White maize is the foremost staple food in Kenya today. The crop is grown by a mix of large and small-scale farmers in the higher altitude areas north of Nakuru.
Due to the high level of inputs needed, the Kenyan crop is more expensive to produce than, for example, maize grown in neighbouring Uganda.
Consumption is in the region of 30 to 34 million bags (90kg) per annum while production varies at around 30 million bags or below, depending on rainfall. Being a largely rain-fed crop, maize production in Kenya is highly dependent on the vagaries of the weather. Cross-border imports from Uganda and Tanzania tend to make up for shortfalls in production and are relatively accessible.
When the deficit is large, as in 2017, then formal imports from countries with surplus white maize such as Mexico are brought on board.
The fact that Kenya has a structural deficit in its staple crop has been a challenging issue for many years. Improvements in seed variety and crop yields have literally been consumed by an increasing population. The move to rely less on rain-fed maize has also had a troubled history. The one million-acre Galana-Kulalu irrigation project has stalled, less than five years after it was started.
The project was seen as the key to getting Kenya out of its food deficit hole and, indeed, moving it into becoming a food surplus nation.
The project was a partnership between the National Irrigation Board (NIB) and Israel’s Green Arava Ltd and the latter blames cartels, which had a vested interest in maize imports. NIB, which has a relatively chequered history in its own right, appeared unwilling or unable to prevent the collapse. The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) is a key player in the sector.
Its overall role is to facilitate inputs to farmers, buy surpluses from farmers, provide storage and keep a strategic reserve.
It also sets buying prices although these are often dictated more by market conditions than the NCPB price. Farmers often try to sell much of their maize privately and offload the balance onto NCPB. The former is preferred by many because payments are largely in cash whereas being paid by NCPB can be a lengthy and arduous business.
NCPB has been beset by a number of issues over the years. Its role as a holder of strategic reserves does not often work as it will often have plenty of stock at times of surplus and next to nothing in times of shortages.
It has also been beset by a number of scams over the years. A more recent one was the buying of Ugandan maize by NCPB via brokers while local farmers were sitting with unsold maize.
This put a number of farmers in a difficult financial position and undoubtedly involved collusion from within the echelons of NCPB. The current position is changing fast. The surpluses from the harvest of 10 months ago when the rains were generous are fast depleting. The overdue March to May rains are late and meteorologists are projecting they could fail.
A likely scenario is that the next main harvest could be well below average, thus putting further pressure on maize supplies and prices. Bearing in mind the stock drawdown due to the last poor rains there will be a need for imports.
The Kenyan government does not have a good record in planning for shortfalls and tends to resort to knee jerk importations later rather than sooner. Once we are clearer of the likely size of the next crop and when imports will be needed the government should plan what and when it needs to import and go through a transparent tendering process.
If the worst case scenario pans out and the rains fail, then the country and its planners must work doubly fast on a number of fronts. First we need to plan for maize imports to last us until February next year at least when hopefully the next crop will be harvested. Considering the quantities and costs involved, the logistics would be a very demanding exercise.
Funding of such an importation exercise would also be a huge budgetary challenge which would inevitably seriously strain government finances. That, together with distributing it equitably and efficiently, would stretch government administrative and financial resources to limits which may be unsustainable in parts of the country.
Last, failure of the rains could raise social and civil fluidity to flashpoint levels especially if prices keep rising and supplies become erratic. In the longer term, it is essential for Kenya to become more self-sufficient in maize and indeed it has the opportunity to do so if it can get the Galana-Kulalu project back on track.
What comes out clearly is the need for a much more competent and transparent management of the sector with some significant remedial measures both within the government and in the NCPB itself.
Mr Shaw is a public policy and economic analyst:[email protected]