Fix the unga puzzle once and for all

The cyclical and fluctuating prices of unga in the country have always pointed to a serious problem in the maize value chain. The last one month has seen maize flour prices rise from an average Sh112 per 2kg packet to the current KSh136 across the country. This comes as a surprise to many considering we had a “glut” last season that saw farmers sell their maize at a throw away price of KSh800 to brokers while the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) bought the commodity at KSh2,300, which was raised to KSh2,500 by President Uhuru Kenyatta in January this year.

Whereas consumers are now having to pay substantially high prices to access the commodity, its primary producers have nothing to show for it. Every 2 kilograms of maize leaves the farm at about Ksh56 based on NCPB’s highest buying price. The hundreds of thousands of bags that were sold at KSh800 would translate to KSh18 per 2Kg of flour.

So, what happens in between? In local mills, the cost of milling maize is about KSh10 per 2 Kgs; it costs only KSh10 extra to make it finer. What is packed and retailed in shops is grade 1 flour milled by big millers enjoying economies of scale, which ideally should translate to even lower costs. I am not convinced that the cost of transporting the maize to millers and distributing the final product to retail shops can account for the difference.

Millers have many ways of accessing maize including through the government-funded NCPB stores across the country, direct purchases from farmers, from other dealers as well as imports – with the help of government. Recently, the millers got a shot in the arm when the president appealed to his counterpart in Tanzania to help them access the product at more favorable prices.

But why do we import? To understand this conundrum, we first need to analyse the production numbers. In 2018, Kenya produced a total of 46 million bags – the highest amount ever produced despite the threats of Fall Armyworms that had hit the country. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates current maize consumption at around 55 million bags per year. This leaves a deficit of about 10 million bags of maize meaning we would only need to import 18% of the total maize consumed. This deficit cannot be used as an excuse to hike the maize prices.

We have enough storage facilities owing to the NCPB declared capacity of 1.8 tonnes which translates to about 20 million -90Kg bags. Despite being shared amongst the different cereals produced in the country, it is nonetheless sufficient capacity given that the body is also allowed to outsource facilities from private entities.

What the country needs to focus on therefore is the strengthening of NCPB’s role in ensuring price stability and better access to grains countrywide.

Further, the Strategic Grain Reserves should solely exist to safeguard the needs of over 15 million Kenyans who are not able to meet their minimum dietary requirements. We, therefore, cannot continue to have the misplaced idea by NCPB of selling grains to animal feed manufacturers when some of our countrymen have none to eat.

At the same time, the government needs to rethink its policy of subsidizing maize for millers, because by so doing, it creates two opposing systems when it comes to maize trade and regulation. It makes absolutely no sense for the government to pay billions to millers in form of subsidies if, in return, they cannot regulate the prices of the well organized and united milling industry.

Lastly, there’s need to re-assess our form of agriculture- the gains and pains of the industrial model of farming that the country has heavily promoted and invested in for the last 2 decades. To ensure access to food at affordable prices for all Kenyans, we need to have a sober national discourse around whether the fertilizer subsidies work or if farmers are incentivized enough. Whether large scale mono-cropping and heavy mechanized form of farming are compatible with our context or whether the price mechanics are right.

These measures will put the country in good stead to fulfilling the Human Right to Food as enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya, 2010- Article 43 1(c) which, unfortunately, the government is currently in contravention of.

The author is a Route to Food Initiative’s Ambassador.

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