Kenyan ban on maize should be an eye opener

Maize dealers offload maize that was meant for export to Kenya  at Busia market after Kenya imposed a ban on importation of maize from Uganda on March 9. PHOTO/DAVID AWORI

The ban has brought to the fore the need for government to quickly implement provisions of the various policies and rules meant to regulate the trade in grain, writes Isaac Mufumba.

The ban on exporting maize from Uganda to neighbouring Kenya was on Thursday lifted, albeit informally, less than a week after it came into force.

The ban had been precipitated by a reported finding by the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) of Kenya, that Ugandan maize contained unacceptable levels of mycotoxins, particularly aflatoxins and fumonisins, which are known to cause cancer.

The laws in member states of the East African Community (EAC) prohibits trade in maize that contains more than 10 parts per billion total aflatoxins and groundnuts that contain more than 15 parts per billion aflatoxins. 

A few days after the ban was imposed, lawyer Fred Muwema, who is the director, legal and corporate affairs at the Anti Counterfeit Network Africa, vented his frustration with Ugandans’ apparent decision not to focus on the health implications of the ban given that it would be them to consume what had been rejected by the Kenyans.

“…Since we now know that Kenya has rejected our aflatoxin-contaminated maize, why are we not concerned that this toxic maize will remain in Uganda instead and be processed by many maize mills to provide contaminated human and animal food? Why is the story more about Kenya rejecting and not Uganda accepting to stay with rather than safely dispose of the contaminated maize?” Mr Muwema wrote.

The biggest consideration had indeed been what effect the ban would have on an economy that has been on rubber legs since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Richard Ibengo, the business development manager of Agro Ways Limited, who operate a grain warehouse in Jinja Town, says there were concerns about the implications that the ban would have on the incomes of the farming communities.

“The prices were already down. The schools were closed and not much activity in terms of trade had been going on across the borders. The lockdown meant that more people got into agriculture and the harvests were great. Another harvest is soon coming and it will find the crop from the last harvest. That is going to dampen the market. The ban could not have come at a worse time,” Mr Ibengo argued.

The Health issues seemed to have been pushed to the periphery.

Aflatoxin deaths
The Food and Safety Digest report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in February 2018, indicates that aflatoxins “pose a serious health threat to humans and livestock” and also “pose a significant economic burden, causing an estimated 25 per cent or more of the world’s food crops to be destroyed annually”.

That should have been a cause for worry among Ugandans, but it would seem that most Ugandans do not realise how dangerous they are because the country has no history or record of deaths directly associated with the consumption of aflatoxin-contaminated food. The same cannot be said of Kenya and Tanzania.

In 2004, Kenya recorded one of the world’s worst cases of aflatoxin poisoning when 125 people died after consuming contaminated maize.

Since then, the country has recorded at least 157 other deaths between 2005 and last year, and the consumption of maize is believed to be to a greater extent responsible for the ballooning cases of cancer.

In 2016, Tanzania recorded at least 20 deaths as a result of consumption of aflatoxin-contaminated maize.

Whereas the authorities in Uganda seem to suggest that the Kenyan authorities are exaggerating the contamination levels in Ugandan maize, one cannot run away from the fact that we have a problem.

If figures from the National Grain Trade Policy that was enacted in September 2015, are anything to go by, grain storage facilities cannot handle even a quarter of the country’s annual production.

“Currently, the  national  standardised  storage  facilities  for  maize  can  only  cater  for  550,000 metric tonnes out of 3.2 million metric tonnes (Ministry of Agriculture 2014 projections) of total production,” the document reads in part.

Matters are not helped by the fact that farming communities have departed from previously known practices of managing and storing grain. The traditional granaries are fast disappearing from most of the villages.

Now, according to WHO’s Food and Safety Digest of February 2018, the aflatoxins that are considered to be of public health significance are produced by two related species of fungi, Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus. 

These thrive under tropical and subtropical regions with high temperatures and high humidity. They are normally found on dead and decaying vegetation, but easily invade food crops both before and after harvesting.

Pre-harvest contamination is mainly limited to maize, cottonseed, peanuts and tree nuts, but postharvest contamination can be found in others like coffee, rice and spices. 

Storage of crops in warm and humid environments, which favour the growth of moulds, can lead to higher contamination levels. Drought and insect damage are also major actors here.

“Due to the inadequate capacity of storage facilities and poor post-harvest handling practices, Uganda has experienced an increased loss  of  the  competitive  grain  market  from  large  customers  such  as  the  World Food Programme (WFP),” the grain trade policy reads in part.

Policies regulating trade
In July 2018, the Ministry of Trade unveiled the Grain Trade Policy Implementation Strategy, which aimed to improve competitiveness of the grain sub-sector, enhance food security and increased incomes for farmers, traders and government.

During the launch, Trade and Industry minister Amelia Kyambadde said Uganda would by 2021, have equipped and licensed at least 50 standard warehouses and increased grain storage facilities by 500,000 metric tonnes. 

Why have quality issues arisen six years after the policy was unveiled and three years after the implementation strategy that was meant to operationalise it was launched? What is it that the grain industry is not doing right?

