In Summary
  • The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) has another 4.3 million bags and is currently buying an additional two million from farmers.
  • When millers start squirming over supplies, farmers and traders hoard their stocks, creating an artificial shortage that eventually distorts the market in their favour.
  • The NCPB says the country bought 3.6 million bags of maize in 2017/18, making it one of the biggest purchases in the past five years.

The stage appears all set for profiteers to make a killing from a looming food crisis, as a war of words on whether the country has enough maize to feed itself erupts between government officials and tenderpreneurs.

Agriculture minister Mwangi Kiunjuri insists the country has more than enough maize in its stores, but millers, crafty government bureaucrats and some businessmen say the stock is far much less than claimed.

And thus unfolds a script that has become an annual ritual, and which shadowy figures use to mint billions of shillings overnight at the expense of starving Kenyans.

On Tuesday, in a rather dramatic twist to the food story, acting Kenya Meteorological Department Deputy Director Bernard Chanzu said there will be no rains this season, a forecast that paints a grim picture of what awaits tens of millions of Kenyans in the coming months.

CARTELS

The March-April-May long rains form the basis of subsistence agriculture in many parts of the country, and the prediction that they will be dismal means that, other than a biting food shortage, Kenyans will face a host of economic and security challenges tied to the water resource.

But it is in the food sector where the pain is likely to be worst, and where the country’s rapacious maize cartels are likely to be angling to make a killing.

Mr Kiunjuri told the Nation that a rapid food situation assessment report commissioned by his ministry found that the country had about 21.3 million, 90-kilogramme bags of maize, or 1.9 billion kilogrammes of the staple.

Small-scale farmers are holding the bulk of this maize — about 13 million bags — while traders have about 3.3 million bags.

The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) has another 4.3 million bags and is currently buying an additional two million from farmers in a new purchase season expected to cost the taxpayer Sh5 billion.

QUESTIONABLE DATA

But the millers doubt the figures, saying they have increased their payouts for a bag of maize by Sh1,000 above what the government is paying farmers but still cannot get enough stocks.

“We want an urgent meeting so that we can reach a consensus on the way forward in dealing with the situation,” Mr Peter Kuguru, chairman of the United Grain Millers Association, told the Nation over the weekend.

Dr Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, says what millers are asking for is a validation of the numbers provided by the ministry, which he also thinks are not accurate.

“They were way too high,” Mr Njagi said. “Several things have happened, including the fact that the short rains were not as good as expected.”

He said the institute is also interrogating those numbers and would give its findings later this week.

But the ministry has stuck to the narrative of enough maize, raising concerns that, as has happened before, it will change its tune when it is too late and then embark on the next phase of the scam — hurried and expensive imports deals.

MAIZE PRICES

Last year, the government refused to pay farmers more than Sh2,300 for a 90kg bag of maize, but went ahead to buy the same from Mexico for Sh4,000 a bag when another maize crisis hit the nation.

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