Smallholder farmers pay the price of poor farming policy

Kimathi Makira an IT graduate enjoys the dangling bananas and the succulent tomatoes in his farm. Though his farm feels not much bigger than a handkerchief, about three quarter of an acre, he has invested on growing a lot with little land even as Kenya grapples with poor land policy.

His venture is a radical departure from the usual subsistence crops that the community has depended on for generations. “The biggest problem we have is inheritance,” he said. “Every father divides his land amongst his sons, and now plots are so small that it’s almost impossible to survive, let alone make a living.

"We've got to come up with a way of combining and consolidating farms into communal plots so we can benefit from economies of scale." And for Makira, the issue of land reform lies at the heart of Kenya’s food crisis.

“The problem for small farmers like myself is that we have to buy our inputs in very small quantities. That means we get no bulk discount for seed or fertiliser.

"We can't afford to improve our infrastructure with things like irrigation systems, so we're dependent on rain, and there's no way we could ever think big machines like tractors."

Makira’s maize harvest is meager: about half a bag of dried white maize.
He shook his head in frustration: "The agronomists tell us we should be getting about three bags of maize for a plot my size. That's what they harvest in the US or Europe. But here, we get one sixth of that."

About half the maize that ends up in the markets comes from small farmers like Makira. Ironically, that tends to inflate the impact of rising prices for inputs like seed and fertiliser.

“Because subsistence farmers pay a premium for buying small quantities of their inputs, any rise in costs has a disproportionate impact on the price of their produce in markets,” said agricultural economist Dr Julius Okello.

“Ultimately it’s the consumers who pay, but it also makes it impossible for small farmers to improve themselves or their farms.” Even getting produce to market is a problem.

Because small farmers can’t afford to hire a truck, brokers come by every week or so to buy from the farm gate and move the goods to town, adding their own premium in the process.

Dr Okello acknowledges that the global rise in food prices has had its impact in Africa, but he also argues that most of the problem is self-inflicted; that Africa’s own unique circumstances have added to the crisis and pushed domestic prices far higher than they should be.

“The continuous subdivision of land is the starting point. We’ve never had a proper land policy in Kenya, so the farms are chopped into smaller and smaller pieces that are impossible to survive on.

“But the food distribution system – the infrastructure – is very poor, so it is very expensive to move things like maize from where there’s a surplus, to where it’s needed. Why would you organise a truck to get your maize to Nairobi, when it’ll probably break down on the bad roads along the way?”

“And on top of it all, we’ve got retrogressive trade policies. The government usually announces a ban on maize exports, but all that it does is create a black market for smuggled grain that drives prices up even higher. Either way, the consumer pays.”