This past week the Agriculture secretary announced that a two-kilogramme packet of maize meal would retail for a maximum of Sh.75. On the face of it, this was good news for it meant a reduction in cost by half. However, on closer scrutiny this cannot be good news.
True to form, farmers were up in arms barely a day after his announcement complaining that the stated prices would not even meet the cost of production.
Under the new constitutional dispensation agriculture is a devolved function. The responsibility of the national government remains that of policy formulation and guidance. Looking at the maize sector, my antenna first went up when a colleague who hails from the North Rift, which is the food basket for the country warned his folks to prepare to stop growing maize due to poor prices. In his view the continued cultivation of this crop would drive the people deeper into poverty.
For a country, where the majority of the population eat ugali at least once a day, the availability of maize at affordable prices becomes a key policy concern for government. However, over the last two years these prices have not been stable. In the run up to the 2017 General Election the country had a maize shortage and had to import huge consignment of maize. However, because it was an election season the government had to subsidise the prices of maize meal. As soon as elections were over, though the prices shot up to their current retailing prices.
Both December 2017 and this year’s harvest have been bumper harvests. These may partly explain the availability of maize in large quantities and the consequent directive by the Agriculture secretary to reduce the prices by 50 per cent. From a consumer’s perspective this makes sense.
However, it does not help the farmers who grow the crop. When the prices at which they are required to sell cannot meet the cost of production, they are not incentivised to grow the crop. The country has had this experience with sugar, when over the years the cost of production of sugar is very high.
This makes Kenya’s sugar uncompetitive when compared to her neighbours. Consequently, every two years Kenya applies to the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) for safeguards against importation of sugar. This s out of the reality that if allowed such sugar will flood the market and being cheaper will be preferable to locally produced sugar. How do we ensure that maize prices are not just stable but that both production costs and sale prices are competitive and realistic? This must be the policy question for the Agriculture secretary and his team to grapple with. It will, however, not be achieved by celebrating, lowering and fixing prices for selling maize meal. It must be about addressing the costs of inputs for farmers, ensuring there is policy support and that the National Cereals and Produce Board is reformed to play its role properly.
While the Agriculture secretary was announcing the new prices, the Senate was receiving lamentations from maize farmers about their suffering with both delayed and non-payments for the maize bought from them. When prices are low and the amounts are not remitted, we make farmers suffer.
One of the Big Four Agenda for the President is food security. Achieving food security is about guaranteeing to the citizenry that there will be available food supplies. It must also ensure that the prices of such food prices are affordable. This is the reason why there has been an outcry over the increase in taxation following the recent adoption of the Finance Act, 2018. When there is a shortage of critical food supplies or when citizens are not able either to grow sufficient quantities or afford to purchase those they do no grow then policy intervention is needed.
Climate change has affected the production of several food crops across the country. Government’s priorities must be in supporting farmers to adapt to the impacts of climate change so as to ensure that there will always be ready supply of food. This support is more urgent than celebrating that prices of maize meal shall come down.