Food inflation returning Kenyans to the farm

The soak of the much-awaited long rains has never found Kenyans more prepared to reverse the current state of food scarcity as farms across the country are coated with greenery of new crop.

Farmers are not taking chances with the government unable to secure maize from international market to bridge the deficit and are returning to farms in what may prove to be a huge swing in productivity.

While they wait, fearing the ominous warning that the March-April-May long rains may be less than average and with an impending El Nino later in the year, farmers are hoping they will reap enough to sustain them from the country’s worst cost of living crisis in years.

You do not have to look far to understand why. Households in Kenya are grappling with the fastest annual increase in food prices in over a decade, March inflation figures show as the rising cost of basic essentials heaps further pressure from sky-high energy bills.

Kenya’s annual food price increase, which constitutes the largest component in the country’s inflation basket, rose to 13.4 percent in March 2023, up from 13.3 percent a month earlier, figures from Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) reveal.

Food inflation in Kenya averaged 9.76 percent from 2010 until 2023, save for an all-time high of 26.20 percent recorded in October 2011 and a record low of -1.15 percent reported in August 2018.

Experts say the worst drought in a half-century affecting harvests of common food items alongside sky-high energy costs and supply chain woes triggered by Russia’s war with Ukraine now in its second year are the main cause for the pain.

In March, about 30,000 tons of wheat arrived in Kenya under a UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative, a scheme where Moscow agreed not to block grain shipments from Ukraine. On average, Kenya imports 2.5 million tons of wheat from Ukraine each year to plug deficits from local harvests.

The UN World Food Program says the disruption in the movement of grain from Ukraine and Russia has left some 345 million people, mainly in Africa, food insecure.

A devastating drought in Kenya has left close to five million people in dire need of food supplies, with 1.2 million trapped in emergency hunger levels as supplies of common food items thin out, as their prices go beyond the reach of many households.

Maize production, which accounts for about 85 percent of total cereal production in Kenya dropped by an estimated 550,000 metric tons in 2020–2021 season due to high costs of fertilizer, and poor rainfall distribution. The shortage in production saw maize floor prices shoot up by over 60 percent in 2022.

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In March this year, an average family was forced to pay extra Kes88.25 compared to the same period 12 months ago to buy two kilos of maize to mix with a kilo of beans to make githeri, one of the staple foods in many households in Kenya.

KNBS data shows that a kilo of a loose grain of maize shot up the highest at 35 percent in the last 12 months to retail at Kes77.63 in March 2023. The same period saw the price of a kilo of beans surge by 32.9 percent to Kes173.62 up from the Kes130.61 reported in March 2022.

As drought pushed more people out of the farms, the price of a kilo of cabbage went up by 28.2 percent to Kes65.17 in March this year from Kes50.83 in the same month last year.

Equally, consumers buying carrots were forced to pay 25 percent higher at Kes103.11 on average in March up from Kes82.23 for the same volume of the vegetable a year ago.

The price of Irish potatoes, a staple food that is used to make a wide variety of delicacies in Kenya increased with KNBS saying a kilo of the produce sold at Kes99.01 in March up from Kes80.23 a year prior, a 23.4 percent squeeze on consumers’ pockets.

Unga, often an emotive political topic in Kenya that somehow passes as the gauge on the cost of living saw buyers pay 25.6 percent higher for two kilo packet of flour in March at Kes187.03 compared to Kes148.94 paid for the same packet at the comparable month last year.

Further, households consuming fresh unpacked cow milk experienced 19.2 percent rise in prices to Kes73.47 for a liter of the commodity compared to the Kes61.61 paid last year.

A kilo of sugar also went up in the year under focus, registering 18.4 percent increase to Kes156.18 in March 2023 up from Kes131.94 earlier. Kenya has been forced to import sugar from as far as Thailand to stem soaring costs of the sweetener amid a decrease in local cane harvests partly due to drought and economic malaise in the country’s sugar industry.

There are hopes food prices could ease soon on account of the onset of the long rains in late March as well as the importation of duty-free maize, rice, and cooking oil by the government to ease pain at the till.

The government plan to distribute subsidized fertilizer could result in higher maize yields thereby cooling consumer prices assuming the rains are well spread, especially in Kenya’s food basket counties of Trans Nzoia, Uasin Gishu, Bungoma, Narok, Nakuru, Kakamega, and Nandi.

Kenya opened a window for the importation of 10 million bags of duty-free maize by early August but the initiative has been marred by hurdles following the scarcity of the product in the global markets.

The latest dispatch from the Cabinet waded into the cost of living, lauding ongoing State interventions: “As a consequence of the seminal interventions by the State, Cabinet noted with satisfaction that the interventions lowered the price of maize meal to an average of Kes155 down from a high of Kes230. The trend is expected to continue as maize imports are received in the country.”

A spot check by Maudhui in many supermarkets, however, shows that the average price of a two-kilo packet of Unga is about Kes180.

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