When a country’s staple food moves into short supply, citizens go hungry, which has put maize at the heart of Kenyan policy and politics for decades: a centre-stage commodity that earns news space and the forever attention of legions of decision makers.
Yet there is something very wrong with the simple matter of how we assure ugali on the plate.
At the heart of that proposition is a bar, set at what we can achieve, as humanity, community, and trading systems, in getting to consumers what consumers will pay for. And the bar is high.
Economist and journalist Tim Harford opens his book, ‘‘The Undercover Economist’’, with the example of cappuccino in London: illustrating the miracle of cross-dependencies and co-ordinated actions that bring together finely engineered Italian coffee machines, coffee from Africa, milk from English farms, crockery from China, and so on, into a single cup of exquisite coffee, again, and again.
In all that bringing together of multiple supplies, London never has a ‘no cappuccino today’ day.
But we have year after year of maize shortages. Yet our supply issues are nothing like as challenging as providing cappuccino in London. Maize from farm, to mill, to store, to consumer. So why do we never fix a broken supply chain that so regularly fails?
The answer, it seems, lies in a remarkable suspension of marketing, as proven by a recent project, AgResults. As it is, we lose maize almost everywhere in the production process, to problems we are not offering smallholders (our suppliers) ready, appropriate, available, or even understandable solutions to. Yet easy solutions exist.
As much as 80 per cent of our maize gets eaten by Grain Borer, long before it ever hits harvest. Our own researchers at KALRO long ago developed a wonderful and ingenious cure for Grain Borer: as cheap seeds that got planted next to the maize, attract the pest to lay its eggs, which get stuck to the grass on hatching – virtually no maize gets eaten.
There are no chemicals involved. It’s low cost. But to date, no one has had the wit to market ‘Borer Termination’ as little packs with instructions. And smallholders don’t know about it.
The researchers call it ‘push-pull technology’, which isn’t a way into the consuming producers’ budget. And agrovets don’t stock it.
So, it just really commercially available, even now, and we just keep feeding Borer our food crops.
The same remarkable equation has existed with grain storage. For once maize has been produced, we lose another 12 to 20 per cent of it on poor storage, to pests, to fungi, notably aflatoxin, which makes it killer poisonous, so we periodically kill some consumers, as well as adding to all our shortages.
Yet all farmers need to do to store that grain safely is put it in air-tight sacks. Which weren’t being explained, or marketed, or available either. So AgResults ran a challenge, offering prize money to the producers of simple, low cost, grain storage solutions who could sell the most to smallholders.
Last month, three companies were awarded $4m as a result. And nine suppliers who entered the challenge sold enough bags and storage bins in the Rift and Eastern to store an extra 4.6m 90kg bags of maize, saving up to Sh2.2bn in post-harvest losses.
The challenge saw agrovets starting to stock the bags. There was no subsidy on the bags, none were given away. Once smallholders could get them and save a fifth of their crop, they bought them. And the result was Sh2.2bn more maize.
So how do we stop our maize wars: marketing. With all our unemployment, with our aptitude and even fervour for start-ups, it isn’t the snappy app maker who will be tomorrow’s rich business leader – it will be the guys and girls who get the right and simple answers to crop destruction into agrovets and understood by smallholders.
There will be the entrepreneurs ahead that we honour: the ones who realised the mess in our maize production is the commercial opportunity of all time, in their time, just as they needed it: and get maize onto the nation’s plates and maize enough to export too.