Unga crisis looms as CS fears imports fallout

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Unga crisis looms as CS fears imports fallout

Agriculture Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri
Agriculture Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

An acute maize shortage is looming after Agriculture Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri declined to authorise importation of the staple, saying the decision will require the approval of a full Cabinet, yet there is just one month of stocks available for consumption.

In an interview, Mr Kiunjuri said duty-free imports have proved controversial in recent years after profiteering cartels hijacked the process, an outcome he is keen to avoid by involving the Cabinet in making the critical decision of how much maize should be bought and where to buy it from.

The Ministry of Agriculture ordinarily applies directly to the Treasury for tax waivers whenever there is need for maize imports — as is the case this year — which clears the way for issuance of import permits to traders and millers. The looming shortage could subject consumers to high prices of the staple, hitting poor households hardest.

“I know time is running out, but I will leave that decision to be made by the Cabinet. I understand that landmines are being set for me and that is what I am avoiding,” said Mr Kiunjuri.

It can take up to one month, sometimes more, to ship maize from a source country to the port of Mombasa.

In March, the government said that there were 21 million bags of maize in the country that were projected to last until the end of June. The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) is in the process of releasing three million bags from the Strategic Food Reserve to millers to ease the current shortage.

“The stocks that we have in the country can last up to the end of June,” Mr kiunjuri said at a news conference in April.

The government in 2017 issued a duty waiver on maize imports to allow in cheaper supplies in what turned out to be a nightmare for the then Agriculture Secretary Willy Bett and his Treasury counterpart, Henry Rotich, who faced Senate hearings to answer for abuse of the process.

The lawmakers accused Mr Bett of opening floodgates for the importation of cheap maize, which hit local farmers with low market prices last year.

Delays on the import decision means that the grain will get to the country late even if it is approved this week, according to millers and policy experts.


Eastern African Grain Council executive director Gerald Masila Tuesday said the import process should have already started to avert the looming stockouts.

“Even with these stocks that are coming in from Tanzania and Uganda, imports are inevitable and the process of shipping in the grain should have started on time to avoid the last minute rush,” he said.

Mr Masila said it takes about two to three months to move grain from a country of origin to Kenya.

In 2017, Kenya imported maize from Mexico. Other than Tanzania and Uganda, Kenya relies on imports from Malawi and Zambia. However, Zambia has closed its borders, barring grain from moving outside the country while the Malawi crop was destroyed by the recent cyclone.

Timothy Njagi, a researcher with Tegemeo Institute, said the government needs to establish the amount of stocks that is in the country.

A flour section in a supermarket

A flour section in a supermarket. FILE PHOTO | NMG

“The government has to move in to ascertain the deficit so that the amount of maize that is imported is specifically to bridge the shortage,” said Dr Njagi.

His sentiments were echoed by Andrew Tuimur, the Chief Administrative Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture.

“What we do not want is to repeat the mistakes of 2017. We are trying to ascertain the shortfall so that we only import what is enough to cover the shortage,” said Dr Tuimur.

The government, through millers, had intended to import about six million bags of maize in 2017 under the subsidy programme. However, more than 10 million bags were shipped in.

The price of maize flour has risen steadily in recent months with a two-kilogramme packet retailing at between Sh118 and Sh120 depending on the brand.

Kenya’s inflation rate increased to 6.58 percent in April from 4.35 percent in March, the highest rate in 12 months with the Kenya Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) attributing the sharp rise to an increase in food prices.

“Between March and April 2019, food and non-alcoholic drinks’ Index increased by 6.86 percent. This increase was mainly due to drought conditions which prevailed in the better part of April 2019 causing upsurge in the costs of some foodstuff,” KNBS said in its monthly updates.

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