Ranging from tomatoes, sweet ripe mangoes, avocadoes, pineapples, bananas, arrowroots, I am in Murang’a County, in Central Province, Kenya. The hawkers crowd our bus to sell food commodities. I would love to buy every single fruit, and so would my fellow passengers, but with so many people at the window, who are we to buy from? This is a common site in Kenya.What is the solution to regions that have too much while others have very little or nothing? How do we supply what we have across the country?
On our way back we are met with sad dissolutioned looks on both men and women alike. Five pieces of mangoes sold but what is the lady to do with the rest of the basket? Well, they are spoilt for the day, and lets not even go to the dozens falling every night on her roof, yet for the last one week she does not have enough coins to buy milk to her two, four, six- year old children.
An elderly man sitting next to me tells me they have gone ahead to cut down coffee bushes and are now replacing them with eucalyptus trees. “But that is disastrous for the environment?” I tell him. Note that eucalyptus trees are not suitable for the environment especially if the area receives less than 1200mm annual rainfall. Eucalyptus trees use up soil nutrients, depleting them very rapidly, additionally, they use large amounts of water competing with other species, eventually, they could replace native species especially in areas receiving less than 400mm of rainfall, though this still calls for careful management. Moreover, a Eucalyptus plantation does not encourage as much biodiversity, when compared to other natural ecosystems.
The man informs me that a single eucalyptus tree-pole wood could go up to Ksh. 1, 500, resulting to Ksh. 15,000 if one sells ten poles; while firewood could fetch up to Ksh. 1, 200 per cubic meters. “If I resort to growing maize or retain the coffee bushes, I wouldn’t earn that much in two years. Maize prices sometimes fetch as low as Ksh.2, 000 per 90 kilogram bag. You see, the issue is – he continues to tell me- “I have children to take care of, wife, and aging parents all who need my support. And I need to invest in my future. If my family gets sick, sometimes I am too poor to even afford the medicine. At this time we can only do what we have to do to survive.”
During the day when I had visited my grandmother in the same area, we’d taken a walk down to the “River” and even before we reached the river my mother gasped in disbelief. “Grandmother, where is the river? What happened?” She screams. I don’t understand because I have not been here before. We get closer and a very thin stream of water is flowing. “This simply cannot be happening.” My mother continues. When we were young, barely 25 years ago, your father and his brothers used to swim here. They could even catch some fish. All this ground was filled with water” she is still in disbelief “All that riparian vegetation, what happened to it?”There are only many eucalyptus trees around. And the riparian vegetation is lost.
My grandmother who has already witnessed the massive decline in the now “River Stream” is no longer shocked nowadays.
She tells us that human population in the area has been growing tremendously, and that people can no longer rely on the fruit trees on their farms, or maize crops. In addition, those who still retain their fruit crops do not know where to sell the produce in bulk. People are now planting eucalyptus at every available space and no one is thinking of the vegetation that supports the rivers. “But isn’t this region a water catchment region? “Aren’t these rivers feeding into other bigger rivers?” I ask. “Yes they used to,” she tells me. “But today they do not have enough water.”
A few weeks later I am on my way to Mombasa, and a slight stop at Machakos County and both women and men fill our windows selling ripe red tomatoes and onions. The question arises again, how much can we as travelers purchase from them? And how many buses will even stop here. And I ask myself, “At the end of the day, what will this farmers and sellers result to in frustration, plant more eucalyptus? Move to urban areas?
I was born in Nyandarua County and few years ago farmers poured huge amounts of milk in frustration over low purchasing prices and most of them being told to take home their milk. Reason being the small factory they took their product to, did not have the capacity to handle such large amounts of milk. In the same area a farmer feeds cabbage and other greens to a herd of goats and sheep because, well, the harvest is a lot and they’ll still rot if she doesn’t cut them. There is no market nearby to take her products, and at the end of the day people in the same area have the same farm produce.
Growing up, I could not understand how it was possible that I could take my tea without sugar, yet there was so much production of sugarcane in Western Kenya, and how was it possible that the same sugarcane farmers could take tea without milk, while we produced so much of it, and how it was possible that I never tasted fish, yet the Nyanza region has much fish production, and still, how was it possible, that I never ate coconut fruit and the cashew nuts, yet the Coast of Kenya has so much of them? And better yet, how was it possible that children, women, men, in Samburu, Turkana, North Kenya would experience famine and even die because of lack of food? How could all this cycle take place in the same country?
I am attune to the introduction of better farming techniques, modern technologies. But looking back when we had much food, many still starved, and there were problems in food distribution. There is need to develop efficient ways of moving food from the farmer's hands, to the market, with none, or as minimal losses as possible. Food supply and distribution is not a problem limited to Kenya solely. Many developing countries are experiencing the same problem: Situations where some regions have abundance of food resources while the rest have little or nothing. According to FAO (The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014 p. 8), Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest prevalence of hunger, with 214.1 million in the region not having access to food. It is thus necessary to come up with more ways to distribute food within the countries, and across the regions.
Could it be that establishing food processing factories in the various counties in Kenya could be a big solution to this problem?
Well, I am strongly inclined to believe so. And not just in Kenya but in every other country with different climatic conditions and geographic landscapes.
To begin with, this will encourage urban-rural migration, as more opportunities will be available in the agricultural field. Currently a lot of able- bodied young people are moving to urban areas especially Nairobi to do manual labor such as ferrying passengers using motor-bikes, carrying luggage at a small fee And I understand that too well. Living standards are tremendously high for the common Kenyan Mwananchi. If the farmer invests huge resources, dedicates his/her day, weeks; working on his farm, and at the end of the month pockets less than Ksh. 5000. Then why should he continue farming?
Secondly, it will reduce time wasted while hawking the farm produce at the roadsides. The farmers will have a chance to take their produce directly to the factory, probably in the morning and spend the rest of day working at their farms to increase the produce. Consequently there will be more agricultural produce in the country.
Another benefit will be the increased ability to transport packed food from one region to another within Kenya, with very little chances of the food getting spoiled.The factories could process the raw materials, make juices, repackaging the tomatoes, onions, potatoes, value add them on a large scale. And then distribute them to shops, supermarkets, malls all over the country.
Minimized wastage, better use of what is locally available and helping farmers supply their products wide - The advantages of food processing factories located strategically across the country are simply many.
Important as well is the need for good leadership, especially in the agricultural field. Better policies that create conducive working environments for the farmers, availability and affordability of extension services, as well as access to financial resources. Ultimately, with increased opportunities in agriculture, people will be more enthusiastic to engage at the different levels of Ag , adapt better farming practices as well as protect the environment that feeds them.