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East Africa: Politics of Maize in Kenya – Are Imports Outside EAC Inevitable?

Maize is the cheapest source of calories among the cereal grains, making up about 65 per cent of the total food calories consumed by households in Kenya. To meet this demand, maize is produced on 40 per cent of the total crop area–mainly by smallholders. Kenya’s annual production target has been 40 million bags or approximately 3.6 million tonnes. However, over the past decade, the average production has been well below 40 million bags, with the exception of 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2018. Last year saw the highest production of 46 million bags. Demand is rising, driven by population growth, and it has been projected to reach 60 million bags by 2025. The gap between demand and domestic production has placed maize at the centre of the food security debate. This year’s projected production is unlikely to hit the 40 million target. Given this, there is an ongoing debate on whether to import maize from outside the East African Community to plug the gap. Importing from within the region is the first logical step in view of a 50 per cent common external tariff designed to protect local producers. However, countries can seek exemption and import duty-free from elsewhere when a pressing need arises. Kenya also has a total ban on GMO products meaning that it can only import from GMO-free countries. The import debate has increasingly taken a political tone with politicians from maize producing regions in Kenya strongly opposing it. They argue that imports would depress producer prices in the middle of the main harvest season. Farmers usually sell immediately after harvest. But government’s response is that there’s a need to import given the expected shortfall. A key sticking point is contested data, with different stakeholders providing different numbers that support their arguments. The Ministry of Agriculture is the institution mandated to generate data on food security. But it has capacity gaps and does not do this well. The current debate is stirred by interests among the political class and elite business people. The use of evidence is not in their interest. Policies on maize have always been contested in a market characterised by lobbying from farmers, millers, and consumers. Ideally, farmers and millers will make a reasonable profit and consumers will get affordable prices. But the Kenyan case is far from ideal. Farmers have perennially agitated for higher prices due to high production costs. In response, government has intervened by setting maize prices, usually above market rates, for the strategic food reserve. The Strategic Food Reserve Trust Fund was set up to stabilise food supply and food prices. On the other hand, consumers want to buy cheap maize flour, squeezing the government between producer and consumer demands. In the latest controversy, millers have accused farmers of hoarding maize to drive prices higher, a claim that farmers deny. Farmers and millers disagree on what is the level of maize held in storage. More alarming are the different positions taken over the available maize stocks by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Strategic Food Reserve Fund board, two institutions key to maintaining food security in the country. Recent projections by agriculture research firm Tegemeo Institute show that the country has enough stocks to get to the start of the harvest period in 2019, even under the most pessimistic scenario. The harvest is now expected to be in August rather than July because of delayed rains. The outlook suggests a deficit for the full season. Deficit Government recently estimated the deficit at 12.5 million bags while clarifying that it has not authorised any importation. The ministry is doing the right thing in terms of preparedness based on recent history. However, this pronouncement was met with scepticism especially by political leaders from the maize-producing regions who have insisted the data is inaccurate. The size of the deficit matters because it determines whether maize can be imported from outside the EAC. Like Kenya, other EAC countries also experienced bad weather. Their production is expected to be below normal. However, early indications are that Tanzania has sufficient stocks to fill the deficit that Kenya faces. Moreover, additional stocks could come from Uganda. It is only after factoring in the inflows from the region that a decision can be made whether imports from outside the region are needed. And such a decision should be guided by three principles. First is verifiable data on the deficit, second is the timing of the importation which should not coincide with the harvesting season in Kenya and, third, is to ensure decisions to import should not be delayed until the stock in the country is depleted. Finally, all these decisions and processes should be transparent. This would include making public the importers and volumes permitted for importation. Timothy Njagi Njeru is a research fellow at the Tegemeo Institute, Egerton University.

East Africa: Politics of Maize in Kenya – Are Imports Outside EAC Inevitable?

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