If we didn’t have maize, everything would be different, from how we farm to what we eat.
Less than one season ago, it seemed we were growing more maize than the country could handle. Today, faced with stark realities of catastrophic drought, the country must brace for a looming food shortage, amid rising prices of the staple commodity – maize.
Yet the most amazing fact about maize production in Kenya may be that this crop was not grown in Kenya until just about century ago—and today our country relies on it like no other.
British colonists brought maize to Kenya at the start of the 20th century, and for many years most of what they grew was exported. None was eaten domestically.
That changed as colonial policies required Africans to work on British settler farms and receive rations of white maize as “in-kind” payments for their labor. By 1925, Kenyans were moving away from a traditional diet dominated by millets, tubers, and legumes and eating more maize. The introduction of hammer mills boosted consumption further as this meant maize was milled faster and cheaper than the millet and sorghum.
By the late 1930s and early 1940s, African farmers competed with British colonial farmers in the production of maize and the government introduced marketing boards to regulate marketing of the crop, paving the way for state-controlled crop buying and large-scale milling. In the 1950s, these boards began to use roller- mill technology that produced a refined, expensive meal and monopolized sales to urban consumers, resulting in higher prices for farmers, killing the export market and encouraging expanded production.
This required scientific seed production, leading to the first maize research program instituted in Kitale in 1955. The Kenya Seed began production the following year. After Kenya’s independence in 1963, African farmers bought out the white settler farms in droves. In 1964, a hybrid maize seed was released. The uptake of large-scale production of the crop and the continued research and development of new seed varieties led to rising production and by the 1980s, maize had become Kenya’s most important crop. It flourishes in many different climates and just about every smallholder farmer grows it.
The market liberalization of the 1990s brought new challenges. The government stopped buying the crop, opening the door for private-miller dictated prices. Maize production failed to keep up with Kenya’s booming population, realizing high and low years of production, even though breeders and agronomists exploited its genetic potential and the government stepped in with farmer-friendly policies aimed at increased production.
Yet just two years ago, Kenya faced a genuine maize shortage—and the government declared an emergency. In the traditional breadbasket counties of the North Rift, farmers responded by growing more maize. Meanwhile, government- sanctioned importation gave room to cartels to sell substantial quantities of maize to the NCPB, misrepresented as “maize from Kenyan farmers”, ultimately flooding the market and receiving all the money set aside for farmers.
Today, as the drought bites into the current planting season, farmers are still holding on to more than two-thirds (about 21 million bags) of last year’s production. The problem will only worsen as we face a new conundrum brought about by climate change, high costs of production, price instability, foreign competition, pests and diseases, monocultural production practices, and poor marketing strategies.
As supplies dwindle, commodity prices are again rising. Millers have raised retail prices and consumers must dig deeper into their pockets as the government cries foul. The temporary benefit of more affordable food is passing us by, and we’ll all pay a long-term price as farmers will not produce anything this season.
As happens too often, our agricultural sector suffers from under-production and our people succumb to hunger, malnutrition, or worse. Kenya has had to deal with the classic food-price dilemma of keeping prices high enough to make sure farmers can profit yet low enough so that consumers can buy affordable food. Market and climatic forces tend to solve the problem, sending price signals to farmers, who in turn decide what to plant to meet the needs of the populace.
There are no simple solutions to this problem. National and county government leaders have proposed several solutions, including irrigated production, and I support them. One of the best ideas is for the government to empower farmers’ cooperatives. These organizations are owned and managed by farmers for the benefit of farmers. They can organize early acquisition of farm inputs and serve as avenues for value addition and diversification, helping farmers gain better access to markets where their crops can achieve better prices.
The Governor of Uasin Gishu County, H.E. Jackson Mandago, has spearheaded the formation of cooperative-owned maize milling plants, owned by cooperative members, with logistical and financial support from the county government. Cooperative farmers who deliver to their own mills are assured marketing, boosting their incomes. Cooperatives bring farmers together to achieve economies of scale, making it easier to secure capital for investments as well as to buy everything from seeds and fertilizers to farm machinery. This, in turn, can spur scientific innovation, including both conventional breeding and genetic modification.
Finally, cooperatives also provide opportunities for diversification into irrigation, high-value export crop production, such as coffee and fruits. They are a good focal point for training and extension services.
Maize may have a relatively short history in Kenya, but smart policies will give it a long and prosperous future.
*This first appeared Apr 20 in the Daily Nation based in Nairobi, Kenya.