PUBLISHED ON June 29th, 2023

Ugandans suspend food exports to South Sudan as trade crisis continues

Ugandan grain dealers under their umbrella body, the Nation Millers Association have suspended  food export to South Sudan over the trade crisis at the Nimule border, where more than 70 maize-laden trucks have been stranded for nearly two months after the Ugandan northern neighbor raised quality concerns.

The South Sudan National Bureau of Standards (SSNBS) impounded a number of Ugandan trucks loaded with maize grains, maize flour, and wheat on allegations of failing to pass the test for contamination with aflatoxin.

A few weeks ago,South Sudan officials at the Nimule border point confiscated  tons of food items from Uganda that were deemed unsuitable for human consumption with claims that the samples had tested positive for aflatoxin.

“In those trucks that we have mentioned that have Maize, Sorghum, or whatever grains that have been tested and failed have to be destroyed,” she stressed, adding that “We detained the trucks for a very good reason because of the level of aflatoxin, especially B1 which is very dangerous and it causes cancer if it accumulates in your body”.

However, addressing journalists in Kampala, the Ugandan traders expressed concern over the decision by South Sudan to destroy maize flour estimated at about shs10 billion.

They argue that the tests done by South Sudan were not transparent.

“The number of samples (27) claimed to have been taken isn’t representative enough to generalize results on the entire consignments of over 74 trucks under detention.UNBS staff were denied access to take samples by South Sudan authorities, therefore we wonder the rationale for refusing Uganda to take samples for its own analysis, and yet this is a matter of Uganda’s economy,” Richard Sserwadda, the chairperson of National Millers Association said.

“The very maize which was processed into maize flour for export to South Sudan, is the  same maize exported as grain for other markets like Kenya DRC, Rwanda not excluding our local market where many South Sudanese  form a significant percentage and non has ever imported food from South Sudan but rather feed daily on the very food their authorities back home are claiming to not fit for human.”

Traders said the act of dumping/destroying food will taint Uganda’s image in the regional food market yet Kampala has proved to be a food basket in the region.

The traders insisted that destroying the maize flour will taint Uganda’s image in the regional market .

“We wish to inform South Sudan  that in four days if our detained trucks will not have been unconditionally released, we will lay down our tools as processors/exporters, transporters, and drivers of food items to South Sudan.”

According to the Uganda National Bureau of Standards(UNBS) Executive Director, David Livingstone Ebiru, efforts to solve the impasse have proved futile.

“We have not received any cooperation from South Sudan authorities and have now referred the matter to our political leaders because the claim of quality appears to be a scapegoat,”  Ebiru said, adding that “a political solution” may be the way out.

Ministry of Trade speaks out

The Ministry of Trade spokesperson, Irene Kiiza said government is still engaging their counterparts in Juba for a lasting solution to the impasse.

“We have written to them but we haven’t reached a conclusion. The Ministry of trade and the Ministry of East African Community Affairs wrote to the government of South Sudan on the matter,” Kiiza said.

She warned  that  destroy food would go against the East African Community  trade protocols to which both Uganda and South Sudan are signatory.

She said most of the vehicles impounded by South Sudan had been certified by UNBS.

Previous engagements

Earlier, Private Sector Foundation Uganda’s CEO, Stephen Asiimwe had tried to solve the matter to no success.

“It looks like something not just about the contaminated maize … They claimed that our products are substandard, and that is why we travelled with the UNBS on board,” he said.

It has since  emerged that South Sudan authorities declined to have samples sent for laboratory analysis, raising more suspicions given that the trucks were impounded by third parties not known to be responsible for clearing goods at the border.

Ronny Mulongo, an official with PSFU, said it had been agreed that “the impounded trucks and their drivers are released to come back to Uganda because the truck drivers entered into the deal as transporters”.

Early this month,  the issue seemed to be deteriorating into a full-blown trade row.

Edith N Mwanje, the Permanent Secretary at Uganda EAC ministry, wrote to  Andrea Aguer Ariik Malueth, under-secretary of the equivalent South Sudanese ministry requesting release of the vehicles.

“Allow the truck drivers to offload the maize flour in a particular designated area and South Sudan Bureau of Standards continues with their investigation into the quality of the maize flour. Release both the trucks and drivers to come back to Uganda,” Mwanje’s  June 5 letter said, noting that the truckers are stuck in an isolated area 7kms inside South Sudan.

She  also offered the use of the UNBS laboratory facility in Gulu, which was approved by Trade Mark Africa but nothing appears to have come of this proposal.

The information black-out extends to border officials like Nyol Majok, who declined to speak to the media.

A day after Mwanje’s letter was dispatched to Juba, the UNBS boss, Ebiru sounded  frustrated by Juba’s apparent reluctance to engage over the matter.

“They have so far failed to provide evidence or share any information to that effect,” Ebiru told journalists.

The UNBS head explained that any concern about aflatoxin contamination must be proven scientifically through “analysis of samples in an accredited laboratory with proven competence and capacity”.

Most of the suppliers affected had their goods certified by UNBS in line with agreed EAC standards.

According to UNBS, suppliers certified under an EAC mutual recognition agreement are not supposed to be subjected to fresh assessment by the importing country.

“It is, therefore, erroneous on South Sudan’s part to impound certified products from a member state of the EAC like Uganda,” Ebiru said.

Whereas UNBS team sent to take samples for independent analysis, they were denied access to the impounded convoy.

Ebiru said the government should also begin to regulate the quality of all commodities being exported from Uganda to “mitigate the possibility of poor quality products being rejected by export markets, which tarnishes the image of the country”.

UNBS recently established adequate quality assurance infrastructure, including at decentralized testing laboratories in Gulu, Mbale, and Mbarara, he said.

In March 2021, the Kenyan government banned Uganda’s maize exports after the  Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) in Kenya said the maize contained mycotoxins, particularly aflatoxins, which can cause cancer.

In the same month, Kenya also banned maize imports from Tanzania after discovering the presence of similar contamination.

Regional trade in maize is becoming problematic despite EAC partner states being co-signatories to agreements on free movement of goods.

Recently, Tanzanian authorities stopped more than 200 trucks from ferrying maize into Kenya from Tanzania at the Namanga border.

Meanwhile, maize exports from Uganda to Kenya, which would have filled the huge gap, have dropped due to demand in the more lucrative South Sudan market.

The reported difficulties with Tanzania further expose Kenya, which has only been able to import 2 million out of an expected 10 million bags of maize, which is the country’s main staple food.

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