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TRADE-KENYA: Growing Maize Is Not What It Used to Be

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

NAIROBI, May 17 2007 (IPS) - Ask Kenyans what their favourite food is and they will most likely answer ugali.

Ugali is the Swahili word for porridge, a milled and cooked form of maize. Served with meat, it is a staple on most menus in local restaurants.

It is also the mainstay of agriculture in Kenya. A large percentage of the country’s population depends on maize as an income-generating crop. According to a report by Oxfam Kenya it is produced by large as well as small-scale farmers. About 75 percent of Kenya’s farmers are small-scale producers.

Although maize is produced countrywide, some areas are more fertile, like the North Great Valley district where there is often a surplus. The eastern, north eastern and central districts are food deficit areas. There production tends to be mainly for household use.

A recent government study, the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey, shows that in spite of the negative effects of economic liberalisation and privatisation in the 1990s, most Kenyan farmers still have faith in maize – so much so that 90 percent of them regularly invest in this crop.

The Kenyan government liberalized the economy in 1996 with the adoption of a policy paper called Renewed Growth and Economic Management. The aim of the programme was to improve productivity and the quality of products and to diversify exports. Divergent views exist about the programme.


‘‘Liberalisation has been a mixed bag of positives and negatives for Kenya,” says Gichinga Ndiranga, an independent policy consultant on trade in Kenya.

On the negative side, it seems the maize industry was particularly badly affected. With liberalisation, price controls fell away.

The price of maize had previously been regulated by the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB). This created security as farmers knew exactly what would be paid for a bag of maize. They could calculate their income even before the maize was sold.

Then the market was liberalised. ‘‘The idea was that the private sector would step in and fill the gap left when the government pulled out, but the economy was not ready for liberalisation. The prices farmers got on the market fluctuated, leading to uncertainty,” says Ndiranga.

Elizabeth Muemi Kio, sustainable livelihoods programme coordinator with Oxfam Kenya, a developmental non-governmental organisation, says that Kenyan farmers had never before dealt with an unregulated market.

Before liberalisation, the industry was tainted with mismanagement and corruption. This was the case not only at the NCPB but also at the Co-operative Bank of Kenya which provided financial support to maize and other agricultural co-operatives. The legacy of corruption caused further insecurity in the maize industry. In some cases men left the rural areas to find better work in the cities, leaving women to manage production. This has caused problems related to gender discrimination.

Rural women were by no means new to agriculture. In Kenya, as in most other African countries, more than 70 percent of farmers are women. Yet in most instances they lack legal ownership of the land.

Women might till the land, sow the seeds and harvest the crop, but they often do not see the fruits of their labour. The money ends up in the pockets of their husbands or male relatives.

Farmers periodically need bank loans to finance their operations. A woman that does not own the land she farms will have difficulty getting a loan even if she heads her household because land ownership is often a prerequisite to borrowing money.

With the liberalisation of the maize market, global companies have introduced genetically modified (GM) crops. The introduction of GM means the arrival of new technologies. Technology transfer is usually done to men despite women being the primary food producers, warns Edith Makandi Wanjohi of the non-governmental International Gender and Trade Network based in Brazil.

The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been controversial in the Kenyan maize sector. ‘‘It is not a question of being good or bad but rather whether safeguards have to be put in place to ensure food security,” says Ndiranga.

‘‘There is no doubt that in certain areas GM seed can be beneficial, for instance, in the arid areas of the country. There should be sufficient regulation, though, to ensure it is done safely,” Ndiranga argues.

When it comes to GMOs, Kio of Oxfam Kenya is concerned about the cost of transport and additional inputs, which all contributes to higher seed prices.

‘‘There is also the issue of ownership. Under certain agreements the farmers have to commit to only planting the seeds one year. They have to buy new seeds the following year. There is fear that the original seeds will disappear from the market, making Kenyan farmers dependent on the West which will affect food security,” says Kio.

In her paper, Wanjohi points out that GM technology has encouraged monoculture, eroding genetic diversity and ‘‘concentrating the benefits of ‘new’ varieties in the hands of commercial companies, all at the expense of poor farmers”.

GM horticultural crops are also pushing out crops for household consumption, which is detrimental for food security.

She further argues that the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute was for decades involved in breeding crop varieties which were treated as public goods. This changed with the commercialisation of the seed industry. Farmers now have to pay royalties for the varieties they buy. Maize production has not recovered as was intended by the economic reforms, according to Wanjohi.

‘‘To some degree, poor performance has increased and led to the import of genetically modified foods and the dumping of food on the Kenyan market. As a result, farmers can no longer à sell their produce at a good market price,” Wanjohi writes in the paper.

In an effort to address the problems arising from trade liberalisation, the Kenyan government has for the past three years tried to revive the NCPB, the Co-operative Bank and the Kenyan Grain Growers’ Cooperative Union (KGGCU), another institution which collapsed. The government has also reclaimed silos previously leased to the private sector.

‘‘Through the KGGCU, inputs like fertilizer and improved seeds can be sold to farmers at a subsidized price,” says Ndiranga.

In March this year the government released 17,6 million US dollars to the NCPB to pay farmers who delivered maize but were not paid. However, there was still a shortfall of 8,5 million dollars.

Is the Kenyan economy ready for further liberalisation? ‘‘We are already there. We are under pressure from external sources. There is no turning back,” says Kio.

‘‘But there is no doubt that some sectors are riper for liberalisation than others. In the case of the maize sector, Kenya was clearly not prepared. The government did not think the liberalisation of the industry through. They did not anticipate problems,” Kio points out.

‘‘Due to natural disasters, such as floods and droughts, some areas cannot even produce enough maize for their own consumption. The country needs extensive training for farmers to make them understand what the advantages and pitfalls of liberalisation are.”

 
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