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Irony of 2.4m Kenyans facing starvation as grain farmers grapple with market hurdles

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Harvesting season: A specialized combine harvester pours maize harvested from demonstration plots at a farm in Soy, Uasin Gishu County onto a truck on October 24, 2020. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

Summary

  • The farmers are staring at heavy losses due to the deteriorating prices of the cereals — maize and wheat — caused by the ongoing harvest of this season's produce and the arrival of cheap imports.
  • According to the latest report by the National Drought Management Authority, a decline in production coupled with the pandemic affected household food security in the country.
  • The report says maize production reduced by 70 percent, adding that households have limited stocks of 60 percent with the rest relying on market purchases.

Ironically, more than 2.4 million Kenyans face acute starvation while cereal farmers in the North Rift region, the country’s food basket, are experiencing market challenges for their produce.

The farmers are staring at heavy losses due to the deteriorating prices of the cereals — maize and wheat — caused by the ongoing harvest of this season produce and the arrival of cheap imports from neighbouring countries under the East African Common Market Protocol.

Maize prices have dropped to Sh2,400 down from Sh3,200 per 90-kilogramme bag in most parts of the region. The supply of the foodstuff to most households is likely to plummet further as farmers in Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia counties continue to harvest the crop.

The flour prices have stabilised at an average of Sh80 down from Sh102 per two-kilogramme packet in most retail outlets in the region

“We expect the maize prices to improve once the National Cereals and Produce Board and millers start purchasing the crop,” said Lucy Koech from Sergoit, Uasin Gishu County.

She has 40 bags of maize, which are more than sufficient for her family before the next crop is ready.

“I consume an average of 10 bags annually but I have to keep the rest as security,” she says.

According to the latest report by the National Drought Management Authority, a decline in production coupled with the pandemic affected household food security in the country.

“In the marginal agricultural areas, the poor performance of the long rains coupled with effects of Covid-19 impacted negatively on household food security and considering this being the second successive failed season,” states the 2021 Long Rains Season Assessment Report.

The report says maize production reduced by 70 percent, adding that households have limited stocks of 60 percent with the rest relying on market purchases.

The report also noted that the high cost of food would persist.

“High food prices are expected to continue until the end of the year, further impacting on household food security,” said the report.

Thousands in Marsabit, Isiolo, Samburu, Baringo and Turkana counties face food scarcity as a result of the unrelenting drought. They have to travel several kilometres in search of water and pasture for their animals.

With the country witnessing biting famine, the nutrition situation in places like Turkana, Samburu, Mandera, Garissa, Wajir, Isiolo and North Horr and Laisamis will continue to deteriorate.

“Nutrition situation is projected to worsen in Turkana, Samburu, Mandera, Garissa, Wajir, Isiolo and North Horr and Laisamis given the projected worsening food security situation and will further worsen...if the 2021 short rains perform poorly.

The malnutrition levels though within the same phase are still unacceptably high mainly attributed to poor child feeding practices and reduced milk availability for children’s diet,” the report says.

“Other contributing factors include stock-out of essential supplies for management of acute malnutrition, sub-optimal coverage of health and nutrition programs and high morbidities. Multiple and recurrent shocks coupled with pre-existing factors such as poverty and limited livelihood sources aggravate the problem.”

Despite the harvesting season kicking off in maize growing counties of Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia, Nandi, the National Drought Management Authority in the report predicts that maize production would reduce by eight percent.

It blames the deterioration of inadequate rainfall tied with poor distribution in both space and time, which has affected the breadbasket regions.

“The 2021 long rains production estimates for maize from medium and high rainfall areas of western and the Rift Valley is projected to decline by eight percent below the long term average due to the late onset of rain and dry spells during the critical stages of growth which has resulted in reduced production per unit area in most counties. The rains received were also not adequate coupled with poor distribution in both space and time,” explained the report.

“Maize production for the 2021 long rains in the country is projected to be approximately 32 million (90-kg bags), which is approximately five–10 percent below the five-year average for the same period.”

