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Displacement Adds to Kenyan Food Price Fears

Derek Kilner

Kenya's president and prime minister have toured the country's Rift Valley region, home to many of those displaced by recent post-election violence. As Derek Kilner reports from Nairobi, the region is also the country's agricultural center, and a disruption in food production there has added to already serious concerns about the country's food prices and security.

Political and ethnic violence that followed December's disputed presidential elections displaced hundreds of thousands of Kenyans and about 160,000 people remain in camps. The Rift Valley region, where ethnic tensions over land distribution run high, suffered some of the worst unrest.

But the effects of those clashes will be felt more widely. The region is the country's main food producer, and with many farmers displaced from their homes, production has fallen. Kwame Owino of Nairobi's Institute of Economic Affairs, says the impact of post-election turbulence on food prices is likely to persist for some time.

"Because of that disruption and the displacement that took place, even the destruction of certain farms, planting has not taken place in some areas, especially in the Rift Valley, and that generally is what people call Kenya's breadbasket. Because of that delay in planting the harvest will probably not be as high as it usually is. So food prices will actually be high for the greater part of this year," explained Owino.

Many farmers were prevented from harvesting their crop following the rainy season that ended in December. And many have been unable to plant crops before the new rains that have recently begun. The unrest also disrupted transportation, making it difficult for the farmers still on their land to purchase enough seeds and fertilizer.

The World Food Program estimates that only 50 percent of the region's productive land has been prepared for harvest.

Meanwhile, food prices have been a growing concern across the globe in recent months. Skyrocketing oil prices have increased the cost of fuel needed for fertilizer and transportation. Demand for food is rising as the middle class grows in countries like China and India. And the supply of food has been hampered by a shift in agricultural production in developed countries towards inputs for biofuels.

As in other parts of the world, says Owino, the cost of importing food in Kenya has risen steeply.

"Kenya is not self-sufficient in most of these staple-food items. And we are talking about rice, we are talking about wheat, and we are talking about corn. And as you understand, rice and wheat, of course, prices have been going up internationally, so that means if we make the decision to import as we always do, since we are not self sufficient, prices will be much higher," said Owino.

Additionally, Kenya received less rain than usual during October to December.

John Akoten, a research fellow at Nairobi's Institute for Policy Analysis and Research, said, "One thing at the moment is that we have not really received much rainfall, like last year. And therefore the food production is going to be low as compared to others, and that actually also contributes to the increase in food prices. So it will take a bit of time before the food prices stabilize"

Kenya has not experienced the riots over food prices seen in other developing countries. Analysts say Kenya is less dependent on food imports than many countries in West Africa, for example.

Kenya has also been coping with plenty of unrest from its own political problems and concerns over food prices may have been put on hold to some extent while discussions about the future of Kenya's government were underway.

But with a new coalition government in place, attention is beginning to turn to Kenya's steep inflation and growing food prices.

The impact of lost harvests and rising global prices is unavoidable. But much of the government's success in stemming rising food costs will depend on how well it tackles the problem of the country's displaced, particularly farmers.

President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga have given the matter high visibility, starting with their tour of IDP camps this week. But already disputes are beginning to emerge within the region's delegation in parliament over how to approach resettlement.

Kenya's new minister of agriculture, William Ruto, could also play an important role. A powerful and tenacious member of Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement, he may be able to bring political clout to agricultural issues. And as a representative of the Rift Valley region, he is familiar with the challenges stemming from displacement there.

But many in President Kibaki's Party of National Unity think he is part of the problem in the Rift Valley, pointing to accusations of his involvement in post-election clashes. Many people opposed his appointment in the cabinet, and could try to make his work in parliament difficult.

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