Much ado about maize as hunger looms in Kenya

Monday July 22 2019

Kenya's Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri at a depot in November 2018.

Kenya's Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri at a depot in November 2018 where 60 per cent of maize stocked in the facility was found to be discoloured. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

NJIRAINI MUCHIRA
By NJIRAINI MUCHIRA
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As Kenya grapples with a maize shortage that has seen the price of flour rise by over 20 per cent in the past few months, efforts to get the commodity into the country have been hampered by squabbling among officials over the amount and source of the grain.

This week, there was a pile-up of trucks transporting maize at the Taveta-Holili border point. Traders accused Kenya Revenue Authority officials of working slowly.

DEMAND

The exact maize demand in Kenya is still a matter of conjecture, with politics taking the centre stage over the importation plan, with farmers reportedly holding enough stocks to last until October, when the next harvest is expected.

Government Spokesman Col (rtd) Cyrus Oguna said that information on the shortage was not available due to the conflicting reports by different stakeholders.

The government has indicated urgency in allowing imports, with the shortfall of 4.3 million bags against a 4.2 million bag consumption demand per month.

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During his recent visit to Tanzania, which has a stockpile of three million bags of maize, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta struck a deal with President John Magufuli to buy 1.2 million bags.

But in the past fortnight, maize traders importing the commodity from Tanzania have accused KRA of sloth in clearing the cargo.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri sparked controversy after he announced plans to open an importation window to cover for an anticipated shortfall of 12.5 million bags during the period from July to December to avert a crisis.

According to the minister, the decision is awaiting Cabinet approval. But Strategic Food Reserve Trust Fund chairperson Noah Wekesa dismissed claims of a maize shortage in the country, saying it was “artificial” and exaggerated to justify plans by cartels to import the grain.

The 12.5 million bags would therefore secure supply of the country’s staple over the next six months and contain the possibility of further maize flour price increase.

Flour currently retails at between $1.14 (Sh120) and $1.18 (Sh124), up from $0.86 (Sh90) last year.

POOR MANAGEMENT

Kiunjuri, who this week appeared before the National Assembly’s Agriculture Committee, said the government plans to import mainly from the Common Market for East and Southern Africa countries.

Though the Cabinet is yet to sanction the purchases, controversy has emerged with the Strategic Food Reserve Trust Fund that Kenya needs to import only two million bags owing to the fact that current reserves and projected harvests offer adequate supplies for the country.

Politicians and farmers have also opposed the importation plans arguing the government should fund the cash-strapped National Cereals and Produce Board to enable it buy maize from farmers who have continue to retain stocks due to low prices set by the government.

Despite a bumper harvest last year that saw Kenya produced 46 million bags up from 35 million bags the previous year, the country is experiencing a crisis occasioned by poor management of the produce.

According to the East Africa Grain Council, Ethiopia and Zambia will be the key beneficiaries if Kenya open the imports window and limit imports from within Comesa.

Ethiopia in particular has emerged as a top maize exporter in the wider eastern Africa region owing to a steady increase in its production capacity. In 2017, the country exported 240,000 tonnes into Kenya.

Uganda is also angling for a piece of the business.

The Grain Council also expects Tanzania, which harvested 16 million tonnes of the maize against a national demand of 13 million tonnes, to maintain a tight grip on the maize trade after emerging as the main regional source market due to lower domestic prices.

“More maize will likely be imported from Tanzania and Zambia than Uganda because of the anticipated below average production in Uganda,” said EAGC Crossborder Trade Bulletin for the first quarter of 2019.

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