Changing Vulnerability in Central and Eastern Kenya

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The failure of the first rains in 1984, following poor second rains in 1983, triggered a serious food crisis in central and eastern Kenya. The drought illustrates diverse impacts and responses in different environments.

The study area comprises six districts in central and eastern Kenya: Kiambu, Murang'a, Embu, Machakos, and Kitui, spanning five agroecological zones (Table 1) [see Downing (1988) and Downing et al. (1989ft), for details]. The highland zones (I and II) are suitable for coffee and tea as cash crops, along with maize as the staple food crop. Farm sizes are small due to pressure from population growth. In the middle zone (III) maize is the dominant crop, although farms are also relatively small. In the drier zones (IV and V), farms are larger, with more livestock and grazing. Maize is still common, but millet and sorghum are more suitable. The arid ranching zone (VI) is dominated by extensive land uses.

Several long-term trends have affected food security in the region:

• Maize, although more drought prone, has replaced sorghum and millet.

• Farmers have less variety in their cropping systems, partly due to smaller holdings and the reduced availability of common lands.

• Markets for crop inputs, trade, and employment have penetrated the region and are well connected with Nairobi and the coast.

Food production in the six districts declined in 1984. Maize and bean harvests for the 1984 long rains were less than 20% of the harvest from the 1985 long rains. The effect of the drought on livestock was equally severe. Of 565 households surveyed in the study area, over a third had slaughtered, sold, or lost cattle, and a quarter had slaughtered, sold, or lost goats. The average number of cattle per household declined from over 4 in April 1984 to 2.4 in January 1985. The largest declines were in the lower agroclimatic zones. However, famine was averted.

The sources of household income changed (Table 2). Whereas 60% of the households usually have income from sales of farm produce, only 40% did so during the drought. With less food produced, there was less surplus after household consumption. Income from casual labor and businesses decreased as well. A general recession in the rural economy lowered casual employment opportunities and earnings. Income from remittances and permanent employment tended to increase or remain at their usual levels. Although livestock sales increased, the market collapsed and little income was realized.

The principal response by the government was to import yellow maize. Food prices in local markets increased during the drought, but less than would have been the case in the absence of abundant yellow maize imports. Prices of white maize and beans doubled between early 1984 and late 1984, while the imported yellow maize prices remained about the same. In most markets, food was available; complete dearth of food for extended periods was rare.

Households generally survived the food crisis by purchasing their food: participation in the monetary economy reduced their vulnerability to drought. Households are largely self-sufficient in average years with current farming practices and land holdings. A slight surplus can be produced in the humid zones (II), where maize grows well. The larger holdings in the semiarid zones (V) also produce a surplus in years of average to good weather.

Drought affects each zone, with increasing intensity from zones II to V In a severe drought, production is half of household requirements in zone II, while there is little or no production in zones IV and V. Neither improvements in yields nor adoption of present drought-resistant crops will significantly improve self-sufficiency in drought years. In good and average years, production can be dramatically increased with fertilizers and other inputs. Households in the humid zones could be largely self-sufficient in drought years. But in the drier zones, little improvement in production can be expected in moderate or severe droughts.

In contrast, storage of surplus food is a potentially effective drought-coping strategy, depending on good production during above-average years. However, food storage has a cost. In central Kenya, average food storage in the 1980s was equivalent to 40 to 100 days of consumption, and twice that in eastern Kenya, which is drier and more prone to drought. These low levels of food storage indicate a preference to sell surplus food in order to pay for school fees, medical expenses, and for food not grown on the farm.

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