I’ve been thinking lately how an entire nation of 44 million people can rely on one staple food, maize. Is it time to switch to rice, bananas, wheat, and potatoes? But hold that thought for a while, l’ll be back.
In case you didn’t know, we consume between 37 and 42 million bags per year. In addition, maize is also used in making animal feeds, starch and edible oil. Even when harvest is good, production is always below consumption necessitating costly imports. There’s also a link between drought and poor yield. Another thing is that maize is one of the most scandal-ridden crops in Kenya.
The problem with maize is that while its production is on a constant decline, the demand has increased over the years, as depicted below. At a yield of 1.6 tonnes per hectare in Kenya, this is way below Uganda (5 tonnes per hectare) and the global average (12 tonnes per hectare).
You see, in the last five years, maize imports increased more than eight-fold to 1,328 metric tonnes, while production declined by 6.3 per cent from 3,402 metric tonnes in 2016 to 3,186 in 2017.
But then, even as the country struggles to increase production, there’s need to improve value chains of other crops.
The Irish potato is the second most important crop in Kenya after maize. While Netherlands produces 52.6 tonnes of potatoes per hectare, Kenya does 7.9 tonnes, which is 15 per cent of what the Dutch farmer does. Although Kenya is among the 10 large producers of potatoes in Africa, it lags behind South Africa (36 tonnes per hectare), Egypt (26 tonnes) and Ethiopia (13.8 tonnes).
Irish potato is an excellent source of vitamin B6, vitamin C and potassium. It’s potential is clearly huge and unexploited.
Kenya is among the world’s leading producers of banana with an annual average yield of 1.4 million metric. The banana is a highly nutritious fruit free of fat, cholesterol or sodium. It’s a delicious and convenient snack any time of day.
Rice is another promising crop although just like maize, production can’t meet demand. Kenya produces 160,000 tonnes of rice against a consumption of 450,000 tonnes (see figure below). The good news is that in Mwea where the crop is grown on large scale, acreage and profitability is rising as a result of research, government support and irrigation.
Of course, there are other varieties of rice such as Nerica that grow without flooding fields. This variety can yield up to 20 bags per acre even in areas with moderate rainfall like western Kenya.
Other drought-resistant crops include millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes, Nduma and cassava.
The bottomline is that maize is Kenya’s staple food and production needs to increase even as we diversify to other crops.
Muriuki is an agricultural expert and consultant with Crest Agricultural Consultants Limited