Food insecurity is a
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common occurrence in western Kenya and this year is no exception. While average plot sizes are shrinking due to population pressures, the main crop grown in the region is maize which also accounts for the majority of caloric intake amongst the poorest part of the population. Easily stored but comprising almost entirely of starch, maize is not a very nutritious diet and farmers rely on the market for their other nutritional needs outside the two annual harvest seasons.Without functioning market mechanisms for storage or futures contracts, however, local prices fluctuate wildly; the price of tomatoes in the dry season is about six times the price at harvest. Since poor people spend upwards of 80% of their incomes on food, food prices matter a
lot for their food security and nutritional status.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that high prices in the dry season reflect low supply and that the solution involves increasing production. However, this kind of approach misses the point: Food security has very little to do with food production and everything to do with incomes. The food is produced, it is there. If high local prices reflected unmet demand, being a market economy with near-free trade with its neighbours and relatively good infrastructure, someone would transport food to the region. But that’s exactly the problem: Western Kenya is poorer than other parts of the country and prices are high in the dry season not because of low overall supply but because of low demand for food stuffs due to high incidence of poverty. People do not have money to buy food and without money in the hands of consumers there is no incentive for others to transport food to western Kenya when demand is both higher and more stable in Nairobi, Coastal, Central and Rift Valley Provinces. Malnutrition thus occurs not because there is no food available in the country, but because people cannot afford to buy the ingredients of a healthy and balanced diet all year round. To improve food security in the region, the emphasis therefore needs to be on getting money in the hands of poor people – raising incomes, rather than increasing production on already small and crowded plots (That’s not to say that there are no supply side constraints: there are, but improved storage facilities for agricultural products would be a better investment than increased production, but that is another issue).
A common characteristic amongst employees of TradeRelief-funded businesses in Oyugis in western Kenya, is that they have recently left the rural areas. Young and semi-educated, they know that they can improve their lives and food security not by producing more food but
instead by getting a job and buying food from others. Of course that’s a gamble – getting a job is by no means guaranteed, but the associated increase in welfare from employment is so much higher that many find the gamble worthwhile and as people leave subsistence agriculture and enter the labour force, those remaining in the rural areas will find that the payoffs to farming increase, increasing their incomes and hence food security too. And the employment does increase welfare significantly: Pre-employment, about 75% lived below the poverty line, today that figure is about 30%, most of whom are recent employees.
So what is the takeaway message? If you want to improve people’s food security, the focus should be on providing meaningful alternatives to subsistence agriculture. This is the philosophy being TradeRelief’s work; we provide affordable and tailored financing to businesses that improve employment prospects in the region. You can learn more about our work and read case studies of the businesses we work with here on this blog, on www.traderelief.org or by
finding us on Facebook.