It is the single most extensively grown crop in Kenya. It is the staple food for more than 80 per cent of the population. Its average per capita consumption is 103kg per person, relished by both the rich and the poor alike. It accounts for 3 per cent of Kenya’s GDP. It, is MAIZE. And it is now apparent why it elicits so much emotion in the country.
But did you know your favourite food, ugali, is actually a type of grass? Yes. According to a paper published by the US National Academy of Sciences in 1938, the progenitor of maize is teosinte, which is a Mexican grass
The spread of maize began in South America where it was first cultivated by the Indians. Christopher Columbus then took it to Europe and later the Portuguese introduced it on the Kenyan Coast in the 15th Century. And the rest as they say, is history.
Since then, the production of maize has been a roller coaster of bumper harvests and poor yields. The latter is occasioned by a spectrum of challenges ranging from climatic hazards of droughts and flooding, quality of inputs, pests and diseases, of which Fall Army Worm and maize lethal necrosis disease are the most recent. Farmers are also confronted by a double bind of soil acidification due to the continued preference of Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP) fertiliser which is necessitated by a declining soil fertility due to monoculture.
Other challenges include high production costs making the crop less competitive compared to prices from neighbouring markets. According to Tegemeo Institute the cost of producing one 90kg bag is roughly Sh1,800 compared to Uganda’s at Sh1,000 or slightly less.
It seems whichever way this pendulum swings, the farmer is always left holding the short end of the straw. But should this always be a zero sum game?
Kenya consumes about 300,000 metric tonnes of maize per month. This is equivalent to roughly 3.3 million 90kg bags. News reports and ground truthing indicates that the country is headed for yet another bumper harvest. It is estimated that farmers are still holding some 500,000 bags of maize from last year’s harvest. This season’s yield is projected to rise from 37 million bags to 40.9 million bags. So on the brighter side, the bumper harvest plus the half a million bags of unsold maize ought to last us a bit longer than 12 months. Therefore, one would expect the price of maize to increase progressively and peak just before the next season's harvest. If this were to happen, it would certainly be good news to farmers.
The reality however, is that Kenya has an open economy and maize imports are entering the market from neighbouring countries where the cost of production is lower than Kenya’s. According to Kenya Revenue Authority, in the past five months, traders have imported 3.28 million 90 kgs bags of cheaper maize from within the East African region. The immediate consequence of these imports is that today the price of a 90kg bag of maize has fallen to below Sh2,000 from a high of Sh3,200 in December 2017.
In Kenya, the largest buyer of maize is the government. As part of its food security strategy, this year alone the Government has spent up to Sh7.1 billion to buy the grain from the farmers. Despite this effort, farmers are still holding an estimated 500,000 bags of maize as already mentioned.
If the bumper harvest prediction holds true, it is highly likely that the government will not be in a position to buy anymore maize, and even if they had the resources to do so, they may not have the requisite storage capacity. And this ushers in a different set of challenges of post-harvest losses through insect damage and fungal infestation.
But a bumper harvest ought not to be a cause for alarm. It is indeed a good problem as George Crum would tell you. He was a chef at an American resort where French fries aka chips were very popular. However, a certain diner always complained that the fries were too thick. So Crum made a thinner batch but the diner was still grumpy. In a bid to hopefully annoy this diner, Crum made the fries too thin to eat with a fork. The diner, surprisingly enough was happy, just like that, the potato crisps were invented.
For far too long Kenyans have confined their thinking of maize around the stomach. But a little stretch of our imagination will discover there are other numerous uses of the maize and its derivatives. Let us look at a few.
Did you know that you can score double from a part of maize that you always throw away? This is the maize silk or the long shiny fibres at the top of an ear of maize. Apparently, maize silk is medicinal. Dried, powdered and taken as tea, maize silk is reputed to cure a host of diseases such as bladder infections, inflammation of the urinary system and prostrate, kidney stones and as an antidiabetic agent. And the best part is that it can even cure bed wetting.
Reebok, the renowned global athletic footwear company has also found an alternative use for maize. They are making biodegradable athletic shoes from maize. After the maize is milled, it is fermented into a bio-based product that is eventually moulded into the sole of a shoe which has been certified by the United States Department of Agriculture as a bio-based product. And finally the planet can smile at having an earth-friendly shoe.
