Kenyan farmers abandon fields as hunger bites

by Frank Nyakairu | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 6 February 2009 14:49 GMT

Sheltering under a tree from the scorching midday heat, eyes glued to the clear blue sky, Kiziba Wamwagudu hopes for rain. None has fallen in months.

Crops have withered away in the dry, dusty soil, and food is scarce and costly. Like millions of others in southeast Kenya, Wamwagudu, 68, and his extended family of 18 are slowly being driven into the jaws of hunger.

In mid-January, Kenya's president declared the food crisis a national disaster and asked international donors for $400 million to help 10 million people facing shortages.

Poor rains, together with high fertiliser and commodity prices, have led to a grain deficit. The impact is being made worse by displacement after last year's post-election violence, insecurity in some areas and livestock diseases.

Those hardest hit are the most vulnerable communities in Kenya's southeast arid and semi-arid lands and lowland coastal areas.

In Kinango, most small rivers are drying up as humans and livestock compete for water. Maize, Kenya's main staple food, is the worst-affected crop.

Behind Wamwagudu's mud-and-wattle house lie three acres of dried-out maize, which died just six weeks after planting. The yellowed stalks poke out of the hard, cracked surface.

"I usually feed my family from this garden alone, but I did not even get a kilo of grain this harvesting season," Wamwagudu laments.

Pointing to his numerous grandchildren playing nearby, he asks: "Tell me, how do you feed those children?"

HARD GRAFT

Francis Daalu, 48, another Kinango resident, has abandoned farming for the time-being because he can no longer support his family of four. "I have to work to get 90 shillings ($1.13) to afford a kilo of maize flour," he explains.

Local prices have soared because of the maize shortfall and high international prices in the first six months of last year, squeezing the amount the poorest can buy.

In December, maize flour cost 60 Kenyan shillings per kilo, around 50 percent higher than a year earlier, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Yet, despite his distress, Wamwagudu isn't giving up. "I have sent my four boys to an open quarry to smash stones for sale, and from that they will bring enough money for maize flour for one meal a day," he says.

For now, he doesn't want food handouts. "What I want is a generator to pump water into my gardens," he says.

To avoid future food shortages, the U.N. World Food Programme is encouraging the use of simple irrigation and using crops that can survive with less rain.

"Millet and sorghum are drought-resistant crops, and this is one of the ways people can change their farming culture to fight drought," explains Gabrielle Menezes, a spokesperson for the food aid agency.

While the government puts the number of those without enough food at 10 million, WFP estimates 3.2 million are in urgent need of aid. It is feeding 1.2 million people and hopes to extend assistance to a further 2 million, according to Menezes. The U.N. agency will soon start assessing the hunger situation jointly with the government.

Last month, Nairobi announced it would scrap import duty on maize for six months to alleviate shortages and buy in more maize for the hungry.

And the agriculture minister fired 14 of 17 managers at the national cereal authority after a government investigation into alleged hoarding of maize and cheap sales to well-connected cartels.

But in Kinango, neither aid agencies nor politicians have yet been much use to Wamwagudu. He has little choice but to scrape by without food aid or water, looking to the sky for a few drops of relief.

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