Kenya is overly reliant on maize as one of its more prominent agricultural products. To speak out against this staple crop is seen as sacrilege. To ask farmers to abandon the crop altogether is heresy.
Roasted, boiled or ground into flour, maize is more than just a symbol of the average Kenyan household. It is a few steps short of a religion. For some, it has become an obsession.
Maize has an almost cult-like following given that it is the key ingredient that makes up Kenya’s famous ‘ugali’ flour. Its supporters are vicious and sometimes ruthless, while its detractors are few and far between. Across various parts of the country, actual fights have broken out over maize flour and some have resulted in tragic fatalities.
But the country, its people and more importantly, its farmers, need to break away from its vice-like grip if the nation hopes to diversify its arguably-myopic agriculture sector.
Rain-Fed Agriculture is Not Sustainable
According to a report from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, maize is Kenya’s principal crop and is wholly dependent on rainfall. This is while only about 17% of the country is suitable for rain-fed crop production.
“Despite the great efforts made to increase maize production, the demand has occasionally outstripped the supply, requiring importation of large quantities of maize grain. Producing high maize yields on existing cultivated land is the surest way of generating the extra-required maize because there is limited scope for expanding cultivated land,” says the Institute’s Stanley Wokabi.
He argues that traditional farming practices are no longer capable of meeting Kenya’s maize production requirements, and consequently, widespread application of scientific methods is essential.
But farmers have been slow to adapt.
In 2018, after having reached record highs in June 2017, prices of maize in Kenya declined in main markets by 25% to 45% between June and December as the country’s long-rains season harvest and sustained imports increased supplies.
“The introduction of subsidies for maize grain imports and for the sale of maize flour products exerted a further downward pressure on prices,” says a report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a partner of the United Nations (UN).
“Subsequently, prices levelled off in January and February 2018, declining again by 10% to 15% between February and April as newly-harvested short-rains season crops entered the markets,” states the analysis.
Prices of maize in April were 30% to 50% below their levels of one year before, when drought conditions seriously affected crop production.
It is obvious that under rain-fed conditions, profits within the sector are not sustainable. So why keep beating a dead horse?
It’s Time for a New Set of Crops to Take the Lead
Given the adverse effects of climate change, erratic weather patterns and Kenya’s over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture, it may be time for other crops to take the lead.
Kenya recently signed an agreement with China to export its avocadoes to the East Asian nation.
Following the deal, which was announced in April, Kenyan farmers will be allowed to export their popular hass avocados to China.
The trade deal signed when President Kenyatta met his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping in Beijing in April, 2019.
Kenya is now the first African nation to export avocados to the Asian country, which boasts a market of over 1.4 billion consumers.
It is estimated that when the agreement is fully implemented, the Chinese market will absorb over 40% of Kenya’s avocado produce, making it one of the largest importers of the fruit.
Commenting on the agreement, the office of the President of Kenya noted that avocado has now become the second farm produce from Kenya to access the expansive Chinese horticultural market after Stevia and will be followed by 13 other priority farm products, including flowers, mangoes, French beans, peanut, vegetables, meat, herbs and macadamia.
Also, recent data shows that crops like mushrooms, ginseng, ornamental grasses, bamboo and flowers are some of the most profitable crops to grow. Kenya already has a thriving flower industry and produce some of the world’s best tea.
Perhaps it is time to look beyond the harsh dry cereal and focus on less ambitious crops.
Kenya can get its Maize form Other Countries
Encouraging Kenya’s maize farmers to make the shift towards other crops will certainly be met with fierce opposition. But the truth of the matter is, Kenya already imports some of its crop from neighbouring countries such as Uganda.
This adds to the fact that Kenya desperately needs to maintain its standing as East Africa’s largest economy at a time when maize farming will not help the country achieve this goal.
According to the country’s Statistics Bureau, Kenya’s exports to the East Africa region continued to fall last year. They dropped by a significant 2.5% to $1.29 billion, down from $1.31 billion in 2017.
The fall was partly blamed on the performance of the country’s manufacturing sector, and persistent trade disputes with Tanzania, one of the region’s biggest markets.
Kenya has been and will continue to import maize from other nations. In fact, the East African country imported maize from as far as Mexico to offset its deficit. The process was raised questions and further complicated an industry that suffers from predatory capitalism and government-sanctioned bureaucracy.
More recently, Kenya’s Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri sacked the Acting Managing Director (MD) of the country’s National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), Albin Sang over the alleged sale of about Ksh1 billion (about $10 million) worth of maize imported from Mexico.
Mr Sang allegedly oversaw the selling of about 600,000 bags of maize to millers without the authorisation of the Ministry. The maize, which was bought by millers for animal feed, is said to be in a bad state.
Kenya has also seen its local crop suffer from diseases such as necrosis, which once saw farmers suffer millions of shillings in cumulative losses as one season’s harvest was rendered useless.
Last August, imports nearly left smallholder farmers penniless as an influx of cheap maize from Uganda depressed grain prices ahead of the year’s harvest season.
Imports usually lower the cost of maize flour, which is a boon for consumers. However, they also have a negative effect on farmers’ earnings. If the farmers chose to adopt other crops, this wouldn’t be an issue. There is much more money to be made investing in more sustainable crops and more importantly, irrigation.
It is time for a change. Despite what stubborn farmers and adamant consumers will say, maize, and by design, maize flour, can come from outside Kenya’s borders.