Balancing between trade and health

Stephen C. Kaheru

The ban of maize imports from Uganda by Kenya stirred inflamed conversations about public health and trade within East Africa. The Kenyan government took this stance after reports indicated that consignments of maize from Uganda were contaminated with high levels of aflatoxins, sparking concerns of food safety. 

The ensuing visit of Kenyan officials to discuss non-tariff barriers affecting trade between Uganda and Kenya and to verify sugar exports to Kenya underscores the linkage between trade and food safety. The trade war, however, triggers strategic questions which should exercise the region’s policy minds. 

What frameworks are in place within East Africa to support harmonisation of standards across commodity value chains? What level of professional and technological capacity can render our standardisation architecture robust enough to holistically enforce quality? 

Food exports, be it cereals, legumes, vegetables, fruits or animal products, demand specific standards through each phase of maturity before being certified for consumption. The maize growing households in Arumeru in Northern Tanzania need to guarantee seed quality, control weeds, manage moisture content before their grain is bagged in export shipments. Clearly, maize growers in Tanzania who undermine losses brought about by traditional kichanja storage structures need to be armed not only with agronomic techniques but also progressive grain care methods to overcome storage menace. 

Even for domestic consumption, from the maize shambas in Bunyala, the Kenyan cultivator has to avoid grain damage through appropriate drying and decent storage for shelled maize if they are to assure a healthy serving of Ugali to Nairobi’s discerning customers. Similarly, in the case of beef as an animal product, it is not only cattle farmers and butcheries to conform to food standards but also processors, feedlot operators, veterinary services, abattoirs and input suppliers. 

While standards are lacking or weak in some African countries, in other economies the situation is aggravated by absence of technical expertise to enforce benchmarks throughout the food chain. The East Africa Grain Council, the region’s watchdog for grain quality has through its grain-hub model fostered trade for smallholders. However, the regulator is constrained in addressing commodity trade environment at the micro level especially creating awareness of grain standards for cross border trade. 

When Nakaseke farmers in Uganda, eager to trade with Kenya, dried maize on mats leading to discoloration, an indicator of mycotoxin and hence rejection, it was quality on trial. This torment induced the enactment of the 2015 Nakaseke District Maize Ordinance to ensure production of maize that meets East African Community market standards. In 2014, Mali launched targeted capacity development for primary producers, consumers’ representatives, research institutions, laboratories in a bid to align standards throughout the food chain. In Botswana, following a Euro 48 million loss in 2011 when European Union suspended beef exports from Botswana, government strengthened the analytical capacity of Botswana National Veterinary Laboratory to check residual levels in meat. It was this intervention which enabled certification with the European Union and other regional markets.

Regardless of quantities, the standoff between Kenya and Uganda over maize quality raises the economic pulse to impel standards throughout the value chain of tradable crops. In the absence of regionally binding quality indicators across the food chain, enforcing standards within national jurisdictions is impaired. Be that as it may, the gateway to competitive regional and international markets for Africa’s agricultural yields remains first-rate harvests. Until we standardise and elicit commitment to quality across the entire spectrum of commodity value chains, our farmers will keep on spectating, as inferior suppliers, on the fringes of Africa’s roaring food trade. 

Mr Kaheru comments on national and regional development issues.