Kenya: Food security initiative dealt blow as Ruto looks to boost tobacco exports

By Herald Onyango
Posted on Monday, 12 December 2022 15:03

Kenyan President William Ruto looks on during a joint news conference with his Congolese counterpart Felix Tshisekedi after their meeting in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo November 21, 2022. REUTERS

A bilateral trade talk between South Korea and Kenya to increase the East African country’s tobacco exports in the coming months has raised doubts over Kenya’s Tobacco-Free Farming project and the authorities’ efforts to achieve food security.

The Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (KETCA) has expressed deep concerns that the talks between the Kenyan and Korean presidents, which also include the export of tea and coffee, could reverse the progress made in eradicating tobacco farming in the country.

“It [tobacco export] will hurt the initiative. If this continues, farmers [of food crops] will feel there is an opportunity to make money. And it has been very difficult to convince farmers that tobacco has no future,” KETCA chairman Joel Gitali tells The Africa Report. “Now here is a case where farmers are being told otherwise. It is going to be like we wasted our funds and time.”

The WHO, the World Food Programme (WFP), the government of Kenya, and other foreign players are supporting the farming project, which commenced more than a year ago in Kenya’s western regions, to increase the country’s food security while phasing out tobacco.

In the regions of Migori and Busia, where the project has been piloted in a contractual agreement with both local and foreign partners, farmers have so far planted drought-resistant maize and beans as an alternative crop to tobacco.

The UN agencies are providing training, quality inputs such as seeds and fertilisers, and a ready market for the harvest through the WFP’s local procurement initiatives.

Ruto pushing in opposite direction

President William Ruto announced that his government will be “deepening and strengthening bilateral trade” while including tobacco products. This means that big manufacturers like British American Tobacco (BAT) and Mastermind Tobacco Kenya Ltd will be quick to magnify their production to match the new market expansion.

“Trying to increase acreage or giving incentives to farmers to plant, produce, and export more tobacco is contravening the law, whether being done by the president or anyone else,” Gitali says.

“That is something that we do not want at all because of the effect [on] both the environment and health.”

KETCA estimates that by the end of this year, exposure to tobacco smoke and other tobacco products will have killed more than 9,000 Kenyans, while another 40,000 will be grappling with various forms of cancer, mostly caused by tobacco use.

The Tobacco Control Act prohibits any treaty or agreement that binds Kenya to promote tobacco farming. The Act also commits the government to continually phase out tobacco farming in the country.

No legal action was taken against the government, nonetheless, whether by KETCA or any other civil society organisations.

Tobacco companies’ incentives

Specialists say tobacco companies could look for ways to lure farmers back to tobacco cultivation through better compensation.

“[…] any extra market will trigger more production, but you first have to know the detrimental effects of this direction,” says Moses Chamwada, an ex-tobacco grower and anti-tobacco advocate, who has been analysing the market for nearly 15 years.

In Migori alone, the number of tobacco farmers has been slashed to about 1,000 from the previous 15,000 that existed years back

“In Migori alone, the number of tobacco farmers has been slashed to about 1,000 from the previous 15,000 that existed years back.”

Increasing tobacco exports will further reprieve the manufacturers, who last month survived a tobacco ban scare after a court dismissed a petition challenging the product’s legality.

Tobacco manufacturers are already introducing more resistant seedlings to farmers to boost yields and earnings.

Last year, BAT introduced a technology-driven seedbed where high-quality tobacco seedlings are sowed, germinated and hardened. More than four million such seedlings have already been distributed to Kenya’s tobacco-growing regions, including Migori, Busia, Homa Bay, and Bungoma.

The anti-tobacco activists maintain that the new seedlings are part of tactics to pull back farmers to growing tobacco. The Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed firm currently once had contracts with about 2,100 tobacco farmers, though the count has declined over the years.

The issue of big firms battling for raw materials, sometimes risking the production and availability of food crops, is not new to Kenya’s agricultural sector. East African Breweries Limited (EABL) is facing similar difficulty in sourcing sorghum, which is both a food crop and raw material for beer production.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options