It doesn’t matter if you call it, posho, sadza, nshima or simply ugali, and it won’t matter whether you are in a café in downtown Harare or Capital Centre in Uptown Lilongwe. The language at mealtime across the Eastern and Southern Africa region is virtually the same.
The feel of the meal may vary from a thick porridge if you are eating at Garwe (crocodile) Restaurant in Harare to a hard mix if you are enjoying your fish and ugali at Ranallo on Kimathi Street in Nairobi. What doesn’t change is that maize and its variations form the meal of choice in this part of the world. So much so that its availability has become synonymous with food security and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring (specifically the Tunisian ‘trigger’ of the spring), food security has become synonymous with national security.
This explains why the commodity is such a sensitive topic even at the political table. But perhaps it is this very politicization that has overshadowed important debate around what should be happening to shore up production and market access for this important crop to enhance national and regional food security and incomes as well. For good measure, perhaps no other agricultural crop has attracted as much research, policy recommendation and developmental support as has the maize. Yet grain marketing boards like the NCPB in Kenya and its cousins around the region still call the price-control-shots (read market distortion) some twenty years after market liberalization.
In many countries in the region, maize serves as both the national staple food and the primary crop grown by smallholders thus playing a central role in the region’s strategy for promoting economic growth, reducing poverty, and improving food security.
Approximately 13 million hectares of land are devoted to maize production annually in the COMESA region. Yet, yields across the region remain low. On average COMESA member state countries achieve maize yields of only 2 metric tons per hectare, compared to feasible yields of 5 metric tons per hectare. This low productivity contributes to a situation where overall production of maize remains well below total regional demand. Granted; total maize production in the region has risen substantially since 2000, but so have imports. As of 2012, the region imported over 2.5 million metric tons of maize at a cost of over $500 million.
In value terms, COMESA’s overall import bill on cereals stands at about over $4.5billlion with a paltry 5% going to African farmers. The impact of this whole amount, were it spent on intraregional trade would greatly impact high potential countries like Zambia, Uganda and Tanzania to name but a few. The spare change would go to improving infrastructure (roads, storage and information systems) in agriculture.
While farmers in the region have struggled to produce, often against the odds of a tough policy environment, the policy makers haven’t done enough to provide incentives that would increase production through access to better markets. So you have a case where farmers produce and as soon as they harvest, governments impose export bans limiting farmers’ access to better markets. With farmers (80% of whom are small scale) unable to sell due to ‘’localized glut’’, they end up losing almost half of their produce due to poor post-harvest management capacity. Before long, they often go back to buy at even higher prices for their own consumption.
The next season will find them unprepared or at best waiting indefinitely for payment for their meager deliveries from Marketing Boards (who also depend on government funding) and in the end are unable to procure certified inputs in time. The vicious cycle goes on. In the meantime, capital-holding private sector investors unable to predict the next policy move by government simply stand on the sidelines or divest from this vital regional agricultural value chains altogether. So what is a resource poor African farmer supposed to do, one may ask?
With regional integration now unstoppable, the least governments can do if nothing else is to build production capacity with guaranteed cross border market access (Uganda is already leading the way). The EAC, SADC and COMESA (TFTA) now underway are creating a 650million-$1-trillion-strong market. At the end of the day, if for instance, Zambian farmers can be assured of a better market at a Thika-based Miller in Kenya, governments and other players should be doing all they can to enhance the market linkages thus increasing production and food security. The region could then be on its way to becoming truly one, ‘One Ugali meal at a time.’