Foreign direct investment has brought large-scale mechanization to maize production in Uganda, helping to raise average yields.
Maize is by far the most important cereal crop in the four largest countries of eastern Africa. Combined production of 17.2 million tonnes in 2016, despite ongoing drought, is nearly 50% more than a decade ago. Remove middle-income Kenya, which had a 14% decline, and the increase for Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda was nearly 70% versus population growth since 2006 of 27%.

Having increased output, one of the next major challenges is to reduce the high levels of cancer-causing aflatoxins in the region’s maize. A presentation at the 2015 International Association of Operative Millers Conference in Nairobi cited recent studies showing average ppms in the region far above international norms. Along with food safety, the dominance of smallholder farmers, government market intervention, regional trade and food security are all key aspects of the maize economy in eastern Africa as examined country by country in the survey that follows.


Population: 99.5 million

Production: 6.3 million tonnes

Ethiopians have cultivated cereals for thousands of years on the high plateau where their ancient civilization originated. Production of the New World grain overtook sorghum for good in 1982 to become the No. 1 cereal crop. Maize now makes up 30% of 2016 major grains production of 21 million tonnes. Due to severe drought, that figure was down 4.5 million tonnes from a record 25 million tonnes two years before. Nevertheless, 2016 maize production recovered to within 5% of 2014’s level.

Small hammermills process most maize even for urban consumption in Addis Ababa. Industrial roller milling of maize has yet to take hold.

The USDA estimates that nearly 10% of maize has been used for feed since 2011 as living standards rise.

Despite drought, the food security outlook is positive with ending stocks of maize at 450,000 tonnes. Domestic maize is one of the three main cereals held by the government in its strategic grain reserve, along with domestic sorghum and mostly imported wheat.

A state entity has operated a fertilizer importation and distribution network for many years that has helped boost average yields to around 3 tonnes per hectare even though smallholders account for 95% of production. Large investments in improved seed systems supported by the country’s donor-funded, semi-autonomous Agricultural Transformation Agency also have contributed to increased output.


Population: 51 million

Production: 5.5 million tonnes

Thanks to rising production with a current five-year average of 5.7 million tonnes, Tanzania has become a major exporter to deficit countries in the region. Since 2013, annual exports have been around 400,000 tonnes versus just 14,000 tonnes in the decade of the 2000s. Maize exports are a mixture of cross-border trade, deals by large trading houses, and sales from the government reserve in order to rotate stocks without disrupting domestic markets.

Tanzania’s National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) plays a large intervention role, buying up much of the commercial surplus from smallholders at a guaranteed floor price. The country’s maize ending stocks have been around 1.3 million tonnes since 2013 thanks to NFRA, which may be termed a success to the extent that for over a decade the country has not needed to appeal to international donors for food aid due to drought or other emergencies. To the contrary, organizations like the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) sometimes rely on purchases from NFRA to supply its own food distribution programs in the region.

Small hammermills grind almost all maize consumed. Popular markets in Dar es Salaam house large numbers of locally fabricated hammermills that provide a fee-based service. Tanzanians have yet to acquire a taste for the highly refined, degermed maize meal produced by industrial roller mills elsewhere in the region.

Large maize surpluses have contributed to the leveling out of wheat imports in Tanzania to an average of 850,000 tonnes per year since 2012 following many years of increases.


Population: 45.9 million

Production: 2.8 million tonnes

As a result of a sustained period of GDP growth, Kenya now has the highest average income of any country in the region. This is reflected in more diversified diets and a plateauing in total maize use since 2011 at around 3.7 million tonnes per year despite continued population growth. USDA estimates that 10% of the country’s maize is now going for feed use. By some measures Kenya is already considered to be a middle-income country. Rapid increases in egg and broiler production are evidence of that.

Flat consumption belies a major shift in the maize economy. Since 2012 area planted in maize has decreased by one-third while imports have quadrupled to 1 million tonnes per year. Almost all of the incoming maize originates in Tanzania and Uganda, fellow members of the East African Community (EAC) customs union. Better rainfall gives the two countries a comparative advantage in maize production vis-a-vis drought-prone Kenya.

The national grain reserve agency, Kenya National Produce and Cereals Board (NPCB), has artificially boosted production by buying a few hundred thousand tonnes per year from farmers at an average price of $30 per 90-kg bag ($333 per tonne). In June 2016 it lowered its purchase price 20% to $266 per tonne after continued lobbying from millers who sometimes depend on supply from tender sales of government stocks. Inferior quality of poorly stored government grain is an ongoing problem. When finally rotated, much of NPCB’s maize is only suitable for feed use.

Unlike in neighboring Tanzania, large industrial roller mills process most maize consumed in Kenya, at least by the urban population.


