Desperate hunt for cheap maize abroad as Kenya's silos now run dry

Bags of maize awaiting sale in Uasin Gishu County on May 25, 2022. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

Kenya is now desperately shopping for maize from all corners of the world as its silos run out of this critical grain.

Bad weather, coupled with global factors such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the lingering effects of Covid-19, have conspired to create a maize shortage in the country, with many families finding it hard to put ugali—a staple prepared using maize flour and water—on their dinner tables.

In 2017, when the country also experienced a shortage of maize due to the drought in the region, with Uganda and Tanzania also running out of the grain, traders went as far as Mexico to ship in close to 43 per cent of its maize.

Other areas that Kenya combed for maize included South Africa and Ethiopia.

Now, other than South Africa—whose 80 per cent of the white maize is genetically modified and thus not allowed in the country—all the other countries do not seem to have surplus maize to export. And those with a surplus are under pressure from their citizens to cater for their domestic needs first.

“It is not only Kenya that is looking for maize,” said Dr Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute, a public policy think tank. Njagi said the requirement that only non-genetically modified maize be imported is very strict and for countries like Malawi and Zambia that produce non-GMO maize farmers sold their stocks before they even harvested. India is the main competitor for the non-GMO maize.

The highly charged political season has not made matters any better, with a lot of government officials obsessed with what is happening on the campaign trail.

This is even as a food crisis looms, with the National Treasury issuing a notice that waived the duty for importation of white maize from outside of the East African Community.  

But even after the waiver, with traders expected to only import 100 per cent non-Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) maize, finding this critical cereal has not been easy.

Agriculture CS Peter Munya had said earlier last week that the imports of about 540,000 tonnes would be restricted to what is needed by those who would be licensed to avoid shipping in excessive stocks by unscrupulous traders.

Suspecting that some of the farmers might be hoarding maize to make a killing, stakeholders of feed manufactures, millers, and agro-processors, in a joint statement, are now pushing the government to encourage them to release the maize stock to millers at the prevailing price, around Sh4,200.

However, farmers insist they are not hoarding any maize, with many of them telling The Standard that they have already sold their produce to cater for urgent needs such as school fees.

Collision with farmers

The traders are also headed in a collision path with farmers after they recommended that the government gives importers an extended window of 12 months to bring in enough maize to stabilise the prices, instead of the three months that had been given by the National Treasury in the Gazette notice.

Farmers are expected to harvest their maize in the next three months, and although productivity might not be enough there are fears that more imports might flood the market, leaving local producers who have used costly fertiliser disadvantaged.

Even critical is that the traders want the government to negotiate with the governments of Tanzania and Zambia to allow for importation of six million bags of maize, even as it supports the transportation of maize from these countries.

“This is because of the high cost of transporting produce from the neighbouring countries, which ultimately drives up the price of finished products,” reads the statement released yesterday.

They said transport costs from Lusaka to Nairobi have gone up from $120 per tonne to $185. It is the same with higher freight charges that have been occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic and worsened by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

And in a request that is likely to cause controversy, these stakeholders are also pushing for the relaxation of the requirement of 100 per cent non-GMO and instead allow for importation of European standard of maize, soya bean meal, among others.

Amendment of the 100 per cent non-GMO standards will align them to European guidelines that allow a minimum purity of 99.1 per cent.

No country seems to have enjoyed a bumper harvest of maize, with its production devastated by a crippling drought, high cost of fertiliser and fuel as well as the lingering effects of Covid-19 pandemic.  

For countries that Kenya has identified as having an over-supply like Zambia and Tanzania, pressure is mounting for them to prohibit export of food to ensure supply for domestic consumption.

However, the government of Zambia announced that maize production for 2021/22 season is expected to drop by over a fifth from 3.6 million tonnes to 2.08 million tonnes.

Pressure from citizens

The government, however, insists that it has a surplus stock of maize—about 1.2 million tonnes— for the 2022/23 season, which it can export to needy countries like Kenya, according to a statement by Zambia’s Minister of Agriculture Reuben Mtolo on May 12.

Already, there is pressure from the citizens of Zambia to join other food exporters around the world by prohibiting the selling of maize to outsiders. 

Preliminary estimates by United States Department of Agriculture are that Tanzania’s maize exports could decline from 800,000 tonnes in the 2021/22 marketing year to 100,000 tonnes in the 2022/23 marketing year.

Such a drop would leave very little for Kenya’s maize needs, leaving Zambia and South Africa as major suppliers in the region, according to Wandile Sihlobo, a Senior Fellow, Department of Agricultural Economics, Stellenbosch University, in a recent article in The Conversation.

The other country in the cards for Kenya, which is among the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that imports maize to meet its local demand, is Zimbabwe.

South Africa is Kenya’s only hope, but with most of the maize grown there being GMO, Kenya cannot touch it.

Last week, Kenya opened a three-month window to import up to 540,000 metric tonnes of white maize to avert shortage even as prices of flour go through the roof.

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