It was not possible to have a detailed discussion with Mr Paul Mwambu, the commissioner in charge of certification and inspection at the Ministry of Agriculture, for this article as he was caught up in meetings on both Thursday and Friday as part of the government’s response to the crisis that Kenya plunged Uganda in, but the ministry has well laid procedures governing the export of agricultural produce.

The Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), in its compulsory schedule of March 2019, also lists several items, including maize, as one of those that have to be sampled and tested if they are intended for human consumption. 

Against such a background, one cannot say it is for want of policy regulations that Uganda is failing to get it right. What then is the problem?

It was in part due to the realisation that there were gaps in the existing legal framework that Cabinet, at the prompting of the Ministry of Health, approved in 2000, both the National Health Policy and Health Sector Strategic Plan 2000, after it emerged that food safety-related epidemics were on the rise.
The two sought to, among other things, enforce food hygiene and safety laws.

In a presentation titled “Building a Food Safety System in Uganda” which he made at the second global forum of food safety regulators organised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in Thailand in October 2004, the then director general of health services at the Ministry of Health, Prof Francis Omaswa, revealed why the two documents sought to strengthen the laws.

“Much of the burden of illness results from basic sanitation failures that occur in food production, processing, storage, transportation, retailing, and handling in the home. Achieving basic food hygiene is made difficult by the lack of necessary sanitation infrastructure in many areas of the country and in food processing industries,” he told the conference.

Against such a background, one cannot say that it is for want of policy regulations that Uganda is failing to get it right. What then is the problem?

Weaknesses in implementation
Prof George Nasinyama, an expert on food, who is also the deputy vice chancellor-in-charge of research, innovation and extension at Kampala International University, told Saturday Monitor in a previous interview that issues about quality are down to inadequacies in existing mechanisms for monitoring the food chain.

“We have the guidelines and regulations. The challenge is enforcing these guidelines. We need to strengthen the surveillance mechanism to ensure that food which is out there is safe,” he says.

Mr Ibengo says whereas the policies that would have ensured quality are in place, government has done very little to implement them and ensure compliance.

“Government has failed to address the quality control issues around the grain industry. Grain is meant to be stored in certified warehouses, it is meant to be inspected, tested and graded and packaged properly, but government seems to allow informal trade in grain, which does not go through those processes. That is the biggest cause of problems here,”  Mr Ibengo says.

Ms Harriet Nabirye, an administrator with the Grain Council of Uganda, argues that the biggest problem has been the failure by the government to stamp out informal trade in grain.

Ms Nabirye believes that the decision by government to allow mostly Kenyan grain traders to come to Uganda and directly purchase grain from small holder farmers has a lot to do with the poor quality of the grain.

Ms Nabirye actually thinks the grain traders, most of whom are Kenyans are responsible for the high levels of aflatoxins that are being discovered in the grain. 

Government, she says, should be moving in to either regulate the trade or stop those who are not equipped with the right tools from engaging in the trade.

“Whereas our (Grain Council of Uganda) members have facilities for cleaning, drying, grading grain and capacity to store it in their houses at a maximum moisture of 13.5 per cent, the other players come in with trucks and go straight to the farmers who are mostly small holders. Now because they have to keep buying until the truck is full, the quality keeps deteriorating,” Ms Nabirye argues.

Mr Daudi Migereko, a former minister in Mr Museveni’s government, who was also MP for Butembe, told Saturday Monitor in a previous interview that a lethargic approach to implementation of policies has been responsible for most of the setbacks suffered by the government.

“…the key will be quick implementation of government programmes, hard work and publicity around the things that are being done,” Mr Migereko said.

The maize question has brought to the fore the need for government to quickly implement provisions of the various policies and regulations meant to regulate the trade in grain. The question is whether the concerned officials will heed the call to ‘quick implementation’.

Previous bans on Ugandan products

Fish ban
This was not the first time that imports from Uganda have been blocked. Between 1997 and 2001, the European Union (EU) slapped at least three bans on fish products from Uganda. The cause was concerns about the quality of the fish. Below we highlight some of the developments as they unfolded
●  1997 – Spain and Italy claim their authorities have detected high levels of bacterial contamination (including salmonella) in products from Lake Victoria: they impose a bilateral ban on fishery product imports
●  March 1997 – EU inspection confirms ‘serious microbiological contamination’
●  April 1997 – EU requires mandatory tests for salmonella on imports of Nile Perch from the three East African countries
●  December 1997 - June 1998 – EU bans fresh fish and imposes mandatory testing on frozen fish from East Africa following an outbreak of cholera in the region
●  November - December 1998 – EU dispatches a Food and Veterinary Office mission to Uganda to establish whether Uganda had taken measures to correct production flaws identified in 1997.
●  December 1998 – the two non-compliant plants are removed from the list of approved establishments; in the same month, the Uganda press reports instances of fish poisoning in Lake Victoria
●  March 1999 – UNBS ignores protests from fish manufacturers and exporters and notifies the EU that it cannot guarantee the safety of fish exports.
●  April 1999 – EU announces a ban on exports of fresh and frozen fish from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania amid allegations that the fish was contaminated with pesticides
●  July 2000 – ban is lifted after EU satisfaction that Uganda had put in place all that was needed to have safety. 

Other bans
●  In November 1999, Rwanda slaps a ban on milk products from Uganda on grounds that it is adulterated. Kenya would soon follow suit.


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