27 April 2010

East Africa: Maize Grade Worst in East Africa

Kampala — Busoga region produces the poorest maize grade in the East African region. Every season, farmers in the region replant local maize varieties from the previous harvest season, leading to low yields. The maize also looks red due to the poor soils.

This was revealed by the Eastern Africa Grain Council during a two-day cereal stakeholders' workshop at Metropole and Serena hotels in Kampala recently.

The meeting was organised by the East African Community and USAID-COMPETE."It is only Kapchorwa sub-region that plants improved maize seeds. It is the only area in Uganda whose maize quality can be comparable to that of Kenya and Tanzania," said Federica Nshemereirwe, a senior agriculture officer in the agriculture ministry.

"In the last season, Uganda experienced a maize surplus, but it is all going to waste due to lack of silos. Neither do we have the capacity to add value to the surplus," she added.

If maize is not well stored, its grade deteriorates. That is why inter-trade in the region is very low. "Kenya imports the bulk of its maize from South Africa because our standards (Uganda's) are very low," Nshemereirwe said.

In 2001, Uganda tried to export maize to Zambia, but it was rejected due to poor quality. However, the maize was later accepted on political grounds. Uganda has all national standards but still produces low grade grains.

Maize production in Uganda is characterised by generally low yields, which result in high unit costs and low returns. Farms are managed in a typical traditional system. The only inputs are family labour and local seed varieties, saved from previous harvests.

Moreover, of the estimated 500,000 - 750,000 metric tonnes of maize produced per annum, 15% is lost to harvest losses, while 20% is retained at household level for consumption and planting (USAID, 2008).

Ugandan participants at the workshop, who were mainly small-scale farmers and buyers, noted that the country's main maize-producing areas suffer several challenges, including high cost of farming inputs like fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and machinery. Most of these inputs are expensive. As a result, most farmers do not use fertilisers and herbicides. Farmers who use inputs do not get them at the right time since they have to travel long distances to buy them from urban centres.

The farmers also said they get poor extension services. Extension field officers are few and lack skills, logistics and equipment.

For many years, farmers have complained about the limited agricultural credit facilities to enable them buy farming inputs and equipment.

Although there is an active maize research programme and many improved varieties on the market, many farmers cannot afford them. They mainly use seeds from the previous harvests. Poor marketing is also a major constraint to improving the country's agriculture sector. Poor producer prices, poor market access, lack of market information and uncertainty of prices tend to militate against the small-scale farmers' efforts and interest in the market economy.

Access to major agricultural producing areas is also hampered by poor roads. As a result, there is often a sizable stock of the previous harvest left with the farmers.

Uganda continues to produce maize using mostly low level technologies. The hand hoe remains the main production tool for most farmers.

Due to the low input utilisation and yields per unit, which is between 1.0 and 1.8 metric tonnes per hectare, Uganda's average maize costs of production are high.

Baker Beehamy, the director of the East Africa Grain Council, urged farmers to make use of the East African Community maize quality standards guide 2005 to improve production.

Okaasai Opolot, the commissioner for crop production and marketing in the agriculture ministry, said there is need to look at the standards right from buying inputs, agronomic practices, harvesting, post-harvest drying, packaging, storage and transport.

He added that improving maize standards requires value-addition to increase the grain's shelf life. "Without adding value, we shall continue to be faced with food insecurity and poor interstate trade," Opolot said.

Dr. Claude Mosha, the chief standards officer of the Tanzania Bureau of Standards, said there was need to promote food safety in the region.

"We have to look at the different grain quality parameter requirements if we are to succeed in trade," he said. Mosha revealed that throat cancer is believed to be a result of consuming aflatoxins (chemicals produced by certain mold fungi maize).

"To prevent spoilage after post-harvest, the maize moisture content should be between 12% and 15% to protect the grain from insects and rodents," he said.

A high moisture content, combined with high temperatures, can make the grain unfit for human and livestock consumption.

Uganda is predominantly an agricultural economy, with the sector accounting for about 69% of the total employment.

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