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How the Country can Attain Food Security during the Coronavirus Pandemic

Kenya faces one of the most challenging years with regards to food security. Although the country has faced food insecurity incidences in the past, the situation this year has been complicated by the Coronavirus pandemic. The country was already facing several threats to food security. First, the desert locust invasion of biblical proportion that spread quite rapidly between December 2019 and February 2020, was affecting crop and livestock production. Second, above-average rainfall experienced from October 2019 to January 2020 increased the likelihood of losses.

The policy choice for the country is to attain self-sufficiency. However, the country is a net importer of the major staples consumed. Over the past decade, the key food security challenges were mostly about inadequacy. The most severe food security shock was between 2008 and 2009. During that period, the country was recovering from the effects of the post-election violence, when the global food price shock occurred in 2008. This was further complicated by unfavourable weather in 2009. In recent years, shocks were also experienced in 2016 and 2017.

The current food security situation

The country usually attains good performance in years with adequate rainfall as the majority of the producers are smallholders who rely largely on rainfed agriculture. The 2019/2020 season was favourable. Most parts of the country received above-average rainfall during the long- and short rains seasons. A good harvest was forecasted. However, above-normal rainfall was recorded through the harvest period. In the long rains season, it led to the destruction of cropland. The ministry estimates that 10,000 hectares of cropland were destroyed. The post-harvest losses, especially for cereal grains, is expected to be higher, this year, than usual due to inadequate drying of grain. In the past five years, it is estimated that the country loses an average of four million bags of maize post-harvest. In context, this is almost the entire short rains season harvest in a normal year. In addition, vast swarms of desert locust started arriving in the country and affecting the northern frontier counties from December 2019. The desert locust outbreak is complex to predict, and its mobility and feeding behaviour further complicate efforts to control it. It is estimated that swarms spread fast and can cover between 100 and 150 kilometres per day. An average swarm can comprise between 40 and 80 million locusts per square kilometre. Such a swarm can consume green vegetation (crops, pasture, fodder) in the amount that is equivalent to food enough for 35,000 people in one-day. By the end of February 2020, 17 counties had been infested, mostly the ASAL counties. Without the desert locust invasion, livestock farmers in the ASAL counties were likely to improve meat and milk productivity due to abundance of pasture. By March 2020, the FAO categorised the threat in the country as dangerous, due to continued breeding and new swarms formation that represents an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods at the beginning of the long rains season.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected food security?

March 2020 also saw the country record its first case of Coronavirus. By mid-March, measures for self-isolation were announced, which included the closure of schools and encouraging people to work from home. More strict measures commenced towards the end of March, including the closure of produce markets in urban areas and dawn to dusk curfews. The last two were highly disruptive for the food systems. A key challenge now is how we continue to access essential foodstuffs in light of the measures to curb the spread of the disease. Majority of foodstuff, especially the highly perishable ones like fruits and vegetables are transported to urban towns at night when the temperatures are cooler. The closure of major markets in many urban and peri-urban areas, while a reasonable measure to avoid crowding, has disrupted food supply systems especially for fresh produce in urban areas. Also, the initial exclusion of food transporters in the essential services category meant delays were experienced in getting food to destined markets. The ministry of agriculture has already announced that transporters of foodstuff are now included in the essential services category to improve food supply in urban areas.

The disruption has mainly been on the informal food supply chains. These supply chains primarily serve low-income and informal housing estates. Fruits, vegetables and other foodstuff arrive in the designated markets which act as wholesale markets. The small retailers then get their access through these large markets and distribute to small kiosks in the estates. Although innovations such as the model used by Twiga foods have been introduced to try and improve efficiency in these chains, the traditional model which involves many actors remains dominant.

