Ministry, State agency rift over importation of maize

Former PM Raila Odinga receives officials of the Strategic Food Reserve Trustee Fund on the food situation in the country with a particular reference to maize. The officials were accompanied by a section of MPs from maize producing regions in our country. [Standard]

A State agency under the Ministry of Agriculture has alleged that maize cartels are the Government to allow the importation of maize into the country.

The statement by the Strategic Food Reserve Trust Fund chairperson Noah Wekesa is a clear case of government contradicting itself because it criticises an earlier statement by Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri.

Wekesa dismissed claims of maize shortage in the country, saying it was “artificial” and exaggerated to justify plans by cartels to import the grain.

Recently, Kiunjuri said the increasing cost of maize flour has pushed relevant agencies to speed up the process of importing 12.5 million bags of maize owing to the shortage.

Country's demand

Flanked by elected leaders from the leading maize-growing region of North Rift, Wekesa questioned the purpose of importing the maize, which he said was beyond the country’s demand considering the harvest was due in two months’ time.

“We only consume 1.5 million bags per month. There are more than 760,000 bags at NCPB and we bought another two million bags bringing the total to about 2.8 million bags yet to be sold to millers,” explained Wekesa.

The agency is mandated with maintaining and advising the government on food reserves in the country.

Wekesa said the CS has been ignoring the agency in key decisions.

Dr Wekesa said he had credible information that farmers are still hoarding unconfirmed tonnage of maize that the Government can purchase to increase its stock at the NCPB and avert the need for overseas importation.

He questioned why the ministry was quick to push for importation yet several maize-growing areas were set to harvest their produce within the next two months.

“We shall have a good harvest from various places especially western Kenya and Bomet County around September,” he said.

But in response, Kiunjuri said the statement by Wekesa was reckless and amounts to insubordination.

Mr Kiunjuri said Wekesa has been issuing statements that are contradicting the ministry while he is aware that the only custodian of food situation in the country is his docket.

“Any other body that would like to issue a statement on maize imports cannot do that because the ministry has the final say. The ministry is the voice of the Government when it comes to food situation in the country. Any other organisation has to get information from the ministry,” said the CS.

“He has no courtesy for the PS and the CS and has shown no respect for the last two weeks. Nobody has the authority on the food situation in the country except the ministry, " Kiunjuri went on.

The CS wondered whether there is somebody behind the SFR chair and that if he (Mr Wekesa) wants to play politics, then so be it.

“I do not know where he is mustering the courage to attack the ministry. Not unless there is a force behind him. Mr Wekesa can only talk after getting the right information from the ministry. If he wants to play politics, I dare him for we are equally good at it,” said Kiunjuri who spoke in Mombasa where he is attending a meeting on food strategy in the country.  

The statement adds to the controversy surrounding maize importation in the country. Last year,t well-connected businessmen sold maize to NCPB and were paid millions of shillings at the expense of genuine farmers, who were stuck with unsold grain.

Leaders present at the press conference claimed that the Government was about to make a similar mistake to the detriment of farmers.

They wondered why there are plans to import maize, yet the agency dealing with strategic grain reserves had not advised so.

Cherangany MP Joshua Kutuny said available statistics are clear that the country does not need to import maize.

“As MPs from maize-growing region, we have concerns on importation of maize. We had a meeting with the chair of the Strategic Grain Reserve to get a clear picture of the situation, and from the statistics, there are questions on whether we really need to import maize,” said Kutuny.

Elgeyo Marakwet Governor Alex Tolgos said it was a scheme by individuals to make money through importation to the detriment of cereal farmers.

“Let the money meant for importation be set aside to be used in buying the maize from farmers at a better price. We are the people on the ground and I can confirm that this year, we expect a bumper harvest. Farmers will be harvesting their maize in the next two months," said the governor.

He added: "We are not aware of any meeting that was held with stakeholders to agree on the need to import maize. We are seeing a scheme where some people want to make money at the expense of farmers.” 

Moiben MP Silas Tiren said millers were part of the wider scheme to create artificial maize shortage, arguing that they were altering flour prices to justify the need for imports.

“The ministry should tell us whether they are working for Kenya farmers or those in other countries. As stakeholders we were not involved in the whole process," he said.

Mosop MP Vincent Tuwei warned that the country could be sliding into another maize importation scandal.

"While the Government is fighting corruption, we are being led into another fiasco. I urge the President to crack the whip," said the MP.

Soy MP Caleb Kositany called for investigations into the maize importation business.

"The maize we have is adequate to last us for a few months. What we don't understand is why there is so much pressure to import maize. this matter should be investigated," said Mr Kositany.