Supporting Kenyan vegetable growers is more important than obsessing about buying Britishby Mark Ashurst / November 18, 2009 / Leave a comment
Green beans: more valuable to Kenya’s economy than banking or tourism
Driving from Nairobi, a visitor to Kenya’s agricultural heartland is struck by a lush green landscape. Here, at the foot of the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya in an area known as Mwea, rows of irrigated fields sprout neat rows of green beans. These vegetables will occupy only a small space on the shelves of European supermarkets—but, alongside fruit and flower sales, they are vital to Africa’s economic prospects. Yet in early November, a report by lobby group Consumer Focus on Britain’s supermarkets chastised many of them for not selling enough home-grown products.
The truth is that buying from African smallholders is actually kinder to the planet than industrial farming in Europe—as well as vastly more useful to the people most at risk from climate change. Today, two-thirds of Africa’s population depends on agriculture for their livelihood, which is in a sorry state. For many reasons, average farm output per capita is lower than in the 1960s, and Africa has no realistic prospect of achieving even the basic living standards outlined in the UN’s millennium development goals. Which is why the vegetables grown in Mwea are so important. In Kenya, exports of non-traditional crops to Europe will earn more than $1bn in 2009, making horticulture a more valuable local industry than banking, tourism or telecommunications. The Horn of Africa is wracked by its worst drought in a decade, and Kenya is already suffering the probable effects of climate change. But the fertile soil, temperate climate and man-made irrigation canals of Mwea offer a slender comparative advantage.
Speaking in London in October, the Archbishop of Canterbury urged us to stop buying African vegetables and to start growing our own. Yet Rowan Williams has revived a flawed argument—recently floated, and then abandoned by the Soil Association—that the carbon footprint of air-freighted food is not sustainable. The scientific research tells a different story: in Kenya, more than 60 per cent of crops are grown by smallholders who farm by hand in the old-fashioned, labour-intensive way. As anyone who tends an allotment knows, this produces higher quality vegetables and lower carbon emissions than European industrial farms. Indeed, even the government realises how much current British agriculture pollutes: in early November it told farmers to adopt greener practices or face deductions in their subsidies.
Only around 14 per cent of the fruit…