Diseases have plagued mankind throughout history. The Neolithic Revolution, which was marked by a shift to agrarian societies, preceded by hunting and gathering communities, brought about increased trading activities. The shift created new opportunities for increased human and animal interactions, which in turn, introduced and sped up the spread of new diseases. The more civilized humans became, the more the occurrences of pandemics was witnessed.
This led to outbreaks that left an indelible mark in history due to their severity. Three of the deadliest pandemics include the Plague of Justinian (541-542 BC) that killed about 30-50 million people, Black Death (1347-1351) that killed 200 million and Smallpox (1520 onwards) that killed 56 million.
In modern history, the most notable major pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. Over a century later, the world is grappling with the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has currently infected over 2 million people and killed over 140,000.
But how does the Spanish flu compare to the current COVID-19 pandemic?
The mother of all flu pandemics in modern history
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is sometimes referred to as the mother of all pandemics. It affected one-third of the world’s population and killed up to 50 million people, including some 675,000 Americans. It was the first known pandemic to involve the H1N1 virus.
The outbreak occurred during the final months of World War I. It came in several waves but its origin, however, is still a matter of debate to-date. Its name doesn’t necessarily mean it came from Spain.
Spain was one of the earliest countries where the epidemic was identified. Historians believe this was likely a result of wartime media censorship. The country was a neutral nation during the war and did not enforce strict censorship on its press. This freedom of the press allowed them to freely publish early accounts of the illness. As a result, people falsely believed the illness was specific to Spain and hence earning the name “Spanish flu”.
Influenza or flu is a virus that attacks the respiratory system and is highly contagious.
Initial symptoms of the Spanish flu included a sore head and tiredness, followed by a dry hacking cough, loss of appetite, stomach problems and excessive sweating. As it progressed, the illness could affect the respiratory organs, and pneumonia could develop. This stage was often the main cause of death. This also explains why it is difficult to determine exact numbers killed by the flu, as the listed cause of death was often something other than the flu.
These symptoms are very similar to those of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
For decades, the Spanish flu virus was lost to history and scientists still do not know for sure where the virus originated. Several theories as to what may have caused it point to France, the United States or China.
Research published in 1999 by a British team, led by virologist John Oxford theorized a major United Kingdom staging and hospital camp in Étaples, France as being the centre of the flu. In late 1917, military pathologists reported the onset of a new disease with high mortality in the overcrowded camp that they later recognized as the flu. The camp was also home to a piggery, and poultry was regularly brought for food from neighbouring villages. Oxford and his team theorized that a significant precursor virus harboured in birds, mutated and then migrated to the pigs.
Other statements have been that the flu originated from the United States, in Kansas. In 2018, another study found evidence against the flu originating from Kansas, as the cases and deaths there were fewer than those in New York City in the same period. The study did, however, find evidence suggesting that the virus may have been of North American Origin, though it wasn’t conclusive.
Multiple studies have placed the origin of the flu in China. The country had lower rates of flu mortality, which may have been due to an already acquired immunity possessed by the population. The argument was that the virus was imported to Europe via infected Chinese and Southeast Asian soldiers and workers headed across the Atlantic.
However, the Chinese Medical Association Journal published a report in 2016 with evidence that the 1918 virus had been circulating in the European armies for months and possibly years before the Spanish flu pandemic.
COVID-19, on the other hand, was first discovered in the Wuhan province of China late last year. There has been no argument against this so far. Research is still ongoing as to whether it was passed on from bats or the newly found connection to pangolins.
Much like COVID-19, the Spanish flu was spread from through air droplets, when an infected person sneezed or coughed, releasing more than half a million-virus particles that came into contact with uninfected people.
The close quarters and massive troop movements during the war hastened the spread of the flu. There are speculations that the soldiers’ already weakened immune systems were increasingly made vulnerable due to malnourishment and the stresses of combat and chemical attacks. More U.S soldiers in WW1 died from the flu than from the war.
A unique characteristic of the virus was the high death rate it caused among healthy adults 15-34 years of age. It lowered the average life expectancy in the U.S by more than 12 years.
COVID-19, on the other hand, does not discriminate in terms of age, but older people and those with other underlying medical conditions are being considered more vulnerable.
