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January 30, 2024  China Daily  

Kenya's Agricultural Evolution: Learning from China's Success

DRR & Climate Change Resilience;Opinion;Kenya's Agricultural Evolution;Food Security;Ecological Challenges;Sino-Africa

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Two collaborative projects with China could hold the keys to secure the modernization of Kenya's agricultural sector

Agriculture is one of the pillars of Kenya's national economy, accounting for nearly one-third of its GDP and more than half of its exports. About 80 percent of the country's population is engaged in farming and animal husbandry. The arable land area is 92,000 square kilometers (about 16 percent of the total land area), of which about 73 percent is cultivated. Wheat and rice are mainly imported.

Drought linked to climate change and locusts exposed the lack of resilience of Kenya's agricultural sector and its precarious food security.

The current government has responded by rolling out the new Bottom-Up Economic Transformation Agenda (BETA) Food Security (2022-27). Under the BETA Food Security framework, professionals will be deployed to work with farmers to manage farms as profitable, data-driven enterprises with high unit productivity. The distinguishing feature of BETA's less subsistence, more commercial and modern agriculture is its emphasis on larger farms, operated strictly on a commercial basis as the key to food security and a safeguard against sector-wide crises.

Such changes could have far-reaching consequences. For instance, they could accelerate rural-urban migration on a scale not previously seen in Kenya. Most of the new urban population would wind up in the informal sector, which is already the mainstay of the economy.

Yet, the proposed change to the landscape of Kenya's agriculture is, to some extent, similar to China's transformation which, over the last 70 or so years, has gradually pulled people from their ancestral rural areas, expanded the size of unit holdings and increased the unit productivity. In the process, China has turned a large number of its rural population into urban workers. How has China accomplished this transformation without large scale social upheaval, dislocation or disorientation of the ex-rural population?

A broader and deeper collaboration between Kenya's agricultural sector and the provincial-level operatives in China, especially with provinces whose ecology approximates Kenya, could be extremely helpful as Kenya tries to make this critical transition.

Only about 20 percent of Kenya is prime agricultural land. The balance is marginal land suitable for hardy crops and livestock. If Kenya's agriculture is to be modernized, then the focus must be on increasing the productivity of marginal quality land.

Two flagship projects in China-Kenya cooperation in the agricultural sector should take center stage.

The Kenya-China Belt and Road Joint Laboratory for Crop Molecular Biology, based in Egerton University's Confucius Institute, focuses on the development of pest, drought and disease-tolerant and hybrid crops to combat hunger, malnutrition and rural poverty.

Upon completing research, development, and breeding of crops that can withstand climatic stress, the university releases the crops and follows through working with both farmers and extension workers in growing the crops.

Since its launch in the 1990s, the university has successfully developed high-yielding beans, groundnuts, cassava and bacterial wilt-resistant tomatoes.

The project's classic extension model of mainstreaming the results of genetic engineering is still valid whether the target is small farmers or large commercial farms.

The second flagship project is the Sino-Africa Joint Research Center (SAJOREC) at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. It focuses less on genetic engineering and more on the ecological challenges — biodiversity, plant pathogenic microorganism detection, ecology, remote sensing, high yield and high-quality crop cultivation demonstration and land and water resource management.

In effect, the two projects are complementary: one addresses genetic aspects of crops while the other looks at the environmental and ecological obstacles to high output especially in marginal land.

Notably, some of the crops that are under investigation under both projects are the long-neglected but time-tested crops such as cassava that thrived for centuries in Kenya's semi-arid regions. Producing these crops on a commercial scale as BETA proposes in Kenya's semi-arid areas could enable Kenya to reduce its reliance on imported food crops. Re-introducing long-neglected but time-tested food crops this time as the essence of modernity could be a game-changer.

Both projects are ideal vehicles for promoting modernization of the agricultural sector in Kenya's rural areas. They should redouble their efforts despite the poor performance of extension in the recent triple crisis of drought, locusts and the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, a more commerce-driven agricultural sector may have inbuilt incentives for quick uptake of the output from both projects using the extension model.

Upgrading the role of these two projects to make them central to BETA could drive the rapid modernization of the agricultural sector before the next crisis. To this end, it would be very helpful if high-level consultations could be organized between the current government and the leadership of the two flagship projects. The objective of the consultations would be to fast-track the outputs of the two projects as key inputs for BETA Food Security.

The author is a former economist with the World Bank and advisor for the Kenyan government. 

(The Original Title: Hale and hearty)

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