Kenya’s food imports bill hits 5-year high on biting drought


Maize produce in a store in Uasin Gishu on. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

Kenya’s food imports bill in the first nine months of last year hit a record high since 2017 driven by a major drop in local production due to prolonged drought.

The latest data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) shows that the food import bill rose 18 percent to Sh183.93 billion from Sh155.42 in a corresponding period in 2021.

This is the highest figure recorded in a year’s first nine months since 2017 when the bill stood at Sh185.22 billion pointing to heightened food imports during the election periods.

In 2018, the bill dropped to Sh133.96 billion before marginally rising to Sh139.28 billion in 2019 and later falling to Sh128.06 billion in 2020.

Last year, wheat led the pack in import value at Sh54.94 billion followed by rice at Sh26.94 billion.

Maize, the country’s staple food, had Sh20.71 billion worth of imports during the period while sugar accounted for Sh19.12 billion.

Kenya is battling the worst drought in 40 years that has hurt food production in a country where farming activities are largely dependent on rainfall.

KNBS data shows that the agricultural sector, which is the backbone of the economy, now contributes less than a fifth of Kenya’s economic growth following four consecutive quarters of decline.

The sector registered a 0.2 percent annualised contraction to end a three-year growth expansion, which began after a 1.3 percent decline in 2017.

“The slowdown in the performance of the sector was mainly attributed to unfavourable weather conditions that prevailed in the first three quarters of 2022,” stated KNBS in its third-quarter gross domestic product report.

Just like in 2017 when a biting drought hurt crop and fodder production, the national government was last year compelled to introduce subsidies for the smooth purchase of basic food items such as maize flour whose price had hit a sky-high of more than Sh200 for a two-kilogramme packet.

The subsidy bid was, however, a flop as consumers struggled to access the flour in retail stores despite a monthly cost of Sh8 billion for taxpayers.

President William Ruto recently lifted the ban on the cultivation of GMO products after 10 years of field trials by local scientists, citing Kenya’s need to promptly address food security and lower food costs.

Dr Ruto, who had pledged to lower the cost of a two-kilo packet of maize meal to below Sh 100 during presidential campaigns, has ruled out costly consumption subsidies on flour, saying they are unsustainable.

His administration has however retained the waiver on import duty and levies on maize shipped from outside the country while at the same time introducing fertiliser subsidies as part of efforts aimed at fixing the general cost of food production.

The jump in food import value has in the recent past also been attributed to a growing popularity in online trading that has increased direct ordering and food shipping instances.

“There has been a rise in online trading that has now made it possible for people to source varieties that are not available locally and bring them. It is also cheaper to get most of the products abroad than locally,” observes Wambui Mbarire, CEO of the Retail Trade Association of Kenya (Retrak).

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