Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The government must address the root courses of high food prices

The government’s intervention over the skyrocketing of prices for maize flour is a big relieve to majority of Kenyans especially the poor but the focus should now be on what triggered the plummeting prices and how the same can be prevented in future. Even if the prices are slashed by 60%, failure to address the root causes of the problem will soon submerge the country into the same quagmire. We are fatigued by treating symptoms instead of causes when we are in a crisis and that is why the government must explore what the farmers go through during maize production before it reaches the market. Ploughing up the land, harrowing, purchase of seeds and fertilizers, planting, and weeding, top dressing and pesticide application, second weeding, harvesting, threshing, drying and finally transporting the maize to buying agents are hefty and costly routines for the farmers. The sum total of these donkey’s work should be better returns and obviously no farmer will want to sell at a throw away price especially when the cost of production is high and one intends to make a profit. This is why some farmers are compelled to withhold their maize awaiting a market shortage to sell during high demand and hence, fetch good profits. This might be the reason why there is a shortage of maize, bringing about the current food crisis. Extending agricultural subsidies to farmers is the first step to curb the skyrocketing of food prices. Farmers need support from the government beginning from accessing low interest loans as well as scrapping the heavy bureaucracy in our financial institutions especially the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC). This is the surest way to improve food production as well as encouraging farmers who have left their land fallow due to lack of capital. The government needs to support farmers unwaveringly because they play a pivotal role to feed the nation. We can do without “shelter” and “clothing” but we can’t do without food. It’s the fuel of life for all living organisms. Man made factor like the post election violence and also natural vagaries associated with inclement weather should trigger the government to extend a helping hand to the farmers. Failure to do the same will demoralize their efforts to produce and feed the nation. Another aspect that will increase food production in the country is turning all arable land owned by individuals, companies and corporations for cultivation. The government should manage the exercise and reward the owners after harvesting or support them financially to farm for themselves. Penalties should be levied to people who own large tracts of land without exploiting it. The government should also consider increasing demonstration farms to showcase better farming techniques as well as increasing the number of Agricultural Extension Service to the farmers that will boost not only food production but also dairy farming. It’s encouraging that the government has waived all duty for imported maize; however, it could have been better if it also applied to other basic foods like wheat flour, sugar and rice. The government through the Ministry of Finance and Agriculture must keep an eye on unscrupulous millers who takes advantage of the liberalized market to exploit Kenyans by hiking prices at will. Also, to avoid conflict of interest, any politicians with a stake in the cereal industry should not be appointed to any ministry that is affiliated with the sector. Who knows some government officials are behind the current food crisis out of operating behind the scenes. By and large, it’s the government’s responsibility to get the country out of the current food crisis. Not the farmers, millers or the general public. Its however tragic that when we fall into a minor crisis, getting a tangible solution causes hiccups and we are left wondering if we real think and plan well as a people. Our leaders and policy makers should understand the essence of a contingency plan. When we are in an abyss it’s not the best time to run helter skelter for short term solutions. How about tomorrow now that the prices of maize meal is likely to drop? The government has not even hinted on how to address the costs of fertilizers and seeds yet early next year, is a planting season especially in the North Rift, the key maize producing region in the Country. We need actions not mere boardroom and empty rhetoric in rallies by government officials.
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