What Kenya can learn from Ireland on food security and agriculture

Lisa Doherty at food security conference in Nairobi
Lisa Doherty addressing the food security and nutrition conference in Nairobi. Photo: Twitter/FoodSecurity_Ke

Kenya has the advantage to learn from Ireland’s experience as she embarks on implementing one of the four pillars of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda — food security.Parallels have been drawn between our two countries, given how similar the Irish and Kenyan agri-food stories are. Like Kenya, Ireland has suffered from food insecurity and famine. You may not know that Ireland experienced a huge famine 170 years ago that resulted in over one million deaths and mass emigration of up to 2.5 million more. It had a devastating impact on our country; economically and socially.

Like Kenya, Ireland was hugely reliant on agriculture for family incomes and  national growth. Ireland was a largely agrarian country with small family-owned farms and a mainly pastoral animal-based agricultural system, with grassland mainly used for milk, beef and sheep production. Ireland was dependent on only one or two crops; mostly potatoes (or what Kenyans call the Irish potato!).

However, also like Kenya, Ireland was determined to become food secure and to ensure that it’s people never suffered through famine again.

In the recent decades, the government, food and agriculture agencies, farmers and the food industry have worked together to enable Ireland to become one of the most food secure countries in the world. Moving from being a nation of subsistence farmers, to one which produces almost ten times what we can consume.

This transformation has resulted in an increase in average farm size, a decrease in the number of farms and farmers, and focus on areas in which Ireland has comparative advantage because of our mild and wet climate.

Food is Ireland’s largest indigenous business.  Our focus on sustainable food production has delivered a win-win result in terms of both economic returns and environmental sustainability.

Today, not only has Ireland attained food security – ranked as number one food secure country in the EIU Global Food Security Index in 2017 – but because we have a small domestic market (less than 5 million people), we export almost 90 per of the food we produce. The value of our food and drink exports is over €12.6 billion – a 60 per cent increase since 2010.

So, how did we get here?There are three key elements of our success which Kenya might learn from are.

First, the government introduced a series of ten year strategies for the agri-food sector – including the current one: Ireland’s Food Wise 2025.

These strategies set targets for the agri-food sector with respect to global growth trends and opportunities which Ireland was well placed to benefit from; such as the ending of milk quotas.These strategies were backed by strong State support service including establishment of dedicated agencies to promote sales of Irish food and horticulture.

Secondly, our strong cooperative movement has transformed the rural economy by helping communities to establish co-operative enterprises and credit facilities.

Finally, there is mechanisation, technology and knowledge-led agriculture. Due to good seed technology, good science and good farming, the yield on Irish potatoes is in the region of 60 tonnes per hectare, significantly higher than Kenya’s.

Scientific developments create solutions for the sector. However, they are not by themselves sufficient if farmers do not take up the technologies. Critical to improving competitiveness and productivity and realising these gains are the use of appropriate technologies and an effective transfer of these to farmers. Value addition is also essential and technology driven.

Fortunately, there are many opportunities for Kenyan and Irish companies to work together. IPM Group is already working with Kephis and other stakeholders in Kenya to share seed technology and develop higher-yield Kenyan potato seed. At the Irish Embassy, we have developed an Ireland-Kenya Agri-Food Strategy, which brings together development cooperation with trade promotion and the development of institutional linkages for the mutual benefit of our two countries.

Ireland is keen to develop partnerships between the Irish agri-food sector and Kenya to support sustainable growth of the local food industry, build markets for local produce and support mutual trade between Ireland and Kenya, and the broader East African region and continent. The priority for agricultural growth, both for Ireland and Kenya, has to be on how can we improve productivity in the agricultural sector and how can we develop associated market opportunities. The role of the private sector is fundamental to this challenge.

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