The measures being taken today to curb the spread of COVID-19 are very similar to those taken in 1918. Back then, physicians advised people to avoid crowded places and shaking hands with other people. Others suggested remedies included eating cinnamon, drinking wine and drinking Oxo’s beef broth. They also told people to keep their mouths and noses covered with masks in public.
In other areas quarantines were imposed and public places such as schools, theatres and churches were closed. Libraries stopped lending books and strict sanitary measures were passed to make spitting in the streets illegal.
Due to World War I, there was a shortage of doctors in some areas. Many of the physicians who were left became ill themselves. Schools and other buildings were turned into makeshift hospitals, where medical students had to step up to help the overwhelmed physicians.
Though the severity of COVID-19 has not gotten to the level of the Spanish flu, most of the effects the world is experiencing now are very relatable.
The Spanish flu killed with reckless abandon, leaving bodies piled up to such an extent that funeral parlours and cemeteries were overwhelmed. Family members were left to dig graves for their deceased loved ones. Strained state and local health centres also closed, hampering efforts to chronicle the spread of the flu and provide much-needed information to the public. Similar scenes are being witnessed in Italy today, which has so far recorded the highest number of deaths due to COVID-19.
The Spanish flu also adversely affected the economy as the deaths created a shortage of farmworkers, which in turn affected the summer harvest. A lack of staff and resources put other basic services such as waste collection and mail delivery under pressure. COVID-19 has seen some companies send their employees home on unpaid leave and others have imposed pay cuts. If the situation worsens, a majority is likely to lose their jobs.
Fake news during this time was also a problem. Even as people were dying, there were attempts to make money by advertising fake cures to desperate victims. On June 28, 1918, a public notice appeared in the British papers advising people of the symptoms of the flu. It however turned out this was actually an advertisement for Formamints, a tablet made and sold by a vitamin company. The advert stated that the mints were the “best means of preventing the infective processes” and that everyone, including children, should suck four or five of these tablets a day until they felt better.
Fake news has been a concern since the outbreak of COVID-19, with the Internet making it even easier to spread it. See some of our fact checks on the subject here.
The deadliness of WW1 coupled with censorship of the press and poor record-keeping made tracking and reporting on the virus very tedious. This explains why the flu remains of interest to date as some questions are yet to be answered. In contrast, Media coverage on COVID-19 has been commendable and very useful to the public in providing much-needed answers.
When the Spanish flu hit, medical technology and countermeasures were limited or non-existent at the time. No diagnostic tests or influenza vaccines existed. The federal government also lacked a centralized role in helping to plan and initiate interventions during the pandemic.
Many doctors prescribed medication that they felt would be effective in alleviating symptoms, including aspirin. Patients were advised to take up to 30 grams per day, a dose now known to be toxic. It is now believed that some of the deaths were actually caused or hastened by aspirin poisoning.
The first licensed flu vaccine appeared in America in the 1940s and from there on, manufacturers could routinely produce vaccines that would help control and prevent future pandemics.
Fast forward to 2020; clinical trials of COVID-19 treatments/vaccines are either ongoing or recruiting patients. The drugs being tested range from repurposed flu treatments to failed Ebola drugs, blood pressure drug (Losartan), an immunosuppressant (Actemra- an arthritis drug) and malaria treatments developed decades ago.
An antiviral drug called Favipiravir or Avigan, developed by Fujifilm Toyama Chemical in Japan is showing promising outcomes in treating at least mild to moderate cases of COVID-19.
As of now, doctors are using available drugs and health support systems such us ventilators to alleviate symptoms. There have been over 500,000 recoveries so far.
Doctors in China, South Korea, France and the U.S. have been using Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine on some patients with promising results. The FDA is organizing a formal clinical trial of the drug, which has already been approved for the treatment of malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
The mistakes and delays in taking quick action we are experiencing today with COVID-19 are not new. In the summer of 1918, a second wave of the Spanish flu returned to the American shores as infected soldiers came back home. With no vaccine available, it was the responsibility of the local authorities to come up with plans to protect the public, at a time when they were under pressure to appear patriotic and with a censored media downplaying the disease’s spread.
