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September 07, 2011

While some Kenyans starve, others have bumper crop

by Katharine Houreld

In central and western Kenya, farmers have had a bumper crop of plump ears of corn and earthy potatoes. Yet in the north, skeletal children wait for food aid amid a growing emergency.

Kenya is supposed to be East Africa's economic powerhouse but a drought has sharply highlighted the historical neglect of northern Kenya, where 3.75 million Kenyans need food aid. Many Kenyan critics are blaming the situation not just on the weather but also on corrupt and negligent politicians.

Small farmers in western Kenya -- which has had steady rains and a good harvest -- say they don't move their crops to the drought-ravaged north because it costs too much to store and transport them and they are not assured of a market. The semiarid northern regions have long been neglected, first by British colonial rulers and then by successive Kenyan governments. Roads are often just bumpy tracks in the sand.

"We've had a good harvest this year but it is hard to cover costs," said farmer Morris Yabatsa, who grows corn and beans near the western town of Kitale. He sells a sack of corn for $24, but expects the price to halve in coming weeks as a glut of produce hits the local markets. Meanwhile, markets are mostly bare in the north.

Smallholders like Yabatsa have no way to transport the crops there. They don't have their own vehicles, and even if they did the roads are pitted with potholes and plagued by bandits, and many wouldn't be able to afford to buy the produce in the north because the drought has killed their cattle. The pastoralist communities there use their herds like bank accounts, selling off animals when they need cash. Oxfam says in some areas between 60-90 percent of livestock have already perished.

"The government has surrendered its responsibility," said James Shikwati, a leading Kenyan economist. Instead of investing in infrastructure, it was losing millions of dollars through corruption, he said. "We need to start looking at individuals and government departments that have failed and start naming them," he said. "People should be in court."

Last month, the World Bank announced it did not renew funding for a project to help more than 1 million Kenyans to withstand recurrent droughts after millions of dollars could not be accounted for. The bank has asked the government to trace $4.1 million donated to the Arid Lands Natural Resource Management Program.

Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said the government is doing everything it can to help, including providing food aid, buying dying livestock from pastoralists in drought-stricken areas to provide them with cash, and building two new roads to run through the north.

Yabatsa said he wants the government to improve the roads and help break transport cartels that pay farmers a pittance and then hoard corn to inflate prices. "Many of those cartels are run by politicians," he asserted.

A Price Waterhouse Coopers forensic audit report made public last year showed Kenya wasted $26.1 million through corrupt deals made in a 2009 government program meant to provide subsidized maize for Kenya's poor.

However some assistance has been forthcoming. Yabatsa said he took advantage of a government-backed program to offer small loans to farmers so they can invest more in their land. Such a loan had helped him buy more fertilizer this year.

Associated Press

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