! How sensible is that? The drafters of this Bill should sober up and come up with proposals that aim at helping the farmer, more so, the small scale farmers who are playing a pivotal role in ensuring that there is food security in the county.

It is important to note that breaching a single rule could see a farmer pay Sh5million in fines. It appears the Ministry wants to keep people in jail. A peasant farmer cannot afford even Sh5000 in fines. It is like responding to a mosquito bite with a hummer, which government should not be doing to its most vulnerable in society.

These rules were drafted from an elitist approach without due care to the impact it would cause to the peasant farmers in the villages who have never experienced food insecurity save for reasons caused by adverse weather conditions.

“In my experience as a peasant farmer, I have not come across food poisoning as a result of methods used to cultivate and grow such crops as proposed to be included in the Scheduled Crops. Even the Kulalu Irrigation Scheme that took massive government investment has little to show off. Why would you replace systems that have successfully worked from time immemorial with experimental Western approaches without proper subsidies to farmers?”Javan decries.

Generally, regulation on crop production in Kenya could come as a blessing to large scale farmers and a curse to subsistence agriculture. It is worth noting that Agriculture is a sector that cannot be underestimated in Kenya. Statistics from Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) indicate that the sector directly contributes 24% to the national GDP and 27% indirectly through linkages with manufacturing, distribution and other related service providers.  Furthermore, at least 45% of government revenue is derived from agriculture, and the sector contributes to over 75% industrial raw materials and over 50% of export income. 60% of the employed people in the country are linked to agriculture and over 80% of the population, especially in the rural areas derives their livelihoods mainly on agricultural related activities.

This is a basic profile of how agriculture is so important to the country and as such, it is the industry that the government should at all cost seek to support, improve and streamline to ensure attainment of the food security goal.

Viewed in light of the benefits, the regulation if passed will regulate the agricultural sector in line with reducing substandard fertilizers and seeds in the market since the assessment of these products will be carried out by relevant government agencies before allowed into the market. The regulation also envisions that registering farmers with the growers association will result in collective bargaining for the sale of the farm produce, which might result in better prices for the products giving farmers benefits.

FAO recommends key strategies for attaining food security and they can be applied to Kenya, a country that statistics show has over 10 million people who are food insecure. First, there should be a fair trade in which the government should aim at protecting subsistence farmers against unfair trade practices such as the purchase of their farm produce at low prices by the rich merchants and brokers who then reap heavily from the business leaving the farmer in dilapidated conditions.

Secondly, farmers should be encouraged to practice appropriate agriculture. This includes better use of farmlands (including irrigation), fighting pests with natural biological methods, growing a variety of crops to keep the soils fertile (crop rotation and mixed farming), and given freedom to make decisions on what to do with their respective farms (the government should not regulate farming decisions).

It, therefore, remains to be seen whether the regulations on crop production draft proposal will be passed, and if passed what implications it will have in the quest by the Kenyan government to attain food security.