Hunger amid plenty

Harvests are going to waste in parts of Rift Valley province - Kenya's grain basket - as farmers lack markets for their produce, even though severe drought ravages the country's northern regions.

Up to 3.7 million Kenyans need life-saving assistance, out of the 12.4 million drought-affected in the Horn of Africa, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

In southern Rift Valley, farmers are struggling to offload surplus vegetable harvests while maize farmers in other parts of the province are having difficulty accessing markets for their new harvests.

"Sometimes I have been forced to feed cabbages to my cows; it is painful to watch as produce goes to waste," John Kariuki, a farmer in Njoro's Deffo area in the Rift Valley, told IRIN.

Kariuki estimates that he spent KSh8,000 (US$92) on cultivation and input costs for his 0.8ha but is now faced with the prospect of losses. "I don't care how much someone will pay for this cabbage, all I want is some income from it," he said.

The sight of farmers ferrying their produce on bicycles and pick-up trucks is common along the Njoro-Nakuru road. But travellers and brokers are buying what they can at very low prices. One cabbage is selling at KSh4-5 (0.05-0.06 cents) from KSh50-70 (0.60-0.80 cents) a few months ago.

The situation is replicated elsewhere, with the areas of Bomet, Kericho, Nakuru, Nandi, Narok and Uasin Gishu recording normal to surplus food harvests while the Kajiado, Laikipia, Pokot, Samburu and Turkana regions have thousands of people dependent on food aid.

High malnutrition rates, up to 37.4 percent, have been recorded in parts of Turkana, also in the Rift Valley.

Preservation problems

Part of the problem is the lack of food preservation facilities to ensure such surplus fresh produce does not go to waste.

"A policy on food preservation was needed in Kenya yesterday; it is unfortunate that it may take time to get it and get it implemented," said Leah Nakhone, a former director at the Crop Management Research Training Project and a soil scientist at Egerton University, Njoro.

Potatoes could be preserved as chips, packed, refrigerated, then sold or distributed, while vegetables could be dried and distributed to the hungry, said Nakhone.

Photo: Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/IRIN
Turkana, in northern Rift Valley, is among the areas affected by drought

"If the government provided such preservation facilities to farmers, they would not have to watch their produce rot," she added, noting that this would ensure that food prices did not vary much between dry and wet seasons.

At present, a 110kg bag of potatoes is selling for between KSh700 ($8) and KSh1,000 ($11.50), against KSh5,000 ($57.50) in February and March in Njoro.

Only farmers near the main highways are able to sell their produce even at these low prices, with those farther inland resigned to watching their harvests go to waste.

"I have seen other farmers watch their produce rot in the farms for lack of a market," said Lucy Biwott, a Njoro farmer, who harvested 16 bags of Irish potatoes from the family's 1.2ha field. "I wonder where the hungry people are, how I wish I would transport to them some of these potatoes."

A fund-raising campaign, “Kenyans4Kenya”, aims to raise KSh500 million ($5.4 million) in four weeks and has, so far, raised some $2m since its 27 July launch.

In Mau Narok region, farmer Billy Muriungi is luckier with his bean harvest, which he intends to dry and store until leaner times when prices increase.

"I am now tilling the land to plant for another season; I hope the rains will continue and give me another good harvest," said Muriungi.

Transport challenge

"How can you transport cabbage to northern Kenya from Nakuru?" asked Special Programmes Minister, Esther Murugi.

Poor road infrastructure and insecurity in the remote north exacerbate the access problem.

"We are looking for funds from donors to buy produce like potatoes and cabbages [to] distribute to closer areas such as Mwingi and Kitui [in eastern Kenya], where people are also starving," she said. "If farmers are able to transport potatoes from Nakuru to Mombasa, then the government can too."

She said produce prices and transport expenses would need to be considered before such a programme is undertaken, adding that so far, the government had only allocated funds to purchase rice, maize, beans and cooking oil for the hungry.