Population: 37.1 million

Production: 2.6 million tonnes

Maize along with cassava, other root crops, plantains and beans is one of the main food staples in Uganda. Nevertheless, due to relatively high average yields of 2.5 tonnes per hectare, the country produces nearly as much as Kenya where yields are just 1.7 tonnes. Uganda exports around 300,000 tonnes to its neighbors both as maize meal and grain. South Sudan’s burgeoning urban population is particularly dependent on Ugandan maize surpluses. WFP operates a regional hub in Uganda that procures maize grains and meal within the country to supply the domestic refugee population as well as displaced populations and refugees across the borders. Feed use of maize is already 200,000 tonnes per USDA estimates, as poultry production expands.

A liberal business climate has enabled Uganda to attract significant foreign investment in agribusiness. With little government intervention to muddle cereals markets, the maize value chain also has received its share of incoming funds.

South African grain management company Afgri has established a foothold with storage facilities in a number of locations, including Gulu in the northwest. Several commercial maize farms have started up in recent years. Berlin-based agribusiness Amatheon Agri Holding NV operates one of the largest with about 2,000 hectares planted to maize on a total of 3,200 hectares of cultivated land in the northwest as well.

North and South Kivu, DRC

Population: 12 million

Production: 800,000 tonnes

DRC’s heavily populated, mineral-rich provinces of North and South Kivu are more economically integrated with other countries of the Great Lakes Region than with the rest of DRC. The large urban populations of Goma, Bukavu and Uvira benefit from imports, mostly smuggled and untaxed, of all kinds of foods, including maize and maize meal.

One bold investor has started up the region’s first modern maize roller mill in Ruzizi Plain, north of Lake Tanganyika. The electrical hook-up is from nearby Burundi. Urban consumers are pleased to buy a Congolese brand.

Government data just for South Kivu in 2013 shows 337,127 tonnes of production by 835,472 households with 135,858 tonnes commercialized, all increases from the previous year. North Kivu’s figures are 10% to 20% higher. By comparison, almost 1 million households produced over 6 million tonnes of cassava in South Kivu. Due to steady, year-round rainfall exceeding 1,500 ml, but much more at higher elevations, the potential to increase maize production in the western plateau regions of South Kivu would be enormous if only feeder roads could be built and security improved. A decades-long presence of roaming militias has displaced much of the rural population to cities along the lakeshores, leaving large tracts of arable land available for cultivation.


Population: 12.7 million

Production: 550,000 tonnes

Rwanda’s dirigiste government has systematically targeted production of maize, a non-traditional food, as a means of enhancing food security. The result has been a ten-fold increase in production from just 50,000 tonnes in 2000 on a hilly landscape. The Rwandan state’s strategic grain reserve maintains a relatively modest maximum level of 50,000 tonnes of stocks but has even reduced it in recent years and sold off silo and warehouse storages, judging that the country faces no major food security challenges warranting the cost of maintaining a large reserve. International companies like Afgri have invested in some of these storage facilities and put them to commercial use. There are a handful of small industrial maize roller mills around the country, some of which import maize and then re-export maize meal to neighboring countries like DRC and Burundi. A commercial poultry industry is developing, creating additional demand for maize in feed.

South Sudan

Population: 11.9 million

Production: 400,000 tonnes

The economy of conflict-torn South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, depends on petroleum exports, subsistence farming and international aid. A joint WFP/FAO assessment in 2015 estimated 1.27 million tonnes of gross cereals production in two annual crops on 1 million hectares. Precise data are lacking but the breakdown is roughly two-thirds white sorghum and one-third white maize. There are just a small number of semi-mechanized commercial farms in the north bordering Sudan. The UN report put the net cereals deficit in 2015 at 250,000 tonnes. Traders bring sorghum from Sudan and white maize from Uganda to fill this gap. However, since fighting between government factions erupted in December 2013, food aid has again become a major part of the food balance sheet. The WFP said the country has 1.7 million displaced persons in addition to 650,000 refugees mainly in Uganda receiving emergency handouts. Non-emergency programs like school lunches bring the total number of beneficiaries to 3 million, about a quarter of the population. Thanks to its commercial availability in the region, maize makes up the biggest part of the donated food basket.


Population: 10.7 million

Production: 150,000 tonnes

Conflict-ridden Burundi, similar in area, population, geography and agricultural practices to its neighbor Rwanda, stands in stark contrast when it comes to maize production. In 1972, when it had a centrally planned socialist economy, the country attained a peak of 250,000 tonnes, two-thirds higher than current levels.

Imported maize is part of the food aid basket provided to people displaced by the recent fighting and political instability.


Population: 10.6 million/826,000/6.5 million

Production: 116,000 tonnes/0/20,000 tonnes

The three arid countries along the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden coastlines extending to the Horn of Africa produce and consume little maize. Somalis are traditionally nomadic herders and traders. The same is true for the ethnically Somali people of Djibouti. Their modern carbohydrate preference is imported rice and pasta. Somalia’s maize planting on 200,000 hectares yields not much more than a half tonne per hectare. Some maize is grown on Eritrea’s high plateau region but teff and sorghum are the main cereal crops.