Destruction of forests with its implication on climate change has an influence on the capacity of people to produce adequate food and pasture for their livestock. Evidence shows that over 5.4 million Kenyans experienced severe food insecurity between March and June of 2023 due to persistent droughts and irregular rainfall, which negatively affected crop production and disrupted food supply chains. Enhancing food security is a top priority for the Kenyan government as espoused in its Bottom-Up Economic Transformation Agenda (BETA) plan, and this requires adoption of sustainable solutions.
Forest ecosystems possess significant potential to enhance food security. They protect water and soil resources, contributing to soil enrichment and fertility. They play a role in climate regulation and provide a habitat for natural pollinators of food crops. Additionally, they host a diverse range of edible plants, fungi, and fruits, thereby contributing to dietary diversity and availability. Moreover, they offer a sustainable source of bioenergy, reducing the burden on conventional energy resources and indirectly supporting food production. Furthermore, forests create income and employment opportunities, especially for communities residing in their proximity, thus improving economic access to food. The Shamba system, which allows communities near forests to cultivate various food crops while tending to the trees, also presents an opportunity. Therefore, harnessing the potential of forest ecosystems could be the key to enhancing food security in Kenya.
Despite its importance, the role of forests in food security is often ignored. Forest degradation, along with poor forest governance, jeopardizes people’s ability to cultivate, access, and use food effectively, exposing the population to food insecurity crisis.[i] For instance, most counties in Kenya with less than 10 per cent forest cover had higher rates of food insecurity (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Forest cover (%) and level of food insecurity crisis (population facing food insecurity crisis) in 23 selected counties[ii] in Kenya.
Source: National Forest Resources Assessment Report 2021 and Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (2023)[iii]
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outline how the international community should work towards a sustainable future for all. In Kenya, however, the forest ecosystem has not been utilized extensively to improve food security. Several policy concerns are to blame. First, the absence of a comprehensive policy framework that combines forestry and agriculture has continued to create gaps in utilization of forest for food security. For instance, the Forest Management and Conservation Act 2016[iv] and the Agricultural Policy 2021,[v] approach both sectors independently, which causes a gap between initiatives to preserve forests and those to increase food production. This has led to long-term destruction of forest land through clearing land for agricultural purposes, thus causing deforestation and land degradation, which jeopardize long-term food security in the country.
Deforestation leads to a reduction in pollinator populations, which can result in lower farm produce.[vi] Pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and birds play a crucial role in pollinating crops, and their decline can lead to a decrease in crop yields.[vii] Human activity in Kenya, especially deforestation, is affecting pollinator populations and their habitats. This has led to lower yields of crops that depend on pollinators, suggesting that the numbers of these insects may be declining,[viii] and thus posing a threat to achieving food security.
Forested areas play a critical role in diversifying diets and meeting nutritional needs, particularly for communities that rely on wild foods. The loss of wild fruits, mushrooms, and other edible fruits and berries from forests due to deforestation has a significant impact on communities that depend on forests for their livelihood, such as the Ogiek in Mau Forest and Sengwer in Embobut forest. The cumulative result of this loss is an increase in child malnutrition and hunger, which have reversed the gains in lowering malnutrition over the years in Kenya. Therefore, deforestation not only affects the environment but also has a direct impact on human health and well-being.
Ineffecient land tenure and use regulations has made it difficult for Kenya to leverage on its forests for food security. With some ambiguous land tenure policies and inadequate enforcement measures, Kenyan forests are frequently the target of encroachment and illegal logging. For instance, the Shamba system was mismanaged. In fact, it has been shown that encroachment by farmers through the Shamba system threatens the sustainable use of forest resources for food production and the preservation of forest ecosystems.[ix]
To address the critical policy issue of harnessing the potential of Kenya’s forest ecosystem to enhance food security, a multifaceted approach is imperative. On the onset, there is need to align the Forest Management and Conservation Act 2016 and the Agricultural Policy 2021 by merging some of their objectives to create a unified framework that prioritizes the sustainable coexistence of forestry and agriculture. This entails incentivizing agroforestry practices that integrate tree planting with crop cultivation. Agroforestry can increase soil fertility, reduce soil erosion, and provide food, fuel, and other products for local communities. Integrating trees into farming systems provides additional sources of income for farmers. Trees can also help improve soil health by fixing nitrogen and other nutrients, which can increase crop yields. In addition, agroforestry can help to mitigate the effects of climate change by sequestering carbon in trees and soil.
In addition, urgent measures need to be implemented to safeguard forest ecosystems by taking strong action to stop the widespread deforestation for agricultural use. To ensure that these ecosystems are valued and protected, it is essential to increase knowledge and education about the symbiotic relationship between forests and food security among farmers, policy makers, and the public. Partnerships with local communities and indigenous peoples such as the Ogiek in Mau and Elgon forests and the Sengwer in Embobut forest who depend on forests for their livelihoods can also help with conservation and sustainable resource management initiatives.
To curb misuse of the Shamba system policy, there is need enact policies centred on the provision of secure land and forest tenure and fair access to resources to adequately acknowledge and incorporate forests’ benefits to food security and nutrition. For instance, the Shamba system need to be re-engineered by taking action to remedy flaws such as incomplete record keeping, haphazard plot distribution, minimal stakeholder involvement, and farming in restricted areas. Furthermore, the government needs to embark on a nationwide campaign to identify and clearly mark the gazetted forest areas and mobilize resources to fence it off to minimize unnecessary entry and destruction by unauthorized persons.
In conclusion, there is need to strengthen forest governance, which involves strengthening policies, laws, and institutions to ensure implementation and enforcement of policies and laws so that forests are well-managed to contribute to long-term national development. Enforcement of policies and laws with constant surveillance will prevent illegal logging and deforestation. The implementation of the Forest Conservation and Management Act, No. 34 of 2016,[x] National Forest Reference Level for REDD+[xi], and the 2018 Taskforce Report on Forest Resources Management and Logging Activities in Kenya[xii]will set stage for sustainable development of forest resources in the country. The policy recommendation aligns with existing initiatives and strategies in Kenya, such as the National Forest Programme 2016-2030, which emphasizes the importance of forests for food security and recognizes the need for sustainable forest management,[xiii] and the Climate Change Adaptation Programme (2016-2019) in Kenya,[xiv] which highlights the promotion of forestry and agroforestry ecosystem-based strategies to enhance food security and resilience to climate change. Thus, harnessing the immense power of forest ecosystem presents a promising avenue to bolster food security in Kenya. Through strategic afforestation, sustainable land management and embracing agroforestry in Kenya can cultivate a harmonious relationship between its rich forests and thriving agricultural sector. This synergy not only addresses immediate food needs but also pave way for a more resilient and food-secure future for generations to come.
[ii] Baringo, Garissa, Isiolo, Mandera, Marsabit, Samburu, Tana River, Turkana, Wajir, Embu, Kajiado, Kilifi, Kitui, Kwale, Laikipia, Lamu, Makueni, Meru, Narok, Nyeri, Taita Taveta, Tharaka Nithi and West Pokot.
[xii] Government of Kenya. Taskforce Report on Forest Resources Management and Logging Activities in Kenya 2018.
Author: Hillary Wakhungu, Policy Analyst, Productive Sector Department