Price Of Corn, A Kenyan Staple, Soars

Jun 4, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now to Kenya and a growing food crisis. Ugali is a doughy, sticky food made from corn that's a staple there. Over the past few months, the price of corn, though, has soared, making ugali unaffordable. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports on what's behind the shortage.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Ugali is to Kenyans what tortillas are to Mexicans, what bread is to Americans - sustenance, life.

ANGELINE LUMITY: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: That's Angeline Lumity. At 60, she's having to pull tricks in her kitchen. She puts the same amount of water in her pot so her grandchildren think she's making the same amount of ugali - except then she lets the water boil and boil. And even though she's making less of it, she still makes it with the same great care.

LUMITY: (Through interpreter) Bit by bit, you continue adding unga and stirring until it produces a sweet smell, and that's how you know ugali is ready.

Yes, it is very nice.

PERALTA: The price of a packet of unga, or maize flour, has shot up from about a dollar to more than a $1.60. That's enough to supply two people for a few days. But that is serious money for someone like Grace Wambui. She only makes about $2.50 a day selling used clothing.

GRACE WAMBUI: Sometimes you sleep hungry.

PERALTA: The government blames the high prices on drought. And in an election year, they've tried desperately to bring down prices. They lifted tariffs on imported maize. They released their strategic stockpile of corn. But it turned out it was all rotten. And finally, they just decided to throw millions of dollars at the corn companies to subsidize each packet of maize.

JONATHAN NZUMA: Now, this is short-term safety measure that is expensive. It is not targeted, and it's not going to benefit consumers.

PERALTA: That's Jonathan Nzuma, a professor at the University of Nairobi, who has spent years studying the economics of food in East Africa. He says if the government were serious, they would have taken a long, hard look at the industry. Different studies suggest the profit margin for maize in Kenya is upwards of 30 percent. That in itself, says Nzuma, suggests market manipulation.

NZUMA: You should read more politics in this than economics.

PERALTA: Supporters of the government say the government is trying its best. Those in opposition swear this has all to do with corruption. John Oluech, who distributes unga to stores, says the government let the price of unga rise only to institute a subsidy and say they have done something.

JOHN OLUECH: This is just a political. They wanted to do something that - to fool Kenyans.

PERALTA: But the one thing everyone agrees with is that they miss their unga.

OLUECH: Ugali is everything. Ugali - unga is life. Unga, water, life.

PERALTA: Oluech says he's seen little kids cry when their mothers serve them rice.

OLUECH: Yeah, life has now become pathetic to everybody.

PERALTA: It's very basic, he says, without ugali, a Kenyan is just not satisfied. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOR AND FRIENDS' "12 ATE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.