By David Kigochi
Mid-March, Kenya set the stage for a war with its main trading partners after it banned importation of maize from Uganda and Tanzania. There was confusion in the East African grain market.
The Agriculture and Food Authority said the reason for the ban was that levels of mycotoxins in the maize from the two countries were above safety limits. However, in less than a week the Kenyan government appeared to backtrack and announced that it had asked its East African Community trading partners to pass sanitary and phytosanitary standards on farm produce before it reached Kenya.
Even as the Kenya government has the obligation to protect its farmers and consumers, the move was “unilateral.” There are established procedures to ban trade of goods among partner states.
Mycotoxins are naturally-occurring toxins produced by certain moulds (fungi) and can be found in food. They are capable of causing disease and death in both humans and other animals. Aflatoxin has been known to cause cancer.
The decision inflamed tensions between Kenya and its neighbours, particularly Tanzania which has had strained relations with Kenya.
Our fear is that other EAC states are likely to interpret the policy action as a non-tariff barrier (NTB) aimed at locking their traders from accessing the Kenyan market. It is true that while SPS measures are meant to protect the health of the citizens, they are also NTBs.
For EAC, there should be standards for all tradeable agricultural goods within the regional trade bloc to, which each member state is expected to adhere to. The fact that we are in a free trade area does not mean that we have lost control of the standards.
Kenya produces less maize than it consumes with the shortage being plugged by imports from Uganda and Tanzania. Official data show that Kenya imported maize valued at KSh4.2 billion from Tanzania in 2019.
The truth is that, Kenya has the potential to produce enough maize and feed the region. We have just not positioned ourselves to do that. State-led agricultural interventions including input subsidies is required. This would guarantee food security in many rural households. However, input subsides should be carefully targeted.
A successful example is Malawi, where a government program distributed coupons to farmers so they could purchase maize seed and fertilizer at reduced prices. With the added benefit of a good rainfall, maize production in Malawi doubled in 2006 and almost tripled in 2007.
Under the EAC’s common market – which all three countries belong to – safe rules have been, which set standards for aflatoxins in maize. These vary from one jurisdiction to another. The EAC’s standard is 10 parts per billion, the US’s is 20 parts per billion while the EU standard is four parts per billion.
In the EAC, each country enforces the safety standard. But the systems put in place for testing are flawed. For example, Kenya does not have a standard method for sampling and testing for aflatoxins. This is critical because aflatoxin levels can differ between grain collected from the same sack.
Another challenge is that laboratories don’t all use the same protocols. Currently, important actors such as large grain milling companies conduct their own tests. Standardising the sampling methodology would make the results more consistent. Credibility of the results enhances food safety and certainty for maize traders and consumers.
Events of last month have raised awareness about food safety standards in the region. The developments are also significant for farmers in both countries.
Farmers in Uganda mainly grow maize as a cash crop and Kenya is a key market destination. In Tanzania, Kenya is a niche market offering better prices than domestic prices. Any interruption in trade to Kenya would mean that farmers faced huge losses.
Third, this could potentially be a big win for food safety in Kenya. The government intervening to ensure food safety will increase awareness among producers and consumers. If sustained, Kenya will make progress on food safety in the food supply chains.
It is clear from Kenya’s statement lifting the temporary ban that authorities intend to take a tough stance in policing maize imports. Maize importers will now be required to register, and incoming consignments must be accompanied by a certificate of conformity with aflatoxin levels.
Along with this, traders must provide details of their warehousing. The high levels of aflatoxins in imports from the region are associated with the fact that produce isn’t properly dried.
For instance, Ugandan produce is regularly harvested and immediately transported to Kenya from the farm. Maize should be dried to 13% moisture level before storage. Some of the maize is thought to have up to 18% moisture content, implying that once the maize is harvested, it is immediately sold and shipped to Kenya from these countries.
Tanzania has been known to use NTBs to stem the free flow of goods from other EAC countries, with Odhiambo noting that Dar-es-Salaam has not fully opened its market to Kenya. They are limiting what is coming from the other countries. They have never opened up to the EAC Common Market Protocol. In November 2017, Tanzania government burnt 6,400 day-old chicks imported from Kenya, citing health issues.
According to Tanzanian media, the consignment of chicks worth KSh12.5 million was destroyed in the wake of illegal imports and fear of the spread of bird flu.
However, the decision to burn the chicks was seen as a retaliation to an earlier move by Kenya to ban importation of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from Tanzania.
David Kigochi is the Leader, Famers Party of Kenya.