Could Kenya’s local flour mills be an early warning system for famine?

By Fred Ajwang, Relational Pathways project

In the Relational Pathways project, we have been exploring how rural people relate to technology in their everyday lives. This has included fieldwork in a part of Kenya called Machakos.

One upshot of rural fieldwork is how easily one can slip in and fit into the community. And so, during my recent fieldwork in Machakos County, I initially failed to notice that the hum-drum of the posho mill was largely missing in the various trading centres that I visited. In other rural trading centres in Kenya, this hum-drum is a common feature of everyday life.

In most rural markets, one expects to see a posho mill – used for converting maize into flour – in action, noticeable by its rattling sound, the presence of flour-dusted footsteps, or the crowd of people who are either milling maize or sometimes just passing time and chatting.

Due to the popularity of Kenya’s main staple food, Ugali (a soft, dense mash made from maize flour cooked in hot water), posho mill businesses are a common sight in Kenya’s countryside, and indeed in most low-income neighbourhoods in cities too.

The Posho Mill Question in Machakos County

I was, therefore, surprised to find that the posho mill was absent in many trading centres in Machakos. I wondered if the absence of this machine was due to Machakos residents’ preference for sifted maize flour produced by large grinding mills, their preference for other foods, or if this was simply an outcome of low maize production in Machakos County.

If the latter is true, we can ask whether maize productivity problems in rural Kenya can be examined through the relative prevalence or lack of posho mills. Almost all rural communities in Kenya are known to grow maize for self-consumption, which they mill to produce flour for Ugali, hence the necessity of the local posho mill. Could the presence, or lack, of posho mills indicate which communities are more vulnerable to famine, and therefore in need of policy support?

The Maize-Ugali-Posho-Mill nexus in Kenya

According to the Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation’s statistical magazine NewsPlex, Kenyans consumed 29.3 million 90 Kg bags of maize in 2016, most of it in the form of Ugali. Kenyans consume two main types of maize flour. One is sifted maize flour, commonly milled in factories and sold in shops and supermarkets. This sifted flour is preferred by urban households because it is readily available in shops, it cooks faster, and it (supposedly) tastes better.

The second type of flour is unsifted, from the posho mill, which unlike the sifted flour is known for its high fibre content. According to 2016 data from the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development at Egerton University, 74 percent of rural households in Kenya consume unsifted posho-mill flour.

While the price of sifted maize flour is often quite uniform in Kenya, the price of unsifted maize flour often differs by region depending on maize productivity in local communities. For instance, between November 2018 and February 2019, the price of 1 Kg of dry-shelled maize was about 50 pence in Machakos; and only half this price in high maize-production regions of western Kenya.

The average weekly rural household consumption of unsifted posho-mill flour is 6.9 Kg per household, according to the Tegemeo Institute. Clearly, this high consumption of unsifted maize flour should correlate with the number of posho-mills in rural communities such as those in Machakos.

The Posho-Mill-Maize Productivity Matrix

But why use posho mills as an indicator of maize production?

Porous borders make it difficult to collect data on household food and inter-county maize movement in Kenya. So posho mills, with their central – and localised – role in processing maize for Ugali, could be a good proxy indicator of rural communities’ vulnerability to food insecurity in Kenya.

For example, we could easily gauge communities’ vulnerability to famines through a survey of the number of active posho mills in each area, and the frequency of their operation as an initial red-flag of an impending famine. Given the high consumption of unsifted posho-mill flour in rural Kenya, if the use of posho mills in a rural market drops from, say, 100 households per posho-mill per day to less than 20 per day over a few days, in certain seasons, it should raise a red flag of an impending maize deficit.

Preliminary findings from my fieldwork in Machakos show that such an analysis might be useful, given that farmers shifted to buying sifted maize flour from shops when they ran out of harvested maize. For this reason, household use of posho-mills in Machakos was seasonally entangled with maize productivity in each season.

Low maize production meant that household maize stocks ran out quickly, forcing people to shift to buying sifted flour. High maize production implied increased use of the posho-mill, and vice versa. No wonder that there are few incentives for entrepreneurs to invest in posho-mill businesses in Machakos County!

Incorporating the Posho-Mill in Food Security Analysis in Kenya

With the parallels between consumption of unsifted maize flour and the use of the posho mill, it is perhaps time to find ways to incorporate the posho mill within the analysis of Kenya’s maize production and food security, especially within rural maize growing communities like Machakos.

The posho mill can serve as an effective device to signal impending famine in a rural community. The starting point could be a study to map the distribution of posho mills in different parts of Kenya. For instance, this could involve a comparative analysis between the high and the low-maize producing areas.

This might give us a clearer picture of the precise role that posho mill distribution plays in the maize production matrix in Kenya – and help to see better where food shortages could become a problem.

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