Overview of Kenya’s agricultural sector
Agriculture plays a critical role in Kenya’s economy. Research indicates that agriculture contributes to 51% of the country’s GDP, with, 60 per cent of Kenya’s exports being products of agriculture. 60% of the country’s employment is linked to agriculture directly or indirectly. The performance of Kenya’s economy is to a large extent correlated to the performance of the agricultural sector.
Three-quarters of the agricultural output in Kenya is attributed to smallholder farmers who operate between 0.2 hectares to three hectares of land. Smallholder farmers also contribute 75% of the marketed agricultural produce. Despite the concerted efforts of Kenyan farmers, food insecurity remains an ever-present threat. Food insecurity threatens 43% of the population in Kenya.
What are the main foods consumed by Kenyans?
The staple foods consumed by Kenyans are:
- Cereals: maize, wheat, sorghum, and rice
- Roots and tubers: Irish potatoes, cassava, sweet potatoes
- Pulses: beans, cowpeas, pigeon peas, green grams
Maize remains the staple food in most Kenyan households. It accounts for 65% of the staple food calories that are consumed in the country and 36% of all the calories consumed. Estimates indicate that 98% of smallholder farmers grow maize. Kenya does not produce enough maize, wheat and rice hence deficits are often bridged by imports. Large food imports harm the exchange rate and the foreign reserves of the country. The scarcity of foreign exchange reserves for the importation of food creates a scarcity of resources that would have been spent in other critical areas such as health care and education.
The threat of food insecurity in Kenya
One in four people in Sub-Saharan Africa is said to be food insecure. Kenya has a population that is growing rapidly with projections indicating that between 2015 and 2050, the population will grow from 46.7 million to 97.2 million. In rural areas, it is projected that the population will increase by 52%, therefore, putting pressure on food supply and land. As the population continues to grow, the demand for food such as maize is also expected to significantly rise. By 2050, maize consumption in the country is expected to increase from 4.1 million metric tons to 8.6 million tons.
The African Seed Access Index (TASAI) did a ranking of the competitiveness of the crop seed sector in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Uganda, and Kenya. The only country whose maize seed was ranked as “extremely poor” was Kenya. Uganda’s seed was ranked as good while Zimbabwe and South Africa scored fairly. The increase in crop yields over the last two decades is largely attributed to an increase in the acreage under crops. There has been a relative stagnation of yields obtained per hectare for other crops such as sorghum, rice, and wheat despite the increase in the amount of land that is being used for crop production.
A comparative analysis of the yield per hectare in Kenya and the United States of America reveals a worrying trend. While the area under maize production in the USA remained the same in the period between 1960 and 2013, the yield per hectare increased significantly from 3 metric tons per hectare to 10 metric tons per hectare. In Kenya, the yield per hectare in the period between 1980 and 2013 ranged between 1.2 metric tons per hectare and 2.07 metric tons per hectare. The increase in maize yield per hectare in Kenya since 1980 has been marginal.
Projections indicate that by 2030, the population in Kenya will have increased to 66.3 million. The demand for maize and other staple crops will rise even as the country struggles with the effects of maize imports on the country’s agricultural sector. It is estimated that the deficit of maize in the country will be 1.6 million metric tons. It is unsustainable to rely on imports from other countries because of the resources required as well as the unpredictability of market forces in those countries. 1n 2008-2009, Kenya required imports that were five times more than what was required in the previous years. Its neighbors, Uganda and Tanzania were also grappling with food insecurity making it difficult to import the required deficit from them which would have been more cost-efficient.
Low productivity as a threat to food security
The most critical factor contributing to low productivity is the quality of seed planted by Kenyan farmers. Far too often, the seed used is from previous seasons hence it lacks important qualities such as pest resistance and disease resistance. In addition to this, farmers in Kenya often plant seeds that are not well suited for their local ecological conditions. The dominance of the public sector which owns 71% of the crop varieties in the country is to some extent a contributor to this phenomenon due to the fact there is a scarcity of vibrant licensing and breeder programs in the country.
Over the years, there has been an increase in the use of certified seeds in the country even as both public and private sectors research on improving the quality of the certified seeds that are available in the market. Other factors that have contributed to poor production include:
- Access to fertilizers and usage
- Prevalence of fake certified seed
- Access to appropriate seed varieties
- New and possibly climate-induced disease and pests
- Post-harvest storage
- Farm management practices
- Access to new markets
- Access to extension services
The way forward: research and innovation
The government-funded Kenya Seed Company and other parastatals have done a commendable job in the improvement of crop seeds. However, the threat of food insecurity continues to loom over the country thus there is a need for a more agile approach. This approach calls for the involvement of both public and private sectors to develop multi-faceted solutions towards enhancing food security in the country. Key among the ways of enhancing productivity is access to agri-research on the quality of seeds available which would determine their productivity in various agro-ecological conditions.
The Seed sector platform is an online tool that provides essential information on seed varieties in Kenya. The platform is a partnership between the private sector, the Ministry of Agriculture, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization. It has a searchable database, Seedworks, which provides information about the released varieties in the country. The database lists over 400 improved varieties of 19 staple crops in the country. Given the importance of maize as a staple food in the country, slightly over 50% of the listed varieties are maize varieties.
Other useful resources include:
- Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service
- Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization
- The African Seed Access Index (TASAI)
- Kenya Market Trust
The population of Kenya is expected to increase significantly in this decade hence the need to address the looming threat of food insecurity. Low productivity in Kenya can be attributed to a number of factors but a key contributing factor is the quality of seed. As efforts to improve the quality of certified seed that is available to Kenyan farmers are enhanced, it is important for farmers to have access to high quality agri research on the performance of various seed varities in the Kenyan market.