Instead of wasting time issuing useless warnings to millers that they should not take advantage of the shortage of maize to raise flour prices, the government should accept that it confronts a dire food shortage emergency that requires urgent and comprehensive short and long-term measures to deal with.
Short-term measures to save the lives of Kenyans in several counties and long-term to spare wananchi the indignity of repeated cycles of hunger so many years after the first government declared the fight against hunger a key objective of independent Kenya.
To demonstrate how irrelevant the government’s instruction is, Unga Limited, one of the big maize millers in the country, had a week prior to Thursday’s Cabinet statement increased the price of a two-kilo packet of flour from Sh101 to Sh110, citing shortage of the grain. It is simply a supply-and-demand function now and prices will go up.
This is the reality. The March-April rains that farmers in maize-growing regions rely on to plant have failed. The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) that should buy surplus grain from farmers, store it and maintain a strategic reserve for just these kinds of emergencies did not receive enough maize from unhappy farmers fed up with the paltry prices they are being offered — and which payment can take months to be received.
In a panic reaction, the government is offering millers maize from the strategic food reserves, maize that the millers reject as being of a low grade that should not be milled for human consumption. That the NCPB has in its stores close to four millions bags of low grade is extraordinarily callous. But that is the NCPB!
So, several things are likely to happen. An embarrassed government may declare an emergency and beg the international community for food aid. But this is likely to be resisted because for a government that is not at war or that has not suffered a prolonged drought to allow itself to get to this point is profound incompetence.
The most likely scenario is what I bet is already happening and what this newspaper has been reporting and warning against: the black-suited vultures that long anticipated this opportunity know that the government will ultimately allow the importation of maize by “private sector” operators, have identified source markets and are now working to be allowed duty waivers. We will then see a flooding of the market with maize and a distortion that will trigger a further depression of prices when the local maize supplies resume at the next harvest. It happened with sugar. It will happen with maize.
Meanwhile, the really important questions still go unanswered. Is the Kulalu-Galana project completely dead and buried after the song-and-dance that went into launching it and the billions already spent? When will Kenyans get a full audit of the performance of the National Irrigation Board and efforts that have been made to wean the country off dependence of rain-fed agriculture? I can’t think of one project that has fully achieved the intended objectives.
For a leader that has made food self-sufficiency a key legacy issue, President Uhuru Kenyatta seems quite sanguine about the happenings in the food sector. Very little is going right: the maize sector has been in turmoil for a long time, with production diminishing as population increased. Kenya is now a potato deficit country and some of the fast-food chains are contemplating importing potatoes that they need.
We have never had enough wheat for baking. Uganda is now supplementing eggs eaten in many parts of Kenya and it is also supplying matoke. Recently, it won concessions to provide more poultry and poultry-related goods, and to triple its supply of sugar to Kenya. The country seems to be giving up its fish industry to the Chinese given the uncoordinated approach it is taking towards this important source of proteins!
Given its centrality to Kenya’s economy (food security and employment), Agriculture is not getting enough support. Last year, it was allocated about Sh25 billion in the national budget, well below the 10 per cent (or over) threshold of the budget that the African Union expects African states to allocate to agriculture for sustainable development of the sector.
Climate change caused primarily by actions of the global economic giants led by the US and China and exacerbated by local destruction of forest cover and water towers is here to stay and Kenyans will suffer more pain before they adapt to the new weather patterns. They need to wake up to this reality and demand from government leadership committed to long-term positive change, not endless thievery, ineptitude, perpetual politicking and sloganeering on who becomes president.
The writer consults in communications and media; [email protected]; @tmshindi