Why DP William Ruto talk on maize is recipe for national crisis

William Ruto at a past function. Should North Rift farmers heed his advice to shun growing maize for other food crops, the country could easily find itself in a predicament similar to Sudan’s. [File, Standard]

Deputy President William Ruto’s suggestion that farmers in the North Rift abandon maize for other lucrative crops has been castigated by politicians from the region, terming the move ‘suicidal’ politically.

North Rift counties of Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia constitute Kenya’s food-basket, not because all kinds of food crops are grown there but mainly these counties - together with Nakuru and Bungoma - produce most of the maize consumed in the country.

Yet, farmers from the region have not only decried the delays in payments from the State but returns on maize sold in the open market have also not been impressive.

Some of them have not helped but notice that lately, producing a 90-kilogram bag of maize is far less profitable compared to rearing one chicken (never mind that poultry farmers made losses last year, according to Timothy Njagi, a research fellow from Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, a think-tank affiliated to Egerton University).

A good number of farmers have also resorted to growing grass for livestock, which fetches decent returns compared to maize. But, imagine Kenya without maize.

No, imagine a typical Kenyan household going for over a month without tasting ugali, the country’s staple dish prepared from maize flour. Maize is to Kenya what wheat is to Sudan, a country currently roiled with bread riots after the Government decided to tinker with expensive subsidies on the food.

Maize, wheat, and rice are critical staples for most countries and contribute over half of the calories consumed by human beings.

Kenya, which consumes about 46 million bags of maize annually, is the fifth largest consumer of the crop per person per year after Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, according to a report by the United Nations.

So huge is the demand for maize that the country supplements local production by importing the deficit from the neighbouring countries. Importation of the grain hit a crescendo in 2017 when a record 1.3 million tonnes of the grain was brought into the country following a debilitating drought.

So while a shift to other more profitable crops would be good for a few farmers for a few more months or years, experts reckon that it would be disastrous to the country’s food security - ranging from availability of enough food and people’s access to it.

DP Ruto makes a good case for individual investors, but his remark does not help the country’s efforts to enhance food security. Dr Njagi describes statements such as the Deputy President’s as simply “political.”

Big Four agenda

“Who has looked at which crops targeting which market?” wonders Njagi. “Avocado will be euphoria like quails,” he adds. Around 2014, farmers aggressively moved into selling the eggs of a bird known as quail.

But at some point, the supply of the eggs exceeded the demand resulting in a burst.

Should farmers in North Rift heed the DP’s word and snub maize growing, the country could easily plunge into a food crisis similar to the one in Sudan. 

The State, however, is not thinking like Ruto. As part of its plan to improve food security, one of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda, the Government plans to increase maize production from 40 to 67 million (90kg) bags.

In Kenya, a bumper harvest of maize is synonymous to food security. True, the value of maize produced for sale as a share of total cereals sold has been declining at the expense of other cereals such as wheat- with the deficit being replenished with its imports. The share of marketed maize reduced from 50 per cent in 2011 to 43 per cent in 2017. However, that of wheat has surged from 15 per cent seven years ago to 27 per cent in 2017, an indicator that more Kenyans are preferring wheat to maize.

Countries tend to shift from maize to wheat as they get richer. Indeed, a 2015 study by Tegemeo Institute showed that unlike the poor whose meals consist mostly of maize, middle class and rich households consume more rice and wheat.

“There has been a decline in consumption of maize products and rice. The poorest have experienced the greatest decline. Consumption of wheat products has grown among all groups, but particularly among higher income groups. These results also indicate a significant shift in maize meal consumption patterns,” noted the report.

Bitange Ndemo, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, says there is a new generation of urbanites who eat wheat products more than maize products. 

“Whenever we have a good crop (maize), we are not able to consume more because of the younger generation who are eating wheat more,” says Ndemo. And this actually happened last year following a bumper harvest of the crop, with farmers being forced to sell their harvests at losses after a glut. Mr Ndemo says a rallying call for Kenyans to diversify their diets always fell on deaf ears as most Kenyans living in rural areas saw no need to abandon ugali. “Urbanisation has changed all that,” he adds.

In a fast-paced environment, fewer people want to spend 30 minutes on ugali to be ready. Bread or pizza will do just fine.

Despite the drop in consumption, demand for maize doesn’t seem to have sagged with shiploads of the grain being imported to plug the deficit due to pressure from animal feeds.

Maize consumption among millions of low-income households is not just customary, it is also economical. Spending on food takes up close to 45 per cent of poor households’ income, with a big chunk of the food being maize.

The US Agency for International Development calculated that the poorest quarter of the Kenyan population spends 28 per cent of its income on maize alone. In contrast, the rich in Nairobi spend as much on all kinds of food, beverages, clothes and shoes, housing, water, gas, and electricity.

Maize might be less nutritious compared to rice and wheat, but is the cheapest source of calories for the majority of Kenyans. Most of the wheat and rice consumed in the country are imported, leaving a dent on the country’s reserve of foreign currencies. On average, it costs the country twice as much to import a tonne of wheat as maize.

In 2017, Kenya’s dependency on imported food surged to 43 per cent from 29.4 per cent. Basically, for every Sh100 you spent on food, Sh42 went to some imported food while some of this cash could have benefited some struggling local farmers.

This is dangerous for a poor country like Kenya.  “If we were a rich country, there would be no problem with importing food. But we are not rich,” says Njagi.

“How many people have well-paying jobs to buy food?” posed Dr Njagi, noting that the country is already grappling with increased cases of workers’ strikes. He said even farmers cannot feed themselves.

Up until 2017, Kenya feared that something akin to the unrest in Sudan should the production of maize decline. And when the drought depressed crop harvest, with prices of maize flour going through the roof, the State came up with a subsidy that saw maize imported cheaply.

Cheap fertiliser

The price of a two-kilogram Unga was controlled at Sh90.

Because it is consumed mostly by the poor, it is one of the products that is heavily subsidised. The State offers cheap fertiliser to maize farmers during planting season and then buys some of their crops when they harvest.

Moreover, consumers of maize flour are also shielded with the item exempted from paying taxes. But the entire subsidy programme has been ineffective. Besides engendering inefficiency, it has also created a perfect environment for opportunists and lords of graft - with the State having little to help farmers.

“We continue to be in jeopardy because we are cutting the hand that feeds us, literary,” says Njagi.

The Government also seems clueless to the shifting consumption patterns. While data shows that Kenyans are moving into wheat consumption, the State has not recalibrated the food security policy accordingly.

Increased wheat production is not part of Kenyatta’s ambition to ensure access and availability of food to all. Besides maize, other crops that Kenya intends to in its crease production include rice, potato, meat, milk, and fish, according to the Budget Policy Statement 2019.

Rather than stem the inflow of wheat from overseas by shoring up local production, authorities are watching as potential land for wheat sub-divided.