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Complex Food Production Systems: Have cash crops trapped us?
Farmers are investing in market crops. For local markets we have onions and tomatoes. Avocados and green beans are for exports. What are the effects on food crops? Is this a new era of cash crops?
This article is Part 3 in the series: The Challenge of Feeding Ourselves. Part 1 here talks about the challenges of small-holder agriculture and Part 2 here covers a successful farmer-led small-scale model as observed in the Mwea Irrigation Ecosystem. Part 3 below considers the evolution of agriculture from the perspective of food production systems from pre-colonial Kenya to the early 2000s.
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Have cash crops trapped us?
Farmers today are investing heavily in market-oriented crops. Seemingly, there are two tiers. One, the local-market producers with crops such as tomatoes and onions, and have narrowed the farm-to-market pipeline down to a formula. The second group is the export-market producers. They have larger land holdings and heavy capital investment in expertise, technology, boreholes and with hundreds of greenhouses dotting the landscape in places like Isinya, Kajiado County. Their production process is down to a science, producing enough regularly to earn top dollar from their markets abroad, usually Europe. Outside looking in, we are getting this agriculture thing right. So what is the problem?
Pre-colonial Kenya’s Complex Food Systems: A Case Study of the Abagusii Community
Pre-colonial communities built highly complex, stable and diverse food production systems that cushioned them against droughts, wars or disease. The food systems were risk managed through the use of poly-varietal, inter-cropping cultivation patterns, 1 with crops that can thrive at varying moisture levels. The system also included differing levels of food provision through livestock keeping, hunting and gathering, storage of surpluses and complex familial and societal relations. This complexity of food production is best exemplified among the Abagusii community of Kenya between 1890 and 19192 as described below:
Multiple crop production systems: The Abagusii intercropped crops like pumpkins, maize, sweet potatoes and vegetables together with finger-millet and sorghum, which ensured diet diversity and soil conservation. Crops were farmed by both men and women – men had their own individual plots called “embonga” whose produce would be stored.2 The women had a small homestead garden known as “egeticha” for the cultivation of vegetables and an additional larger plot for production of millet.2 Some plots of land were nearer the homestead, others farther away to create a cushion against risks associated with farming at a single location
Food storage: Storing surpluses cushioned against short-term disturbances in the food production system. Elaborate methods of storage ensured grains could be stored for years. The produce from the man’s plots of land would be stored as “banks of security,” only used when there was food shortages while those of the woman’s lands were used for immediate household needs2
Hunting, gathering and livestock keeping: Outside of crop production, the Abagusii also enriched their diets from gathering fruits and wild vegetables, hunting animals and birds as well as livestock products such as meat and milk. The extensive sources of food built mechanisms to supplement produce from crop cultivation and diversified the local diet
Familial and societal relations: When there were food shortages, individual households could depend on their kin farther away. In particular, kin relations developed through marriage were vital in helping communities farther apart survive periods of scarcity. Besides relations, trade between communities served a similar role
Today, we still see remnants of these complex food production designs in rural areas. Maize is grown in mixed cropping with beans, sometimes potatoes among rows of pigeon peas, sunflower and millet. Fruit trees such as mangoes, avocados, loquats, baobabs, oranges, tamarind and others dot the homestead providing seasonal fruits. Another feature of many rural homes is livestock – poultry, cattle, goats, pigs and sheep.
However, this is slowly dying off as farmers focus on single crops or a narrower range of crops, a legacy of the colonial era.
Colonial Era War on Food Crops and Rise of the Cash Crop
For a long time, up to the 1950s, the colonial government prohibited African (native) farmers to cultivate cash crops. This was a preserve of the white settlers who also passed policies to control what Africans could cultivate to prevent competition for land, labour or markets. The European settlers took over the rich agricultural land, creating reserves for Africans. Taxes and the wage labour system further disrupted food production systems.
