Major food policy changes are underway in Kenya that could mean that sorghum and millets finally get to give maize a run for its money. Starting in 2018, the Kenyan government has signalled its intent to implement a national flour blending initiative to increase the demand for under-utilized high value foods including sorghum, finger millet, pearl millet, cassava, sweet potato and amaranth that are produced by approximately 4 million smallholder farmers in Kenya. This initiative envisages that maize flour will be blended with a minimum 10% of either one or a composite of the underutilized high-nutrition crops. This is expected to gradually increase to reach a blending ratio of 30% within the next five years. Sorghum and millets could fit most neatly in existing grain-based supply chains of flour production.
Currently, maize is milled for flour used to make ugali, a meal consumed by 78% of Kenyans. Ugali is the nations preferred staple food, for rich and poor alike, equally valued in urban centres and rural areas. Maize flour for its preparation is available in retail outlets ranging from top end supermarkets in Nairobi to the smallest “duka” village shop. Packaged maize flour produced by large-scale millers has a market value of US$ 444 million a year, while posho maize flour produced by small and micro-enterprise mills, a critical part of the rural economy, is worth a staggering US$ 840 million. The flour blending initiative could create a significant new market for sorghum and millets and alter the nutritional landscape of Kenya.
What is driving this?
There are a number of drivers of this policy shift. It would reduce the country’s over-reliance on maize and promote more climate tolerant crops and technologies—sorghum and millets can be grown in low rainfall and less favorable areas, the very conditions that many smallholder farmers face. It would improve the nutritional quality of maize flour—sorghum and millets (and other candidate blending crops) have micronutrient characteristics that are absent in maize. Also at play are concerns about the Kenya food sovereignty, its ability to feed its population without relying on imports. This is particularly important given worries about climatic change that makes maize a more risky and unreliable staple food crop in the long-term.
Is this really an opportunity to get excited about?
The cross-cutting theme on Markets and Partnerships in Agri-business (MPAB) of the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (CRP-GLDC) has been investigating this potentially transformational policy shift and exploring how it could be leveraged for poverty reduction and nutritional impact. We think this policy change could trigger a major innovation in the agri-food system in Kenya and deserves much more attention.
CSIRO’s Andy Hall explains: “The alternative crop utilisation route to creating new market opportunities for poor farmers has always been a bit of a holy grail for food scientists. When I was working in the Ugandan National Post-harvest programme 25 years ago, we developed all sorts of weird schemes making wedding cakes out of composite flours and bread out of sweet potatoes. To be frank, I have always been sceptical about this approach. To make it a scalable opportunity, you need to not only get the technology and economics right, but you also need collaboration with the private sector, change consumer preferences and provide strong policy support and incentives to drive a major change in the agri-food system. The Kenya situation has strong policy push. This political support is a critical part of the puzzle that is usually missing.”
ICRISAT’s Mequanint B. Melesse also thinks that some of the other critical elements are already in place to make this opportunity a reality. He points out that “Right from the start, the government of Kenya engaged with large-scale millers in the discussion and development of the flour blending policy. This way, when the policy comes into play, it would not come as a shock and they do not look for “work arounds”. Here at ICRISAT, we have also been discussing this with large-scale millers and plan to collaborate with them on a consumer acceptance and willingness to pay study. This will provide the evidence-base to move ahead in working out how to progress this market opportunity for smallholders producing sorghum and millet and help us identify further bottlenecks that need to be addressed.”
If it is an opportunity, will smallholders actually benefit?
While all this might be good news for sorghum and millet, will it be good news for the smallholder farmers that are growing these crops? The answer is: not necessarily so. The team has conducted a detailed scoping study, exploring trends in sorghum and millet production, mapping the Kenyan sorghum and millet marketing value chain, and conducting interviews with policy, industry and consumer representatives to gauge reactions and perceptions to the proposed flour blending. ICRISAT’s Amos Tirra cautions, “There are no guarantees for smallholders. Value chains might not pass on price premiums to smallholders. The new demand for sorghum and millets could be supplied by large scale commercial farmers or even through imports. Nutritional benefits might be mostly felt by urban, high income consumer who buy commercially milled flours. Similarly, implementation of the flour blending policy may raise grain and food prices in rural areas that traditionally depend on sorghum and millets as staple foods. Small-scale millers that can’t make the shift might also go out of business”.
Of course these issues can be tackled. However, what is clear to us from our analysis is that pro-active and coordinated response will be needed to support smallholders farmers to take advantage of this emerging opportunity. These may include ensuring effective seed systems to provide seeds of the varieties that the flour market would demand; arrangements to better connect small volumes of grain from the smallholder sector into the supply chain and the development of marketing mechanisms that equitably distribute benefits to producers; for example certification schemes similar to Fairtrade arrangments. There may also be a need for further policy interventions, in the form of, for example, education campaigns to encourage changes in consumption patterns or regulations and incentives for large-scale millers to procure from the smallholder sector.
ICRISAT’s Mequanint B. Melesse stresses that “a coordinated response in both production, market and policy arenas is needed and this requires an ongoing dialogue with a range of stakeholders across the sector. Developing synergy among the value chain actors, creating changes in consumption behaviors among consumers and securing government’s support are all necessary conditions to ensure the success of the initiative.”
Where do we go from here?
The proposed flour blending initiative and the recent sorghum brewing and malting market experience in Kenya (see Orr, 2018) suggest that even the most promising opportunity for smallholder farmers needs to be approached both with caution and holistically from an agri-food system perspective, but also from a human centred perspective. This would mean recognising the dynamic, ever-changing nature of our agriculture and food supply and consumption arrangements and the way this creates winners and losers, the powerful forces at play that do not necessarily support the agenda of helping smallholders and low income consumers, and that technology only helps when other enablers, including policy support are set in motion in the system — a whole system innovation is usually required. As related work by our team has shown, even apparently well-meaning interventions can have perverse or neutral outcomes for the poor when viewed at an aggregate level (Herreo et al. 2020; Mausch et al., 2020) and that proactive policy and system building interventions will be needed to continuously mitigate these unwanted effects to ensure that on-going transformations in agri-food systems are “nudged” towards smallholder farmers and other groups of poor people.
International research by the CGIAR can help here by providing technology to help smallholders better respond to these opportunities. Equally valuable, it can also provide systems research insights and tools to help better engage with and prepare for the complex, interrelated and unpredictable nature of emerging opportunities in agri-food systems. This is going to be a critical contribution to technology development strategies, policy responses and development interventions needed to unlock current and future opportunities.
Researchers in the CRP-GLDC are working towards providing the proof of concept and evidence of how to steer emerging agri-food system opportunities towards benefiting smallholders. This might finally deliver the holy grail of alternative crop utilization and its promise of poverty reduction and nutritional security.
Authors: Costanza Conti, Andy Hall, Mequanint B. Melesse, Amos Tirra
- Articulating the effect of food systems innovation on the Sustainable Development Goals
- Colliding paradigms and trade-offs: Agri-food systems and value chain interventions
- Killing the goose? The value chain for sorghum beer in Kenya
This blog is published as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (CRP-GLDC).