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Banning Uganda’s Maize, a sign of poorly managed progress


Uganda is a renowned agricultural nation that has made its mark in food production in Eastern Africa. On 5th March 2021, Kenya slapped a ban on the importation of Maize from Uganda as an addition to the list of chicken, meat and egg imports that had been stopped earlier in January 2021.

There is alot of noise being made over this move by our neighbour and this has led to alot of gossip, as social media has lately turned out to be. The Key questions to ask are:

Is it a good move by Kenya?

I don’t think so because it seems a rushed decision that was not given time to properly get addressed. However, this conclusion is based on the limited information available to the public over this matter. I know that there have been times when Government of Uganda officials have been engaged by trade partners over exports and the decision makers chose to merely keep mum until disaster struck. A few years back, the EU was pushed to put a blockade on the export of Pepper from Uganda and upon analysis, there had been no response from senior officials of the Ministry of Agriculture to the concerns raised.

Are there genuine concerns?

Yes. The concerns are there. The concern raised of Aflatoxins is very legitimate and is a reflection of the poor post harvest handling of produce in Uganda. As an Agribusiness professional, I see this nearly everywhere I go in this country. Once my company got an opportunity to supply a USAID project fortified food of Silver Fish and Groundnuts. The requirement was that the nuts should be aflatoxin free. We submitted four samples and despite trying our level best to get the best from different farmer groups, they all failed the test. However, move around the countryside in the homes of these smallholder farmers and see the kind of produce they have stored in their excuses of stores. The presence of fungi and all sorts of mould on it is a common feature. A serious nation should have concern over the health of its people and ensure that they do not get into unnecessary complications as a result of ingested food.

Is it politics at play?

I could say, Yes and No. No because there is definitely a problem with the quality of produce we churn out as a country. The causes of this are diverse and require a separate article to exhaust. However, one can not also rule out a political angle to all this. There are two lines of thought that are being peddled.

They evolve around the Kenyan Vice President Mr. William Ruto who is rumored to be the biggest importer of Maize from Uganda into Kenya. Due to his presidential ambitions, this move is viewed as a measure to cripple his finances prior to the upcoming 2022 general elections where he is likely to face off with the legendary Mr. Raila Odinga who happens to be favoured by the current president Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta.

The second line of argument is about a 500,000 Hectare farm that Mr Ruto allegedly owns in Congo (Brazzaville) that is growing maize and hence is now trying to seal off other sources of maize so he can import his from Congo and sell on the Kenyan market. This could be mere rumour, partly true or factual.

Is Uganda going wrong somewhere?

Yes. We are definitely not doing many things right. While we have brains that have studied Agriculture upto the highest possible levels manning the various institutions in this country, their output seems not to match the amount of investment put into educating them.

We have religiously preached the issue of production and over the years, farmers have responded, produced and flooded the market with various produce. Preaching production should have taken the form of a holistic approach which we didn’t. We took pride in the increasing volumes without factoring in the actual composition of what we produced.

Between the year 2000 and 2021, Uganda has experienced a steady growth in maize production annually. Source – Knoema

Qualitatively, we did not really care to make any change. The entire value chain for most products is corrupted and the perpetrators do it with a very near sighted, blind as a bat mindset. They focus on immediate gains without knowing that they are compromising on the future of the industry.

The country has failed to empower the various monitoring agencies like the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) to effectively carry out their work nationwide without political interference. The last time the UNBS talked to various millers about the need to change the technology used to reduce on the pollution of our flours with metallic material that comes off the grinders used, there was an uproar.

When you look at our animals and fowls, they feed on the worst possible feed available. If it is silver fish, the one used is filled with all sorts of contaminants that arise due to the reckless handling with the traders claiming, “After all, this is for animals.” They forget that what these animals ingest later gets into our body systems as we eat the same animals. Life is a cycle, Garbage In Garbage Out (GIGO).

As a country, we have a very good comparative advantage when it comes to various agricultural produce that leads us to have very low cost production compared to other countries in the region and world over. However, we have simply flirted around when it comes to building export competitiveness. Our ability to compete globally in value added traded goods is very poor. Someone has been sleeping on duty. Why should Kenya alone be responsible for 90% of our exported maize? Planners been crossing their legs grinning like contented dunderheads instead of thinking about diversifying our client portfolio? Take it or leave it, we can get into markets as far as Asia with ease if only we met the basics. Just this morning I met someone that wants to purchase dried cassava in bulk for export to China and the current indications are that as long as along the way, there is no political interference or presence of unscrupulous officials, supplying the Metric Tonnes desired can very easily be achieved. It’s time for these dunderheads to earn their salaries and allowances.

Do we have focus on our agricultural growth?

As a country, the producers are so focused on Agriculture but those meant to facilitate the smooth flow of the entire industry are either grossly constrained or have chosen to press the sleep button of their brains. There is alot of research work going on at the various institutes but little reaches the end user (farmer). The time I spend on radio talking to farmers has revealed to me that either the extension officials in most of the districts are none existent, poorly equipped or clueless about the work they are expected to do.

What next?

There is need for a set of fresh eyes to scan the entire agriculture sector and help those running the show to re-align their interventions. Post harvest handling is very key if we are going to make gains in export competitiveness. One will always claim the lack of money but the resources required to address it are within our means to afford. I have found a good number of government technocrats always yearning for foreign funds before doing what they should normally be doing in their workplaces.

Instead of crying for a quick return to the Kenyan market, we need to carry out detailed soul searching in order to find out why it is so hard for us to even execute the simplest of things like fighting aflatoxins through improved post harvest handling of produce. True we shall suffer as farmers out there but this leads us to another issue and that is finding out the officials that have long slept on the job and either reprimanding them or bidding them farewell.

Improvement of local produce or various by products shall help us attract far off markets and it shall be important to maintain a strict monitoring regimen of the value chain and this could include putting in place appropriate legislation.

I however do not see this ban working for long and can confidently state here that it is setting up the unscrupulous (magendo) traders to make higher profits as they will never stop yearning for the much cheaper Ugandan maize.

James Wire

Agribusiness Consultant

Twitter – @wirejames

Email – lunghabo [at] gmail [dot] com

The Wire Perspective – http://wirejames.com