OPINION: Fertilizer subsidy is painkiller for a cracked, bleeding head

OPINION: Fertilizer subsidy is painkiller for a cracked, bleeding head

  • Subsidies do not lower the cost of items. Definitely, the reduced price of a commodity’s market price is paid from our collective pocket. 
  • While painkillers are easy to administer and do not require much expertise and precision, our agriculture sector needs cleaning, surgery and proper dressing to heal.  

By Emmanuel Atamba

The term subsidy is often misconstrued to mean reduced costs. Far from the truth, subsidies actually increase the cost of items in the end through long bureaucratic processes needed to administer them.

Subsidies, therefore, do not lower the cost of items. Definitely, the reduced price of a commodity’s market price is paid from our collective pocket. This could be through government coffers, taxes, or by foregoing services that could have been in the first place paid for by resources used in the subsidy program.  

Let’s take a step back and start from where we should have. Kenya is currently experiencing the worst drought-related food crisis. As of August 2022, Kenya had experienced four consecutive failed rain seasons and the weather forecast showed a likelihood of a fifth failed season by the end of 2022 resulting to 4.1 million Kenyans experiencing severe food insecurity.

As livestock die and crop production reduce, families are struggling to access sufficient food. Lack of milk for children and lactating women is having a significant impact on nutrition

While drought-related food insecurity cases are evident, chronic food insecurity affecting urban dwellers as well as rural areas remains a “silent killer.” Urban food insecurity has increased since the COVID pandemic and made even worse with the current global food and economic crisis including the war in Ukraine.

High levels of unemployment especially in urban informal settlements is a major contributing factor to the inability of many urban dwellers to afford to feed themselves. Coping mechanisms in these areas include sacrificing food quality, and safety for just any food, skipping meals, and taking credit from microfinance institutions (mainly mobile moneylenders), is an approach that further complicates the food insecurity problem.   

The World Bank’s Kenya Economic Outlook report, 2022 showed that the proportion of Kenyan households unable to access stable food increased by 36% with a sharp increase experienced in the rural areas at 38% and 33% in urban areas since November 2021. The whole country's proportion shot up to 50% as food prices increased to 12.4% in May 2022 up from 9% in March 2022.

Basic food items like maize flour prices increased from Ksh.120 to 220 shillings per packet in just 4 months. Healthy, diverse diets remain a far-fetched reality for most households, as many are unable to meet the cost of fresh fruits, vegetables and protein-rich food items. This is bigger than 1.4 million bags of subsidized fertilizer. A bigger systemic problem that needs urgent yet forward-looking, sustainable solutions to address.

The fertilizer subsidy program has in the recent past been misused. The program is notorious for being selective on who gets to benefit, which farmers qualify and runway corruption scandals that have not yet been resolved. Traders have also managed to hijack the fertilizer and sell it expensively to unsuspecting farmers.

While it is true that production-based subsidies are better than consumption subsidies, our food and farming systems should be completely free from reliance on government “resuscitation.” The Right to Food, enshrined in the Kenyan Constitution does not mean that Kenyans should be fed, whether through unga or fertilizer subsidies. It espouses the aspiration of every Kenyan, in the community or alone, to feed themselves in dignity. This is what we should demand from the current government.

There is need to enact legal mechanisms that clearly outline measures the government can take in their role to recognize, protect and fulfil the Right to Adequate Food for all. It will also provide mechanisms to deal with violations from third-party actors who take advantage of Kenyans either by engineering or taking advantage of crises to make abnormal profits.

Let's face it, subsidies are expensive and just don’t work. The Unga subsidy announced in July only ran for a month and cost Kenyans Ksh.7.2 billion. The fertilizer subsidy program announced by President Ruto will cost Kenyans a further Ksh.4.2 billion. As a country, we need to move beyond subsidies and address underlying challenges facing Kenya’s agriculture sector as a whole.

Key issues to be addressed include a lack of information and knowledge on sustainable farming practices that not only have the potential to enhance productivity but also significantly reduce the dependence on external, expensive and unsustainable chemical inputs. Revival of public extension is an urgent need to meet producers at their different points of need and ensure that food production is enhanced, agroecosystems health rebuilt and that food security can start from producers, farming communities, up to the consumer.

Kenyan farmers have come up with innovative ways of managing their farms and enterprises and ensuring good harvests for their families and market without depending on external inputs. Practices such as mixed farming, intercropping, and making farm compost can go a long way in supporting production with no added cost. This requires knowledge and support for farmer-led innovation and research to transform our agriculture sector into one that is resilient to climate and market shocks, protects the integrity of our environment and feed us sustainably.

Subsidizing inputs without proper analysis of the current and emerging challenges that farmers face will definitely not cure the problem. President Ruto and his team should live up to their “bottom-up” slogan and develop policies and interventions that start from producers and not the other way around. While painkillers are easy to administer, and do not require much expertise and precision, our agriculture sector needs cleaning, surgery and proper dressing to heal.  

 Emmanuel Atamba is the Coordinator at the Route to Food

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Fertilizer Subsidy

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