The dark red clay of Matheka Muthoka's three-acre patch has been plowed into narrow, straight rows. They are empty, waiting under an unsympathetic sky for man and nature to provide the seeds and rainfall to transform this sliver of Africa into a cornfield again.

Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, small farmers like Muthoka are preparing their fields for the new season, scanning the sky and wondering if this time there will be enough rain to grow the food they need to sustain a fragile existence.

The recent past has not been kind. Although above normal seasonal rains began falling last month, the rolling fields of Machokos, a potentially fertile farm region about 30 miles southeast of Nairobi, have been barren for nearly two years. The drought, if it continues during the next 18 months, would force Kenya to import as much as half of the food it needs. Kenya added its name last week to the list of two dozen African countries and 150 million people who the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says face serious hardships and malnutrition.

To the north, starvation looms in war-torn Ethiopia, where the government predicts several hundred thousand people may die over the next year without massive emergency food relief. To the south, the nations of southern Africa -- including former agricultural powerhouses South Africa and Zimbabwe -- have been choked by three successive years of drought that have cost them $1.5 billion by the most recent regional estimate.

Devastating as it has been, drought is only part of the reason for Africa's hunger. Behind the food crisis lie the shortcomings of governments and human beings. Poverty, political upheaval and government policies have discouraged food production. Crop failure and famine have been compounded by bad advice from western aid donors, skyrocketing population growth, the steady ruin of arable land and a world trade system that favors rich nations over poor.

Experts have debated and will continue to debate endlessly which factors are most important and how to break what looks increasingly like an unending cycle of hopelessness. What they do not dispute is this grim fact: throughout the past decade, at a time when the rest of the world was increasing its per capita food production, Africa's was falling behind by more than 1 percent each year.

Food imports have doubled during that time and the price of those imports quintupled, according to the FAO. It estimates that there are more hungry people on the continent today -- at least 100 million, or one quarter of sub-Saharan Africa's population -- than there were a decade ago.

The World Bank says 20 percent of Africa's grain needs are now supplied by imports, nearly $3 billion annually paid to some of the world's richest countries out of the shrinking foreign-exchange earnings of some of the world's poorest.

Of 41 countries in sub-Saharan Africa with a significant farming sector, only five -- Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Rwanda and Sudan -- have managed to keep food production ahead of population growth.

"Of all the major regions of the developing world, sub-Saharan Africa has had the slowest growth in food production and the fastest growth of population during the past 20 years," said a World Bank report last month. "It is the only region where food production is losing the race with population growth." Stagnant Growth, Rising Debt

Because agriculture remains by far Africa's largest economic activity, the food crisis has helped trigger an extraordinary continent-wide economic decline. The 1980s was the decade when Africa was supposed to return to the steady and at times spectacular growth rates of the 1960s. Instead, the subcontinent's gross national product has stagnated, per capita income has declined and total debt has grown from a mere $6 billion in 1970 to $51 billion in 1982.

This series investigates the roots of Africa's food crisis. It is based upon a yearlong examination in nearly a dozen countries of various pieces of the crisis and its horrific impact -- the bloated stomachs of hungry children, the skeletal features of the elderly, the parched fields of shrunken and inedible crops.

In seeking to explain why Africa is hungry, these reports will focus on three East African countries: Tanzania, where western aid inadvertently compounded poor policies and plain bad luck to produce a potential food disaster; Zimbabwe, one of Africa's few relative success stories, where pragmatism and planning have managed to cheat the drought and stave off a predicted crisis, and Kenya. An examination of these three nations cannot fully explain Africa's hunger, but their problems do resonate across the continent.

Kenya is neither Africa's best nor worst food-growing nation. Only 20 percent of its land is arable, but Kenya has rich soil and resourceful farmers who in the past produced food surpluses. It is one of the world's largest producers of coffee and tea, which last year provided more than 40 percent of the country's export earnings.

Yet Kenya's declining food production closely tracks that of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank. It averaged a modest 2 percent annual increase in food production throughout the past decade, an increase that was wiped out by one of the world's highest population-growth rates, which now exceeds 4 percent yearly. As a result, per capita food production -- the amount grown for each person in this country of 18 million -- dropped 1.9 percent for each of the past 10 years.

"Two percent was once a respectable growth rate," said G.M. Riugu, an agricultural economist at the Institute for Development Studies in Nairobi. "Now we need 4 percent just to keep up with population, and 6 if we're going to make progress."

