By Eric Kimunguyi:
The coronavirus has forced crop protection to move to a super-critical status to ensure that we have enough food this year.
National and global measures to head off mass infections have almost brought our trading system to a halt, removing the safety net that existed for all nations of importing to plug shortages and exporting surpluses for income. It means that there will be no easy solution if pests wipe out our food, as insects and diseases continue to compete for our crops.
This year, if we let the Fall Armyworm devour our maize, as it did in 2017, when 70 per cent of our national maize crop was destroyed, our options will be limited, as we look for imported maize to replace our own failed crops.
Transport is getting harder
Air cargo is now arriving at a fraction of its volume, because half of our cargo was previously carried in passenger flights that are no longer running. This, alone, creates a big hole in feeding us. By 2018, our food imports surpassed Sh1 billion a year, as we imported maize-meal, wheat, wheat flour, rice, sugar and other agricultural commodities.
We are thus challenged to increase our agricultural production to cover the deficit we cannot import, while at the same time we are grappling with looming food supply chain issues.
From the crops already in, growers are trying to keep delivering fresh produce to the towns and, and even to get some horticultural produce to our airports to supply foods elsewhere and keep earning revenue in Kenya. However, transport is getting harder.
Our urban points of sale are also now challenged. Already, our city food markets are closing. There are even issues over whether petrol stations could close, if we take every pick-up truck off the road. Without urgent attention, we are rapidly heading towards the quagmire of urban starvation.
But further up the food chain we have even bigger problems looming. The suppliers of agro-inputs have been trying to keep inputs moving to agrovets and farmers with the planting season now underway. However, supplies may now become compromised.
To make matters worse, the locust swarms of January and February laid huge breeding grounds and the eggs have been hatching throughout March, generating a new pest for farmers.
We now must get the most from every crop. It isn’t going to help us to lose mangoes, tomatoes, beans, maize or any crop to insects or diseases.
Maximising our agricultural output has gained a new urgency, and as our policy makers, farmers, agrovets and the 70 per cent of our population that earns its livelihoods from agriculture all turn to the planting season, we need to ensure that every mind is clear on the implications of dropping planting, and yields.
If we turn away from that need, we can see from our own recent past what will happen. During the 2008 post-election violence, which closed transport corridors and displaced farmers in their thousands, we were slow to spot the implications on food. The food shortages hit us later in tight supplies and higher prices from as early as June of that year.
However, then, the problems were confined largely to the Rift Valley, an important growing region, but not the whole country. Now, every agricultural region is being affected by our virus protection measures, locusts, and loss of the import safety net that we had in 2008.
In the agrochemical industry, we are trying to ensure that supplies keep flowing, to prevent the catastrophic breakdown that would come on losing even just three quarters of our staple food crop.
Yet, agro-inputs have been left off every list of essential items, so far.
We are thus working to deepen and increase information to every farmer on ways to access essential inputs and even looking at initiatives to support local fertiliser production.
We will be fooling ourselves if we think the solution is importing from elsewhere, as most other countries are also struggling to maintain their food supply chains.
March and April are the peak for planting across most of the globe, and many farmers are not planting as normal.
In 2020, every crop will count, and all of us need to be looking at what is necessary, to get the highest yields so we can to fill the holes opening on every side.
Eric Kimunguyi is the CEO of Agrochemical Association of Kenya