East African Food Fight Is Here Again


It is time for the quarterly East African food fight, with Kenya announcing that it has added maize on the list of exports from Uganda and Tanzania that are banned from its market.

In January it banned importation of chicken, eggs, and meat to support its “producers to recover from disruptions in their livestock enterprises occasioned by Covid-19”.

The ban on the importation of maize from Uganda and Tanzania was ostensibly because there has been an increase in chronic aflatoxin-related illnesses in Kenya, some of which have resulted in deaths.

It is telling the kind of products we fight over. Yes, even industrialised economies fight over chicken and vegetables, but they also row over high-value things like computer chips, aeroplanes, and vaccines. I would cheer from the rafters if Kenya was blocking Ugandan Kiira electric buses, or Uganda banned the importation of a Kenyan-made vehicle like Mobius. Those are relatively complex products.

But no, it is mostly chicken, meat, maize, beans, flour, rice, and at the high end, sugar, milk, cement, and occasionally booze.

These food fights make a mockery of the East African common market, and some are pushed by politicians who have stakes in inefficient companies who would be crushed by nimbler regional competitors, or big men protecting their monopolies.

But there is a lot more going on. Like elsewhere in Africa, the East African middle class has been expanding, but it is not particularly deep-pocketed. At the same time, partly because of the rot in the public sector, the goods and services that this middle-class needs are available in quality in the private sector where the cost is beyond their salaries.

For example, as underfunded state schools fall down the chimney, they need to be able to take their children to the pricey private ones. If you are an honest middle-level bank manager, or senior teacher in a government school, you make more money with a side hustle. You do things like rear chicken in your backyard, grow maize or raise a few cows in the village that you hope your father will not sell off to pay his debts at the local shops, or you bake.

The impact of this on politics has been very interesting – and perhaps even salutary. When “farmers” complain of eggs from neighbouring countries putting them out business, they are not all your typical old school chap in soiled overalls who is too busy toiling in the countryside to complain to his parliamentarian. It is probably the teacher who is giving extra math lessons to the minister’s son, who couldn’t sell the 10 trays of eggs from his backyard chicken farm.

It could be the banking assistant who helps the MP with his banking affairs, whose mother back in the village is looking after her four cows and she can’t sell their milk. The explosion of telephone and backyard farmers has given a powerful protectionist voice to local eggs, chicken and meat that retail politicians in electorally treacherous places like Kenya can’t ignore.

The irony is that this kerfuffle is happening at a time when the production of all these goods is still low despite all the stories about egg and milk gluts. Not too long ago, a big man at Farmer’s Choice meat plant factory in Roysambu shocked me when he said that despite the public view that they are big producers, they were still producing only “peanuts” relative to their capacity. He claimed that if all the cattle, chicken, and pigs slaughtered for the market every day in East Africa was taken to Roysambu, it still wouldn’t be enough for it to run at full capacity.

Uganda supposedly produces a lot of eggs, and cheaply. Does it? About four or so years ago, the story goes, President Yoweri Museveni visited the United Arab Emirates, and complained to its rulers that they don’t buy enough from Uganda. He waxed grand about how Uganda could supply them with enough eggs until kingdom come.