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Urban Maize Meal Consumption Patterns: Strategies for Improving Food Access for Vulnerable Urban Households in Kenya

Author(s):  Mukumbu, Mulinge; Jayne, Thomas

The case for structural adjustment and food market reform, while widely accepted by donors and international analysts, has not been fully convincing to many African policy makers. Even though numerous African governments have embarked on such reform programs, internal dissent can and often has overturned them and reimposed controls on food prices and trade.

Throughout the reform processes, concerns have arisen regarding the social costs of food market reform, particularly the impact on low-income consumers. Subsidies on some staples have been so high that their elimination has entailed substantial price increases for consumers. A critical problem facing African governments has been how to keep food prices at tolerable levels for poor consumers at a time when production incentives must be increased and subsidies must be eliminated.

The purpose of this paper is to determine how food consumption patterns might change in response to various relative price and convenience scenarios conceivable under market liberalization in Kenya, and to assess the implications of these findings for urban food security policy.

In much of Eastern and Southern Africa, there has been a longstanding perception that urban consumers strongly prefer the relatively expensive refined maize flour produced by large-scale industrial mills over less refined hammer-milled flour and are not responsive to relative price changes between them (Stewart 1977; Bagachwa 1992; Jayne and Rubey 1993; Guyton and Temba 1993). This view can be contrasted with the alternative hypothesis that maize meal consumption patterns are largely a manifestation of government policy over the decades.

While consumption of the more costly sifted flour is partially determined by attributes of the product itself, its perceived popularity may have been exaggerated by decades of controls on maize marketing, which have restricted consumers' access to the less expensive, unrefined maize meal (posho) through informal trading and milling networks, and by large subsidies on sifted meal. The perception of strong preferences for sifted meal has been reinforced by substantial advertising by large-scale milling firms portraying refined maize meal as a sign of sophistication and modernity.

An implication of the conventional wisdom is that market reforms that eliminated subsidies on refined maize meal would exacerbate food insecurity of low-income consumers without inducing a shift to cheaper maize products. Ironically, while much research has been devoted to understand how producers and traders would respond to reform in the market for Kenya's main food staple, relatively little is known about the potential response by consumers.

The empirical evidence presented in this paper is based on surveys of 344 households' maize consumption patterns in Nairobi during October 1993. We highlight five conclusions with broader implications for food policy in Eastern and Southern Africa:

1. Consumer preferences can be largely policy-driven. Maize meal consumption patterns in Nairobi appear to largely reflect the influence of food policies that have affected the relative convenience and affordability of sifted flour in relation to posho flour.

These results are in contrast to the conventional wisdom throughout much of Eastern and Southern Africa that urban consumers have an inherent and rigid preference for refined maize meal. More accurate ex ante knowledge of how consumption patterns might respond to policies that alter the attributes of particular products (such as convenience and relative prices) may raise policy makers' receptiveness to a liberalized marketing system. A corollary of this is that policy makers' may feel less compelled to reimpose controls at a later stage.

2. Consumer subsidies on refined maize meal in Kenya have not necessarily promoted food security, because they (and associated controls on maize marketing) have entrenched a relatively high-cost marketing system and impeded the development of lower-cost channels from developing. Regulations or inefficiencies at certain stages of the controlled marketing system may impose redundant costs that overwhelm the effects of direct government subsidies. Findings indicate that the subsidy on sifted flour during 1993 was approximately equal to the difference in milling margins between the large-scale roller milling firms and informal hammer mills.

3. Posho meal consumption in Nairobi appears to be negatively related to household income, while sifted meal is positively related to income. These findings indicate that the subsidy on sifted flour was captured primarily by high income consumers. These findings also suggest that posho meal is to some extent self-targeting, i.e., it would be the product of choice for many low-income households. These findings are consistent with recent findings elsewhere in Southern Africa (Rubey 1993; Diskin 1994; Jayne et al. 1994).

4. The time required to process or acquire posho meal appears to be an important factor influencing its consumption, highlighting the importance of convenience and competing demands on household members' time. Logit model results also indicate that a given Nairobi household's probability of consuming posho meal is positively related to proximity of the family's home to local hammer mills, and negatively associated with households where the woman of the household works in a full time job. The survey evidence suggests that posho consumption may be more strongly influenced by policies affecting the time costs of acquisition than policies affecting relative prices of sifted and posho meal.

5. Market reforms that allow consumer preferences to be better articulated through the food distribution system may facilitate (a) improvements in access to food and the nutritional content of food consumed without need for subsidies, (b) productivity gains in the agricultural system through shifts in choice of technique, and (c) growth in employment and income distribution from shifts in volumes through alternative marketing channels and their associated technologies.

Urban Maize Meal Consumption Patterns: Strategies for Improving Food Access for Vulnerable Urban Households in Kenya

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