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John Olwande

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenya’s food system faced several direct and indirect challenges. The locust invasion was already destroying crops and pasture in parts of Eastern, North Eastern and Central regions and there were potentially higher than average post-harvest losses for grains because of enhanced rainfall during harvesting in the Rift Valley and parts of Western and Central regions. Besides, the country was experiencing a general economic decline, with the depreciation of the shilling making commodity imports more expensive and a general rise in price levels straining budgets for households. The manufacturing, hospitality and trade industries were especially performing poorly. The arrival of COVID-19 in the country, with the first case, confirmed on 12th March 2020, added to these challenges, and together they present a potential protracted crisis in the food system. Besides, the current floods in several parts of the country, which continue to claim human lives, destroy crops, livestock and property and damage infrastructure, compound the challenges.  While Kenya may not be new to some of these challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic is unique. It is affecting the entire globe of which Kenya’s food system is part and is thus likely to have a prolonged impact on the country’s food system. Therefore, it is important to scrutinize the potential short- and longer-term effects that the policy measures being taken to manage the pandemic will have on the food system. Alongside this, it is imperative to explore potential actions that can assure continued supply of adequate and affordable food of acceptable quality to the population.

Kenya is implementing a range of policy measures to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. These include: restricted movement of people; countrywide dusk to dawn curfew; ban on crowds to observe social distancing; closure of institutions of learning, restaurants (now relaxed to conditional operations), bars and entertainment spaces, selected open-air markets in some counties; international passenger flights into and out of the country; and, most recently restricted cross-border movement of people and mandatory testing of truck drivers. While these measures are deemed to have helped or are expected to slow down the local transmission of the coronavirus, they are also likely to bear both immediate and longer-term undesirable impacts on the country’s food system in several ways.

In the short-term, restricted movement of people directly disrupts operations of the food supply chain. Cessation of movement of people into and out of Nairobi and Mombasa, both large net importers of food in the country, and other counties (Kilifi, Kwale and Mandera), dusk to dawn curfew and restricted cross-border movement of people means a slower pace of trade in food and, therefore, disruption of the supply chain. While the movement of food and other cargo is not restricted, a substantial amount of food is often transported through passenger-carrying vehicles that travel both during the day and night with traders accompanying their goods. It means that traders have limited scope to travel to source their ware, transport them to the markets and sell. As majority of the population access through the informal market system, there is a direct negative effect through reduced supply of food in the market, especially perishables. Indeed, the disparity in prices of some food commodities during the first week of April 2019 and the first week of April 2020 signals distressed food supply in the market currently. For example, market information data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives show that the wholesale prices of maize, beans and green grams in Nairobi were about 38% higher in April 2020 than in April 2019, while those of Irish potatoes, onions and eggs were 15-22% higher in April 2020 than they were at the same time in the previous year.

Restricted movement of people, reduced operating hours due to the curfew, and limited operations of eateries constrain farmers’ access to markets. Indefinite closure of institutions of learning, restrictions on social gatherings and closure of some open-air markets to observe social distancing also add to farmers’ constrained access to markets, and further reduce food supplies in markets. These mean that a broad base of farmers are likely not benefitting from the prevailing higher prices.

In the longer-term, the policy measures and other measures by various countries can affect domestic food production and supplies in several ways. First, the closure of institutions of learning without a definite time for opening them implies uncertainty to producers and traders that often supply food to these institutions. This uncertainty can affect farmers’ decisions to produce this season with the result of depressed domestic supply of food in the coming months. This is especially so for highly perishable commodities such as vegetables. Secondly, restrictions on gatherings to enforce social distancing may affect farmers’ access to extension services, which is a critical component in food production. Extension services are commonly delivered through group approaches, and so social distancing measures may hamper farmers’ coming together in groups to receive training and agricultural advisory services this production season. In addition, the government’s advisory that civil servants who are above 58 years old to work from home may hamper extension service delivery in areas where a good number of public extension officers are in that age category. Thirdly, logistical delays disrupt efficient operation of input supply chains and can affect agricultural production. Slower pace of shipping and distribution of imports due to delays in international shipping and domestic handling at the port, increased number of roadblocks for surveillance and screening in-country and restricted trading hours because of curfew can deny farmers timely access to critical inputs. It is reported that planting fertilizer supply was not much affected for this growing season since the policy response measures to contain COVID-19 came into effect when most farmers had already purchased planting fertilizers. However, the government was not able to implement the e-voucher input subsidy programme this season as had been expected. Further, a discussion with a fertilizer distributor in Nakuru revealed that demand for CAN fertilizer, the preferred for top-dressing maize, is higher than the available stocks and farmers are forced to substitute urea for it. This indicates that the distribution of the top-dressing fertilizer is being affected by delays due to these measures and may affect production. Finally, some countries have taken actions that affect food supply in the global market. The export restrictions in their various forms are contagious and can create a ripple effect that makes large international food exporters adopt them. If that happens, we are likely to experience volatility in the global food supply and prices. This will make it difficult for net importers of food such as Kenya to access the global food market, with adverse effects on the domestic supply system and stability of prices of food.

What can Kenya do to ensure continued availability and affordability of food in the short- and longer-term?

In order to cushion households from job losses due to COVID-19, and thus prop purchasing power in the economy, the government has designed social safety net packages that include cash transfers to low-income households and elderly persons, reduced income taxes for individuals and lowered value-added tax on all commodities. Taxes have also been lowered for businesses. These measures are expected to enable households to continue consuming and businesses to continue providing services and employing people. While the measures are appropriate, they may not be sufficient as their scale cannot match the losses in jobs and business revenues due to the pandemic. The government estimates potential job losses of half a million in the next six months and most of these will be in the informal sector. In addition, incomes of households that significantly depend on remittances from abroad and locally are also affected by the pandemic. These suggest a potential shift in demand for food as affected households adjust their consumption patterns in response to a reduction in income. We are thus likely to see increased demand for staple foods such as maize and reduced demand for meats and fish. Therefore, there is need to closely monitor domestic stocks of staple foods with a view to taking actions to promptly replenish them. In doing that, the country should also recognize that its traditional sources of staple food imports (such as Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa and Mexico) are also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and so there is need to ensure that trade arrangements with these countries are effective to allow continued food imports should the need arise.

Another short-term measure is to relax restrictions that affect food distribution. There is need to allow smoother transportation of food along the roads to reduce delays and support faster delivery of especially perishables to markets. This can be done through affirmative action that favours faster clearance of food-carrying vehicles through road checkpoints. The efforts by the Kenyan and Tanzania government to smoothen clearance along the Kenyan/Tanzania border is a case in point.

State support to agricultural production this year should be enhanced to mitigate against long term effects. While it is evident that the public budget is constrained by the measures to manage the pandemic, enhanced support to agriculture should be at the centre of discussions on public spending. This may not be the time to rely on the global market for food supplies because of the potential for trade restrictions by countries, which may affect global supplies and prices. In addition, the relatively weak shilling will make food imports expensive, while the inflow of foreign exchange will decline due to reduced exports. Therefore, it would be a noble idea to plan well in advance to boost local production and prudently manage the output. There is need for measures to minimize post-harvest losses, provide market access to farmers, and assure an adequate supply of quality and affordable inputs and advisory services to farmers in the coming season.