NDEFFO, Kenya (AP) – Sam Maina’s corn plants should be as tall as his hoe, well over the head of his 3-year-old son.
But Maina delayed planting when Kenya was gripped by political violence and now world food prices are shooting up faster than his knee-high green shoots.
Spiraling costs, political instability and decayed infrastructure are gobbling up the profit many small African farmers hoped to make from rising crop prices. In Kenya, the farming sector has been one of the many casualties of the violent upheaval that erupted after disputed December elections.
Many farmers were driven off their land or forced to sell last year's harvest cheaply. Fertilizer prices have increased nearly fivefold and gas for tractors or transporting crops to market has also jumped.
“I have nothing in my store in case of any problem,” explained Maina, who hurriedly sold his corn at half price when his neighbors' farms were set ablaze. “All our crop will be sold just to cover the costs of running the farm.”
Instead of making money from the higher food prices, the family is eating worse than ever. Maina's three toddlers haven't had milk for months. He worries about feeding them just beans and corn but cannot afford anything else.
World food prices have skyrocketed in the past year due to a variety of factors: bad weather in key food exporters, diversion of land and crops to biofuel production, and burgeoning middle classes in India and China adopting more expensive diets.
American economist Jeffrey D. Sachs says Africa can triple its food production with a few simple reforms, helping to ease worldwide prices and lifting many out of poverty. But farmers like the Mainas need help.
“These people are so poor that they can't afford the inputs. There's no money, there's no credit, there's no collateral,” Sachs explained on a visit to Kenya last week. “This is the classic poverty trap. You can't start when you have nothing.”
Ankle-deep in manure in a Kenyan field, the picture is even more complicated. It's not just money people here need, it's security. Maina and his neighbor, Daniel Kimani, are small farmers who normally grow enough for their families and around 10 large bags of corn for sale. When they're not farming, they work for petty traders in the local market. Both usually have enough money to hire laborers and buy fertilizer.
All that changed in December, when Kenya's opposition accused the ruling party of rigging the narrow margin that handed it victory. Maina and Kimani lost their vending jobs when the local market was torched and now can't afford extra labor or fertilizer.
Fertilizer prices jumped to $1,100 from $245 a ton in four months, the president of the African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka, told a meeting in Mozambique last week.
“Rising food prices provide the opportunity, the incentive,” he said, but “the signals are not getting through to the farmer because fertilizer and transport costs have also increased.”
In the two months that Maina and Kimani delayed planting, corn prices rose by nearly a third, and they have to buy at those prices to tide over their families until the crop comes in.
Stanley Guantai of the Kenya Maize Development Program estimates 10 percent of last year's crop was burned and more than 20 percent of Kenya's farmland will not be planted this season because most farmers who fled have not returned home. Of the remaining land, more than half has been plowed late, and mostly without fertilizer, he said.
Shortages in Kenya, which had a maize surplus for the first time in 2006, will push up prices in neighboring Tanzania and Uganda, which suffered devastating floods last year. Ethiopia, the region's most populous country, is in the grip of a drought.
It's not just the weather, violence and global trends that are to blame for small farmers' inability to capitalize on high prices. In Nigeria, the continent's most populous country and once a big food exporter, decades of neglect have damaged roads so badly it can take days to get produce to markets. Corruption at the ports may delay shipments – spelling disaster for farmers exporting perishables. Daily power outages mean foreign firms are unwilling to invest in processing factories for agricultural produce.
In Kenya, where politicians are belatedly realizing that the violence they encouraged has helped empty the fields, a resettlement program provides seeds for displaced farmers returning home. But for many it is too little, too late.
“They've cut down my trees, my house is torched, my borehole is filled in and the government hasn't helped me,” said Purity Nyambura. “Now they tell us to go home with some few seeds and we will make money. But who will pay for a new house?”
Associated Press writer Emmanuel Camillo contributed to this report from Maputo, Mozambique.