The switch by many farmers in Kenya's Rift Valley province from staple cereals to more profitable coffee is likely to increase the country's dependence on grain imports and possibly affect food security, agricultural experts have warned.
"It is unsafe to use our land for crops with the hopes of being fed by other countries," said James Nyoro, managing director for Africa of the Rockefeller Foundation, which works to "promote the wellbeing of humanity around the world".
"What if these countries do not harvest excess for us?"
Kenya will have to import 2.3 million tonnes of cereal during the 2011-2012 marketing year to meet demand, a year-on-year increase of 37 percent, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, which estimated domestic harvests of maize - a staple for 90 percent of Kenyans - at 2.5 million tonnes, down 18 percent because of poor weather.
This import dependency and the threat posed by increased coffee growing could be mitigated with the use of improved inputs by cereal growers, Nyoro said. Another food security specialist recommended improving storage conditions of grain after it is harvested, when some 30 percent of production is traditionally lost.
In the meantime, any additional costs accrued by importing will be passed on to consumers.
"There is inflation already, joblessness and low purchasing power for many Kenyans; if food prices go higher than they have in the recent past then the number of people accessing even two meals a day will be much lower," he said.
"The Rift Valley is the country's granary; it is where most people get their food from. Increased coffee growing could compromise the country's grain basket," said one food security specialist, who asked not to be identified.
"If we lose significant land in the province to coffee, we have to weigh what we gain in the process. If coffee pays better and farmers can [by investing in inputs] improve the yield of maize crop in the acreage they put under maize, perhaps this could be the trade-off," the specialist said, recommending that the government undertake a feasibility study on the implications of expanding coffee production in the Rift Valley.
A draft of Kenya's land-use policy has been submitted to parliament and has yet to be debated for subsequent enactment.
There is little data available about how much former cereal-growing land in the province is now used to produce coffee. But in just one of its 50-odd districts, Trans Nzoia, the area under maize cultivation has fallen by 450 hectares over the last year, according to an agricultural officer there.
Across the province, areas of coffee cultivation grew by an annual 20 percent over the past two years, said Bonface Wekesa, manager of a new milling plant in the town of Eldoret.
"We have distributed over one million seedlings of coffee over the last one year and have even run short as the current demand stands at double what we have distributed to farmers," Wekesa said, explaining that typically 2,200 seedlings would be planted on each hectare of land.
Coffee offers much better returns to farmers at a time when traditional coffee-growing areas in the centre of the country have been greatly reduced by real-estate developments.
In the past year, more than 2,000ha of coffee-growing land in Kiambu County, which neighbours the capital, Nairobi, have been given over to developers.
Farmers in Rift Valley, according to agronomist Zabron Njoroge, "have been growing a lot of cereals to feed the nation while their pockets are left empty. It is their time to fill their pockets with income from the same farms.
"Maybe it's time the government started massive irrigation in arid and semi-arid areas," he said.
Joseph Kurui, a farmer and father of 10 in Tindiret, in Rift Valley's Nandi County, told IRIN: "I have already planted coffee in 14 [5.7ha] out of my 21 acres [8.5ha]. I am waiting for seedlings to plant in six more acres and will only reserve one acre to plant maize for family consumption."
Whereas 0.4047ha of maize earns him about Ksh25,000 (US$280) coffee delivers 10 times that, he said.
"A serious farmers who follows instructions from agronomists can make even more than Sh500,000 per acre," said Wekesa.
Symon Mahungu, a food and agricultural scientist at Egerton University in Nakuru, Rift Valley's provincial capital, said although coffee's growing popularity could reduce cereal production, it would not affect people's access to food, at least in the province.
"If these farmers are not accessing food through selling their maize but are well fed buying food from the proceeds of coffee, then this means they are food secure," Mahungu told IRIN, adding that food security was not a matter of the amount of food produced from farms but, rather, people's ability to access food.
He added: "Maize has been imported even when local farmers have their granaries full; let them [farmers] grow what suits their pockets best."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions