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Kenya must pay the political price to make fertilizer subsidies work, experts say
13 February 2009

Acknowledgements: FANRPAN acknowledges ASNS News as the source of this article: http://africasciencenews.org/asns/


As Kenya grapples with a severe famine affecting an estimated 10 million people, urgent and innovative measures that includes scaling up access to quality hybrid seeds along side affordable fertilizers, are crucial.

The country is experiencing the worst food crisis in decade, occasioned by massive crop failures due to prolonged drought. President Mwai Kibaki has since declared current food crisis a national disaster and has appealed to donor agencies to contribute $ 400 million towards a famine emergency fund. President Mwai Kibaki has since declared current food crisis a national disaster and has appealed to donor agencies to contribute $ 400 million towards a famine emergency fund.

The World Food Programme (WFP) reckons that 3.2 million Kenyans are in urgent food aid. Government officials say inadequate rainfall during last year's planting season as well as skyrocketing fertilizer prices have contributed to huge deficit on the country's grain reserves.

The grim situation was aggravated by massive displacement of farmers during last year's post-election skirmishes. The worst affected areas are also Kenya's grain basket.

Gem Argwings Kodhek, a policy analyst at the Tegemeo Institute told Africa Science News Service that "fertilizer subsidies remain a tough political choice the government has to grapple." 70% of Kenya's population practice small holder farming.

"However, high cost of fertilizers and quality seeds have seen productivity plummet as more Kenyans stare at starvation", says Kodhek.

Kodhek contends that fertilizer subsidies despite economic and political implications are a panacea to low yields on staple crops being experienced in Kenya lately.

He called on the government to devise innovative approaches while implementing fertilizer subsidies, and avoid backlash from the private sector.

He reiterated the need to make subsidies "smart" so as to boost their effective implementation through harmonious public private partnership.

Other incentives like giving vouchers to small scale farmers will create direct impact. Partnership between the government and private sector is critical in setting prices that are affordable to poor farmers.

In Kenya, however, liberalization of fertilizer market has given the private sector an upper hand in dictating price of the commodity, says Kodhek.

He however added that fertilizer alone can not solve food security challenges in Kenya, as evidence emerge that climate change has posed potent threat to crop yields.

Tegemeo Institute has compiled credible data which indicate that maize productivity in Kenya will decline by 40% due to climate change. Kodhek noted that fertilizer use in Kenya has surged to 70% levels but the uptake is highest in high potential agro ecologies.

"There is need to increase fertilizer use in the arid and semi arid areas where crop yields is lowest due to declining soil fertility", he says.

He spoke during a consultative meeting in Nairobi involving Agriculture policy experts in the region. The meeting sought to share knowledge as well as experiences learnt elsewhere on best incentives that seeks dramatic cut in fertilizer prices to benefit small scale farmers.

The forum, organized by Futures Agriculture Consortium, Tegemeo Institute and Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, KIPPRA, heard that fertilizer subsidies are prone to political manipulation in the absence of strong policy and regulatory environment.

"However, African governments have no choice but to devise incentives that would facilitate effective and efficient subsidies on fertilizers and other farm input, critical to boosting crop yield", Andrew Dorward,an expert on public policy.

He called on African countries to draw lessons from Malawi on effective application of fertilizer subsidies to benefit small holder farmers. Malawi is currently a case study on effectiveness of fertilizer subsidies alongside quality hybrid seeds to bolster crop yields.

"Malawi fertilizer subsidies model has generated huge interest in other African Countries. Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia are currently implementing similar programmes", Dorward told Africa Science News Service.

He however insists that replication on Malawi model must hinge on each country's unique socio-economic and political dynamics.

Echoing similar sentiments, Head of Productive Sector Division at KIPPRA, Dr John Omiti reiterated that fertilizer subsidies can be an effective tool of raising rural incomes and boosting agricultural productivity.

However, the challenge lies in finding equitable and efficient mechanism to deliver fertilizer and other inputs to farmers in ways that optimize benefits to a significant margin of the population while limiting risks of diversion, leakage and political manipulation".

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