Some bad decisions were made in the process. In Philadelphia for instance, the response came in too little too late. The then director of Public Health and Charities for the city, Dr Wilmer Krusen, insisted that the increasing fatalities were not the Spanish flu but the normal flu. This left 15,000 dead and another 200,000 sick. Only then did the city close down public places.
The End Of the Pandemic
The pandemic came to an end by the end of the summer of 1919. Those who were infected either died or developed immunity. The world has experienced other flu outbreaks since then but none as deadly as the Spanish flu.
The Asian flu (H2N2), first Identified in China from 1957-1958, killed around 2 million people worldwide. The Hong Kong (H3N2), first detected in Hong Kong, from 1968-1969, killed about 1 million people. Between 1997-2003, Bird flu (H5N1), first detected in Hong Kong, killed over 300 people. More recently in 2009-2010, the Swine flu (H1N1), which originated from Mexico, killed over 18,000 people.
The world’s population has increased from 1.8 billion to 7.7 billion since 1918. Animals alike, which are used for food, have also increased significantly, giving room for more hosts for novel flu viruses to infect people. Transport systems have gotten better making global movement of people and goods much easier and faster, further widening the spread of viruses to other geographical regions.
Even though considerable medical, technological and societal advancements have been made since 1918, the best defence against the current pandemic continues to be the development of vaccine or herd immunity. The biggest challenge, however, is the time required to manufacture a new vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, it generally takes about 20 weeks to select and manufacture a new vaccine.
Dr Eddy Okoth Odari, a senior lecturer and researcher of Medical Virology in the Department of Medical Microbiology at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology breaks it down as follows:
“It is anticipated that “herd immunity” would protect the vulnerable groups. We must, however, appreciate that natural “herd immunity” may only occur when a sizeable number of the population gets infected. I note with concern that we may not know and should not gamble with the immunity or health of our populations. This would then call for an “induced herd immunity” through vaccination. Therefore as at now, we must increase our efforts in developing an effective vaccine.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) published instructions for countries to use in developing their own national pandemic plans, as well as a checklist for pandemic influenza risk and impact management. But even with all these plans, there are still loopholes that could still be devastating in the face of a pandemic, as we are currently witnessing.
Healthcare systems are getting overwhelmed and some hospitals and doctors are struggling to meet the demand from the number of patients requiring care. The manufacture and distribution of medications, products and life-saving medical equipment such as ventilators, masks and gloves have also significantly increased, seeing as there is already a shortage being experienced. Dr Okoth has a good explanation for this:
“Translation of research findings into proper policies has been slow since policy formulators have insisted on evidence. For example, as early as March 2019, publications had hinted into a possibility of a virus crossing over from bats to human populations in China, but unfortunately, there was no proper preparedness and if any, perhaps the magnitude of this potential infection was underestimated. Finally, the geopolitical wars and political inclinations among the superpowers are not helping much in the war against infectious diseases. When the pandemic started it was viewed as a Chinese problem, in fact, other nations insisted in it being called a “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus”. Even with clear evidence that the virus would spread outside China, the WHO (perhaps to appear neutral) insisted that China was containing the virus and delayed in declaring this a pandemic – the net result of this was that other countries became reluctant in upscaling their public health measures, yet other countries seem to have been keen not to be on the bad books of China.”
There is no telling how long the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will go on for or when and how it will end, but global preparation for pandemics clearly still warrant improvement as Dr Okoth advises.
“Perhaps the lessons that we learn here is that diseases will not need permission to cross borders and since the world has become a global village, there should be proper investments in global health and scientific research.”
This article was originally published by Africa Uncensored. Graphics by Clement Kumalija.
Kings, Presidents and Tyrants: Uganda, 1500 to Present
1500 – 1852 – Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom: Bito dynasties of Buganda, Bunyoro and Ankole founded by Nilotic-speaking immigrants from the current southeastern Sudan. Expansion of Buganda at the expense of Bunyoro and take control of the territory bordering Lake Victoria from the Victoria Nile to the Kagera river.
1862 – The first European, British explorer John Hanning Speke visits Buganda.
1875 – Christian missionaries are allowed to enter the realm of Buganda King Mutesa 1.
1890 – A treaty signed between Britain and Germany gives Britain rights to what was to become Uganda.
1894 – Uganda becomes a British protectorate.
