Urgent Evoke

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Agent Shakwei Mbindyo posed a question for us all here: should smallholders in African countries grow food to export to Europe? In her comment Agent Jen Shaffer expanded the question: she knows that many African nations export flowers to Europe. Are either one of these, or both, a good idea for Kenya and Kenyans? Shakwei asks, does "food miles" or other environmental concerns make this a bad idea?

It's a complex issue that many people are passionate about (read the comments). Many people strongly believe that Kenya has the right to participate in global trade. I certainly don't disagree, but I fear that argument misses the larger point. Six observations and questions:

1) Tulip mania (in Wikipedia). By which I mean that markets change. If Kenya commits itself to growing food or flowers for export, how likely is it that the market for these goods will change? How well is Kenya able to compete in this system? How resilient is Kenya if its market does ebb or collapse?

2) Old potatoes, new potatoes. An article in the March 13 issue of The Economist titled "Green Shoots" describes how McCain Foods is converting over Indian farmers to a new type of potato that's suitable for the industrial approach of India's McDonalds restaurants. (India's common potato varieties "are too small, watery and sugary, caramelising when fried.") The comments capture various views about this development. Does Kenya want to teach its people how best to fit into the needs of a global system? Are there other ways to get knowledge about horticultural improvements to its people, ones that don't displace traditional knowledge and culture?

3) I just read recently about biologists combing old homesteads in the American West, looking for heritage apple trees. Once upon a time, there were thousands of cultivars of apples in America, each suited to different growing conditions; the biologists were hoping some of those cultivars could still be found. If Kenya begins to grow export foods, what will it no longer be growing? How many years of horticultural knowledge might be lost?

4) Household agriculture. In his article about Haiti in Harper's Magazine, Steven Stoll notes some statistics about modern "subsistence agriculture." He writes, "Of Uganda's 32 million people, 24 million – or 75% – work their own gardens. In 2007, Uganda's commercial and household farmers harvested 9.2 million tons of plantain, 4.4 million tons of cassava, 2.6 million tons of sweet potatoes, 615,000 tons of bananas, 732,000 tons of millet, 1.3 million tons of maize, and hundreds of thousands of tons of sorghum, beans and potatoes. Through the 1980s, a remarkable 44% of Ugandan GDP came from outside the money economy, and more than 90% of these exchanges involved household agriculture." By focusing on foreign capital, is Kenya turning its back on a more readily accessible, less risky, more sustainable type of economy?

5) The truth about food miles. People often feel that "food miles" (the distance a particular food has traveled, or more generally the amount of energy it takes to bring you your food) is purely an environmental cost (and what harm can one more jumbo jet exhaust cause?). But the truth is that's only a small part of the story. "Food miles" is a quick, readymade index to the link between energy cost and supply and your food, and is thus an index to the insecurity of your food system, whether you be the grower or the buyer. It's a clue as to how much infrastructure must exist (refrigerated warehouses, airplanes and trucks; regular shipments; monocropping, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and so on) for the system to work. Especially in the case of energy, will you be able to continue in a world where energy and carbon footprints will undoubtedly get more expensive? Is it possible that you are taking on a market that European suppliers have foreseen is doomed?

Therefore:

6) Buy fresh, buy local. I myself might buy Kenyan tea; I will not buy Kenyan fruit, vegetables or (especially) flowers. I enjoy meeting the people who grow my food or my flowers, and knowing when I give them my money where that money is going. If I buy Kenyan fruit so much of it goes places I know not, to people I know not, and so little of it goes back to Kenya. And as Jen Shaffer has pointed out, a large portion of the actual cost of bringing me that fruit or flower is going poof! up into the air for our children to pay, with interest.

So that is my (long) answer to Agent Shakwei and to Kenya; I hope there may be some wisdom in it for you to find!

