President Uhuru Kenyatta’s articulation of food security as a pillar of his ‘Big Four’ agenda rightly invites debate on food (in)security in the country and policy options that could be deployed to guarantee reliable supply for everyone.

In fact, it is difficult to imagine how the other three pillars on manufacturing, affordable housing and universal health coverage could ever be achieved without food for all.

Several commentators have argued that Kenya’s food insecurity is largely a factor of inefficient redistribution systems, not necessarily low farm productivity per se. They cite innumerable incidences where it’s not uncommon to have one region facing an imminent hunger crisis while the other has bumper harvests.

Even more ironical, there have been instances where people who registered bumper harvests the previous season can hardly feed themselves in the next because of erratic rain patterns.

The more figurative have drawn attention to the contradiction that is increasing threat of obesity in urban Kenya and prevalent hunger in remote rural parts of the country.

However, there are inherent public policy and international trade dimensions to Kenya’s food insecurity that ought not to be ignored. Which is why, as Africa hosted the Brics summit of five major emerging economies last month in Johannesburg, for the second time, there were underlying questions over Brics-Africa ties.

Of the four Brics countries outside South Africa, China easily stands out in this regard — both for its sheer diplomatic presence and renewed economic commitment in Africa. In addition, the other Brics countries — Brazil, Russia and India — face deeper domestic and regional crises that it’s safe to assume that their interests in Africa outside South Africa remain remote for some time.

However, as recent history shows, China’s dominance in Africa has its downsides as well. It’s not uncommon to come across negative reports in many African countries regarding the Chinese or Chinese enterprises.

It’s just the other day when the Chinese-built and operated standard gauge railway (SGR) project in Kenya was reported attracting specific concerns over labour relations between Chinese and local workers and the railway’s economic viability after it posted a Sh10 billion loss in the first year.

But I think the real trigger points in Sino-African relations might eventually turn to how house-level concerns over food security (and safety) are handled at policy level between the Chinese and African governments.

In Kenya, the traditional open-access fisheries sector in Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean has largely collapsed due to over-fishing and poorly managed foreign competition. The common refrain across major local urban fish markets that I have unscientifically surveyed is that imported Chinese fish is cheaper than its locally produced equivalent.

This requires deeper policy intervention rather than leaving it to pure market dynamics, which then-Trade Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohammed was recently quoted as alluding to.

Which begs the logical question: How can Kenya and China align their political and trade interests around food security in the country?

There are no easy answers from an international trade and policy standpoint; however, a lot can be done from a strategic international relations one. First, to support President Kenyatta’s Blue Economy focus, China could voluntarily cap its fish exports to Kenya whilst increasing its investments in local fish farming (aquaculture).

Second, the two could urgently invest in subsidising communities and enterprises diversifying into cage farming in traditional open-source waters such as Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean. This is in line with the practice in China, where fish farms are now a leading production line.

Third, as part of essential gradual capacity building, Kenya could introduce a compulsory joint-venture policy in its Indian Ocean exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and Lake Victoria fisheries, where there is presence of Chinese enterprises, as a condition for fishing licences. This is a policy that the Chinese government has innovatively deployed.

Finally, a transparent joint investment in monitoring and surveillance of illegal fishing in the Indian Ocean that has been disproportionately blamed on Chinese deep sea fishing vessels will go a long way in building long-term trust and confidence.

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