Consumers are headed for tough times amid plans by the Devolution ministry to release the entire buffer stock of maize, normally used to supplement millers in times of shortages to check against the rise in cost of flour.
Devolution Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa announced this week that the government will release three million bags currently being held at the Strategic Food Reserve to millions of Kenyans faced with starvation.
Over the last couple of years, the government has been releasing stocks from the reserve to millers at a cheaper cost in order to safeguard consumers against exorbitant prices.
“What the government needs to do now is to lift duty on maize and allow imports of grain. It’s a fact that we are not going to have sufficient stocks in the near future,” an official of the Cereal Millers Association said.
“This has to be done now considering the time it takes for grain from outside East African region to get here,” he added.
The release of stocks comes barely three months into the year, implying that the country is likely to face a tight supply of grain between now and the next short season crop expected in the market in August.
However, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri on Thursday said the country had enough maize to last up to May.
“There should be no worry over shortage,” Mr Kiunjuri said without giving details of the total stocks.
Stakeholders are currently in the darkness over the total amount of maize in the country following the harvest of last season’s long rain crop, which registered a dismal performance.
They will get the details when a food balance sheet that was to be released last week is eventually made available by the government
There was an indication that the ministry would give an update on Wednesday, but that did not happen with officials at Kilimo House saying the CS was held up in other duties.
The food balance sheet gives the number of bags that millers, traders, farmers and the National Cereals and Produce Board is holding as well as projections on the deficit or surplus.
Last year, the government released more than two million bags of maize to millers when the price of a two kilo packet of flour hit a high of Sh153, the highest in the last decade.
The price of the 90kg bag had hit Sh5,000, forcing the government to release the stocks from the reserve at almost half the market price to tame the rising cost.
The reserve normally holds an equivalent of the country’s monthly consumption to act as a buffer stock in times of serious shortages as the government plans for other measures of increasing supply in the market, mainly through imports.
Kenya consumes an average of three million bags of maize a month.
Part of the three million bags has already been released to the residents of drought-stricken Tana River, Kilifi, Taita-Taveta, Kwale and Kajiado counties.
According to Unicef, the worst hit counties are Turkana, Marsabit, Samburu, Tana River, Isiolo, Mandera, Garissa, Wajir and Baringo.
This is because of the failed rains in 2017 and expected dry season this year.
Last week, Kenya Red Cross started a campaign to raise Sh1 billion to feed 3.4 million Kenyans faced with hunger across the country.
National Disaster Management Authority chief executive officer James Oduor said they need Sh3.8 billion between now and April to curb the looming hunger.
“We need to move first to tame the current situation as some of the counties have already crossed to the alarming stage,” he said.
The chairman of the United Grain Millers Association, Peter Kuguru, said last month maize supply in the market would be completely depleted by the end of March, with insufficient stocks in the market likely to push the cost of flour to Sh200 for a 2kg packet.
Millers say the country is currently enjoying relatively lower cost of flour because of imports from Uganda and Tanzania.
Ms Jacinta Mwau, the regional manager market information system at Eastern Africa Grain Council (EAGC), said there is enough grain in Tanzania and Uganda to boost the local stocks for a while.
Imports from Uganda have been growing since October last year following a bumper crop in the neighbouring country.
Data from EAGC indicates cross border trade between the two countries increased from 1,408 tonnes in the fourth quarter of 2016 to 47,563 tonnes in the same period last year.