Views: 70

Comment by Shakwei Mbindyo on March 28, 2010 at 6:58pm
+1 KS. Much food for thought. I would shift this from looking at Kenya as a country to looking at the invididual exporters as entreprenurs. Why would this individual choose to plant flowers and not food? If he is planting food, why would he choose to export as opposed to selling locally? My followup to the debate raised questions on what food security really means and the role global food trade policies play.
Kenya has been exporting French beans to the UK for over 3 decades. If it was not sustainable and the farmer was not making any money this would basically have dwindled to nothing. On the flip side, I shared concerns on replacement of indigenous crops with exotics and not just in regard to exports.
There is evidence showing that more than 94%of vegetables produced in Kenya are consumed locally. But the value of the 5% which we export is almost equivalent to the 94% - imagine that!!
More than 1 million livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa are supported in part by export horticulture just to the UK. Export horticulture is one of the very few examples where international trade actually produces and injects money into rural areas. More than a 1 million jobs are directly involved in the industry and indirectly it is more than 4 million.
This trade results socio-economic development in the sense that the foreign exchange will be used to service other sectors like health, education and agriculture.
This said, I could just as easily make a case for not exporting foods from Kenya. Should one person benefit at the expense of another - - Should one country benefit at the expense of another? think not! Is there a win:win solution to this debate? I believe so if we are each willing to walk a mile in each others shoes.
Comment by Nick Heyming on April 1, 2010 at 3:18am
I really resonate with what you're saying Ken. We're working on an Evokation to try to reverse that trend somewhat, have you seen the Global Gratitude Gardens?

Excellent analysis of a complex issue. I think some trade is not a bad thing, but I'd rather it were regional instead of global. When I was in Peru and Thailand (two huge coffee exporting countries), everyone drank cheap Nestle coffee! And oftentimes people told me that all the 'good' food was exported, the locals just get the scraps and seconds.

I say people around the world should get to keep the food they grow! Its a crime that Californians should have to import avocados from Chile! We can grow Avocados every day of the year....!
Comment by Rahul Dewanjee on April 4, 2010 at 9:30am
Few things that can make entire Africa a better place:

(1) Trade based reciprocity that integrates Africa and other developing nations with the rest of the developed world through better credit access and market access of African products & services

(2) Shifting risk reward balances to provide financial incentives to those Africa states which have not just consumed any external resources (charity dollars) but have been resourceful to use the finance to build structural framework of governance that can aid in creating a viable, stable and creative market where trade can happen

(3) Moving beyond environmental opportunism and understanding the interconnectedness of global trade and how we can genuinely help each other when we do business with each other.

(4) Those in the developed world should genuinely acknowledge the developmental priorities of governments in emerging economies. To facilitate all future industrialization in under-developed & developing countries to happen as much as environmental friendly as possible, we could foster ways in which we can make clean technology accessible and affordable.

(5) Empathize that there is no easy way out to entangle the issue of intellectual property. Our best hope is to mobilize public sentiments to make corporations understand the need to become more sensitive to millennium development goals (MDG). We must not admonish but continue to inspire corporations to see intellectual property as much an opportunity as much it is a challenge to innovate their agenda to reinvent their relevance.

(6) Before we support any act of isolation that can diminish or limit the rights of African countries in particular to sell their marketable goods or participate in providing services to the rest of those in G8 countries, we will continue to elude ourselves from a long term solution to evoke functional democracy in Africa and make the people of Africa respond in affirmation to our intentions to connect Africa with our social innovation missions.
Comment by Laura Dawson on April 22, 2010 at 3:36pm
Hello Ken,
I give you +1 Vision vote thanks to your extensive research and the interpretations that you share. You may find the book, The End of Food, by Paul Roberts enlightening. Although it can be a bit discouraging and even depressing, it is not designed to do so, but to present a 'what if' scenario so that we may address it before it become unmanagiable. All the best! and...
Be In Good Health.
Comment by Jean Frankly on May 8, 2010 at 10:29am
Great insights into the effects of global corporations on local agricultural practices and sustainability.
Comment by John D. Boyden on May 12, 2010 at 10:39pm
Excellent article. Great food for thought!

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