By Duncan Miriri
NAIROBI (Reuters) - A Kenyan government scheme to subsidize staple maize flour has hit problems over shortages, stoking anger over high food prices ahead of a national election in August.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, seeking a second five-year term, faces veteran rival Raila Odinga, who says the high food prices show Kenyatta's government has failed poor citizens.
The government unveiled a 6 billion shilling ($58.14 million) maize (corn) subsidy program last week to lower the unit cost of flour to 90 shillings, after it soared by a third to around 136 shillings during a regional drought.
"We are happy they have lowered the price but getting it is the problem. This flour is like gold," said trader Joseph Ouma, speaking in a Nairobi store that limited shoppers to two packs of flour per customer due to high demand.
In the western city of Kisumu, major retail outlets did not have maize flour, angering shoppers who had traveled from rural homes to the city to look for it.
"It is sad that the government assures us that there is flour yet we can't find it in the shops," said Denish Owuor, who managed to buy only one pack of flour.
The government is importing Mexican maize and distributing it to millers at subsidized rates. The packets are stamped in bright red letters with the price of 90 shillings and the letters GoK, for Government of Kenya.
The subsidies lower the cost of a 90 kg bag of maize to 2,300 shillings from a market rate of 4,600 shillings.
Richard Lesiyampe, principal secretary at the ministry of agriculture, blamed panic buying for the shortages, which he said were not widespread.
"Shoppers have decided to call all their relatives, their spouses, their mothers, their daughters, their sons and the house-helps (maids) so they can get as many packets as possible," he told Reuters.
He said Kenya has 43,000 metric tonnes of maize and a ship carrying another 43,000 tonnes of Mexican corn is expected on Thursday. Further shipments are expected at the port of Mombasa on June 11 and 15.
Kenya uses 4,500 tonnes of maize daily, Lesiyampe said.
He rejected criticism that the government should have imported maize earlier, saying imports are used as a last resort to protect the market for local farmers.
The bulk of Kenya's maize is produced in the populous Rift Valley region, a key voting bloc courted assiduously by the main political coalitions.
(Editing by Katharine Houreld and David Evans)