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Experts warn that low grain prices could pose threat to national food security

Agricultural experts have cautioned that mishandling of maize purchasing by the Government could turn maize farming to an unviable venture and lead to food insecurity in years ahead.

Farmers have complained about low prices. The Government is offering Sh2,300 for a 90kg bag, up from the originally announced Sh2,200, compared to last year’s buying price of Sh3,000.

This aside, it is not known when payments will be made and questions abound on how scrutiny of genuine farmers will be done to lock out unscrupulous middlemen, who buy grain from farmers at low prices and then hoard it. They later supply it to the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB).

The Sh2.6 billion offered by the Government to purchase a million bags of maize from farmers is also seen as a drop in the ocean, given that more than 40 million bags have been produced this year.

Agro-forestry

Prof Alexander Kahi, the immediate former dean at Egerton University’s Faculty of Agriculture, says the country will experience food insecurity if the Government cannot provide adequate funds to buy all the produce at competitive prices to encourage farmers to stick to grain farming.

Studies have shown that dairy, poultry and horticultural enterprises are viable options that could supplement the farmers’ incomes in the Rift Valley. Some farmers are also opting for agro-forestry.

“We do not know how the maize harvest will be next year and offering low prices discourages farmers who can venture into other fields. The Sh2,300 being offered is below production cost and the Government should increase this to at least Sh 3,500 per 90kg bag as demanded by farmers to enable them break even,” Kahi said.

In a report on price challenges for maize farmers in the bread basket regions of Kenya, Dr Lilian Kirimi of the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, had earlier stressed the need to buy all the produce from farmers to prevent wastage at the farm level.

“Of importance also is a need to ensure the locally produced maize is more competitive than the maize being brought in from Uganda and Tanzania, to guarantee that Kenyan farmers can earn a fair price for their produce,” Kirimi said.

And Kenya Farmers’ Association director Kipkorir Menjo posed: “Where will the other 39 million bags go because they cannot all be for domestic use? With the difficulties being experienced, you cannot rule out the probability of farmers diversifying to other crops.”

Former Agriculture assistant minister Joseph Misoi says some agricultural policies need to be assessed to protect farmers.

Government figures indicate that strategic grain reserve maize stocks as at November 28 stood at 2.68 million 90kg bags. The reserve should have at least four million bags to cushion against food shortage.

Agricultural Cabinet Secretary Felix Koskei has said that this year’s long rain maize production is estimated at 34.7 million bags compared to 35.8 million bags produced in the same season last year.

On top of the prices offered by the Government, farmers have also been promised a rebate of Sh500 per bag as compensation for challenges incurred— challenges such as diseases, crop failure and the impact of erratic weather.

“The prices are based on the current market forces and will equally benefit the farmers as they are above the current cost of production,” said Koskei.

While the Government attributes the low prices to over-production and importation, questions abound as to why the Government allowed importation in the first place when it has agricultural officials who should have forecast high production.

This is the question Trans Nzoia Senator Henry ole Ndiema, who represents the country’s leading grain granary, posed even before the NCPB depots were opened.

Ndiema also accused the Government of having grain purchased six years ago in its reserves and wondered if there was a plan to release it to areas facing a deficit. He said the Government should come up with a policy to regulate the buying, disposal and consumption of maize purchased from farmers.

According to the Kenya Maize Development Programme, funded by USAID, the average Kenyan consumes 98 kilogrammes of maize every year.

Rational policies

The study pointed out that inefficient production and marketing in the maize sub-sector contributed to economic stagnation and poverty in Kenya while increased productivity and efficient markets, in addition to rational government policies, could dramatically alter the economic contribution of the sub-sector.

Initially a legal monopoly in its formative years, the NCPB was empowered to regulate and control the collection, movement, storage, sale, purchase, transportation, marketing, processing, distribution, importation, exportation, and supply of maize, wheat and other agricultural produce under a controlled price system. However, in 1988 the Government began a reform programme in which the monopoly powers of NCPB were reduced. The grains sector was fully liberalised in 1993.