Fresh intrigues have hit the importation of 330,000 bags of maize into the country, after it emerged that the consignment was a surplus of an old stock purchased by South Africa last year when it was experiencing food shortages.
Details also emerged showing that three milling firms — Kitui Flour Mills and Pembe Flour Mills (with 10,000 tonnes each) and Hydrey (P) Limited (9,900) — were the importers of the consignment, which arrived at the port of Mombasa three days ago.
The circumstances surrounding the shipment of the 29,900 tons of maize were further shrouded in mystery when the Mexican embassy in Nairobi said it could not confirm the transaction, arguing it was undertaken by private companies.
Earlier in the morning, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Willy Bett cancelled, at the last minute, a press conference he had called to release a report on the status of food security in the country.
This came amid reports that either President Uhuru Kenyatta or his deputy William Ruto would address escalating food prices tomorrow, something that has been taken up by the opposition National Super Alliance as a campaign issue.
Transport Principal Secretary Paul Mwangi confirmed that the maize, which was received last Thursday, was shipped from Durban, South Africa, aboard the vessel IVS Pinehurst.
Prof Mwangi said the maize had been stored in South Africa and the vessel took only five days to get to Mombasa after importers were given the green light to ship it into the country.
“The white maize was imported by South Africa from Mexico last year when there was a shortage in that country.
"The excess amount was stored in Durban and sold to Kenya by Inter Africa Gains PTY of Johannesburg,” he said at the Mombasa port.
Transshipment means transferring goods from one ship to another for redistribution to other ports.
Other reports had indicated that the maize had been imported by Holbud Limited, which is linked to Nairobi businessman Naushad Merali.
But the PS could not state when the government expected the prices of flour to come down, saying Kenya is a free market and that the prices would be determined by market forces.
It has also emerged that another vessel, the Interlink Priority, is expected to arrive at the port with another consignment of 37,050 tonnes of the commodity on May 24
The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) published a notice allowing imports of white and yellow maize into the country on May 4, with the commodity arriving at the port on May 10, raising questions about how long it had taken the vessel to sail from Mexico to Mombasa.
But Prof Mwangi said: “We expect the millers to reciprocate the government’s efforts by expediting the production process so that wananchi can start accessing the flour this week at reduced prices,” he said.
Contrary to the government’s expectations, the price of maize flour is set to remain high despite the interventions after millers exhausted consignments released from the Strategic Grains Reserve to tame the rising cost of the staple commodity.
Large-scale millers exhausted 750,000 bags that had been released to manufacturers by the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) and now the state is allocating them part of the balance that was meant for small-scale players, who have failed to exhaust their allocation.
The cost of a 2kg packet of the cheapest brands of maize flour had dropped from a high of Sh153 last month to Sh120 a fortnight ago following the release of grain from the Strategic Food Reserve, but the price has now rebounded to Sh144.
“The produce mainly in our stores in the North Rift region was to be shared among the more than 20 millers,” NCPB Managing Director Newton Terer said by phone.
But he would not say whether the commodity had been exhausted by the millers due to the high demand caused by lower supply.
“I do not have the exact figure, but I suspect the consignment could be exhausted soon,” Mr Terer added.
The NCPB is selling the produce at Sh3,000 per bag, compared with Sh4,800 at most markets in the county.
A source among the millers indicated that the latest move by the NCPB to release 450,000 bags of maize will help reduce the price of the flour marginally but that the drop will only affect the brands whose processors would have benefited from this cheap maize.
The Cereal Growers Association (CGA) said it expects two million bags to be injected into the market in July.
“We are expecting a good crop unlike last year. This harvest is going to create a huge impact on the market as we expect the prices to come down from the current highs,” chief executive officer Anthony Kioko said.
Meanwhile, the Mexican government today rejected social media rumours that it had refused to sell maize to Kenya, but refused to be pulled into what it said were “private sector operations”.
Social media platforms have been awash with fake news that the Mexican government had refused to sell 350,000 bags of maize to Kenya, just days after Kenya received the cargo.
“In the past few weeks, Mexican companies have been selling high quality non-GMO white maize to Kenyan counterparts.
“Since these are private sector operations, the Embassy will not, and has not made any kind of declaration on these commercial transactions,” the Mexican Embassy in Kenya said in a statement to the media.
The embassy said the transaction was a result of positive interactions and other bilateral efforts between the two countries.
It said Mexico had set up a committee whose objective is to implement a project of technical cooperation to expand the use of maize as food and enhancing nutrition, improved health and development in Kenya through processing technologies from Mexico.