The measures put in place to contain the virus have a huge effect on the supply chains. For example, the reduced economic activity in the hospitality industry has a huge negative effect on food demand. Significant decreases in demand would usually lead to a fall in prices offered to producers. On the other hand, if supply is disrupted and consumers are unable to enjoy place and time utility, prices would rise in an ideal scenario to reflect the shortage. However, these are not ideal or usual times. An expectation is that in addition to the overall reduction in demand, we will observe shifts in demand. For example, where workers ate lunch in a restaurant near their office in the usual case, they will now consume the same from home if they are working from home. Another shift that can be expected is the increase in consumption of dry foods such as cereals and pulses which can be stored over a longer duration. Ideally, the market is expected to adjust itself, but this happens after a period of learning and so it is not instantaneous. Also, market panic will set in when demand and supply are not predictable. Already, there are numerous instances of panic-stricken shoppers buying everything they can afford trying to ensure that they have adequate stocks. To some extent, this can lead to an increase in prices for commodities that now seem ‘scarce’.

What past lessons can lead to sustaining food security

The number of persons infected in the country is expected to continue rising and peak in April or May 2020 depending on the effectiveness of measures taken to curb the spread of the disease. Already, the government has issued travel restrictions to citizens in hotspot areas. All the hotspots are in urban areas. Ensuring the movement of foodstuff and access in markets is not restricted is critical to minimise the adverse effects this can have especially for poor households in urban areas.

A key challenge for policymakers is how to bring order in the informal system. Whereas it’s easy to develop solutions for formal markets such as the institution of quotas, it is very difficult to undertake this in the informal system. For example, in 2017, the government announced a price ceiling for a 2 kg packet of maize flour, however, in the informal estates, consumers paid up to twice the ceiling price due to repacking into smaller quantities.

In the current situation, the government must put all effort into ensuring that there are no artificial demand and supply conditions. This can be done by developing tailored solutions to different market segments. For example, the middle- and higher-income dwellers access fresh produce from supermarkets and grocery shops. Innovations such as online shopping and home deliveries are already taking traction as people try to stay at home. This should be encouraged. Conversely, such solutions would not work for the low-income and informal housing estates, who largely access their foodstuff from the informal market system. This market segment was significantly interrupted in the first few days of the curfew.

The business as usual scenario especially for the informal markets is not practical in the current pandemic. However, if produce markets remain closed, then there is still suboptimal functioning of supply systems. A further measure should be to ensure that markets remain open all days, although at reduced capacities. There is no doubt that overcrowding must be avoided. However, measures must be put in place to ensure that all people can access food. County governments and the ministry of health should work out measures that would facilitate some functionality of produce markets. This could include having different traders on different days, restricting the numbers of people at the market at any given time and ensuring that the safe distancing guidelines are followed. Although this would increase enforcement costs, the benefits in better access and less panic are much higher.

The other key question is on the adequacy of stocks available in the country. Currently, the planting for the long rains season is underway. The ministry has sustained measures already put in place to control desert locusts which now are a threat to the new crop that farmers are establishing. There is also need to ensure that farmers have access to inputs they need for optimal production. The ministry has also announced plans to import about 4 million bags of maize. Earlier planning for any imports is highly commendable, especially taking cognisance that the pandemic has also disrupted global food supply systems. The ministry should step up monitoring of stocks, prices and distribution systems to ensure that the government can step in where the market mechanisms fail.

At the global level, some countries in Eastern Europe have already enforced export bans on essential staples such as wheat. The bans are being put in place with an objective of ensuring food availability in the exporting countries. Learning from the 2008 food crisis, exports ban is counterproductive. A similar measure in 2008 caused panic in food markets resulting in spikes in food prices across the world. Countries such as Kenya will be at a disadvantage if such measures are repeated.

Additionally, there is need to track both producer and consumer prices for food. Food security, especially in the urban areas in more about access and affordability. An economic downturn is expected in the post-pandemic period. Tracking prices ensures that the government is on top of things pertaining to the support that is required for vulnerable populations, both producers and consumers alike. The government must ensure that adequate safety nets will be in place to guarantee food security for households that will be devasted economically. At the same time, the government needs to continue providing support to producers, to the extent that is realistically possible, in order to improve supply and link them to markets for their produce, particularly through e-commerce channels, whose importance is growing.