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Fears of trade wars as Kenya bans maize from Tanzania, UG

By Dominic Omondi | March 7th 2021

Trucks queue to deliver maize at the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) Eldoret depot. [Kevin Tunoi, Standard]

Kenya has set the stage for a war with its main trading partners after it banned importation of maize from Uganda and Tanzania.

The Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) said on Friday that surveillance and tests they had done on maize from the two countries had shown that most of it was infected with aflatoxin.

However, East African Community (EAC) Director-General for Customs and Trade ‎Kenneth Bagamuhunda described Nairobi’s move as “unilateral.”

He told Weekend Business that there are established procedures to ban trade of goods among partner states. EAC also includes Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan.

On Friday, AFA Acting Director General Kello Harsama wrote to Kenya Revenue Authority’s Commissioner of Customs Pamela Ahago, notifying her of the decision to ban importation of maize from the two EAC countries.

AFA, which is responsible for regulating, developing and promoting scheduled crops, said it had been conducting surveillance on the safety of food imports into the country.

“Test results for maize imported from Uganda and Tanzania have revealed high levels of mycotoxins that are consistently beyond safety limits,” said Harsama.

Mycotoxins are naturally-occurring toxins produced by certain moulds (fungi) and can be found in food. They are capable of causing disease and death in both humans and other animals.

Harsama said aflatoxin has been known to cause cancer.

“Over the years, a number of acute and chronic aflatoxin-related illness cases have been recorded in Kenya including deaths,” he said in the letter.

Speaking on phone with Weekend Business, Harsama said tests conducted at the University of Nairobi had proven that the aflatoxin levels in the sampled maize were over 2,000 parts per billion, which was higher than the recommended levels.

“The recommended levels of aflatoxin are ten parts per billion but the imports indicate that the levels are at 2,000 parts per billion, which is lethal,” he said.

He allayed fears that the decision might disrupt the free trade among the EAC member states, noting that traders would be allowed to import maize as long as they had a certificate of aflatoxin from the country of origin.

The decision is likely to inflame tensions between Kenya and its neighbours, particularly Tanzania which has had strained relations with Kenya.

“Unilateral decisions of such nature (Kenya’s) contradict the EAC protocols and laws,” said Bagamuhunda, adding that there are programmes on cross-border movement of goods, and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures including on aflatoxin.

He was however optimistic that three countries would resolve the matter.

“We are going to engage them (Kenya) and get the matter resolved. In any case, Kenya is an active member of the EAC and currently its chair,” the director-general said.

Economists fear that other EAC states are likely to interpret the policy action as a non-tariff barrier (NTB) aimed at locking their traders from accessing the Kenyan market.

Kennedy Manyala, an economist who specialises in the EAC, said while SPS measures are meant to protect the health of the citizens, they are also NTBs.

“They are normally NTBs, but you must have evidence,” he said.

“Kenya will have to show its partner states that ‘these are the samples and these are the levels’,” Dr Manyala said.

Harsama said that in January, Kenya imported over 450,000 bags of maize from the two countries and another 300,000 bags in February.

“We are committed to free trade among East African countries but we cannot stand back and watch as our people feed on poison,” he said.

Decisive action

Manyala hoped the government had gone through the due process of the EAC, by raising concerns regarding maize being traded between the three states.

He said an alternative route would be that in which a particular member state, having discovered something suddenly takes a decisive action.

“For example, if they find that in the last two weeks, maize coming into the country has been tested and found to contain high levels of aflatoxin, then Kenya can stop it immediately and inform partner states through the respective ministries or through the established procedures within the EAC,” Manyala said.

But Kenya, according to Manyala, would still have to explain to the member states later.

There are standards for all tradeable agricultural goods within the regional trade bloc to which each member state is expected to adhere to.

“The fact that we are in a free trade area does not mean that we have lost control of the standards,” said Manyala.

Scholastica Odhiambo, an Economics lecturer at Maseno University, said the issue of complying with safety standards goes beyond any trade agreement.

“If our laboratories have tested and found that most of the maize coming from those countries have aflatoxin, by virtue of protecting human health, Kenya will just stop it without explanation,” she said.

This is despite the intention of the EAC to maximise trade within the five countries.

“If countries are not adhering to food standards whereby you endanger the lives of citizens of another country, they can arbitrarily stop it without further explanation.”

Dr Odhiambo noted that Kenyan traders have for long been grappling with SPS standards when exporting food products to the European Union.

Exporters who do not meet the SPS get back their products and they are blacklisted. Because it is a diplomatic issue, they will write to the trade desk of the affected country.

Kenya produces less maize than it consumes with the shortage being plugged by imports from Uganda and Tanzania.

Official data show that Kenya imported maize valued at Sh4.2 billion from Tanzania in 2019.

But there are also fears that given local farmers do not produce enough maize to meet the demand, prices will go up.

James Nderitu, a trader affected by the latest directive, was surprised by the order while ferrying a consignment of maize at Malaba. 

He termed the directive a major blow to hundreds of traders, adding that the State should have given them a week’s notice to prepare and exhaust all the maize in their stores.

“We buy maize in advance and the ban will affect all the people, including traders and consumers,” he said.

Nderitu added that many of the institutions in Kenya relied on maize from the two countries as it was cheaper.

“With the ban there will definitely be a major shortage of maize and flour and this will push the prices upwards,” he warned.

The truth is that, said Manyala, Kenya has the potential to produce enough maize and feed the region. “We have just not positioned ourselves to do that.”

“We have a record of importing maize from elsewhere. Actually, importers from Uganda and Tanzania are small traders, the big boys of maize trade have other sources,” he said.

Tanzania has been known to use NTBs to stem the free flow of goods from other EAC countries, with Odhiambo noting that Dar-es-Salaam has not fully opened its market to Kenya.

“They are limiting what is coming from the other countries. They have never opened up to the EAC Common Market Protocol,” she said.

In November 2017, Tanzania government burnt 6,400 day-old chicks imported from Kenya, citing health issues.

According to Tanzanian media, the consignment of chicks worth Sh12.5 million was destroyed in the wake of illegal imports and fear of the spread of bird flu.

Tanzanian government banned the importation of chicks in 2007 and authorities said the destruction of the birds was in compliance with the country’s Animal Disease Act, 2003.

However, the decision to burn the chicks was seen as a retaliation to an earlier move by Kenya to ban importation of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from Tanzania.

Kenya banned the gas imports from Tanzania in April 2017, a move meant to eliminate illegal filling plants that posed safety and security risks.

President John Pombe Magufuli’s government protested Kenya’s decision to ban the importation of cooking gas and wheat from Tanzania, saying it was a breach of the EAC Common Market requirements.

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