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Household Food Security in a Commercialized Subsistence Economy

Benard K. Langat: Agricultural Economist,Department of Agricultural Economics and resource Management, School of Business and Economics,Moi University Kenya.

I share my experience on household food security in commercialized subsistence economies. These are smallholder farm families who have been introduced to cash crop/non-food crop production in place of a food crop production such that production is constrained mainly by land size and scale of production. The assumption is always that high valued cash crop guarantees sufficient income to buy food crops and other household needs. Over the last three decades, the raging debate remains as to whether commercialization of subsistence economies presents a durable solution to food security problems in Sub-Saharan Africa. The debate has basically centred on the appropriate production strategy between advocates of food production for household food self-sufficiency, on the one hand, and household production of cash crops for income, on the other.

The critics have argued that commercialization of these economies increases competition between food and cash crops for scarce capital, land and other inputs. The fear is that food crops could crowd-out food production in the process jeopardising household food availability. Advocates for commercialization, however, contend that cash crop production do not necessarily impact, negatively, on food production levels and that, in fact, the two forms of production should complement. Other supporters reason that even if cash crop promotion displaces food production, the latter should not be an issue as long as it is done on the basis of specialization. The logical reasoning of this view is that income earned from cash crops should finance imports capable of raising or sustaining domestic food consumption levels.

Our studies were focused on smallholder tea farming in Kenya. The subsector has been dubbed a success story in Africa. Tea subsector contributes significantly to Kenya’s GDP and it is a leading foreign exchange earner. However, food security and poverty levels of households who directly depend on the cash crop don not reflect the handsome figures from the export of the crop.

Kenyan government had put in place strategies to guarantee sufficient household food supply when smallholder farmers were introduced into cash crop production. One strategy required farmers to set aside a minimum size of land for food production. Another strategy also was that farmers were needed to produce a given minimum size of land under the cash crop to ensure economies of scale. The advent of market liberalization, however, saw these strategies abandoned. Subsequently, despite favourable prices of tea in the international market, food security and poverty levels have worsened over time among these farm households. We found out that those farmers who continued the strategy of setting aside a minimum size of land to produce maize, which is a staple crop, were more food secure compared to their counterparts who depended purely on cash crop. I recommend that ppolicies promoting commercialization in a smallholder setting should target improved production of cash crop as a complement to food crops without compromising attention to the latter.