1900 – Britain signs an agreement with Buganda giving it autonomy and turning it into a constitutional monarchy controlled mainly by Protestant chiefs.
1958 – Uganda granted internal self-government.
1962 – Uganda becomes independent with Milton Obote as prime minister and with Buganda enjoying considerable autonomy.
1963 – Uganda becomes a republic with Buganda’s King Mutesa – Edward Luwangula Walugembe Muteesa II – as president.
1966 – Milton Obote ends Buganda’s autonomy and promotes himself to the presidency.
1967 – New constitution vests considerable power in the president.
1971 – Milton Obote toppled in coup led by Army chief Idi Amin.
1972 – Around 60,000 Asians Ugandan citizens expelled by Amin from Uganda.
1976 – Idi Amin declares himself president for life and lays claims to parts of Kenyan territory.
1978 – 1979 – The Uganda – Tanzania war known as the Kagera War in Tanzania and The 1979 Liberation War oust president Idi Amin from power.
1979 – Tanzanian forces invade Uganda, unifying the various anti-Amin forces under the Uganda National Liberation Front. Amin flees out of the country; Yusuf Lule installed as president, but quickly replaced by Godfrey Binaisa.
1980 – After elections Milton Obote returns as the president of Uganda.
1985 – Milton Obote is deposed in a military coup and replaced by Tito Okello. The new military leaders Tito Okello, Bazilio Olara Okello and Gad Wilson Toko hold onto the presidency for under a year before they are also ousted from power by the National Resistance Army (NRA) on January 26, 1986.
1986 – Yoweri Museveni becomes president after National Resistance Army rebels gain control of Kampala.
1993 – Yoweri Museveni restores the traditional kings, including the king of Buganda, but stripped of their political power.
1995 – The new constitution legalises political parties but maintains the ban on political activity.
1996 – Museveni returned to office in Uganda’s first direct presidential election.
1998 – Ugandan troops intervene in the Democratic Republic of Congo on the side of rebels seeking to overthrow Kabila.
2000 – Ugandans vote in favour of continuing Museveni’s “no-party” system rejecting multi-party politics.
2001 – Museveni wins a new term in office, beating his rival Kizza Besigye by 69% to 28%.
2005 July – Parliament approves a constitutional amendment which scraps presidential term limits. Voters in a referendum overwhelmingly back a return to multi-party politics.
2005 November – Kizza Besigye, opposition leader is imprisoned shortly after returning from exile having undergone a trial in a military court on various charges including treason and illegal possession of firearms. Supporters claim the trial is politically motivated, and take to the streets. Besigye is released on bail in January 2006, ahead of presidential elections.
2006 February – President Museveni wins multi-party elections, taking 59% of the vote against the 37% of his rival, Kizza Besigye. EU observers highlight intimidation of Mr Besigye and official media bias.
2010 October – Constitutional Court quashes treason charges against opposition leader Kizza Besigye.
2011 February – Museveni wins his fourth presidential election. Challenger Kizza Besigye alleges vote-rigging and dismisses the election result as a sham.
2011 April – Kizza Besigye arrested several times over ”walk-to-work” protests against rising fuel prices.
2016 February – President Museveni wins re-election against veteran candidate Kizza Besigye, amid opposition, Commonwealth, US and European Union concern about fairness and transparency of the electoral process.
2017 January – President Museveni appoints his son, General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, as a presidential advisor
2017 April – Former musical artist Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu popularly known by stage name Bobi Wine wins a by-election to become the legislator for Kyadondo County East against formidable opposition and draws attention in Uganda and abroad.
2017 December – Parliament votes to remove the age-limit for presidential candidates, clearing the way for President Museveni to run for another term.
2018 – The arrest and torture of Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu known as “Ghetto president” ignites popular protests with demands for his release.
2019 – Ugandan Musician and opposition leader Bobi Wine announced he’ll run for president in 2021, in an effort to thwart President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power in Uganda since 1986
2020 – Political fever spikes as Uganda elections near with Bobi Wine running in 2021. Kizza Besigye challenged Museveni four times since 2001 and is no longer going to contest any election organized under the ruling NRM. Gregory Mugisha Muntuyera, the former Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) president, and Bobi Wine have joined forces in a new alliance called the United Forces of Change.
