June 2020, Kenya was set to import 4 million bags of maize amidst huge outcry from small scale farmers. Same politics of maize repeating themselves?
Image courtesy of Daily Nation 23/04/2020

The politics of imported maize in Kenya

In June 2020, Kenya was set to import 4 million bags of maize amidst huge outcry from small scale farmers. Same politics of maize repeating themselves?

There is nothing more painful than being a maize farmer in Kenya. Maize farmers complain every year, and plant maize again every year. Why? Most maize growers have not been able to do away with the crop mostly because growing maize is more of a traditional practice than rational business decision. Furthermore, most farmers in the maize growing regions say that maize is the only crop they know how to grow. Aware of these weakness, Kenyan political class and elite brokers have decided to mercilessly exploit farmers and take them for a ride. You will understand why as you read through.
       From every source of evidence, it has been clear that the biggest challenge that our farmers face is due to the high cost of production. For example, during the rain-abundant seasons, most farmers achieve very high farm yields. This is true because Kenyan markets always experience surplus of certain produce after every season of frequent rainfall.
       During these peak seasons of high production, markets are overflown with farm produce that sell at throw away prices. At the same time, a lot of other farm produce are reported to be rotting on the farms due to market unavailability or lack of infrastructure and logistics to deliver them to the market. This reality provokes a thought in my mind- that low productivity might not be biggest problem facing our small-holder farmers. I believe Kenya produces enough maize to fully meet the national demand. In my view, high cost of production and poor post-harvest management are the greatest obstacles. 
      Today I will address the factor of high cost of production, and the latter shall be a topic for another day.
Something important to remember is that, historically, Kenya experiences drought once after every five years. This means four years of bumper harvest and one year of hunger. However, topics of people going hungry hit headlines every year . Why? This is because of two things:
  1. Poor post-harvest management: Even though most farmers are subsistent farmers, they cannot hold their produce for long before it goes bad. Six months after harvesting, you will find farmers with rotten maize in their granaries. Remember, in Kenya, farmers have only one planting season, meaning that whatever they harvest must maintain them through to the next harvesting season.
  2. Low market prices: Anytime farmers experience good harvest, what follows are very low market prices, resulting to farmers not making enough profits during peak seasons.

Why import 4 million bags ? Politics of maize at play in Kenya

     The issue that farmers never get satisfactory market prices comes about every year. The reason behind could be that farmers quote their produce way too expensive; or the market offer is way too low. For instance, maize farmers battle it out every year with the Kenya Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR) over the price of dry maize. Farmers always give a conditional price of at least KSh 3000 per bag of 90Kgs or else withhold their grains. On the other hand, the government requires only 0.5 billion tons (4 million bags) of maize to fill in all strategic grain reserve silos in the country. This is a capacity that local farmers could supply very easily, but every year, the government deliberately bypasses local producers citing that local maize is too expensive. 
The government has been importing maize from countries such as Uganda and Mexico at a reported cost of Ksh 2000 per bag. During the 2nd quarter of 2020 in the middle of covid 19 pandemic, the government decided to import 4 millions bags of maize , again leaving behind local maize farmers who had plenty of the commodity in their stores.
        This recurrent trend of noncompetitive market prices is a call for experts to weigh in their thoughts and suggest ways of cuttings cost at production level for our small-holder farmers. For these issues to be solved, the government must be willing to solve them. The Kenyan government has demonstrated lack of will to solve farmers problems especially maize farmers in the Rift Valley region. When the government will be willing, they can consider my suggestion below:
        Because farmers have always received subsidized fertilizers, I want to assume that the high cost of production is tied to other inputs. Mechanization services are expensive. And given that maize is one of the cereal crops that are easily mechanized, most maize farmers hire mechanization services at one point or the other. The government could make an investment to bring engine power near the farmers. This could be done by expanding the geographic coverage of government mechanization centers where farmers can have increased access to cheaper mechanization services. The government could also give incentives to entrepreneurs who wish to venture into the business mechanization hire services. If mechanization becomes affordable and yield remains high, farmers could sell their maize at cheaper price and still make good profit. 
          By doing so, locally produced maize could become more competitive and could turn government and millers's focus from importing to buying from local farmers at lowered cost.

Joseph Wambugu is a consultant in Agribusiness
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