Most farmers in the North Rift region are contemplating reducing acreage under crop production due to the high cost of farm input as agriculturalists warn of food shortages due to unreliable rainfall.

“A lack of adequate capital will force some maize farmers to scale down acreage under cultivation of the crop due to high production costs,” said Peter Boit from Uasin Gishu County.

The Rift Valley region produced an average of 16 million bags of maize last season compared to about 21 million the previous year.

“It is no longer profitable to invest in maize and wheat cultivation as it requires heavy investment yet the returns are low,” said Joel Kiprop, a farmer in Moiben, Uasin Gishu.

But the prices of beans have remained high in the region with 90-kg going at between Sh6,400 and Sh7,000 due to declined production of the crop last season.

The Rift Valley has an annual bean consumption of about 1.7 million bags.

“What farmers require is sufficient capital to enable them to invest in modern crop production and not to sell our maize produce on credit as in the new NCPB (National Cereals and Produce Board) system,” says Julius Too, a farmer from Ziwa, Uasin Gishu.

A decline in acreage under the staple crop and erratic rainfall are expected to complicate food security.

“The drought will reverse the gains of high crop and dairy production following plentiful rainfall last year,” said William Too, a farmer in Trans-Nzoia County.

The farmers petitioned the government to reform the agricultural sector to enable them to increase crop production to boost food security.

The harvesting is going on at a time when the NCPB faces financial challenges buying maize from farmers due to unpaid debt of Sh12.7 billion by various government ministries and agencies.

The Ministry of Agriculture tops with a debt of about Sh8.1 billion while the State Department of Devolution owes Sh860 million, impacting negatively on the board’s ability to continue delivery of relief services to the department.

The NCPB is owed an estimated Sh1.1 billion by other State agencies, including Sh73.4 million by sugar millers and Sh39.4 million by Muranga County for the supply of subsidised fertiliser but has committed to pay.

According to a report tabled by NCPB chairman Mutea Iringo to the parliamentary Departmental Committee on Agriculture and Livestock, the Treasury has paid Sh2.6 billion to partly offset the Sh8.1 loan by the Ministry of Agriculture.

“Included in the fertiliser subsidy programme is Sh3.6 billion due to Kenya Commercial Bank. The National Treasury granted concurrence for NCPB to use Sh2,657,852,918.29 towards partial payment to the loan. It also directed that negotiations be held between the Ministry of Agriculture, NCPB and KCB to agree on the settlement of the balance as well as giving waivers on interest and penalties charged to the loan account while they continued holding some funds in current accounts,” explained Mr Iringo in the report.

The bank granted a waiver of Sh400 million that had been charged as penalties and Sh30 million on negotiation fee.

“Pending bills on the fertiliser subsidy programme include ETG Sh1.52 billion and NCPB reimbursable Sh1.68 billion,” added the report.

The board is, however, seeking Sh10.3 billion to purchase emergency food stocks as it faces stiff competition from millers and traders who offer better prices and prompt payments due to the anticipated shortage of the staple caused by declined yield this season.

The NCPB plans to purchase three million bags of maize at Sh7.56 billion and 50,000 bags of beans at Sh405 million to stock its National Food Reserve.

According to Mr Iringo, the board plans to buy 100,000 bags of 50-kg of rice at Sh600 million, 30,000 bags of green grams Sh270 million and 20,000 bags of 25 kilogrammes of powdered milk at Sh340 million.

The board is seeking Sh150 million for quality management of National Food Reserve commodities, including aflatoxin laboratories, upgrade of grading equipment and capacity building of staff on quality management among other issues.

The government through the NCPB has not opened its stores to farmers to supply their produce as it faces stiff competition from millers who are offering attractive prices.

“We are still waiting for guidelines to begin receiving maize from farmers,” said NCPB communications manager Titus Maiyo.

Millers and traders in the North Rift region are offering between Sh2,800 per 90-kilogramme bag of maize due to projected shortage after the yield dropped by 11 million bags — from 44 million to 33 million last season.

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