The Drivers of Inflation During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The drivers of inflation during the COVID-19 pandemic period resulted from demand-pull inflation, cost-push inflation and money supply.
Jane Muthoni can still put together a tasty ‘ugali-madondo’ dish, a local specialty of Makongeni composed of maize flour and beans in a savory stew.
Trouble is, the dish and other tasty delicacies cost a lot more to make now than they did back in 2015 when she started the business, thanks to the hidden economic forces.
To operate her popular cafe, known by locals as a “kibanda”, Muthoni says she has to pay three times as much for charcoal, and 30 percent more for kerosene, her primary cooking fuels. On top of that, the price of food ingredients is also up – maize flour is up more than 12 percent.
While not all items in the Kenyan economy are experiencing this price inflation, the rising costs are putting extra pressure on businesses that are already struggling with losses related to the health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Inflation generally refers to the upward price movement of goods and services in an economy. It represents the overall loss of purchase power of money. The more prices soar upwards, the less each Kenya shilling is worth.
The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) measures inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). CPI is measured by a weighted average cost of a basket of selected goods and services such as food, housing, health, transport and so on. The inflation rate is typically the average change in the CPI over time, say year to year.
Muthoni, like many other Kenyans, does not necessarily understand why the prices of the items change over time.
This article assesses three drivers of inflation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Demand-Pull Inflation
When the market demand for goods and services, such as flour, beans, charcoal, transport and others that Muthoni needs to run her çafe, outgrows the market supply, it causes demand-pull inflation.
It starts with an increase in demand by consumers, and sellers will react to that demand by increasing their supply. This leads to pressure on the scarce supplies making sellers raise their prices. This is one of the scenarios that result in inflation.
A marginal increase in inflation is observed between March and April in the graph above. This can be attributed to the demand-pull inflation as Kenyans were driven to panic buying and stocking of essential supplies such as food in anticipation of what would happen following the confirmation of the first COVID-19 patient in the country. The growth in aggregate demand resulted in a reduced availability of these goods causing higher prices hence the slight increase in the inflation rate.
Muthoni grappled with this increased cost on food supplies for her cafe which raised her expenses – cutting into her profit margins.
Another reason for demand-pull inflation could have been the depreciation of the Kenya shilling which in turn would increase import prices and reduce prices of exports. This meant fewer people had capacity to import while exporters would earn more. Since Kenya relies heavily on imports, this resulted in a growth of the total demand of goods and services in the economy
To mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to the Kenyan economy, the Government approved tax reduction and relief measures that were effected from the 25th April 2020.
This meant that taxpayers had more disposable income. It would be expected that the tax reduction would have raised demand, which would drive the price of goods and services upwards.
However, the reverse is observed on the chart above as the inflation rate steadily decreased from May onwards. This can be explained by the fact that some Kenyans lost jobs (estimated at 1.7 million by the KNBS), some received pay-cuts whereas others, in informal employment, were not eligible.
2. Cost-Push Inflation
When supply costs of goods and services rise due to increasing cost of production or raw materials, and demand remains the same, prices will rise. This will cause cost-push inflation.
Cost-push inflation can be attributed to the expectation of inflation where people foresee prices for goods or services rising. The marginal increase in inflation observed between March and April can be attributed to the uncertainty of the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This could have affected Muthoni’s business as the increased cost of food supplies was transferred from the farmers to producers, from wholesalers to retailers and finally borne by customers like her.
The depreciation of a currency rate can also cause cost-push inflation as it leads to an increase in the prices of imported goods such as raw materials for production. In return, producers transfer this growth in prices to consumers, which results in inflation.
3. Money Supply
All the currency and other liquid assets in an economy is referred to as money supply. It includes both cash and deposits that can be used almost as easily as cash. When there is more money supply in circulation, it will increase market demand. This in turn can lead to more domestic (local) production or an increase in prices. If domestic production is fixed, then any increase in market demand of goods and services will cause a rise in prices leading to inflation.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) reduced the Central Bank Rate (CBR) to 7.25 percent from 8.25 percent and Cash Reserve Ratio (CRR) to 4.25 percent from 5.25 percent to avert a severe economic and financial crisis. This resulted in more money supply, of Kshs 35.2 billion. This offered banks additional liquidity and funds to lend.
