Wheat should be central to Kenya's food security strategy

What you need to know:

  • While the million-acre irrigation aspiration is a step in the right direction, we shouldn’t just grow maize there. We should grow wheat.  
  • NCPB gives false hope that it is profitable to grow maize since they will buy it.
  • We are hopelessly disjointed, preferring to work in silos, only to look up occasionally to ask why our people are poor.

At a wedding I attended recently, I noted a strange phenomenon among the younger guests. 

They avoided ugali (cooked, mashed maize meal). Instead, their plates were packed full of chapati (unleavened wheat flatbread). 

I have since made similar observations in many subsequent gatherings. In their strange, untelevised contest, chapati is preferred over ugali.

Before I could make some conclusions about our changing consumption patterns, I searched for consumption data over the past ten years.

The results were startling. Domestic wheat consumption increased from 671,000 tons in 2004 to 1,850,000 tons in 2014. It has more than doubled within10 years.   

Production, however, has seesawed between 215,000 tons in 2007, a peak of 512,000 tons in 2009 and a dip to 415,000 tons in 2014. Imports have been going up at an average of 20 percent per annum.

Correspondingly, consumption of maize meal has been declining since 1995.

If policy makers were watching, we would have changed our agricultural policy by now. Clearly, we need to consider evidence-based, dynamic, policymaking as a strategy to deal with food insecurity.


A household survey conducted by Egerton University's Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Economics concluded “there has been a decline in consumption of maize products and rice. The poorest have experienced the greatest decline. Consumption of wheat products has grown significantly among all groups, but particularly among higher income groups. These results also indicate a significant shift in maize meal consumption patterns.”

The Tegemeo report concluded that “Because wheat is emerging as an important expenditure item among the urban households, even the poor, the duty on imported wheat and wheat flour may have adverse effects on urban poverty.”

What is even more worrying, the changing consumption patterns aside, is the disconnect between research, which should provide evidence for policymaking, and the policymaking process itself.  

When commodity prices went up a few years ago, politicians poured into the streets to protest and demand that the price of maize meal come down.  They were clueless that the sand beneath consumption was shifting.

Virtually every report on food security shows a steady growth in wheat consumption while other foods like maize are declining. The increasing presence of fast food restaurants and supermarkets make a variety of wheat-based foods more readily available.

The mushrooming of micro entrepreneurs making wheat-based products in poor neighbourhoods has added to the increase in per capita consumption of wheat, to more than 35 kg per person per year.

This is a major shift, considering that non-maize meal consuming countries like the US consume about 74kg per person per year. 

This shift is driven by the youth, who have a different taste and are goaded into exotic culinary experiments by the mass media.

Youth constitute 75 per cent of the population and when they change their consumption patterns, it translates into either a great opportunity or dire consequences in our quest for food security. 

Most of my generation grew up only seeing chapati or bread once a year, and that was at Christmas. This once-rare commodity is increasingly becoming an essential item of regular food intake.

To reflect this change, we should change our food policy, to make wheat central to our food security strategy.


If we dared reflect what is happening on the ground, we would by now have created incentives to improve local production of wheat and reduce dependence on imports. 

It makes no sense having huge tracts of land in Turkana, rich aquifers underneath, thousands of unemployed youth and hunger at the same time.

While the million-acre irrigation aspiration is a step in the right direction, we shouldn’t just grow maize there. We should grow wheat.  

Sense dictates that we leverage the resources we have to create solutions to our problems.

For this to work, policymakers must somehow develop the hunger for data in order to make informed policy choices.  Fortunately, there is no shortage of research in this era of collaboration.

The discourse on food security is still centred on the amount of maize in our strategic reserves.

So complacent are we in our conviction about the role and place of maize that even the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) is not bothered that they have only 1.5 million 90 kg bags in the strategic reserves instead of the more than 3 million 90kg bag reserve base.

Millers have always complained that NCPB’s role is irrelevant and that the board interferes with market dynamics. In my view, it also hampers innovations in the agricultural sector.

NCPB gives false hope that it is profitable to grow maize since they will buy it. Well, if we left it to market dynamics, farmers will use their excess produce to make animal feed. 

In any case, maize productivity has declined in many parts of the country due to excessive land sub division. Opportunity now lies in large-scale production of wheat in unexploited areas like Turkana and Tana River.

The ripple effect of exploiting a resource with increasing demand and with new innovations would be felt across the country. 

Some farmers will begin to make silage from their maize crop and increase demand for it. This will translate to increased carcass weight of beef to satisfy the insatiable demand for beef in Africa and the Middle East. 

Optimal production of beef has a knock-on effect on peace among the pastoralists in the north.  Most livestock stolen in Northern Kenya ends up in dinner tables in Nairobi, leaving communities killing and maiming each other over stolen cattle that is always never recovered even with modern technologies.


At the recent Institute of Development Studies (IDS) 50th anniversary celebrations, academics were still complaining that their research does not inform policy as it should. It is sad that more than 50 years since independence, we are still not making evidence-based policies.

We are hopelessly disjointed, preferring to work in silos, only to look up occasionally to ask why our people are poor.  The need for multidisciplinary reporting is more urgent now than ever before.

I have had the privilege of talking to several academics within and outside the country and all I see is an overwhelming interest to save Africa from itself and more critically from its leadership. 

A professor from the London School of Economics recently told me of an interesting research finding. When farmers in Uganda used the correct seed, their productivity went up by as much as 50 per cent. When the same farmers used poor quality seed, their productivity went down by as much as 18 percent.

From this example, it is not difficult to see why our folks live in perpetual poverty when simple research collaborations can lead to greater productivity and wealth.

The basic ingredient to a greater appetite for evidence-based policy is political will, and in as much as I try to avoid politics in my writing, it is one thing that is holding Africa back. 

When all politicians, for example, agree to change the Constitution, know that there is something fundamentally wrong.


Indeed, if there is anything that needs to change in the Constitution, it is the addition of job descriptions with specific key performance index for every leader.

We should for example, measure the performance of governors by the number of people who move out of poverty, rise in literacy levels, find jobs, and and escape child mortality in their respective counties.

It is also their responsibility to see that all the elected leaders work together for the benefit of the people. 

Universities, which should be run by competent, well-meaning people, should be independently funded to conduct research, collect and disseminate data for these measurements and provide clear mechanisms for using research to inform policy.

Accordingly, the President’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) should be national security, national cohesion, food security and other measurable national engagements.

Africa’s future depends on what we do today. We must leverage research to inform policy, especially in agriculture, for greater productivity and food security. 

Policy dynamics must change to embrace using numbers that would help us predict trends and future needs.

For now, we must revise our food policy to focus in areas of increasing demand, and use that demand to create jobs that sustain our economy.

Chinese Philosopher Xun Zi said, “When you concentrate on agriculture and industry and are frugal in expenditures, Heaven cannot impoverish your state.” 

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.Twitter: @bantigito