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No end to rot at cereals board as farmers continue suffering

COMMENTARY
By Mark Bichachi | October 13th 2018

In November 2001, I was arrested at the Kapenguria National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) stores for interviewing farmers and taking pictures of trucks and tractors that had lined up for weeks to deliver maize. Being a Friday I spent the weekend sitting on the cold floor of the cell. I was arraigned before the magistrate’s court on Monday where a Mr Tallam, who was at the time the regional NCPB manager based in Eldoret, had filed trespass charges against me.

The situation in NCPB at the time is still the same today. Unscrupulous traders were purchasing cheap maize from Sebei district in Uganda and smuggling thousands of bags to Kapenguria and Kitale through Suam and Kanyarkwat border areas.

The traders would then cut deals with local NCPB staff to receive their maize without going through the stringent conditions that local farmers were being subjected to such as ensuring their maize had less than 13 per cent moisture content. That meant the cross-border traders would get paid when the government released money for farmers, proceeds which they shared with NCPB clerks and dashed back to Uganda for more stocks.

Frustrated farmers would spend weeks and sometimes months to make deliveries, and it was common to see them off-loading maize by the roadside outside NCPB stores to repair punctures or to dry maize soaked in the rain as they waited.

Maize farmers have over the years suffered at the hands of rogue NCPB staff, middlemen and big fish in government who have also reaped heavily from cheap imports.

Maize farming is not only labour intensive but also an expensive venture that offers little rewards but heavy losses and pain. Most farmers do not own machinery and therefore hire tractors to plough, harrow, plant, weed, spray, top dress fertiliser and then wait from late March to late October to harvest. The harvesting is mostly manual, save for a few in Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia who have recently acquired used harvesters.

Although farmers toil and moil throughout the year, sometimes losing the entire crop to army worms, hail stones, rot and rainstorms, the most difficult time for them is selling the crop.

Maize is rejected at NCPB over claims of high moisture content, some grains are broken or rotten, soiled or the stores are full. What therefore happens is that they end up either looking for alternative market or sell to brokers and middlemen who easily deliver the same produce to NCPB.

Although the government imports subsidised fertiliser, which is also supplied through NCPB, most of it ends up in the hands of crooked traders who buy, repackage and later sell to farmers. It is interesting that the Senate ad hoc committee on the maize crisis has proposed dissolution of the NCPB and the function taken over by counties.

“From the views we have already gathered, it’s likely that we will do away with the NCPB as it is constituted now. We will recommend scrapping of the Act under which it operates,” Uasin Gishu Senator Margaret Kamar said in Eldoret last week.

But it is also worth noting that on April 30, 2014, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries released a “Draft Final Report on Study of Restructuring of NCPB.” The report proposed that NCPB be restructured and renamed Grain Corporation of Kenya (GCK) to ensure effective allocation of resources, tasks, responsibility and authority. They were supposed to flatten hierarchical layers in favour of a lean structure that could have improved decision making and service delivery.

The GCK was to deal with core grain business and outsource other tasks such as real estate management, security and transport to other agencies. The revamped grain handler was then expected to partner with national and county governments to enhance food security through developing and managing storage facilities as well as farm input distribution. These plans are gathering dust at the Ministry of Agriculture and it remains to be seen if current debate over NCPB will result in any changes.

As for those wondering what happened at the magistrate’s court, I was later acquitted after the court ruled that NCPB was not a restricted area and I had every right to do my work, but that was after the case went on for more than a year.

- The writer is a media consultant and journalist in Nairobi

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