Maize meal – popularly known in Kenya as ugali is the country’s staple food. Even though the population consumes other products such as wheat bread, rice and potatoes as key sources of starch, a meal will be incomplete without a serving of ugali.
That though has been the state in most dinner tables in Kenyan households over the last three months. Maize flour which is the key component when making ugali has been either missing from the shelves in the stores or when available was priced way out of reach for the average Kenyan. Ordinarily a 2kg packet of maize flour retailed for about USD 1.00 but a biting grain shortage pushed the prices up by 50 percent.
The crisis caused nationwide discontentment with President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government. To save face, the government reacted by controversially importing maize from Mexico and offering it to consumers at a subsidized rate of USD 0.90. This move was however highly unsustainable. Just a day before putting down this piece, I visited three different malls in my city and could not find a single packet for my own use.
This crisis that was felt in dinner tables across the country has however exposed glaring incompetence and utter greed in the ruling Jubilee administration.
More than six months ago, half of the country was faced with skyrocketing food prices. It was already evident that there was going to be a national maize crisis following dwindled reserves at the government’s cereal stores.The government had two choices – to increase the amount paid to farmers from USD 30 per 90kg bag to USD 36 so that they can supply more maize to the stores or to allow for maize imports. It did neither.
Speaking in January, the Agriculture Cabinet Secretary (Minister) Willy Bet assured the country that there will be enough maize to last the country till June 2017 by which time the stores will have started taking in grains from the new harvest.
“I can assure you we have enough food to last us between now and June. That is why we are not talking about maize imports at the moment, we have not reached that level yet. We are still comfortable.”
This statement was based on two assumptions – one was that the maize in the stores would last the country that long. The other was that we would have a good harvest.
The first assumption failed and plunged the entire country into a serious crisis that threatened to send the government home before their time. Coming at an election year they needed a stop-gap measure and the import from Brazil was that temporary reprieve.
The second assumption failed to cater for unforeseen occurrences. Other than the erratic rainfall, most of the country’s maize producing zones were attacked by army worms which wiped out entire plantations. Earlier estimates said that the country which needs about 60 million bags of maize could lose up to 16 million bags to this scourge alone.
This means that even if we miraculously manage to meet the current demand for ugali, the country will still be faced with an even bigger crisis in the months to come driven by poor rainfall and army worms.
Why though was the government downplaying the food crisis?
In 2015, the Jubilee government invested USD 165 million in an ambitious irrigation project at the Kenyan coast that now turns out could have been another grand scam. While it has not been established whether any money was lost in the project that is a partnership between the Kenyan and Israeli governments, there has been nothing to show for this massive investment in three years even though maize is a crop that matures in just three months.
Was the silence part of government’s efforts to conceal the fact that it spent more than USD 70 million of our own money and another USD 95 million from donors on hot air?
I profess the Christian faith. This is a faith that abhors divorce except for in very special instances. One of those is if a man refuses to take care of the needs of his family. If Kenya was a family, the Jubilee government is that man and this relationship should be headed to divorce.
Whether Kenyans would rise above their ethnic differences on August 8th and send packing this government that is incapable of feeding its population however remains a matter that only time will tell.