We must save Kenyan maize farmers

Maize farm.
The current crisis over maize farming is an invaluable opportunity to rethink our agriculture policy. Most maize farmers in the Rift Valley are yet to be paid by the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB). Political elites from the region have expressed conflicting views on the matter. Some are urging farmers to diversify away from maize, to more productive cash crops. Others want the state to streamline maize farming, including the subsidies and timely payment of farmers. Unfortunately, the debate is likely to be drowned out by 2022 politics.

What are the matters on the table? First, there is the question of the strategic importance of agriculture. Throughout the world, governments move mountains to protect cherished farm sectors – especially with regard to the production of agricultural staples. This is for the simple reason that farming is a low-productivity sector that in most jurisdictions relies on subsidies from government. With this in mind, it is important for our leaders to think critically about possible approaches to fixing the agricultural sector in Kenya. However, as we do so, we must be clear-eyed about the fact that the sector will most certainly require subsidies. The question will then be how to deliver the subsidies efficiently to farmers and not well-connected cartels.

Second, agriculture is still the biggest employer. Three quarters of Kenyans depend on rain-fed agriculture. A quarter of our gross domestic product comes from the sector. For these reasons, it would be foolish to completely abandon an important anchor of the sector – maize farming. Have we thought of the potential knock-on effects to other sectors when we start importing all our maize? Will the alternative cash crops work for our farmers in the long run? What do we plan to do with the infrastructure that we have built around maize farming in the country?

Third, it is also the case that cartels have hijacked the maize business in Kenya. President Uhuru Kenyatta is on record complaining about the need to rid the sector of unscrupulous individuals.

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Yet nothing is being done about individuals who grabbed NCPB cash ahead of hardworking farmers. This should be a source of worry for Kenyans. If Kenyatta cannot move his own minister to act, then the farmers are on their own. And if maize farmers are on their own, then it means that once the same cartels have bled the sector dry, they will move to other cash crops.

Our political elites are the proverbial fools who kill the goose that lays the golden egg. They are not investing in mass job creation. They have no plans for alternative sources of livelihood for households that depend on farming. Yet because they can make quick profits as commodity smugglers, they are willing to expose farmers to the vicissitudes of rigged markets. The end result of this will be mass impoverishment of our people.

To this end they will likely find partners in quarters both domestic and foreign that are keen on pushing market fundamentalism in the agricultural sector. It will not be long before aid organisations from countries that heavily subsidize their farmers push for complete exposure of the agricultural sector to markets.

To add to the farce that is the NCPB maize scandal is the fact that food security is part of President Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda. It would be a mockery of this commitment if at his retirement Kenya will be more dependent on maize imports than when he took office. Ultimately, history will place the responsibility at his feet.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University  

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