Kenya prepares to import maize in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic

By Rose Mukonyo

May 12, 2020

Kenya is set to import 4 million bags of maize as the country loses its grain reserves to aflatoxin, a toxin caused by mold.

Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya told the Senate Committee for Agriculture that maize in the country’s Strategic Grain Reserves is unfit for human consumption as it has been contaminated by aflatoxin, which is known to cause cancer and other health problems.

The loss comes when the country is still struggling with a locust invasion and the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic, both of which have adversely affected the country’s food chain as markets are closed and movement remains restricted in some counties.

“The government is trying to ensure the basic commodities are available for everyone, and hence the need to import maize, which is a staple food in the country,” Munya said. “The maize in the government stores will not be sufficient for a longer period should the pandemic push further.”

In response, Kenya plans to import 2 million bags of white maize for human consumption and an additional 2 million bags of yellow maize for animal feed between end of June and mid-July.

The pending maize shortage is just one issue that Kenya is contending with as it strives to maintain food security in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Small-scale farmers, pastoralists, fishers and other vulnerable groups have been hindered from working their land, caring for their livestock and fishing. They also face the challenges of accessing markets to sell their products or buy essential inputs, while struggling with higher food prices and limited purchasing power.

As the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has noted, informal laborers have been especially hard hit by job and income losses in harvesting and processing and millions of children are already missing out on the school meals they have come to rely upon.

Munya told the committee that the government needs to import maize because the country’s farmers have insufficient grain to feed the nation. The government also has stopped buying farm produce for storage and redistribution as it’s being hit with inflated prices due to mark ups by middlemen. Instead, it will give the farmers e-vouchers to buy subsidized farm inputs.

“This will see small scale farmers grow their income if we give them such incentives instead of buying produce from them at a very low rate,” Munya explained.

The shortages are expected to drive up prices. A 90kg bag of maize now sells for US$29-30, which means that a packet of maize meal that had been retailing at less than $1 dollar will now cost $1.50 or more.

Food prices have been affected greatly by COVID-19 and the government is not in a position to fix them, due to high production costs associated with the desert locust invasion, which wreaked havoc in many grain-producing areas of the country.

Munya said the government has implemented measures to help mitigate the effects of the locusts, with nine planes conducting frequent surveys and spraying the affected areas and 500 National Youth Service officers doing ground spraying to control resurgence.

FAO records indicate that over 58,000 acres of land already have been affected by locusts in Kenya and the agency raised concerns about a second wave of attack. Munya said an assessment will be done in the next three-to-four weeks to determine how much damage has been done and how much money will be required to mitigate the effects of the invasion and ensure that the food basket has not been greatly affected.

However, the pandemic and locusts still pose a serious threat to food security in the country, with more than 1.8 million Kenyans facing starvation, according to a report by Famine Early Warning System Network. It predicted that at least 17 counties would be food stressed between the months of February and May this year.

Several leaders have condemned the idea of importing maize, stating that it is sad to see maize rotting in stores due to poor preservation while Kenyans are hungry and looking to the government for food aid.

Last year, the government destroyed 124,486 50-kilo bags of maize, blaming the losses on aflatoxin contamination, and this year a similar scenario is bound to happen. Munya said the affected maize will be sold to cement manufacturers to be used as biofuel.

Jeremiah Munguti, a member of the Machakos County Assembly, has urged the government to buy grains from farmers in the Lower Eastern part of the country, which previously registered great losses of grains to aflatoxin.

“It will be useless to ask farmers to go to the farms, yet the produce from the previous [harvest] is rotting in the granaries,” he explained. “We do not have large storage facilities so if the government will not buy from these farmers, everything will go to waste.”