Maize farmers restless as planting season beckons amid import fears

"We cannot compete with the government if it plans to allow maize imports. The government has been asking farmers to sell their produce yet NCPB stores are shut. We also do not know who will import. Is it government or millers?" posed Mr Thomas Bowen, a large-scale farmer in Uasin Gishu. For agricultural producers, 2022 was a year with a mix of both misfortunes and rewards.

The sector was bogged down by many challenges. From the high cost of inputs, the impact of climate change, and exploitation by middlemen to government plans to import maize. According to cereal producers, it was the first time in history that a 50 kg bag of fertilizer shot to a high of more than Sh7,000. The impact was felt at the end of the season because, for the first time, a 90 kg bag of maize soared at more than Sh5,500.

The period saw the price of sifted flour rise to Sh230 per 2kg, while those in the informal market sold a 2 kg tin of maize (Gorogoro) at Sh250.

Bowen said the journey has not been easy. He said successive regimes have not given agriculture, a key sector of the economy, the attention it deserves to guarantee the country's food security and also sustain farmers.

The sector is the sole source of employment for more than 70 percent of the population in North Rift. Bowen said the pledges made by the government puts farmers in a 'wait and see' situation. Two former legislators Silas Tiren and Joshua Kuttuny said local farmers should be empowered to produce food and curb unnecessary imports. Tiren, a former parliamentary committee chairman for agriculture claimed farmers have been left to fight on their own.

"We used to demand the opening of NCPB depots. Prior to the importation of food, we used to demand disclosure on who is importing and quantities," said Tiren. He said he was surprised when the government gave a 72-hour ultimatum for the farmer to sell their maize produce, yet government stores remained closed. Kutuny, the former MP for Cherangany, urged the government to review maize importation period to curb excessive imports.

"Government has been reluctant in opening NCPB stores. If imports are not checked, some millers and traders could import stocks that will last them several years, hence frustrating local producers," said Kuttuny.

"It was my expectation that the State buys between two and three million bags of maize from local farmers before considering importation," said Kuttuny. He added that President William Ruto means well to farmers but officials in the Agriculture ministry are not well versed in the sector.

"We had high expectations from the President since he reformed the sector and made it ideal for agribusiness while serving as Minister for Agriculture," said Kuttuny, who added that what they observe currently is outright frustration of farmers. Jackson Kwambai, another farmer from Uasin Gishu, said they are worried by the planned importation of GMO maize.

"Even if the government offers fertiliser subsidy, fuel and agrichemicals are still costly," said wambai who added that operations including ploughing, planting and weeding need fuel.

Ruth Kemboi, Uasin Gishu-based farmer and the county chair of the Kenya National Farmers Federation (Kenff) said the government failed to ensure early procurement and distribution of subsidized fertilizer to farmers at the onset of planting season.

Inadequate amounts

"There are bureaucracies that deny farmers access to subsidized fertilizer. Farmers waste time queuing for inputs only to be given inadequate rations or none at all. Some farmers waste time in queues only to be referred to ward agriculture officials than to the county for confirmation then back to NCPB only to be given inadequate amounts," said Kemboi.

Isaac Kimaiyo, a large-scale farmer, said he had no option than to scale down on planting maize, terming the agri-business 'unprofitable'.

Kimaiyo said some farmers purchased costly fertilizer at more than Sh6,000 per bag, adding that the delayed subsidies that were launched by the then Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya at Sh5.7 billion in Kitale and Eldoret could not help because it came late. Samuel Yego, a former Agriculture executive in Uasin Gishu County said the national government should engage in early procurement and ensure access to adequate quantities to enable farmers to enhance production.

Another farmer Thomas Korgoren said unless agricultural institutions including AFC, KFA, and NCPB among others are mobilised to support farmers, the challenges will persist.

"Initially, we easily accessed inputs including fertilizer, seeds, chemicals and even farm implements through Kenya Farmers Association (KFA). The costs were later deducted by AFC in terms of loans after harvests," said Korgoren. He recalls there was a collaboration between AFC and KFA, which later turned into Kenya Grain Growers Corporative Union (KGGCU) and then NCPB.

Dr Kiplimo Lagat, the Nandi County Agriculture executive, said farmers were confronted by a myriad of challenges at the start of the 2022 planting season.

"There was a global shock in the supply of inputs, particularly fertiliser, due to the impact of Covid-19 and the Russia and Ukraine war. This saw the prices shoot high, thus affecting levels of production in the season," Dr Lagat said.

Lagat said the political environment was also a challenge and blamed the former regime for failing to cushion farmers, saying it was not keen on guarding food security. "The genesis of the 2022 crisis began three years ago when the former government decided to abandon input subsidies. Consumption subsidy cannot work. We had a crisis that prompted the government to dig deeper into its pockets to cushion 50 million Kenyans in consumption subsidy," he said.

Lagat said the country heavily depends on inputs that are globally supplied like fertilizer and fuel, and the government has to put in place policies that will cushion farmers so that they also cushion consumers."Production of maize dropped to 35 million bags when we have a capacity of producing 50 million. We should not be importing maize because it will not be sustainable," he said. He urged the State to craft a clear policy and technologies to sort out food security threats once and for in 2023.

In his manifesto, President Ruto identified agriculture, micro small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), housing and settlement, healthcare, a digital superhighway, creative economy, environment and climate change and service economy, as priority areas.