Uncertainty continues to cloud the promise of cheaper maize flour even as Kenyans brace for harder times with inflation driving the cost of living higher.
Average inflation reported by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics suggests that the cost of living has kept its double digit of 11.4 per cent, up from the 10.28 in March, driven by rising cost of food.
After a pledge by the government that the price of a 2 kilogramme packet of maize flour would fall to Sh115 in one week, officials have remained tight-lipped about the matter.
The anticipated relief was pegged on a release of some one million bags of maize from the government’s strategic grain reserves at a cheaper price to the millers who would then translate it to the consumers in cheaper maize flour.
The Cereals Millers Association, which backed Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich and his Agriculture counterpart Willy Bett in the April 4 promise, now says the cheaper maize flour will take longer.
Association chairman Nick Hutchinson told the Sunday Nation that the earliest a significant drop in the maize prices is expected will be at the end of June.
“We only got 450,000 bags of maize from the government and we are still largely relying on the expensive stock as we wait for duty free maize to arrive.
"That may be some time in June and added to the logistics involved, we may start milling it later that month. Availability is a bit tight now and the price may begin to rise again,” Mr Hutchinson said in a telephone interview.
COST OF LIVING
A source within the millers said only 750,000 bags from the promised one million bags were released to millers and the government’s last stock also faces depletion.
A spot check in various retail stores showed that maize flour was largely scarce with many brands missing from the shelves.
The 2kg packet now retails at between Sh130 and Sh135 for the non-premium brands after a fall to an average of Sh128 a week ago.
The latest inflation figures show that food and non-alcoholic beverages accounted for the largest growth in the cost of living, climbing 21 per cent compared to the same period last year.
Maize, which makes the most common staple food in the country, had its price up 37 per cent pushing the maize flour prices from the Sh103 for the 2kg packet on April 2016 to Sh135 for the same quantity on April 2017.
By the time of going to press, Mr Rotich and Mr Bett had not responded to Sunday Nation’s inquiries on the same.
However, questions remain unanswered regarding the promise of cheaper ugali that was celebrated after the reading of the pre-election budget.
Whether there is indeed any maize being shipped as Mr Bett said two weeks ago and whether the maize released to the millers at Sh3,000 per 90kg bag had any impact remains unclear.
There have also been mixed signals over the shortage with suggestions that it was artificial as farmers and some middlemen were hoarding the commodity over prices.
Another key question is just how the ambitious price of Sh115 in a week was arrived at and who was meant to monitor the drop to that level.
The millers are expected to hold a press conference this week to, among other things, explain the failed reduction.
The businessmen are also mooting the idea to have the government extend the four-month window of importing duty free maize as scarcity is projected to last longer with crops already affected by delayed rainfall.
Mr Hutchinson says Kenyans should begin thinking of alternative food as maize is no longer going to be an easy find.
“Kenyans should be encouraged to eat something else because maize is not going to be easy to get.
"Tanzania and Uganda, where we would get supplies from, have no surpluses. The rains are late and we may not have the usual harvest,” Mr Hutchinson said.
His suggestion may prove hard to sell given the time it takes for such a cultural shift to occur.
The other food alternatives are not getting cheaper or more available either.
Beans, whose production dropped from 8.5 million bags in 2015 to 8.1 million bags in 2016, had a 22 per cent rise in price in the latest inflation report to sell at Sh147 per kg, a Sh3 rise from last month.
Production of potatoes and drought-resistant crops such as sorghum and millet recorded significant declines as the agriculture sector registered a decelerated growth of 4.4 per cent in 2016 from a revised growth of 7.2 per cent, according to the 2017 Economic Survey.
The drop in maize production from 42.5 million bags in 2015 to 37.1 million bags in 2016 is blamed on lower volume of rainfall, high cost of farm inputs and the residual effects of Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease.
The North Rift region, which is Kenya’s grain basket, has also been invaded by the armyworm leading to increased cost of production and anticipated low yield this season.
Kenya may also have to bite the bullet by allowing longer duty free importation after a 41.5 per cent increase in the price of one tonne of imported maize last year caused a substantial decrease in the import volumes of the commodity from 480.1 thousand tonnes in 2015 to 148.6 thousand tonnes in 2016.
The National Strategic Food Reserve, which had only 1.3 million bags of maize in January against the required three million bags, is also fast depleting.
It should, at any time, have the three million bags that can sustain the country for a month in case of an emergency.