Taxes meant that Africans had to either work in the settlements (or sell of their cattle or surpluses) to raise money for the tax – which could only be paid in colonial currencies. A percentage of African tax revenue was used to subsidize settler farming, which enabled them to produce cheaper than native farmers.3 Later, particularly during the Global Depression years (the 1930s), maize from the settler farms would be sold to native reserves as relief3 during droughts creating a dependence on cheaply sourced maize, which persists to date.
During World War 1, thousands of African men were conscripted as soldiers or porters. Many died. The women took over most of the agricultural tasks including clearing land and cultivating crops as well as herding livestock, some of which were traditionally done by men (this also happened as men left rural areas to find work to raise money for taxes). The labour force was stretched thin, reducing agricultural output. Droughts, livestock diseases, and pressure to sell surpluses to support the war effort resulted in the famine of 1917-1919. It is the aftermath of this war that the settler agricultural economy was emboldened, seen as a way to revive the economy, particularly through export markets.
Thus, the post-World War 1 era began ordinances and policies that affected food production. Largely, quarantines reduced grazing lands in the reserves and coerced culling policies significantly reduced cattle keeping among many communities in Kenya. African farmers were prohibited from cultivating high-value cash crops including coffee, but as prices got better, maize cultivation as a cash crop became popular.
Maize cultivation in the reserves enhanced trade between communities. It resulted in a cash crop economy where a community could buy food supplies from productive areas if theirs failed due to drought or other causes. This created an economy around food production which meant that droughts in one area could significantly affect the surrounding areas and created a merchant class who could determine prices and commodity availability. This is what led to the famine of 1929-30.3
World War 2: The economic recession of the 1930s forced the colonial government to further support the production of crops among African native farmers. As World War 2 started, there was an increased focus on the production of items that supported the war effort directly such as sisal and pyrethrum.3 Food production for self-sufficiency was supported too owing to the knowledge that shipping infrastructure would be engaged in wartime efforts.3 Against this backdrop, the colonial government put in place policies to boost food crop production among both settlers and Africans.
The War rejuvenated the demand for Kenyan produce in the global market and both settler and African production expanded. At the height of production, Kenya was exporting maize to support the colonial power’s war efforts in the Middle East.3 However, the establishment of price controls and marketing boards kept African farmers from engaging with the export markets directly. Thus, farmers turned to other ways of earning from their produce.
In particular, maize price controls created a thriving black market where African farmers sold their produce for higher than government-dictated prices. The areas of Ukambani in particular proved to be rich markets, especially during the famine of 1942. The Kamba were cash-rich from remittances of their kin who had been conscripted into the war.3
Regardless of the source, the expanded production and markets created an economic boom, particularly for the Africans, which would prove vital in strengthening them economically and politically on the eve of the agitation for independence.
Post-World War 2 saw a shift in policy to allow, encourage and support the cultivation of high-value cash crops. The Swynnerton Plan of 1954 kick-started the consolidation of lands for individualized tenure to promote the cultivation of cash crops.
The above reforms expanded the area under cultivation and opened commercial agriculture to a new group of farmers (smallholder Africans). For the first time, African farmers had access to export markets although marketing boards still controlled the prices.
Both of these changes expanded Kenya’s agricultural output from the late 1950s up to the 1980s.
Post-Independence Era, Cash Crop Production in the Global Economy
A newly independent Kenya was thrust into the world with an open and export-oriented economy supported by the agriculture sector. The early post-independence era was characterized by an increase in the production of both food and cash crops, heavily supported or subsidized by the government or donors. For example, between 1960 and 1969, the output of cereals increased by 69% and the area under cultivation grew by 61%.4 Investments in research improved both food crops (maize) and export crops (coffee and tea).
The marketing boards controlled prices for most commodities and import licensing restricted trade. The growth in production and per capita income stagnated/fell between the 1980s and 2000, coinciding with the implementation of trade liberalization policies and the recession following the oil crises of the 1970s.
Post 2000s, we see a growing export economy of fruits and vegetables against declining coffee volumes. Another shift was a change from being a net exporter of wheat and maize during the post-World War 2 era to being a net importer. The exposure of Kenyan exports to global market conditions created multiple points of vulnerability for an agricultural economy heavily dependent on export cash crops.
