A war of words has erupted in political circles regarding the question of whether the country has enough maize, even as experts warn it is not logistically possible for the planned imports from Mexico to arrive before the next harvest, unless the consignment is already on its way or hanging somewhere in the high seas.
The Ministry of Agriculture is divided down the middle, with Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri differing publicly with Strategic Food Reserve Trust Fund chairman Noah Wekesa over the deficit and the planned importation of maize.
On Wednesday, Mr Kiunjuri said the country would import 19 million bags of maize to meet its deficit or the price of a 2kg packet of maize would hit Sh150 from the current Sh120.
But Dr Wekesa, in an uncharacteristic move, denied there was a shortage of such magnitude, insisting there was no need to import maize since the country has at least 2.76 million bags of the grain, which is sufficient up to mid-August, ahead of a new harvest expected in the South Rift and Western regions.
Dr Wekesa accused ‘cartels’ of only being interested in lining their pockets at the expense of the farmers, a statement that prompted an angry response from Mr Kiunjuri, who said he would have the last say on the matter.
He said Dr Wekesa’s claims that the country needed to import only two million bags of maize were reckless and amounted to insubordination. “Any other body that would like to issue a statement on maize imports cannot do that because the ministry has the final say,” said Mr Kiunjuri.
But ODM leader Raila Odinga, an increasingly influential figure on government policy, on Friday opposed maize importation plans and called on investigative agencies to “get to the bottom of the annual menace once and for all and bring the culprits to book”.
He said any deficits could be plugged by mopping up locally held maize and bringing some from the neighbouring countries, and urged the ministry to ‘safeguard farmers’ and consumers’ interests and not cartels.
Mr Odinga spoke a day after meeting Dr Wekesa and leaders from the North Rift led by Cherangany MP Joshua Kutuny and his Moiben counterpart Silas Tiren. The two MPs, as well as Uasin Gishu Woman Representative Gladys Shollei, who is also opposed to the imports, are from Deputy President William Ruto’s home turf. Mr Kiunjuri is an ally of the DP.
“What we know is that the planned importation of maize is being orchestrated by senior people in government who have been advising farmers to diversify to other crops to create artificial shortfall of the staple,” said Mr Kutuny, an outspoken member of ‘Kieleweke’, a group of Jubilee politicians opposed to Mr Ruto’s State House bid.
Mr Tiren, a member of the parliamentary committee on agriculture, said the timing of the importation of the maize was suspect and likened it to the 2017 case where 15 million bags of maize were imported against a deficit of four million bags.
The leaders believe ‘cartels’ are holding a huge consignment of maize in the high seas and are only waiting for a signal.
While Mr Ruto has not spoken publicly on the matter of maize imports, Mr Odinga’s statement is expected to draw another battle line for the two leaders who differ bitterly on virtually every matter of national concern.
The culture of shadowy figures crawling out of the woodwork around this time to mint billions of shillings overnight at the expense of Kenyan farmers and consumers, has become an annual ritual.
In 2017, the government was accused of manufacturing a crisis when – either out of ineptitude or by design – it ignored all warning of an impending shortage only to flood the market with the staple when local farmers were harvesting, leaving them with great losses.
Analysts suspected then that arrangements with the importers had been made and that they were only waiting for the opportune moment to ship it in, duty-free.
Mr Kiunjuri has not always supported imports. In April, he stood firm against millers and crafty government bureaucrats calling for imports, insisting the country had more than enough maize in its stores. Critics are now questioning the motivation behind his about-turn.
Leaders and farmers from maize-growing zones have accused the CS of protecting cartels who have infiltrated the supply chain and are out to benefit from the scheme.
“We were told recently that we have sufficient reserves. We were also told that we might import maize due to late rains but now that we have not had crop failure, on what basis are we importing maize?” Ms Shollei asked.
Economic and policy analyst Robert Shaw, however, does not believe a new round of imports will undermine the domestic maize producers. “The landed cost of duty-free imported maize will be in the same price range as domestically produced maize because the price of white maize in the world market has risen since we last imported in 2017. Secondly, the private sector players are much better judges of the market and will import to satisfy the demand equation. It does not pay to import more than is needed,” explained the commentator.
He called on the government to address the facilitation of the import process – gazette notice, licences, relevant import documentation and port clearance.
But other experts warn that it is not logistically possible to import 12.5 million 90-kilogramme bags of maize within two months unless the consignment is already on its way or hanging somewhere in the high seas.
“Indeed, there is need to consider importation and that is not in doubt,” says Gerald Masila, the Executive Director at the East Africa Grain Council. “However, the issue is what quantity should be allowed for the duty-free importation,” noted Mr Masila.
Mathematically, the quantity to be imported translates to one million metric tonnes, meaning 25 shiploads of 40,000MT.
“Kenya has only one grain bulk handling facility, which is currently busy offloading imports of wheat, rice and others,” said Mr Masila, noting that offloading the 25 ships of maize will take almost 20 months due to physical infrastructure limitation.
“It takes about 60 days for a ship to load and sail from Mexico to Mombasa. So if a decision is taken at the end of July, the first ship will dock at the end of September,” explained Mr Masila. “Any earlier arrival means the ship already sailed long ago.”
Dr Timothy Njagi, a development economist at Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development of Egerton University, shares Mr Masila’s sentiment.
Besides the maize expected to come out of the South Rift by the end of the month, the crop currently in the fields in the major breadbasket is expected to be harvested from October/November, hitting the market by December. If the imported stocks arrive at the same time as the local harvests, there will be a huge surplus, which will affect the price of maize from local farmers.
“We may need a few tonnes to take us through the month of December, but certainly much lower than the suggested 12.5 tonnes,” noted Mr Masila.
The EAGC boss believes that the ultimate solution to the perennial maize shortage, and the attendant corruption, is for the government to get out of the maize sector and allow the demand and supply forces to come to play.
“Why is it that wheat and rice farmers are comfortable, they are not asking for fertiliser subsidies, and are never concerned whether more wheat and rice is imported or not?” he posed.
Agriculture Principal Secretary in charge of Research, Prof Hamadi Boga, concurs with Mr Masila that a commodities exchange will solve the marketing problem.
“To transform our agriculture, we also have to shift the smallholder farmers (below 20 acres) to high-value crops (not maize) and make maize and other cereals, large scale crops as they were meant to be. Usually, smallholder farmers are highly inefficient as they are largely not mechanised and are challenged by knowledge gaps,” he asserts.
Kenya’s maize production has been declining over the years because of poor soil health, low mechanisation and climate change, which bring about prolonged drought and increased pests and diseases. High cost of production, uneconomical land sizes and high labour costs have also made Kenya’s farming expensive.
Attempts in the past few years to boost productivity through a subsidised fertiliser model failed because it benefited well-connected people at the expense of needy farmers. Dr Njagi says a model that targets specific farmers to produce particular crops will be more useful.
POWERFUL CIVIL SERVANTS
The policitisation of maize began ahead of Kenya’s independence when the colonial government allocated land to a few well-connected individuals through the Swynnerton Plan of 1952. “While the Swynnerton Plan was intended to intensify production among Africans, it was also a ploy to prop up a select few of them who would side with the colonial power in the struggle for independence,” explains Prof Peter Ndege of Moi University’s department of history.
At independence, this elite inherited even more land and became politicians and powerful civil servants. But while they had the land and the support to farm, they were inefficient producers because they were not full-time farmers, adds Prof Prof Ndege, who wrote Agrarian Kleptocracy and the Land Question in Kenya.
Reports by Julius Sigei, Isaiah Esipisu, Barnabas Bii, Anita Chepkoech and Leopold Obi