Kenya may be in the middle of yet another maize scandal. How did we get here?
We are still experiencing food inflation, and part of the reason for this is the drought we’ve had since 2016. We have a scarcity of sugar, and a 2kg packet is currently retailing for KES 400, up from KES 250 in late 2016. More importantly, up until May 17th 2017, a 2 kg packet of maize meal was retailing for KES 150 to 200, up from around KES 90 in late 2016.
The price of maize meal has been blamed on two factors. One is the poor harvest from last year. Maize production dropped to 37.1 million bags in 2016 from 42.5 million bags in 2015 because of decreased rainfall, high cost of farm inputs, and diseases and pests that affected the maize. The second factor that has been blamed is hoarding by farmers and middle men as they wait for prices to go up. Kenyans, however, are slow to believe the second factor because we have had maize hoarding in the past and it has mostly been by the elite, who cause these scandals.
To ease this inflation (which for a while meant that chapattis, thought to be a luxury in many homes, were cheaper than ugali since wheat flour was retailing for KES 110 – 150), KRA (Kenya Revenue Authority) lifted an import ban on both white and yellow maize, and opened a window for their import duty free. On May 4th 2017, KRA published a notice setting rules for the importation of duty-free yellow and white maize meant to counteract the deficit. The only fee or tax these importers are required to pay is the Import Declaration Fund, charged at 2.25% of the total cost of the imported goods, as well as the 1.5% Railway Development Levy. The window was initially open until July 31st for white maize and August 31st for yellow maize, but it was extended to early October 2017.
However, on May 10th 2017, a cargo ship said to be from Mexico docked at the port of Mombasa carrying 335,000 bags of maize. This maize was to be distributed to millers, increase supply and thereby cause a drop in maize meal prices. How did it get here so fast? It is not possible to sail from Mexico to Kenya in 3 days. This would take between two to three months. The Mexican government also came out and denied directly selling maize to the Kenyan government. Instead, it said it had been selling high quality non GMO white maize to private businessmen, who initiated the deal.
On the 15th of May 2017, Transport PS Paul Mwangi went on record to clarify that the maize had been imported to South Africa from Mexico in 2016, enabling the quick turnaround. The maize was from surplus old stock that South Africa had from when it experienced a food shortage in 2016. It was sold to Kenya by Inter Africa Gains PTY, and three milling firms – Kitui Flour Mills, Pembe Flour Mills and Hydrey Limited – were the importers of the consignment. The ship carrying this consignment of duty free maize, MV IVS Pinehurst, left South Africa on May 4th 2017, the same day that KRA opened the window for duty-free maize imports, leading to suspicions of a scandal in the offing.
Initially, the price of maize meal did not ease given that in April 2017, the government opened a window for the release of one million 90kg bags of white maize at KES 3,000 per bag with the aim of bringing the cost of a 2kg packet down to 115 bob. The price instead remained at KES 150 – 200. However, with this recent haul, the government assured Kenyans that KES 90 per 2kg packet would be the price from May 17th 2017, once the subsidies took full effect. This has not been the case in many areas.
All this is curious because we are in an election year – incumbent governments in countries like ours go to great lengths to retain their power, and that includes state capture. Many Kenyans are rightfully suspicious that this may be a scandal to put money in the hands of our elites, presumably for election campaigns. While these remain suspicions, this would not be Kenya’s first maize scandal. Our first major post-independence scandal was a maize scandal, which got Paul Ngei suspended from his post as Minister for Cooperatives and Marketing.
He was accused of manipulating the Maize Marketing Board (the predecessor to the National Cereals and Produce Board) as well as smuggling and exporting surplus maize, which led to the shortages we experienced in 1964 and 1965. He was able to do this because he was also chair of the board. The commission of inquiry found that he coerced the board into allocating maize to companies run by his wife Emma Ngei – namely Emma Stores and Uhuru Millers. However, as you would expect in Kenya, he was absolved of these charges, and came back to Jomo Kenyatta’s cabinet. He also served in Daniel arap Moi’s cabinet.
In 2009, another maize scandal happened, this time hitting the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB). According to a World Bank report, the Kenyan people lost an estimated KES 23.4 billion in subsidies and taxes. In 2008, the NCPB was meant to sell maize directly to millers at below market prices, yet again because of a shortage. Ideally, what happens is that the NCPB will buy maize on behalf of the government in times when there is a surplus harvest, store it, and then when the harvest is low, sell this maize. This is meant to ensure that the price of maize doesn’t fluctuate wildly, and that Kenyans have steady access to their staple food. However, in 2008, the NCPB sold maize to brokers, who then sold the maize to millers at a profit, defeating the whole purpose of this intervention. These brokers were known politicians and businessmen.
This scandal pushed the price of maize to double what it was internationally. Here, maize was KES 30 per kg. Internationally it was KES 15. Some of this maize even found its way to South Sudan, where it was being sold for KES 6,000 per 90 kg bag, that is, KES 67 a kg. Many parallels can be drawn between the situations in 1965 and 2009 and the one we have now.
What is it about maize that makes it so susceptible to such scandals? It’s our consumption. Our average maize consumption per person is 60 kg a year, according to our Bureau of Statistics. Maize accounts for a quarter of our food consumption in terms of calorific intake, 56 per cent of our cereal calories and 47 per cent of our starchy food calories. Maize is also the best value for money starch that is widely available. It’s also easy to dispose of as it is a staple food not just in Kenya, but in other African countries as well. As a thief, you can sell it quickly and have your stolen money.
We continue to see the ways in which our lives are disposable in Kenya: our elites have no problem stealing money for healthcare, and stealing our food. It is almost as if they want us to die, but in silence. Once we have voted. Watch. Listen. Read. Resist.