KENYA: Fears of food shortages in the west

Friday, July 25, 2008

Erratic rainfall, soaring farming costs, and a shortage of materials in the western district of Mt Elgon could compromise food security in the region.

"The rains came in mid-February and stopped. The next rains were in April and early May and this has not helped the maize crop," Wilson Keya, a farmer in the Cheptais division of the district, told IRIN.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Crop Prospects and Food Situation report published on 18 July, below-average March-May rains in Northern Rift Valley and Northwestern provinces had further reduced water availability, which was already inadequate after a poor October-December 2007 season.

"Right now we are expecting four [90kg] bags of maize per acre instead of the usual 20 as we could not afford to use any fertiliser," Keya said.

A 50kg bag of Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN) fertiliser was selling at KSh2,400 shillings (US$40), up from KSh1,300 ($21.60) in 2007, while Diammonium Phosphate (DAP) fertiliser cost KSh4,100 ($68.30) up from KSh1,600 ($26.60) in the stores visited by IRIN in the district. CAN is used for top dressing (adding dry fertiliser to the soil next to the plant), while DAP is applied at the planting stage.

Bernard Sabila, who runs a fertiliser shop in Kaptama, said sales had gone down from about 500 bags a month during the planting season to 200.

"The fertiliser prices should either be reduced or the price of a bag of maize increased to help the farmers," Sabila said. "Right now people are suffering and are planting less maize or switching to other crops."

The cost of using ox-drawn ploughs had also gone up from KSh800 ($13.30) to KSh1,200 ($20) per acre of land.

No surplus

According to the district agricultural officer Sammy Cheminingwa, the acreage of the land under crop production in the district was 30 percent less than normal. "Most of the land was also prepared late because people had run away," Cheminingwa said.

A long-standing dispute over land ownership led to inter-communal violence in the district towards the end of 2006, displacing thousands of people and leaving hundreds dead. See: [Land dispute spawns violence, displacement ]

The main returnee needs were shelter and food, a relief officer with the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) in the district, Maurice Anyango, said. The KRCS was targeting 12,000 households in its food aid distribution.

Cheminingwa said farmers were likely to sell their harvest to meet other urgent livelihood needs because the majority had lost assets during the conflict, further contributing to a drop in the amount of food available.
The district, one of the key grain-producing areas in western Kenya, normally has a surplus of 418,500 bags of maize for sale to neighbouring districts. Cheminingwa said the district cereal bank had been depleted.

The price of 2kg of maize has increased to an average of KSh80 ($1.33) from KSh30 ($0.50) in 2007.

Helping the returnees

Mohammed Biriki, the district commissioner, said returnees needed farming support. "This will help the farmers to produce short-season crops such as tomatoes, onions, and potatoes instead of relying on relief aid." The district has an estimated 5,000 returnee families.

Phyllis Chesha, a returnee living at the Elgon Bible College in Kopsiro division, told IRIN she had not yet been able to plant any crops on her farm due to a lack of seeds.

"We also do not have jembes [hoes] to help us prepare the land," Chesha said. A lack of shelter material was also preventing the returnees from settling back on their farms.

Biriki said at least 97 guns and 1,300 rounds of ammunition had been recovered since the start of a military operation to end militia activity in the district in March. The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights released a report in May accusing the military of committing serious human rights violations during the operation, which were denied.

On 21 July the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières said its staff had been stopped at roadblocks and prevented by local authorities from providing medical assistance to the affected civilian population in the district. The district commissioner declined to comment.

IRIN