Kenya’s maize consumption exceeds production, meaning that in an ideal situation, all the maize produced by Kenyan farmers find market and the deficit is bridged by imports. Maize is a staple food consumed on a daily-basis by majority of households. That is why the country maintains a strategic food reserve as part of its food security objectives, and as a public good.
With such public interest, discussions about maize are bound to be heated. This has been the case with recent discourse in the North Rift grain basket after complains by farmers that they cannot make any meaningful returns from their maize crop. Market prices are low while production costs are astronomical.
According to market price information by Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, a 90-kg bag of maize sells at a national average price of 1,978 - with Kisumu having the highest price at KSh 2,800 and Nakuru lowest price of KSh 1,500.
The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) offered to buy at KSh 2,300, which to farmers is still very low. Imports from Uganda, Tanzania and other maize growing countries are outcompeting the Kenyan maize in the free market. As a result, farmers are holding back maize stocks with little options to make profit.
Follows calls farmers to cultivate other crops; if maize farming is not profitable then why not plant avocado!
There are two distinct contexts within which to analyze recent talk about maize and the avocado; maize as a food security crop and the avocado as a cash crop. The avocado does not attract much heated debate; the discourse around it is straight forward, you plant for a certain market and make money.
The tone of the rebuttals indicates a notion or rather a belief that the avocado is of lesser value to both farmers and consumers. Some have gone as far as saying that the avocado is just a vegetable that accompanies ugali. Obviously, anybody looking down on the avocado is swimming in ignorance.
The avocado is gradually building clout as a serious export crop, with earnings from exports crossing the KSh 6 billion mark in 2017, up from about KSh 5 billion in 2015 (Faostat). Major markets for the Kenyan Avocado (mostly Hass and Fuerte varieties) are Europe and Middle East. With the lifting of the export ban to South Africa due to Fruit Fly damage, things are definitely looking up and farmers cognizant of these opportunities are investing in Avocado orchards.
So, the avocado is not of less economic value and the grumbles from maize farmers is more a feeling that their plight is ignored or drowned by loud arguments and counter-arguments in political events. They feel the food security service they offer to the country is not appreciated and matched by corresponding action from those in positions of decision making.
It is clear that farmers oppose the suggestion change to avocado farming largely based on their mistrust of those on the forefront championing this shift. The politicians at the center of the ongoing ping-pong are not telling the entire truth. The same politicians admitted that they farm maize. They harvested, supplied maize to NCPB and got paid while other farmers are still holding huge stocks they can’t dispose because of low market prices. Question is; did these politicians, other individuals and companies get preferential treatment because of political connections? If yes, then do they have the moral ground to speak of the farmers’ plight?
Of course, the Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR) buys only 4 million bags of maize out of an annual production of about 40 million bags. The reserves are released into market whenever there is shortage to stabilize prices and cushion the consumer. The SGR is a small market (about 10%) of total production and has little effect on markets whenever there is shortage, especially when the shortage is already acute. It is a form of generalized subsidy targeting mainly the urban poor. It reinforces the food security function of the maize crop. However, government – both parliament and the executive - has not heeded to recommendations to increase the SGR to at least 8 million bags or double allocated funds through the national budget making process, a very long-shot since those in charge of such decisions are connected to the same politicians and their backers who benefit directly from importation - with tax waivers.
The associated factors that include high fuel costs, high seed prices and where provided - as farmers have complained - low quality fertilizer subsidy, recently the Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease (MLND) and the lethal Fall Armyworm (FAW) are issues that elected leaders should train their energies including sorting out the rot at the National Cereals and Produce Board and the Strategic Grain Reserve for it to serve its strategic mandate in a transparent and accountable manner that inspires the confidence of both farmers and consumers.
Maize cannot be wished away. There is need to focus on productivity enhancing investments; mainly targeted inputs, research and development and improving access by farmers to productivity enhancing technologies, then make sure these benefits the farmer, not cartels. Alternative uses for maize such as animal feed (silage, on-farm formulated dairy meal, poultry and pig feeds e.t.c) will widen the market options.
If not solved the problems with maize will disillusion farmers, and many will gradually cultivate alternative crops of their choice (including the avocado). This shift will be accelerated by returns on investment, the organization of the value chain, and the level of available extension and advisory services. It will not be because a conflicted politician has made a pronouncement.
Farmers in other parts of the world are producing maize at lower costs, more so Uganda and Tanzania, the Kenyan farmer can too.