Ms Ann Dali was devastated on Friday after leaving work early to look for maize meal and finding none in three supermarkets, in what has become a full-time job for thousands.
She reluctantly pushed her shopping trolley; her mind split between paying for the few products she had found and abandoning it altogether to try her luck at the Naivas Mlolongo branch- some 10 kilometers away.
“This is getting very frustrating,” Ms Dali said when we met her at the Nakumatt Nextgen Branch along Nairobi’s Mombasa Road. She had been to two other retailers earlier and even the next other option which she had skipped called Tuskys had none. Her family had not eaten Ugali for days, she lamented.
When we visited one of Tuskys outlets along Mombasa Road, a shopper was painstakingly contemplating buying the single damaged packet of maize flour left as a pointer to the levels of desperation. One attendant said such stock outages on unga had never been witnessed in the over 10 years he had worked at with the retailer.
Only price tags could be seen dangling above the empty shelves. In one outlet, the price was Sh143 per packet which was however not available. Yesterday, was easily the worst day for shoppers like Dali whose lives have been ruined by the biting shortage of unga which is used to prepare Ugali.
Most supermarket outlets and corner shops reported complete stock-outs, saying their suppliers too did not have any flour owing to the maize shortage.
Cereal Millers Association has said its members’ stores were empty and that it was looking forward to some relief only when imported maize arrives in the country and is processed into flour.
As Dali continued with her frantic search, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Willy Bett was at the port of Mombasa receiving IVS Pinehurst, the vessel that brought in nearly 30,000 metric tonnes of maize. The Philippine-owned vessel reached Mombasa at 4pm on Thursday but the offloading would not be complete until Monday, in a delay occasioned by heavy rains and rough seas.
Bett acknowledged that the consignment had taken longer than expected to arrive and blamed logistical problems for the delay. He declined to say when consumers should expect prices to climb down from the current Sh160-range for a two-kilo packet, only promising that more imports from Zambia, South Africa and Ethiopia would be arriving within “a few days”.
Bett told the Press that the country’s strategic reserves had been depleted after the State ordered the National Cereals and Produce Board to sell the available stocks to millers at the start of the month. He dismissed claims that the government was colluding with millers to elevate prices.
“I will excuse anybody who says the government is colluding with cartels so that we can generate money for campaigns,” Bett said, adding: “I want to assure Kenyans it is not the case with the current administration.”
Millers are reported to have bought about 600,000 bags from the National Cereals and Produce Board at Sh3000 a bag, but failed to pass on the reprieve to the consumers who have been buying a two-kilo packet at more than Sh140 for weeks.
It became even clearer that the millers could be compounding the maize crisis when one of them, billionaire Joshua Chepkwony exposed his competitors for being greedy.
On Thursday, Mr Chepkwony whose firm produces the Jamii flour brand said the maximum retail prices should not exceed Sh120 per 2-kilo packet.