OBWOGO: Join the Conversation—People Say Farmers Should Stop Growing Maize. Do You Agree?

Dr Subiri Obwogo • 10 May 2019

You probably know my stand on whether sugarcane farming in Western and Nyanza regions is an economically viable idea. I’d mentioned in an earlier article that there are better alternatives such as millet, sorghum, tubers, roots and bananas.

However, when it comes to maize, the jury is out.  

It’s easy to understand why some people have been arguing that farmers in high potential areas such as Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia should seek alternatives such as avocados, macadamia and coffee.

Unfortunately, compared to other cereals such as such as rice, wheat, millet, sorghum, potatoes or cassava, maize has one of the highest yield in tonnage of any crop. It’s also a staple food in Kenya and the most important substrate for making animal feeds.

Here’s the problem. The country’s maize production at 1.6 tonnes per hectare according to 2017 data, is way below global average of 12 tonnes and even Uganda’s 5 tonnes per hectare.

In other words, Uganda produces three times per hectare what we do. It’s no wonder that a 90-kg bag of maize from Uganda retails between Sh1500 and Sh1800. One reason why poultry products from Uganda flood the Kenyan market is that maize, the main substrate for making poultry feeds, is cheaper there. A common lie, is that Ugandans are self-sufficient in maize because unlike Kenyans, matoke (bananas) is their staple food.

Maize graph

The top two maize-producing counties in Kenya, Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia produce 4.8 million and 5.3 million bags of maize per year respectively.

The main challenges include erratic rains, use of sub-standard fertiliser, pests and diseases especially the dreaded Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease (MLND) and soil acidity. However, inadequate rainfall stands out and one advantage that Uganda has over Kenya is abundant rainfall.

Maize has the highest estimated water requirement for optimum growth and yield of any crop. Whereas the peak water use rate for vegetables and most grains falls between 0.2 and 0.25 inches per day per acre, the peak water use rate for high-yielding maize can reach 0.33 inches per day. An acre inch of water is equivalent to 27,154 gallons. That means depending on useful rain in any given year, maize requires irrigation to supplement water during the entire growing season.

Of course, maize farmers face other challenges such as mismanagement of the sector and blatant corruption, poor market prices, competition from cheap imports, inadequate support in form of fertiliser subsidy, exploitative middlemen, among others. This year, the government stopped the subsidised fertiliser programme. Without this subsidy, farmers will have to buy a 50kg bag of DAP fertiliser at market prices of between sh3,200 and Sh3500, against Sh1,800 when subsidised.

Although intended to benefit small-scale farmers, a 2018 World Bank Kenya Economic Update Report indicated that the main beneficiaries of subsidised fertiliser were middle and large scale farmers.

If you ask me, the best shot Kenya had was investing in water capture and retention. But then, the country has nothing to show for the estimated Sh700 billion dam deals it signed. If you want to know why Kenyans are hungry and poor, asking the government is like asking the barber if you need a haircut.