Before 1976, Kenya never imported food. Next year, it will import at least 1.3 million tons -- half its total needs. Having climbed on the food-import treadmill, Kenya is hard pressed to get off. Due to population growth and the ruin of arable land, the FAO predicts that even if Kenya were able to adopt modern farming techniques now in use in Asia and Latin America, it would still be importing food in the year 2000.

Why has Kenya begun to go hungry? There are answers in the fields near Machokos, where small farmers such as Muthoka, who account for more than two-thirds of the food grown here, eke out a living growing corn, the country's main staple.

Muthoka's first problem this year is not drought but seeds. All of his seeds went into last year's planting season, which because of drought produced exactly nothing. That means he must buy seeds from a local cooperative, which in turn gets them from a government board called a parastatal. It has a legal monopoly on the distribution of seeds in Kenya. Since there was no harvest last year, Muthoka has no savings left and cannot afford the 200 shillings -- about $14 -- he needs to plant his field.

Because his field is small and his prospects poor, Muthoka does not qualify for government credit. By laboriously weaving sisal fibers into rope, he and his family of five have managed to accumulate 60 shillings, enough to plant nearly one of the three acres.

Now he has another problem as well: a nationwide seed shortage due in part to extra demand and poor planning by the parastatal. The seeds available for purchase are regular corn seeds, not the hardier hybrids that have a better chance of survival in the short rainy season that usually arrives here in October and November.

There is a fertilizer shortage as well. But all of Kenya's chemical fertilizers are imported and high-priced, and Muthoka cannot even consider buying any. Having sold his four thin cows for money during the past year, he also has little natural fertilizer.

So before the planting season begins, Muthoka is at a disadvantage. Even with the best of rains -- which finally do seem to have arrived, but must continue for another month if crops are to thrive -- he can look forward to a harvest that is only one-third of his land's potential. If the rains stop, he may get nothing.

Even assuming that Muthoka had the seeds, fertilizer and rainfall to grow a record harvest, other government-related obstacles lie in the way of his making a living. He is located on a winding and potholed dirt road, 10 miles from an equally decrepit paved road. Muthoka must rely on chancy and expensive transportation to move his crop to market before it rots.

Kenya gives a legal monopoly on the collection and distribution of corn to a state-controlled parastatal called the National Cereals and Produce Board. Muthoka must sell all his surplus to the board at a price set by the government, not the marketplace. The board's budget often is stretched thin and its bureaucracy is bloated. Payment for a crop can be delayed as much as six months, denying Muthoka the cash he needs to get started on a new harvest and to pay for the few necessities of his life.

Experts say Matheka Muthoka's problems are not atypical. Each obstacle he faces is surmountable, but put together, they are steadily driving down food production in a country of rapidly increasing population.

"Farming is ultimately a confidence game," said Susanne Mueller, an American agricultural consultant based in Nairobi. "It's not just a question of food and nutrition but of people's willingness and ability to produce for cash. If the right elements are not there, peasants cannot produce." $ Plight of the Small Farmer

Analysts who have studied farm conditions here increasingly are placing the blame on government and its inability to meet small farmers' needs. They are zeroing in especially on the Grain and Cereals Board, arguing that its legal monopoly amounts to a stranglehold that is destroying farmers' incentive to produce more food.

Kenya is a mixed economy where capitalism and socialism theoretically exist side by side. In practice, the government, through bodies like the grain board, owns 47 companies and has a controlling or minority interest in 129 others, according to a recent government study. The result is a top-heavy structure where most of the country's capital is tied up in what are often inefficient parastatals.

Like many of them, the grain board is a remnant of colonial times, when British administrators sought to control food production. It has been adopted and strengthened by a black government interested in consolidating its own control and in transferring economic power from whites and Asians to an African elite.

The prices the board pays farmers for their food and the prices it charges consumers traditionally have had little to do with market conditions and profits and everything to do with politics. Between 1977 and 1981, for example, when per capita food production began its decline here, the government through the grain board all but froze the price it paid farmers for their crops, even while their costs continued to rise.

The reasons for the freeze were not hard to understand. Kenya was undergoing a delicate political transition from founding patriarch Jomo Kenyatta, who died in 1978, to its present leader, Daniel arap Moi. Moi and his allies needed political stability and urban middle-class support, especially in the capital of Nairobi. In a policy that Moi since has reversed, the government helped buy urban support with cheap food, while farmers paid the price. Political Pecking Order

In a pattern repeated across much of Africa, Kenya has a political pecking order. At the top are the city dwellers, rich and poor alike, whose proximity to the institutions of government makes them both its main constituency and most prominent threat. Poor urbanites spend as much as half their meager incomes on food, and keeping prices low is one of their main concerns.

