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Farmers suffer as food imports dominate Kenyan dinner tables

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Shoppers at Riva Business Center in Nakuru town, April 23, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

It is dinner time at Humprey Odeo’s home in Syokimau, Machakos County. The family says a brief prayer before starting to eat.

The man of the house pauses for a while, perhaps looking for words.

“The only thing Kenyan on this dinner table is us. The food that we are eating is all imported because it’s cheaper,” says the father of two. 

For many families across the country, the government’s campaign of ‘Buy Kenya Build Kenya’ remains only a slogan.

“Why would I buy our local products when they are not affordable, especially in these tough times of the pandemic?” Mr Odeo poses.

His argument is buoyed by recent statistics that show Kenya has been importing most of its food commodities.

According to the 2020 Economic Survey, the country’s reliance on foreign foodstuff posted a sharp increase and Kenya’s import dependency ratio (IDR) worsened from 15.4 per cent in 2018 to 16.4 per cent in 2019.

The IDR for both vegetable and animal products worsened from 18.9 and 2.9 per cent in 2018 to 19.4 and 4.2 per cent in 2019, indicating increased reliance on imports of the commodities.

Tim Njagi, a development economist at Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, Egerton University, argues that Kenya has not been producing enough food.

“We don’t produce enough and if we decide to close our borders, then we will starve a part of our population,” he says.

Data from the 2020 Economic Survey shows that the agricultural sector’s growth declined from 6.1 per cent in 2018 to 3.6 per cent in 2019.

Maize production declined from 44.6 million bags in 2018 to 39.8 million bags in 2019, while cane deliveries to factories dropped from 5.3 million tonnes in 2018 to 4.6 million in 2019.

The only product that posted an increase in production in 2019 was milk, with the deliveries to dairy processors increasing by 5.3 per cent to 668.2 million litres from 634.3 million litres in 2018.

This overreliance on imports saw the country spend Sh1.8 trillion on foreign goods in 2019 from Sh1.7 billion in 2018, while the value of exports decreased from Sh614 billion in 2018 to Sh596 billion in 2019.

Ironically, while the prices of food commodities produced in the country have been fluctuating, those of imports have remained stable, giving Kenyans an easier choice.

Agricultural experts warn that the sector’s stagnation at primary production will continue to hurt the economy, while ensuring supermarket shelves are stocked with imports.

“Imports will continue to beat us because we are only stopping at primary production. Our agricultural sector doesn’t invest heavily in value addition as other countries do,” Dr Njagi says.

In major towns, supermarkets have stocked imported food commodities that stand side by side with local products but the former are more in demand owing to their affordability.

The most sought-after commodities are rice, wheat flour, cooking oil, spaghetti and vegetables, which mostly come from Asian countries as well as East African neighbours.

While the State may argue that local production cannot satisfy demand, low tax tariffs on imported commodities mean local products cannot compete favourably with foreign goods.

Last year, the East African Community (EAC) Council of Ministers approved measures including a stay of application of the Common External Tariff, remission of duty on industrial inputs and amendment of the exemption regime.

Imported rice, which would have been subjected to a 75 per cent import duty, was reduced to 35 per cent.

Similarly, the tax rate on refined vegetable oils was reduced to 10 per cent from 25 per cent while that on sweet biscuits was reduced by five per cent.

But nothing has hurt the agricultural sector more than imported rice, with farmers in paddy-growing areas decrying uneven competition from imports.

According to a report by tax and audit firm Deloitte East Africa, the move by the EAC ministers to reduce tax on imported rice was to help bridge the country’s production deficit.

“This measure is geared towards addressing the food insecurity in Kenya and is in line with one of the Big Four Agenda pillars of providing food security,” read the report released last year.

For most consumers, the biggest consideration when buying a product is price. For instance, while a two-kilogramme packet of imported pishori rice could cost Sh344, the same quantity of local Mwea Pishori will retail at Sh436.

Farmers argue that high costs of production push them to sell their produce expensively. The cost of producing a kilo of rice is more than Sh60, which pushes the price on supermarket shelves.

The government sells fertilisers to farmers at subsidised rates, but Njagi argues that the discount does not help the local farmer nor does it reflect in the consumer prices.

“Blanket subsidy of fertilisers is not the way to lower the cost of production. Subsidies must be backed by evidence, we need to ask our farmers where it hurts the most then address that,” he says.

Increased production

The 2020 Economic Survey indicated that total paddy rice production rose by 42.6 per cent from 112,600 tonnes in 2018 to 160,600 in 2019.

Production at the Mwea Irrigation Scheme increased by 34.5 per cent to 121,000 tonnes in 2019, accounting for 75.3 per cent of total rice output.

Established in 1954, the Mwea Irrigation Scheme has a gazetted area of 30,350 acres with the area under irrigation being 26,000 acres in the main scheme and 4,000 acres in the outgrowers.

Despite the improved production in 2019, Kenya still requires 400,000 tonnes of rice every year, indicating that the country has to import about 300,000 tonnes to meet demand.

Other than the high cost of production that allows imports to thrive in Kenyan markets, high taxes on fuel also negatively affect local products.

This year alone, the energy industry regulator has increased the prices of fuel by more than 35 per cent, which hikes the cost of distribution of commodities.

“Each time we have a fuel price going up, you can be sure the cost of distribution for farm produce will hike, and most times that cost is pushed to the consumer,” says Njagi.

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