OPINION: It is time to revive Kenya’s food system


OPINION: It is time to revive Kenya’s food system
Carren Onyango, Collines Otieno (Lucky), Lower Nyando - Kisumu County. Greenpeace Africa. Building environmental resilience: farmers adapting to climate change in Kenya, East Africa. Photographer: Cheryl-Samantha Owen

By Claire Nasike

In the wake of COVID-19, Kenya’s food system has been one of the most challenged systems in Kenya with workers being laid off to prevent the spread of the virus.

Panic buying and stocking up on food produce among consumers from able households has been the order of the day. The poorer households are left to live from hand to mouth exposing themselves further to the virus.

These occurrences beg the need for a holistic food system. A quick reflection on the previous years; families had a farm where they tilled and produced food to feed their communities. If they did not own land, their neighbours allowed them to till a section of their land.

Families had an allotment of indigenous vegetables within their homesteads. During harvest time families would exchange farm produce with each other. These practices enabled food production at the community level. Subsistence farming as it is known cushioned the communities against hunger.

The communities had healthy diets, good indigenous food practices and cultural food markets. There was no usage of pesticides, fertilisers or hybrid seeds. Firewood ash as I witnessed with my grandmother was used to control pests and diseases on the farm. Seeds were freely exchanged among the community members with no claim of ownership whatsoever.

With the advent of technology, these practices have been abandoned. Cash crop cultivation has been paraded as the next frontier. Local African communities abandoned their farms or sold them for greener pastures in the cities. This has led to the loss of a culture of indigenous seed saving, farming practices and most importantly the loss of indigenous foods and the lack of their consumption.

Shrinking land sizes coupled with misplaced priorities by the political leaders have negatively impacted Kenya’s food system. The latter has placed unnecessary importance on certain crops such as Maize. This has rendered the rest of the food crops less important or earned them the title of a ‘poor man’s crop’. Woe unto you if you are spotted consuming brown ugali and Erisebebe (Pumpkin leaves)- food that is extremely nutritious and healthy.

COVID-19 is here and as people are instructed to practice social distancing and stay indoors, the majority of the communities particularly the urban poor are worried about their next meal. This begs the question: what if these areas had community food gardens? Would they find it difficult to self distance as recommended?

The lesson therefore from COVID-19 is that it is time to re-imagine our food systems. The profit-driven model of industrial agriculture, centered around the heavy usage of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically engineered seeds and the acquisition of large tracts of land for farming, is not working for Kenya.

It is rather contaminating our soils and water resources with chemicals, affecting our health, continually holding our farmers in bondage and making us heavily dependent on imported produce.

With most agricultural workers being laid off as a result of the pandemic, it is time to build robust food systems that encourage smallholder farmers to produce more food. The Ministry of Agriculture needs to reinvent ways of reducing food scarcity aside from food importation. In times such as these, food importation minimizes the ability of our communities to deal with shocks.

Food is fundamental in the development of a society. It is time to rebuild Kenya’s food systems that protect the environment and provide healthy and nutritious diets. It is time to revive our food culture and indigenous food markets. It is time to thwart the battle that corporations have on the control of our land, food and seeds.

It is time to re-invent food systems that allow Kenyans to have access to land for food production and exchange seeds locally and freely. For one cannot purport to improve food security while controlling the seed. Whoever controls the seed, controls the lifeline of a nation. We need robust food systems that prioritise this.

The writer is the Greenpeace Africa Food Campaigner

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