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Fertiliser standard spells doom for Uhuru’s food safety agenda



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This one is to President Uhuru Kenyatta — and if he has to turn around the agriculture sector, and save one of his Big Four agenda initiatives from a dramatic collapse, he will have to address the cadmium question personally, and remove the cap placed on the standard on fertiliser imports.

Cadmium is a mineral used in the production of fertiliser. Recently, President Kenyatta bowed to pressure from commercial banks and removed the cap on interest rates. He can do it for agriculture, if he wants.

Most likely, the President has not been told the truth about why it is cheaper to grow maize in Ethiopia and Tanzania than in Kenya and must be listening to lots of cock-and-bull stories from the Ministry of Agriculture.

It has all to do with the politics of fertiliser procurement after the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) began playing in the super league with cartel networks that have for ages controlled the trade.

Let us not mince words here, there have been attempts to lock out cheap-priced fertiliser from the country and Kenya is at the centre of global market wars, and it is our farmers who are suffering.


Vladimir Lenin once said: “The government is tottering … to delay action is the same as death.” That is where we are now.

After we exposed the cadmium lie on these pages, at the Ministry of Agriculture and in the Kebs boardrooms, there has been snail-paced debate and endless technical parleys on how to address a standard that is regarded as KS157:2018.

Let me break this KS157:2018 down for the ordinary reader who has no idea how this impacts on the price of food and agriculture in the country for the umpteenth time — in the hope that somebody will listen.

KS157:2018 was a standard gazetted on February 23, 2018 to replace KS157:2010,and it lowered the cadmium limits allowed in imported fertiliser from 30 parts per million (ppm) — a measure of the level of cadmium in fertiliser — to 15 ppm.

By doing so, Kenya limited itself to just a few places it can buy fertiliser.

And because of that, its hands are usually tied to just a few traders and that is why our fertiliser prices remain high.

Our farmers are paying a huge price for this mischief by paying Sh3,800 for a 50kg of DAP fertiliser, which is used for planting.

Their UK and Scotland counterparts pay Sh2,400 for a similar 50kg bag, in India they pay Sh2,045; while this year Pakistan purchased a consignment of DAP for its farmers at Sh2,150 per 50kg.

In neighbouring Tanzania, DAP is retailing at Sh2,400, according to prices set by the Tanzania Fertiliser Regulatory Authority (TFRA) for 2018/2019; while in Ethiopia, the country has ordered DAP from a Morocco factory, which is now retailing at Sh2,000.

I have not heard President Kenyatta talk about the impact of cadmium limit — and his agricultural advisers (if he has any) may not have told him that the KS157:2018 standard denied farmers a chance to competitively purchase fertiliser from various sources and cheaply.

When specific industries started to lobby Kebs, and it agreed to change the cadmium limit from 30 ppm to 15 ppm, what that did was to leave the Kenyan market to only Saudi Arabia and a Russia conglomerate.

Actually, Russia has been conducting campaigns to dominate the fertiliser market by locking out competition through cadmium limits and it almost did the same in the European Union until somebody saw the bigger picture.

It is well known that scientists have never agreed on how much cadmium is too much.

“And when the road to the truth is unclear, the expressway to theories is open,” wrote journalist Eric Thompson in the International Policy Digest.

Besides the Russians, the Saudis and their Maaden factory reps have been visiting the country — and have publicly supported the lowering of cadmium to control the Kenyan market. But does this make fertiliser in this country cheaper?

Without any competitor, Kenyan farmers have been left at the hands of a few traders and can source their fertiliser from only two places — Russia and Saudi Arabia — and at premium prices.

Ethiopians have managed to import their fertiliser at cheaper prices and that is the reason some growers who were previously based in Kenya moved to Ethiopia.

We shot ourselves in the foot because only five per cent of the world distributors of DAP and MAP have reserves that can produce the high standards that Kenya has set for itself.

Currently, Kenya has set one of the highest standards globally and that means that our farmers will never compete with others and we will continue to import rice, maize and beans because we can’t competitively grow them.

Look at it this way: The US state of Washington has set its cadmium limit at 400 ppm, Canada (400 ppm), Oregon, US (152 ppm), Australia (59 ppm), Ethiopia (45 ppm), Tanzania (30ppm), Rwanda (30 ppm) and Kenya at 15 ppm.

That is how we have limited our procurement of fertiliser and unless we rectify these cartel-inspired standards — we can say kwaheri (goodbye) to food security.

We now know from minutes taken during the Kebs meeting of November 3, 2016 that the Saudi Arabian company argued that the proposal to lower the limit “was the right approach to protect the agriculture industry in Kenya” and added that 90 per cent of the cadmium in Africa came from phosphatic fertilisers — which may not be factual, after all.

What we also know is that Kenya has been a battleground on who will control the fertiliser sector and the three giants that have fought these wars are Russia’s PhosAgro, Maaden of Saudi Arabia and Morocco’s OCP Africa.

That is how OCP Africa found its fertilisers labelled “poisonous”, only to be discovered later that this was a far-fetched accusation and charge by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

OCP Africa had been told that their 5.85 million kilogrammes of fertiliser imported from Morocco had “failed to meet the standard set by Kebs and was rejected”.

What is this cadmium that now determines the price of our food and the future of our agriculture?

Cadmium occurs naturally in phosphate rock, though levels vary depending on where it is mined.

While Russian and Saudi Arabian fertilisers have naturally low cadmium levels, north African phosphate producers — Tunisia and Moroccan — have naturally higher levels.

Morocco is particularly the global target of importers worldwide because it has the world’s largest deposits of phosphate rock — and it is seen as the saviour of farmers in the years to come.

One of the agriculture organisations, One Acre Fund, had actually warned a Kebs technical committee not to interfere with the cap on cadmium limit.

“The proposed new limit of 15 ppm for cadmium is too low and greatly reduces the ability of many fertiliser companies with the largest reserves of phosphate to comply, which may have a great effect on fertiliser prices and reduced market competition due to limited sources that have low cadmium levels.”

A report filed by the Technical Committee for the Change of Standard lied that it had made reference to EU cadmium limits and FAO mineral fertiliser specifications 2012.

This was a lie because the EU adopted a cap of 60 ppm to give its farmers an opportunity to source fertiliser from various countries and to open competition.

While the minutes of a meeting held at Kebs offices on October 10, 2017 said the “decision was not targeted at any individual manufacturer or importer”, it was the Kenyan farmers who were to miss out if a major fertiliser importer was locked out and if we don’t allow competition in pricing.

That is how cartels work — and we are at their mercy.

President Kenyatta should now take it upon himself to save one of his Big Four agenda initiatives by simply looking at the fertiliser sector.

The more we let Kenya become the theatre of these global fertiliser wars, the more our farmers suffer.

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