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Kenya’s undisputed wheat basket

The sight of farmers around Narok drying wheat on the ground with agents haggling over price and quality is a reminder of how Kenya’s farmers take advantage of the plentiful sunshine to cut post-harvest costs. Makeshift canvas driers line both sides of the Maai Mahiu-Narok-Bomet highway, a section of the Northern Corridor transport system that creates a shorter link to western Kenya.

Narok is Kenya’s undisputed wheat basket, producing half of the national wheat output in any given year. Its lush wheat and maize (corn) farms, as well as livestock ranches dotted with thousands of cattle, sheep and goats, tell you why the over 2,000 farmers in this fertile region of the Rift Valley are so powerful. Moreover, it is gateway to the world famous Masai Mara game reserve, where wildlife riches and revenue, especially bountiful during this period of the famous wildebeest migration, are shared by the Narok and Trans-Mara county councils.

Although I am on my way back to work from a few days of family vacation in the Mara, I am anxious to have a chat with farmers about how they are coping with the current drought. I stop by one of the open canvas driers where young men are offloading wheat from a truck and packing it into gunny bags. No guessing who these workers are and who is controlling the trade – a youthful polished fella in sagging jeans is buying the best wheat. He tells me he is an agent of one of the large millers in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. I ask a few questions: “how is the harvest this year compared to last year? How are the prices?” That’s when the grim reality hits.  The agent explains that in the previous season, farmers produced on average 15 bags (90-kgs each) of wheat per acre but this year, the average production is three bags. “There is no wheat on the farms,” he says.

I would have expected that if the output is only 20 percent of last year’s then prices should, other things being constant, ideally reflect this shortage based on demand and supply forces. If last year’s price was Kenya Sh2,700 (US$30) a bag, then it should be Sh13,500 ($3150) a bag this year. But it doesn’t work that way.  The farm gate price, says the agent, is around Sh3,500 ($39) a bag. Why, I ask? His response is that the government has spoiled the market by allowing duty-free wheat imports.

I try to put the logic into perspective: here are farmers crying losses over the government’s policy, effective July 1, 2011, which temporarily suspended duty on maize, wheat and rice to enable millers to import corn and cereals to bridge local shortfalls. The duty waiver was expected to temper a rapid rise in consumer prices in response to global and local food deficits. Consumer prices of maize meal, wheat flour and other essential foodstuffs are still high and hurting the urban and rural poor.

The government policy originally meant to help, combined with the impact of drought and wheat rust fungus, has dampened prospects for local farmers, who have lost much of their crop but can’t make more money with imports tipping the supply balance. Unexpected rains in August, usually a dry month, have added to their troubles.

As I leave Narok, I can’t help thinking how far Kenyans are from achieving near self-sufficiency in their essential supply of wheat and bread. The current population of 40 million is increasingly urbanizing and the demand for wheat (in 2010) was estimated at over 900 metric tons compared to annual output of 225 tons or only 25 percent. When I get back to the office I pull some statistics on wheat production. Not much has changed in the past four decades; our national output is fairly much the same as it was in 1969 when the population was 10.9 million and more rural. The population has since then increased over 3.6 times, so we are depending more on imported wheat and using more foreign exchange. The bottom line is that with farmers producing 5.6 kg of wheat per Kenyan today compared to 20.5 kg in 1969, the stress and conflict between farmers and consumers is bound to continue rising.