Maize farmers’ woes skyrocketed in 2018 as cartels and unscrupulous traders took the National Cereals and Produce Board hostage.
As farmers cried foul, the law caught up with senior government officials accused of colluding with traders to defraud farmers.
The farmers say things started going wrong three years ago, when the government sold them substandard fertiliser that destroyed their yields.
By May this year, farmers had not been paid for the maize they delivered to NCPB depots a year after. This prompted Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri to clean up the cereals board, which was gripped with major corruption.
An internal audit saw eight senior officials suspended from NCPB. The internal ministry report showed that eight farmers, seven from the Eldoret depot, were paid Sh607,764,171.
The report further showed that a trader, Celestine Chepchirchir, who is not a registered farmer, delivered 226,108 bags of 50kg to Eldoret and was paid Sh333 million. She is yet to be paid Sh62.1 million. Experts say that producing 226,108 bags is nearly impossible for one farmer in Kenya because it requires almost 11,305 acres, nearly twice the size of some constituencies.
The internal report indicated that Stephen Maiyo was paid Sh148 million for supplying 109,506 bags of maize and was yet to be paid Sh43 million.
At Kisumu depot, Caroline Chepchumba was supposed to receive Sh216 million for supplying 121,617 bags. NCPB has paid her Sh96.2 million.
Following these revelations, NCPB managing director Newton Terer resigned, as Kiunjuri cracked the whip. Five top managers were also suspended and 59 other officials put under investigation in the purge.
Kiunjuri then invited EACC and DCI to conduct further investigations. Agriculture PS Richard Lesiyampe, former NCPB MD Newton Terer and former finance manager were subsequently charged in court.
But this did not appear to appease the troubled farmers, who have for many years complained of low maize prices due to competition from cheap maize coming from Uganda, delays in payment and also mismanagement of NCPB.
Politics also took centre stage. This seemed to complicate things more for the farmers, as politicians accused each other of the troubles befalling farmers, especially in the North Rift region.
On November 17, MPs Alfred Keter of Nandi Hills, Joshua Kuttuny of Cheranganyi and Sila Tiren of Moiben accused DP William Ruto of giving farmers false promises and asking them to grow alternative crops, such as avocado and cabbages.
The three Jubilee MPs said Ruto is squarely to blame for the problems facing maize farmers.
The MPs further said the DP recently visited Congo Brazzaville, where he allegedly planned how to start maize farming on a 500,000-acre land.
Further, the legislators wanted the government to purchase maize from farmers at a price of Sh3,600, but the government has been adamant that it will buy a 90kg bag of maize at Sh2,300.
Local politicians and stakeholders in the maize sector have strongly opposed the move to have maize farmers dictate the price of maize, saying that this will double the price of maize to Sh150 up from the current price of Sh75.
Farmers from the North Rift had demanded that the government buy a 90kg bag of maize at Sh3,600 but later reduced the price to Sh3,200. However, following a Cabinet meeting, President Uhuru Kenyatta directed the Strategic Food Reserve to buy a 90kg bag at Sh2,300. This, according to Kuinjuri, will ensure the price of unga retails at less than Sh100.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING?
Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria recently said in an interview with Citizen TV that Kenyans are wasting a lot of time talking about one item of our country’s menu.
“Ugali alone cannot sustain a man. For you to eat maize or ugali, you need something else so that the meal is balanced. For instance, cabbages from Nyandarua or rice from Kirinyaga or some fish from Kisumu. I wonder why nobody is talking about other food that goes alongside maize,” Kuria said.
“Where did we agree that farmers only grow maize with the sole intention of selling to the government, so that they can now start demanding on the price the government should purchase maize at? I think some bad behaviour has crept into our maize farmers and they are now blackmailing the government.”
Tigania West MP John Mutunga, who is a member of the National Assembly Agriculture Committee, said that that the hype on maize in Kenya is misplaced.
“It is very wrong for people to say that maize is the only staple food in Kenya, while the number one staple food is potatoes, yet it is not given the kind of advocacy and prominence maize gets,” he told the Star.
“I think we need to balance on which food Kenyans should eat. We need to diversify because we don’t need to rely on maize forever, and also recognise which food is eaten most in Kenya.”
Mutunga is the former CEO of Kenya National Farmers’ Federation. “I am a very strong supporter of farmers, having worked in a farmers’ organisation for many years, and I think they got it wrong on this maize issue. I think we are hyping it for no reason,” he said.
He said there should be a basis why maize should be bought at Sh3,600 or Sh3,200 instead of just mentioning a figure.
“We should leave everything to the open-market competition of supply and demand. Even maize should be exposed to supply and demand like other crops in the market. Some people from some parts of this country feel that it is their right to keep on pushing the government to increase the price of maize, which is wrong,” Mutunga said.
A report tabled before Senate on November 27 recommended that county governments should immediately take over the NCPB depots in their jurisdiction and come up with a management and maintenance plan.
The Agriculture CS has made changes to ensure that government subsidies reach farmers easier and in an effective way, by establishing buying centres where farmers can easily access the farm inputs.
But as the year ends and farmers prepare for the long rains seasons, some have vowed to stop planting maize for food but instead grow maize for animal feeds.