While this offered Muthoni a chance to secure a bank loan, she was not confident that her cash flows would sustain its repayment as her customers kept reducing by the day.
The chart above reveals that the increase in money supply did not cause an increase in inflation. This could be attributed to growth of domestic production at the same rate as money supply, implying that the money is absorbed in production.
It could also be attributed to low circulation of the money in the economy. When the average number of times that money is spent on goods and services is low despite an increase in money supply, the prices are likely to remain low as observed at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic period.
Was the inflation rate uniform for all the basket items though?
The change in Basket Consumer Price Index was different across various categories.
The main driver for the decline in the inflation rate is consistent decrease in food and non-alcoholic beverages prices from May onwards. This can be linked to the reduction of VAT from 16 percent to 14 percent.
In contrast, the cost of transport increased sharply between June and July. This is attributed to an increase in demand for people travelling following the lifting of the cessation of movement into and out of the Nairobi Metropolitan area, Mombasa county and Mandera county on the 7th of July, 2020.
The cost of alcoholic beverages, tobacco and narcotics remained relatively stable until June when prices started to decline owing to reduced demand as a result of the suspension on the operation of bars.
Muthoni and colleagues dealing in restaurants and food businesses were allowed to remain open only for take away services. However, the demand for restaurants and hotels is seen to dip during the peak period of the COVID-19 pandemic, but things seem to be looking up from the month of August as prices for their services have gone up by close to 3 percent.
Since schools and learning institutions have been closed since March, the prices for education services have barely changed.
The drivers of inflation during the COVID-19 pandemic period resulted from demand-pull inflation, cost-push inflation and money supply. Despite the almost consistent decline in the inflation rates, the change in the Consumer Price Index did not depict a similar trend for all the goods and services.
Additional contribution by Purity Mukami.
This article was first published by Africa Uncensored’s Piga Firimbi
Kenya Transactions in FinCEN Files Raise Suspicions Around Coffee and Ivory Trade
Twenty-four Kenyan financial institutions were named in the reports as either beneficiaries’ banks or banks through which companies and individuals made suspicious payments from countries that include the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, British Virgin Islands and China.
At least 53 Kenyan companies and individuals appear in a leak of banking records submitted to the US Department of Treasury as suspicious financial activity, according to an analysis of leaked bank documents by Africa Uncensored.
The documents, submitted by some of the world’s largest banks to the US Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, also known as FinCEN, were obtained by BuzzFeed News. BuzzFeed News shared the documents with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) which coordinated 110 media partners around the world.
The size of the leak, 2,100 suspicious activity reports filed by U.S. banks, or SARs, is unprecedented. While the documents are not evidence of wrongdoing, they provide a unique, bird’s-eye view of global illicit money flows often obtained through corruption and other crimes.
Twenty-four Kenyan financial institutions were named in the reports as either beneficiaries’ banks or banks through which companies and individuals made suspicious payments from countries that include the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, British Virgin Islands and China.
“Banks are at the heart of the finance industry. Both legitimate and illegitimate finance moves through financial institutions. Big money is not carried in suitcases but through very respectable banks and other international financial institutions”, says Alvin Musioma, executive director of Tax Justice Network Africa.
Additional reporting by Africa Uncensored also linked shareholders of Commercial Bank of Africa — now named NCBA Group — which is co-owned by Kenya’s first family, to a company that received millions of US dollars in potentially suspicious payments for coffee and DVD players.
The Coffee Case
The New York branch of Standard Chartered, which acted as an intermediary bank, flagged payments sent to a company called SMS Ltd which the bank identified as having addresses in Kenya, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Bulgaria.
In the reports, the bank described SMS Ltd as being “in [the] pharmaceutical and medical products” industry. However, the bank noted, the companies sending the payments were in completely different lines of businesses, including commodities trading, vegetable oil production, and coffee exports.
Of the $14 million that SMS Ltd received between 2005 and 2013, $3.3 million was paid by Kenyan entities. More than $2 million of that was from two coffee Kenyan dealers, East African Gourmet Coffees Ltd and Servicoff Ltd. In fact, the companies are connected to each other and share company officers with companies linked to the Kenyatta family.