Near them in influence are the rural elite, who often are involved in growing cash crops, like coffee and tea, for export. Since Kenya must sell these crops in the highly competitive international marketplace, the parastatals that buy and sell them tend to be among the country's most efficient.

At the bottom are the small farmers, known in Africa as smallholders, who live in remote areas and generally lack the means and sophistication to organize and consolidate their potential power. Although they grow Kenya's most important commodity -- its food staples -- they are the first to be squeezed and the last to be heard.

Their lack of a voice where it counts was illustrated in July 1982, according to a recent report for Nairobi's Institute for Development Studies by economic analyst Michael Schluter. While a government decision to abolish a rebate on exports manufactured by urban-based factories evoked a large protest in Parliament and the press, a similar decision to cut by nearly half the prices paid smallholders for beans "passed without a single comment." The move resulted in cheap beans for city markets, but cost farmers approximately $10 million.

"What you've had, in effect, is a tax on food growers by governments who are providing artificially cheap food to relatively better off people living in the cities," said M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Government Shifts Strategy

The Moi government has witnessed the decline in food production with alarm. It has reversed gears during the past three years and raised corn prices paid to farmers by more than 60 percent. It has raised consumer food prices as well, but by only about half that rate. The result has been a multimillion-dollar government subsidy of food squeezing Kenya's already tight government budget. That squeeze has reduced funds available for agricultural research, irrigation and for reclaiming arable land, which is being eaten away by erosion and desertification.

In other words, farmers are continuing to pay indirectly. The alternative, as Edward Saouma, director general of the FAO, noted in a recent speech, would be greater costs to city dwellers. Last January's food riots in Tunisia and the recent bread riots in Egypt are reminders of the potential political price.

"Whatever is given to agriculture must be taken from somewhere -- or someone -- else," said Saouma. "The first sufferers are likely to be the urban elite -- not a very welcome prospect for even the strongest of governments."

Western aid donors such as the United States and the World Bank have been trying for several years to persuade the Kenyan government to cut back its food bureaucracy and introduce an element of free enterprise by licensing private intermediaries to buy food directly from farmers and sell it to consumers. But the government, faced with drought and the possibility of political unrest, has shown little interest in loosening its grip.

Moi appears to have moved in the opposite direction in recent months, naming his top aide and senior civil servant, Simon Nyachae, to chair the grain board and issuing new regulations to tighten its control over food supplies. The government also has moved to eliminate one of the few semi-independent farmers' groups, the Kenya Farmers Association, suspending its leadership and giving a fertilizer monopoly to a new farmers' union deemed more amenable to government control. Farmers Trade in 'Parallel Market'

Faced with what many see as a lack of government help, African smallholders increasingly are resorting to one method of avoiding the price squeeze -- breaking the law. By selling small quantities directly to local traders, Muthoka and his neighbors can double the price they receive from the grain board. The trader in turn sells his goods in quantities as small as an eight-ounce can. The food never appears on any government record. Food organizations such as the FAO have been forced in recent years to revise their own data to take this unsanctioned "parallel market" into account.

No one knows for certain the size of this market, although one Nairobi study has suggested that as much as 35 percent of the city's food is produced and bought outside of the formal system. Goran Hyden, economic analyst for the Ford Foundation's Nairobi office, calls the parallel market "a silent guerrilla war by the small farmer."

Those small farmers who can afford to are cutting back on food crops for more lucrative cash crops such as coffee and tea. This reduces Kenya's food supply and puts the farmers more at the mercy of international market prices, which have fluctuated widely during the past six years.

Some of Kenya's food problems are grounded in the country's poverty and appear out of government control. On paper, for example, Kenya has the third- largest number of trained agricultural extension workers in the subcontinent, a work force that should be out in the fields spreading skills and technical know-how to farmers. In fact, due to a chronic shortage of cars and fuel, most spend their time in the office, in what the Kenya Times recently called "a great waste to the nation."

The price farmers pay for this lack of technical help can be seen on a remote hillside about 10 miles from Machokos, where the family of John Wambua works a 10-acre plot. The Wambuas are an enterprising clan, and they decided last year to try to grow alongside their traditional food crops some coffee plants to produce cash to pay school fees.

It did not work. Lack of fertilizer, rain and expertise doomed the small experiment almost from the start. Today all that remains are the withered stalks of two dozen plants.

Wambua says his family was disappointed but may decide to try again as soon as it can find the money to replant. Meanwhile, the stalks serve as a reminder of both the fragility of the continent's agriculture and the determination of its farmers.

NEXT: Tanzania, a social experiment gone awry.