By: Chadwick Digo
Counties and towns across Kenya have been on different versions of lockdown for over a month, with heightened border restrictions and controls on the movement of labor.
Last month(March, 15th, 2020), the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) 2019 Middle East and Africa regional report was released. The GFSI was developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit providing a common framework for understanding the root causes of food insecurity. It revealed the state of food security systems in the region by measuring the three core pillars of food security: affordability, availability and quality and safety.
Sub-Saharan African countries including Kenya demonstrate high levels of commitment to addressing the impact of climate change on agriculture, such as through the adoption of early warning measures. However, food safety nets have inadequate coverage across most of counties in Kenya, leaving many vulnerable households food-insecure.
According to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), farmers earnings are lost as they struggled to manage, store, and transport their produce to the market. In 2017, over 1.9 million tonnes of food went to waste, even as millions of Kenyans grappled with starvation fuelled by debilitating drought. While in 2019 maize, Kenya’s staple food, was the hardest hit, with farmers losing Sh29.6 billion to post-harvest wastage, including rodents and poor handling. The harvest was also affected by aflatoxin, a toxin produced by fungi due to exposure to moisture. This high levels of food loss do limit food availability. Other reports document that our ASAL counties reported the lowest dietary diversity and the highest micronutrient deficiencies.
Intensifying urbanisation and population growth in Kenya further constraints food systems and increases climate risk in the region.
With the COVID-19 crisis, food security this year could be even more of an issue for the most vulnerable in Kenya. Lockdowns could also cause supply chain issues and prevent people from working in the agriculture industry. In this case, production and supply of staple food crops, such as maize and other cereals depending on the region, including millet and sorghum eaten as well as vegetables, might be affected, if the pandemic outbreak continues for a prolonged period of time.
Previously, the pandemics like Ebola, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) all had negative impacts on food and nutrition security, particularly for the most vulnerable, including children, women, the elderly and the poor.
There are two main ways in which the food supply chain can be challenged in Kenya. One is the labor effect. So, people are restricted from getting to their jobs at farms or food processing plants, which will have an impact on the food supply, not only in terms of food being able to be sent to markets and harvested, but also in terms of the type of foods, or grains, or fruits, or vegetables, that farmers might grow. The other big impact will be on logistics. Not only has demand fallen and labor been restricted, but it’s harder for trucks and planes and ships to get to their destinations. And that could also have an effect on the supply chain.
COVID-19 is already impacting the distribution of food in Kenyan counties. Lower-income members of the community, such as domestic or day laborers, who are not able to do their jobs during this period, will be especially hard hit, with them not being able to buy as much food as they previously would have. Children that rely on going to school to receive daily, nourishing meals are also impacted in areas where there are lockdowns or tighter border controls.
Counties that are usually assumed least food secure in Kenya. Today, they may be food insecure for several reasons. One is that they don’t spend as much of their GDP on agriculture research and development. There’s not as much as a food safety net for their public. And also, the quality of their food; not as much diversity in the type of food that is consumed and also not as much protein. So, that could be affected in a time like this.
Compared to the last global food crisis, in 2007 to 2008, the mitigating factors are a bit more beneficial. The price of staple foods that are consumed in Kenya, such as maize, hasn’t spiked. Although, there will be some of the counties holding or imposing export limits, they haven’t been as restrictive as before. Ministry of Agriculture Kenya, restricted the import of maize and other food commodities, but they have now loosened that policy. The price of oil is also very low this time around, meaning that for economies that import a lot of oil, there is more of a currency buffer to spend on other things, including support and subsidies for the most vulnerable, as well as the ability to purchase more food.
Domestic and international trade disruptions in Sub-saharan countries may trigger food market panic, which could exacerbate temporary, artificial food shortages, leading to price spikes and disruption of the markets, hence a multilateral approach to the crisis is far much needed at this time.
We have to see the execution by our policy makers both in the national and county governments, trying to address this and to make sure that Kenya has sufficient food. Counties that can export food, will do it in order not to create an artificial shortage and contribute to the panic. What we really need now is smart policies in order to make sure that we don’t create this artificial shortage.
The short-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on government policies, such as lockdowns and the restriction of movement, I believe could lead to longer-lasting consequences, if not managed sensibly.
One of the challenges for the next few months will be to make sure that farmers and workers in farms and plantations can access the fields in order to prepare the next harvest. It is about policy management, making sure we can have farmers in the field, making sure that we have the health package, the test, in order to make sure that the crew that are working can really do their job. Because if people cannot work, we will have a problem on primary food supply that is not yet the issue.