According to company registration documents, East African Gourmet Coffees’ directors include an obscure company with no online presence, New Start Nominee Limited, and two individuals, Kibet Torut and Peter Kimathi Kinyua, who also owns Servicoff Ltd.
One of the shareholders of Servicoff Ltd is Ropat Nominees Ltd, the second-largest shareholder of NCBA Group, co-owned by President Kenyatta’s family via their company Enke Investments Limited.
The two Ropat Nominees’ directors co-own other companies, including one with John Stuart Armitage, who appears in numerous companies owned by Kenya’s first family. The company, Southbrook Holdings, was recently at the centre of a contentious land sale deal involving the president’s mother.
Contacted by journalists, Peter Kimathi Kinyua said that Servicoff Ltd’s payments to SMS Ltd (registered in Kenya as Sustainable Management Services Limited) have been for the purchase of coffee. He declined to comment on the involvement of Ropat Nominees Ltd except to confirm that the company is part of the nominee shareholders.
“We normally deal with SMS – Sustainable Management Services, a coffee marketing agent at Nairobi Coffee Exchange,” said Kibet Torut while denying knowledge of SMS Ltd and the transactions quoted from the suspicious activity report, in an email response.
Kinyua was appointed by President Uhuru Kenyatta as board chairman for Kenya Forest Service in 2018.
Both Kinyua and Kibet Torut denied having any business ties to the president.
According to their website, Servicoff Ltd, has been growing, processing roasting and blending coffee since 1969. The company shares an email domain name with East African Gourmet Coffees Ltd, the other coffee dealer named in the bank’s report.
Import records confirm that Servicoff has been shipping Washed Kenya Arabica AA coffee since 2007, mainly to the U.S.
The bank report also noted that SMS Ltd had received $1.3 million from Louis Dreyfus Commodities Kenya, listed as a commodity broker in the SAR, the local branch of a global trade firm headquartered in Switzerland that deals in the coffee business too. Africa Uncensored has identified that one of the directors behind the Nairobi branch of Louis Dreyfus is Alexander Mareka Dietz, who is also a director in a company with Udi Mareka Gecaga, a one-time brother-in-law to President Kenyatta.
Reporters were unable to reach Dietz, and automated replies to emails sent to the company address indicate that only approved senders are able to email the company.
Company records obtained by Africa Uncensored reveal that Sustainable Management Services (SMS) Limited is wholly owned by East Africa MM Co. LLC, which is registered in the US state of Delaware, a recognised haven for shell companies due to its reputation for corporate secrecy and tax breaks.
On a US coffee seller’s website, SMS Ltd markets Kenya AA coffee that is handpicked by many small-holding farmers in central Kenya.
According to the Kenya Biogas program website, the company is “one of the partners working with coffee farmers through targeted capacity building on climate change through projects.”
A snapshot of their website in 2016 reveals that SMS Ltd is a group company of Ecom Agro-Industrial Corporation Limited, which is registered in Switzerland with the Esteve family its ultimate beneficial owner. Ecom’s website lists an office at Tatu City coffee park in Ruiru, Kenya where SMS Ltd is located, according to its Facebook page.  The Esteve family also runs ECOM Coffee, a leading global coffee miller and coffee trader.
However, according to the FinCEN files, of the 201 transactions SMS Ltd received totalling over $14 million, more than half came from a Dubai-based vegetable oils production company for the purchase of television and DVD player.
When asked by journalists to comment on why a Kenyan company with a Delaware-registered shareholder markets coffee from Kenyan farmers to Kenyan companies exporting to the US, Musioma, the Tax Justice Network Africa executive director, had this to say:
“The fact that we are talking of companies being registered in tax havens and coming in, speaks of the lax laws we have when it comes to beneficial ownership. You might find that there is a conflict of interest here emanating from the directors of these companies being the ones that are involved in those transactions”.
Reporters were unable to reach SMS Ltd. Emails to the parent company in Switzerland went unanswered.
Victoria Commercial Bank and Middle East Bank (MEB) Kenya Ltd did not respond to questions concerning these transactions, some of which were processed by the banks.
Standard Chartered Bank, whose New York branch filed the suspicious activity report, did not respond in time for publication.
