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Economy

How Kiunjuri made U-turn on Mexico maize imports

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

The Agriculture ministry had made advanced plans to import 11.1 million bags of maize from Mexico before political pressure scuttled the scheme last week, it has emerged.

Agriculture Principal Secretary Hamadi Boga, in a letter seen by the Business Daily, had opened discussions and even made a deal with the Mexican government for import of maize even as different State agencies differed on whether the reported shortage justified a waiver of tax to ship in the grains duty-free.

The letter reveals elaborate, behind the scenes plans to import up to 18.8 million bags of maize from Tanzania, Uganda and Mexico.

The Agriculture PS went as far as identifying specific companies that he said were ready to sell the grain to Kenyan millers.

"The government of Mexico has informed us about its capacity to sell up to 1.0 million tonnes (11.1 million bags) of white maize to Kenya from the State of Sinaloa," says Prof Boga in the letter sent to maize millers, advising them to seek more information from the Mexico Embassy in Kenya.

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The maize import plan had come under intense criticism as the Agriculture Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri insisted that Kenya needed to import up to 12.5 million bags before October to plug in a looming shortage.

Enough maize

The Strategic Food Reserve Fund (SFR) Chairman Noah Wekesa and Rift Valley region legislators however insisted there was enough maize in the country to last until the coming harvest, advising against duty-free imports which would have hit local farmers hard by depressing prices of the grain.

Mr Kiunjuri, after coming under immense political pressure from Members of Parliament in maize-growing regions of the country, last week changed his public stance on the need to import maize from Mexico and instead told legislators the maize would come from neighbouring Comesa member countries.

All along, the Agriculture CS had insisted that only a full cabinet meeting would approve the decision to waive taxes on maize shipments, citing previous abuse of the import window that had seen cartels make billions of shillings by flooding the local market at the farmers’ expense.

The letter by Prof Boga to the millers dated July 9 indicates that the Agriculture Ministry had received assurances from tens of companies from Uganda and Tanzania to supply a total of 7.7 million bags of maize.

"Global Neo-Business Opportunities Limited, a Tanzania-based company has 5.5 million bags of maize for immediate importation to Kenya. The Grain Council of Uganda has committed to supply Kenya with 2.2 million bags of Maize between August and December 2019," Prof Boga wrote to the millers.

"We cannot bring in maize from Mexico. We are going to scout the grain from Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) countries," Mr Kiunjuri told MPs last week in an abrupt change of stance.

The Agriculture CS had cited the rising price of flour that has so far hit Sh125 for a two kilo packet from Sh85 in January as the justification for the imports.

Impeachment motion

Some MPs however threatened to table an impeachment motion against the CS if he went ahead with the import plans, which they said would have hit their constituents hardest.

The CS had made a case for urgent maize imports since May, following the failure of the long rains season which cut the harvest sharply.

"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," Mr Kiunjuri said in a past interview.

The PS in the latter says the Agriculture Ministry is committed to facilitate and support the maize importation process in order to boost local supplies.

"I urge you to open engagements with the provided contacts in order to explore ways to access the available grain," states the letter.

The standoff between the ministry and the Strategic Food Reserve (SFR) seems to have delayed the entire import process as political interests weighed in.

The SFR board says there is only need to ship in two million bags. Dr Wekesa has accused ‘cartels’ of only being interested in lining their pockets at the expense of the farmers, a statement that prompted an angry response from Mr Kiunjuri, who said he would have the last say on the matter.

High seas

Legislators from the north rift said last week that ‘cartels’ are holding a huge consignment of maize in the high seas and are only waiting for a signal to dock at Mombasa Port.

In 2017, the government was accused of stage-managing a crisis by ignoring all warning of an impending shortage only to flood the market with the staple when local farmers were harvesting, leaving them with great losses.

The 2017 imports saw farmers sell their crop last year for as low as Sh1,800 per bag from a high of Sh2,500 in the previous season.

In March, the ministry said there were 21 million bags of maize in the country that had been forecasted to last until the end of June, with deficit having to be filled through imports.

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