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Let’s change maize production methods

In a report titled “Kenya: Corn update (2013)”, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted that Kenya’s maize production for 2013/14 marketing year would be 2.8 million tonnes, compared to 3.2 million tonnes in 2012/13 and a five-year average of three million tonnes.

The decline in production is attributed to: “poor yields due to delayed and inadequate supply of subsidised fertilisers and certified seeds; below average rainfall; an outbreak of the Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) disease and infestation by the Striga parasitic weed; increased post-harvest losses linked to poor storage and drying facilities; and early sales of green maize.”

These have put intense pressure on the growth of agribusiness in Kenya.

In spite of the less than average production, maize prices have fallen to Sh1,500 per 90-kilogramme bag of the grain which is far below the cost of production.

It is estimated that Kenya will need to import in excess of 800,000 tonnes to meet her consumption target of 3,650,000 tonnes.

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Ordinarily, when demand is higher than supply, the price goes up. This simple economics does not work in Kenya mainly because of the subsistent farmer behaviour.

They sell at about the same time thus temporarily creating a glut that pushes the price to below production price. Their urgent need for cash undermines their success and opens up an opportunity for middlemen to exploit the desperate situation.

The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) in the past two years has set the benchmark price at Sh3,000 for a 90-kilogramme bag of the grain and any delays on their part goes to benefit the middlemen.

Although 75 per cent of maize production comes from subsistent farmers, their efficiency levels have been declining with majority not breaking even and as a result failing to make any money from farming.

The average national yields have dropped from a high of two tonnes per hectare in 1986 to less than 1.5 tonnes per hectare in 2013. This is only the average production as some areas hardly produce half a tonne per hectare. With continued sub-division of land, the decline will continue.

Many analysts think that we have reached the point where subsistent farming is no longer a productive venture.

We now must deliberately intervene through policy and discourage subsistent farming while at the same time promoting large scale farming with a more consistent sources of water.

There is greater need today to leverage on technology to build a commodities market complete with warehousing facilities that would minimise post-harvest losses.

Even as we face a serious food problem our discourse is centered on the pricing of flour, the end product. The silence around the process of food production is worrying.

This is happening when every predictor indices show that Kenya is increasingly becoming import dependent on food.

We need not take our country down that route since we still have sufficient water and land that can be productively utilised for large scale production.

The recent discovery of an aquifer in Turkana and a possible one in Samburu is God-send but more strikingly, these are some of the counties that do not practice the barbaric subdivision of land that is increasingly impoverishing Kenyans.

What is needed is to liberalise the sector and partner with global players to produce for both the local and the growing global market.

This is how we can lower grain marketing and input costs. We must begin to think big and move away from minimalist interventions that are the basis of our poverty.

With stagnant maize production, a rising population and no dramatic change in tastes, Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, Egerton University projects that by 2020, Kenya would be importing over 50 per cent of the maize it consumes.

Production will remain at sub-2,500,000 tonnes while consumption will be in excess of 4,500,000 tonnes. These projections are authenticated by many other reports including USDA.

Foresight leadership dictate that we must bite the bullet and make serious political/economic decisions now if Kenya is to be food secure in the days to come.

If we succeed with large scale production, current subsidies can be used to educate small scale producers and shift their production to productive crops or just continue with sport farming as we secure our country from any future embarrassment.

The writer is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.

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