“No More Bullshit”
In another set of transactions in a separate suspicious activity report reviewed by Africa Uncensored, a would-be fashionista named Joyce Oweya Anyumba — a 33-year-old with addresses in Buruburu, Nairobi, and Mombasa — held an account with the Barclays Bank of Kenya from 2015.
Her industry included interior design, curio and African wear, according to Barclays’ report.
However, between July 2015 and October 2016, the account sent and received about 63 wire transfers totalling to $197,094.51. Anyumba received funds from banks in Qatar, the US, Australia, China, Germany and Sweden; she also wired a total of $1234.45 in small payments to individuals in the US, Australia, Canada, Sweden, China and Singapore that the bank could not verify.
The transactions were flagged by the bank because of unidentified sources of funds, unclear economic purposes of the transactions, and potentially being third-party payments.
The justifications for the payments included descriptions such as “bill settlement”, “construction of house” and “consultation fees”, according to the bank’s report.
Other payment details included “government first payment”, “gift finalization of matters discussed”, and “supplier invoice payment to be forwarded”.
One sender from Australia made 13 transfers worth almost $12,000 to Anyumba within a year. The payment details included the mysterious notes: “supplier invoice the money better come back” and “supplier invoice make good on your promise no ivor no more bullshit.” The bank noted in its report: “ivor probably meaning ivory.”
Anyumba denied knowledge of these transactions in an email.
“Am sorry sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Anyumba when we asked her to confirm the above transactions. She did not reply to our follow up emails on her age, address and whether she is in the business of selling clothes and interior design materials.
There is no legal trade in ivory in Kenya, according to Dr Richard Thomas, the head of communications for TRAFFIC, a UK-based wildlife trade monitoring organisation. “It doesn’t come as any surprise to hear you say there’s essentially no record of [the parties]”, Thomas told reporters.
“Wildlife is like any other commodity that’s traded: there’s buyers and sellers and money changes hands. International commercial ivory trade is banned under CITES, but the trafficking of it takes place, run by largely Asia-based organised criminal syndicates. One effective strategy to targeting such networks is through following the money”, said Thomas.
Other senders of money to Anyumba include an American man with a history of shoplifting and bankruptcy, according to the bank’s suspicious activity report.
The account was expected to have an annual turnover of about 16 million Kenya shillings ($160,000), according to Barclays, but the customer received significant transactions whose real economic purposes could not be identified.
“Barclays Kenya has filed a SAR on Anyumba with their local regulator and is in the process of exiting the relationship,” the report noted.
The Kenya branch of Barclays Bank — now known as ABSA Bank Kenya PLC — had not answered our questions regarding the specifics of the transactions by the time of publication.
Musioma listed some general concerns of suspicious trade through Kenya because the country serves as a hub for drug smuggling and illicit trade in all kinds of goods, including ivory and smuggled minerals.
“All these monies are not carried in suitcases or wheelbarrows. The banking sector is at the centre of it. And I don’t think that both the Central Bank and regulators are doing enough to stretch banks in terms of punitive measures,” said Musioma.
Many of the transactions flagged as suspicious by banks in the FinCEN Files involve recipients and originators from Kenya and other high-risk jurisdictions, including Cyprus, Mauritius, Moldova, Latvia, Afghanistan, Russia and Turkey.
Musioma likened banks to providers of “getaway cars” in crime and corruption in the country — the so-called intermediaries in terms of them providing the oil to enable corruption. “So, the fight against corruption, illicit financial flows and money laundering and all these other crimes can never be won without bringing in the central role banks play”.
Much more could be done to address the role of Kenyan banks in money laundering and other financial crimes, according to Musioma. For example, increasing the punishment for banks who break regulations designed to prevent illicit flows, improve due diligence in the banks’ compliance procedures, and address the issue of the revolving door.“ We have seen people moving in from the banking sector to become regulators and that will create a conflict of interest in the banking industry,” he said.
With Kenya working on being a regional financial centre, through the Nairobi International Finance Centre (NIFC) the regulation and enforcement of the financial sector must be tightened, the tax expert concluded.
Additional reporting by Juliet Atellah, data journalist at The Elephant.
John-Allan Namu, Martha Mendoza of AP and Kira Zalan of OCCRP contributed to this article.
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