In the last two weeks, I have travelled to both Kitui and Turkana counties â and so I will report what I only saw.
The two counties have been ravaged by drought and at the peak, the temperatures soar to above 35 degrees Celsius.
Both have had mixed fortunes with food aid; a taboo topic that few people would like to discuss.
In Turkana, the permanent River Turkwel â which is as big as Tana River â cuts through the county before pouring its waters into Lake Turkana after passing through a rich valley with alluvial soils deposited over millions of years. We shall come back to that later, but let us start with Kitui County.
In October last year, Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu asked the World Food Programme (WFP) to stop its relief drive targeting 22,000 families and instead help the county become food resilient.
It was a bold move for a governor whose constituents had faced endless droughts â and had to queue for the demeaning mwolio, food aid in Kamba language.
Instead, she mobilised the locals to drop farming of the ever failing maize and beans, and started small-scale mianda irrigation projects where farmers would grow horticultural produce.
She targeted 184,000 households to produce about 50 million kilogrammes of ndengu (green grams). âI am not going for brick and mortar projects,â she told me.
At first, she thought she could get an Indian market for the ndengu, but no sooner had farmers started harvesting than the Indian government restricted the importation of green grams and black matpe to just 300,000 tonnes.
India has now opened their market and the global prices are on the rise â a huge opportunity for ndengu farmers in Kitui and other arid areas where these crops grow.
By keeping WFP at bay, and mobilising locals to get back to farming, Kitui was not one of the counties receiving food aid â and they have told WFP and others keen to give food aid to leave the county alone.
Instead, they have bought tractors to help prepare farms for Sh1,000 per acre rather than spend the whole day with an ox.
This success story can be replicated anywhere, and Meru Governor Kiraitu Murungi had last year vowed to ban relief food distribution in Meru to promote self-sufficiency.
Before that, the WFP had been giving cash handouts to some villagers to buy food and Mrs Ngilu thought this was demeaning and only perpetuated the culture of dependency, which would only create an endless cycle of poverty. She was right.
Mrs Ngilu, perhaps unaware, was entering into a global debate that has been going on about the negative effects of food aid in Africa in the long and short term.
While food aid is supposed to be essential during emergencies, it has been turned to be an exercise by agricultural exporting countries to dump surplus production from their farmers, and as such they are usually reluctant to help recipients build their own capacity to grow food.
Although it was created by the United Nations in 1962 to save lives, the WFP has since then turned to be the behemoth of the aid business â and has been criticised for depressing local food production and markets; which they, of course, deny thanks to a powerful PR machine.
That food aid actually damages livelihoods of poor farmers and spoils their future can be told in Kitui County if you look closely.
Some years ago, British charity Oxfam complained about these issues but nobody took heed.
It recommended that food aid should only be provided in response to calls from national governments and specialised UN agencies to avoid the distortion of markets.
If you watch closely again, you will find that these angels of mercy have three types of food aid: programme, project, and emergency.
In Kenya, the USAID office of Food for Peace (FFP) partners with WFP to distribute in-kind food aid and cash transfers to âvulnerable populations in Asal counties in exchange for workâ â but at worst for no work.
In Garissa Countyâs Dadaab and Turkanaâs Kakuma refugee camps, they give direct food distributions. This also happens in Turkanaâs Kalobeyei settlement where free food is given to the host communities.
In the fiscal year 2019, the US intends to spend Sh1.8 billion in Kenya and give 15,730 metric tons of food for the FFP project, a continuation of President Eisenhower Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, which has been criticised, in other countries, as a food dumping strategy with diplomatic benefits, especially during the years of Lyndon Johnson to date.
Actually, some of these counties have been receiving food aid since independence, and as a result the relief agencies have promoted a culture of dependency as opposed to partnership, and that is why nobody seems to care much about helping local populace on planting of high-protein/high-calorie crops and become self-sufficient in food, better farming, how to access land, industrial tools, and protection from cheap imports.
This is much more pronounced in Turkana County, which should not be receiving aid with the kind of potential that it has.
That the national government has failed the people of Turkana is an understatement. âWe have been neglected for over 50 years,â Governor Josephat Nanok tells us.
While focus has always been on what he has done with the billions that the county receives â he says that might be the only money they get the whole year from anywhere, and for a county that had zero infrastructure and with a handful of elite, thousands of people have been left at the mercy of nature, and for aeon.
Two things have contributed to the problems in Turkana: the pastoralism culture where able-bodied men follow the cattle to the pastures and the political neglect of the region.
It is a scandal that the waters of Turkwel can continue to flow from the Turkwel dam â and only a few obscure irrigation projects are being carried out.
We visited a millet farm which is irrigated from the waters, and it is amazing how millet does well in the valley.
Maize also grows there â and so why do we think of Turkana as synonymous with drought?
When food aid is flown from Western countries and dumped here, it deters the locals from getting down to farming.
It has always been said, and I agree, food exported unnecessarily can result in great harm to the very people the donors profess to be helping.
The total effect of all these is that food aid drives down local prices, and continues to undermine investment in agriculture.
But it is the permanent damage it does by depriving rural people of their livelihoods and to create conditions for food dependency that is the hallmark of food aid.
If the money we wasted at the Galana Kulalu was put into use in Turkana â or in Kituiâs mianda projects; we could not be having this conversation about food aid.
While Devolution Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa has said there is enough food in our country and no citizen should die from hunger, that we have 805,000 people out of 1.2 million people in Turkana faced with food challenges is also a scandal in such a vast territory with abundant water and good climate.
Unless we start to address the issue of food aid and how it leads to underdevelopment, and unless the national government puts in place the Equalisation Fund to help the neglected counties catch up, then we shall be having this same problem in the coming years.
But first, as Mrs Ngilu has done in Kitui, we have to educate the locals on the insult that is food aid. It requires some guts, but in the long run how else do we say no to dumping of subsidised agricultural products?
It is important to note that the end of tied food aid doesnât mean the end of food aid â it only means that food aid should not be an end. People must have a way out.
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