You have been inattentively using maize as you go about your daily business in ways that you probably did not know existed, because about 3 out of 4 products in your local supermarket are made from maize derivatives. For instance, the part of the maize called endosperm can be processed into starch that is used as an ingredient in the production of various products such as disposable diapers, baby powder, matchsticks, colouring crayons, make-up, deodorants, candles, soaps and paints.
The endosperm can also be processed into a simple sugar called dextrose that is chemically identical to glucose. Dextrose can be used in making baking products. Maize is also used to make corn syrup as it provides the sweetness found in most cough drops. And for sure maize is an important component of animal feed.
In countries such as USA, Brazil, Argentina and China, maize is used to produce edible oil as well as ethanol (a biofuel additive for gasoline). If other nations have been able to make maize so versatile, Kenya has no reason not to.
The Big Four Agenda provides the country with an unrivalled opportunity for maize to become a prime mover of the four sectors of manufacturing, food security, housing and healthcare. For instance, it is not in doubt that energy will be one of the key enablers to realise this Big Four Agenda.
After the closure of the Kenya Oil Refinery in 2013, Kenya has continued to import petroleum products and this has largely contributed to the high petroleum import bill.
In a bid to enhance the performance of the energy sector, the government has continued to explore several alternatives aimed at boosting generation, transmission and distribution of energy. Examples include development of a wind power plant in Lake Turkana and a geothermal plant in Olkaria.
In expanding the energy mix, there is no reason why maize cannot be one of the alternative sources of energy particularly in the production of ethanol. In many parts of the developed world, ethanol is used as a viable alternative to petroleum-based fuels. It offers not only less pollution to the environment — 1 litre of ethanol produces 1.5kg of carbon dioxide compared to 2.2kg produced by 1 litre of petrol — but also a sustainable source of energy.
It has the potential to bring Kenya to the point where the country reduces its fuel import bill. So if an ethanol industry is developed, it will absorb a large share of the maize crop which will in turn increase the price of maize and provide an economic incentive to increase maize acreage.
As part of the circular economy, which is a continual feedback loop that aims to recycle as much as possible, throw away as little as possible and use as few raw resources as possible, some developed economies are using maize derivatives such as the maize cobs in the construction industry. Wood K Plus in Germany is one such company.
They are producing building boards used for walls from maize cobs. The maize cobs are used as the inner layer of a sandwich structure. The strength of these boards is comparable to chip boards which makes them suitable for building door panels, table boards, interior walls, and bookshelves. They are also 50 per cent lighter than fibreboards, and have good thermal insulation properties. They are also highly sound-absorbing.
In light of these cutting-edge developments, is there any reason why Kenya cannot promote the use of maize to realise the manufacturing and housing sector focus of the Big Four Agenda?
Maximising the use of maize derivatives into the many products we have articulated would increase its demand and this will act as an incentive for farmers, including the youth to increase its production and productivity.
It is no wonder then that in the civilisation that first domesticated maize (the Indians of today’s South America), the meaning of the word maize is ‘sacred mother’ or ‘giver of life’.
This ‘giver of life’ is within the reach of every Kenyan household yet remains largely untapped. Therefore to improve our lot, we need to maximise its use and appreciate its versatility beyond ugali, mahindi choma and githeri.
The boom and bust in maize production and prices is not a unique Kenyan challenge. In the US, smallholders as well as commercial farmers went through this cycle for 200 years until quite recently when diversification of maize into other products such as ethanol, led to increased production and productivity and sent the value of maize crop from $22.37 billion in 1997 to over $50 billion today. This economic value from a single crop is equivalent to, or greater than the GDP of many countries today.
Undoubtedly as demonstrated, maize has the potential to catalyse job and wealth creation, contribute to increased incomes, and of course food security. It will however, require a conscious investment from the public and private sectors to realise this. And this is not only possible, it is exigent.
So Kenya, it is time! Let us re-brand maize as the new white gold rather than worry about gluts, shortages, cheap imports, storage capacity and post-harvest losses.