For a more detailed discussion of the impacts of an export-focused agricultural sector see (1) Winter-Nelson and Argwings-Kodhek’s paper4 here on the impact of fiscal and trade policies on post-independence agricultural productivity and (2) Bjornlund et al.,5 paper here on the role of international development, financial governance, trade policies and geopolitics.
Today, the New Cash Crops
Colonial and early independence era export crop production policies seem to have undermined food crop production through displacement. Additionally, export cash crops increased the market dependency on food and exposed consumers to unpredictable market conditions that hurt their ability to access and afford food.6
A heavy export-cash crop economy is based on the premise that it will generate enough income (quantity and frequency) to purchase and access food. However, as described above, Kenyan cash crops were subject to global market conditions and political-economic policies that had negative effects on incomes. With low returns and purchasing power, food access, availability and affordability were negatively affected.
Where a mix of food and cash crop cultivation is practiced, the degree to which a farmer can consume their food crops and still earn income from the cash crop matters. Unfortunately, agriculture in Kenya seems to be trapped in extremes – either strict cash crop cultivation or subsistence food crop cultivation. Life at these extremes has created a situation where neither is sufficient to guarantee adequate food.
On one hand, cash crops are vulnerable to global market conditions which have become more unpredictable in recent years. On the other hand, food crop cultivation has become unreliable with low output volumes due to external conditions, particularly drought. Additionally, the ability of developed countries to subsidize their production means they can produce, ship and export to Kenya at the same cost or lower than a Kenyan farmer is producing here.
Another emerging phenomenon is the redefinition of cash crops. Tea, coffee and non-edibles such as sisal and pyrethrum were traditionally perceived as cash crops. However, as global markets have opened up – certain food crops are now grown as cash crops.
Cash crops are now food crops grown under large-scale operations, typically under monocropping, with a market-oriented objective. For the local markets, tomatoes and onions are becoming popular. Farmers now have control not just of the production process but also of transportation and distribution. For the export market, there are vegetable and fruit crops including avocado, papaya, sugar snaps and green beans.
Usually, the huge sums of capital, land and labour being invested in these new cash crops would be a good thing. But I worry if this is happening at the expense of food crops. What is the cost of such a heavy focus on export crops using valuable resources such as groundwater when food producers have to incur losses every failed rain season because of a lack of irrigation infrastructure? Is there a deliberate effort to kill local production to import from countries producing cheaply?
Are the small-scale producers cultivating rice, green grams and pigeon peas in the dark about where “true agriculture money” is? Is the secret really taking more and more land to put under irrigation using precious groundwater to cultivate cash crops for export? Is it in more avocado plantations? What is a successful commercial agriculture model that mixes both cash and food crops? Is the model possible on our increasingly subdivided plots of land? What is the future of farming in Kenya? Is there a future?
1. Bjornlund et al. 2020, Why agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa remains low compared to the rest of the world – a historical perspective. International Journal of Water Resources Development.
2. Omwoyo, S.M. 2015, Colonialism and the Severity of Famines and Food Shortages in Kenya: The Case of the Abagusii of Western Kenya, 1890-1919. Maasai Mara University.
3. Duminy, J. 2018, Scarcity, Government, Population, The Problem of Food in Colonial Kenya, c.1900-1952, University of Cape Town
4. Winter-Nelson, A., and Argwings-Kodhek, G., 2007, Distortions to Agricultural Incentivesin Kenya , Illinois University & Tegemeo Institute.
5. Bjornlund et al., 2022, Why food insecurity persists in sub-Saharan Africa: A review of existing evidence, Food Security, 14 (845-864)
6. Hashmiu, I et al., 2022, Cash crops and food security: evidence from smallholder cocoa and cashew farmers in Ghana, Agriculture & Food Security, 11(12)
7. Andersen, D and Throup, D., 1985, Africans and Agricultural Production in Colonial Kenya: The Myth of the War as a Watershed. The Journal of African History, 26 (4)
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