Disband NCPB and let supply and demand forces prevail in an open maize market

Harvesting season: Workers pack maize after drying at Simatwet in Trans Nzoia County on October 24, 2022

Harvesting season: Workers pack maize after drying at Simatwet in Trans Nzoia County on October 24, 2022. Government has no obligation to buy or sell maize. Maize is a commodity like any other that should be left to market forces.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Moses Kuria, the new Cabinet Secretary for Trade and Investment, is notorious for his vulgar motormouth. His outburst after a group of MPs and Catholic prelates opposed his scheme to import 10 million bags of genetically modified maize was uncouth.

Listen to him: “Being in this country, you are a candidate for death and because there areso many things that can kill us in this country, there’s nothing wrong with adding GMOs to that list.”

Irrespective of where one stands on GM foods, such language is mannerless and uncalled for, especially coming from a CS. In fact the MPs have threatened to impeach him.

Incidentally, is importation of maize under his docket or the Agriculture ministry? Now the two ministries have started speaking in tongues, with Agriculture insisting it has not imported any GM maize.

I do support Kuria on one thing, though.

In his usual rough manner, he told off farmers who have grown accustomed to the National Cereals and Produce Board (i.e. the government) automatically buying their maize when they harvest.

He told them that the government will not be doing so again and they should sell directly to millers, as it should be.

Above-market prices

The CS accused farmers of hoarding maize expecting to make the usual killing from the government buying from them at above-market prices. (This hoarding, he implied, had prompted the government to import GM maize).

Henceforth, Kuria said, the government will only be buying maize for the Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR), not acting as broker between farmers and millers.

Again, unless roles have changed, I don't know in what capacity Kuria was issuing policy on NCPB, as this has traditionally come under the Agriculture ministry.

Given this far-reaching but necessary directive to maize farmers, I won’t be surprised if he’s overruled by his superiors.

That notwithstanding, Kuria has a point. Government has no obligation to buy or sell maize. Maize is a commodity like any other that should be left to market forces, as per the laws of supply and demand. Does government buy potatoes, or beans, or cabbages? Why maize? Does it have a contract to buy maize from anybody? Government should get out of the maize market. Leave it to farmers and millers.

NCPB should confine itself to ensuring the SGR has adequate stock from the cheapest source, even if it's Tanzania. Our farmers must learn to farm maize competitively. They must wean themselves from subsidies.

Actually, the NCPB should be disbanded. It's for long been a corruption conduit for elite cartels. They import cheap maize and force it to buy at inflated prices.

Local farmers don't want to sell to NCPB at market prices either, despite being subsidised with fertilisers. This is misuse of our taxes, which underwrite this wasteful expenditure. And it directly contributes to high food prices compared to neighbouring countries.

Special consideration

The argument that maize is a staple that requires special consideration is outdated. Oh, I can already hear the chorus: “The agricultural sector is too important to be exposed to free markets.”

I ask, why not? What is the point of pampering farmers if they are inefficient? The fact that politicians in other countries do so doesn't make it right. They do it to get votes, not because it makes economic sense.

Government’s role is not to engage in trade in maize or carrots or bananas. It's role is to facilitate and ensure these commodities are available and are trading freely across the country.

If there's a shortage, let millers and traders import from wherever they find cheap maize. Government should get out of that business. It should stick to policy, such as determing whether GMOs are harmful or not.

In fact, the people who get disadvantaged by government meddling and high maize prices are non-farmers and urban dwellers. These are the main consumers of commercially milled unga. It's only the cartels who profit.

The subsistence farmer has his own small plot where he grows maize for his family use. When he wants unga, he takes his maize to a nearby posho mill, and he gets his flour. He'd survive perfectly well even if NCPB did not exist.

By the way, who ordered the alleged GM maize? Where is it coming from? Who’s paying for it?

* * * * * *

IEBC commissioners Juliana Cherera, Justus Nyang'aya, Francis Wanderi and Irene Masit face certain impeachment. Their goose looks cooked. Every indication is that the National Assembly Justice and Legal Affairs Committee will be railroaded to recommend their removal.

It’s a foregone conclusion the UDA majority in the House will then petition the President to appoint a tribunal to seal their fate. The thing with such tribunals is that the President is free to pack them with people who sing his tune.

Cherera’s, Nyang’aya’s, Wanderi’s and Masit’s crime is that they disagreed with chairman Wafula Chebukati and his two IEBC allies, Yakub Guliye and Boya Molu, on the results of the August 9 presidential election. A loaded claim made in the trio’s affidavit before the Supreme Court was that Cherera and company were acting at the behest of certain high officials of state. However, this claim was not tested through cross-examination. Actually, the court never censured them or said they did anything illegal. Instead it criticised Chebukati for running the show unilaterally.

The current government is determined that Cherera, who’s IEBC vice-chairperson, does not take the chair once Chebukati departs. He and his three friends’ terms are ending very soon. I forsee a snag. Once the Cherera Four are kicked out as the Chebukati trio retires, what becomes of the parliamentary and MCA by-elections scheduled for next month and early next year?

Cherera and team have one final recourse: the courts. But going by recent trends, there’s probably no hope there.

[email protected]; @GitauWarigi