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WAR ON DRUGS: Kenya, the Forgotten Hotspot of the Heroin Trade

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Nairobi, Kenya – A WATER GLASS SHARED BY 200 ADDICTS

In downtown Mombasa, a nondescript office sandwiched between multistoreyed buildings is busy as usual.

Every five minutes or so, gaunt youths, eyes bloodshot, walk into the tiny reception and straight away dash to the water dispenser at the far corner. They refill the only plastic glass next to the dispenser without rinsing it, and eagerly empty its contents before turning to the reception desk.

Between 9.30 am and 10.30 am, as this writer waits for the director of Reach Out Centre Trust, an independent outfit that helps Mombasa residents fight drug addiction, the 10-litre dispenser bottle is already finished, but it is instantly replenished. The office doesn’t seem to have a designated receptionist. But the hushed talk between the visiting youths and any official around the reception ends up in a familiar refrain.

‘Sorry, the methadone [an analgesic drug similar to morphine used in the treatment of heroin addiction] hasn’t arrived yet. We were promised a new batch a fortnight ago but nothing is here yet. But please, do keep checking.’ Then the dejected youths – one in five are female – leave the building. The ‘clients’ (known by the derogatory term mateja), are hooked on madawa, the local phrase for heroin and/or cocaine.

NACADA says 0.1% of Kenyans consume heroin; implicitly, Kenya is a trafficking rather than a consumer country although reports indicate that it is increasingly becoming an end-user

They want to break the habit, and methadone is the only solution they know about. But it has been in short supply lately. Donors had delayed disbursing funds for the acquisition of methadone. Nonetheless, the water appears to cool their nerves – for the time being. By the close of the day, more than 200 clients will have shared the glass, many of them without rinsing it.

Ominously, the casual way they use unwashed glasses (and thereby risk contracting hepatitis B), is the way they share heroin needles – a sure way of transmitting HIV. And as will be seen later in this report, injectable drug users (IDUs) have become the key agents of HIV spread in the country, accounting for about 18 per cent of new infections.

There are dozens of such methadone clinics, first introduced last year at Kenya’s Coast. Nairobi’s Mathare Hospital started administering this medication in 2014; its specialised clinic treats 450 patients daily. The 51 beds in the rehab ward are always full, with each patient staying 90 days. At the Coast, the Malindi and Mombasa government hospitals each treat 200 addicts a day.

The government moved to introduce methadone following the death of addicts triggered by heroin shortages occasioned by clampdowns on drug barons. Over 100 addicts died in 2011, many more in 2013-2014, though the total number is yet unknown.

According to the International Drugs Policy Consortium (IDPC), heroin started to be consumed in Kenya in the cities that were used as transit points (such as Mombasa) before spreading to other regions of the country and to Nairobi. Now, some 20,000 to 55,000 Kenyans inject heroin. The National Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NACADA) says it is monitoring 25,000 intravenous drug users (IDUs) spread around the country. The population that snorts the drug is still unknown but it could be larger than that of IDUs, according to the Anti-Narcotics Unit (ANU) officials.

These addicts are part of the $322 billion global drug market, as valued in 2011. And as will be seen later in this article, East Africa, a key transit hub for drugs destined for Europe and the United States, contributes $10 billion to this business. Kenya is a major player, as a trafficking hub, in this illicit global commerce.

NACADA says 0.1% of Kenyans consume heroin; implicitly, Kenya is a trafficking rather than a consumer country although reports indicate that it is increasingly becoming an end-user. ‘While data on heroin users in Kenya is limited, UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime) has warned that heroin addiction appears to be on the rise in the country, particularly along the Coast,’ American online news portal huffingtonpost.com said a year ago.

‘Only a tiny fraction of the drugs believed to transit in and through Kenya is seized by authorities. Arrests rarely lead to convictions. When convictions occur in Kenya, they are of lower level couriers and distributors’

The heroin comes from Afghanistan and gets here via Pakistan. According to experts, things look bad this season. Afghanistan’s opium production could reach a new high about 8,800 tonnes (which can produce as much as 530 tonnes of heroin). Volumes have been on an upward trend since 2010, and reached a record high in 2014, says the UNODC. Eight per cent of this will pass through the East African region, what the UNODC calls ROEA (Region of Eastern Africa that draws in Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda).

Given that 12 per cent of that is consumed locally, 5 tonnes (with an estimated street value of $1.3 billion) will remain in the region, with Kenya being the major consumer. But other reports indicate a higher figure. About 8 tonnes enter Kenya, according to a Reuter news article of March 2015 headlined As Heroin Trade Grows, a Sting in Kenya.

BLOOD FLASHING: A DEADLY SHARING

A year ago, huffingtonpost.com published a worrying story about Kenya’s drug problem titled Recovering Addicts Battle Kenya’s Exploding Heroin Problem. It said as more heroin flooded into East Africa, more and more Kenyans were getting hooked on it.

‘Drugs are destroying our communities,’ MP Abdulswamad Shariff Nassir has lamented. His Mvita constituency is among those hardest hit by the drugs problem in Mombasa, with other hotspots being Likoni and Kisauni. ‘The courts have to protect our citizens, and that’s not happening.’

The Mombasa ‘carnage,’ in the words of a Coast-based senior medical officer, wasn’t entirely unexpected. As early as 1998, Noah arap Too, then head of the country’s Criminal Investigation Department, the police arm charged with arresting trafficking among other crimes, sounded a warning, as did the United Nations.

Nothing happened. Michael Ranneberger, the United States ambassador who during his tour of duty from 2001-2011 made the anti-corruption war a personal crusade, much to the chagrin of the then regime of president Mwai Kibaki, wondered whether the country’s inertia in fighting narcotics was ‘Incompetency? Lack of will? Or worse?’ as reported in Wikileaks.

The sin of omission has caught up with Kenya. Today in Mombasa, addicts do what is called ‘blood flashing’ – the sharing of heroin-laced blood between those already high and those in need of a quick fix, practised by addicts who cannot afford the drug. This fatal ritual has been going on for about a year now, according to medical experts at the Coast.

Rene Berger, the USAid Kenya HIV/Aids team leader, says blood flashing is putting anti-HIV programmes in Kenya at risk, and warns that joblessness, prostitution and drug abuse are fuelling a ‘sense of desperation’ at the Coast.

Already, injection of heroin is becoming a key factor in HIV transmission. Figures are scanty as no serious research has been undertaken to link the drug to the spread of the disease, but the information available indicates that HIV prevalence among male drug users is 18 per cent while among females it is 44 per cent. (The country’s HIV prevalence is 6 per cent)

Reports indicate that long time addicts have turned to cocktails – combinations of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and the so-called designer drugs such as methamphetamine, and alcohol – to get their fix.

‘It’s clear that the Coast is an entry point, and wherever there’s a path, there are some crumbs left behind,’ Sylvie Bertrand, regional adviser for HIV/Aids at UNODC’s Eastern Africa office, told the press.

TRAFFICKING HOTSPOT: A SURGE THROUGHOUT THE REGION

Each year, the Kenya Police and the UN issue reports on the drugs situation. One of the reports is global while the other is local; one is analytical, the other primarily statistical. Notwithstanding their different styles, however, both reports portray a country that is battling with a drugs problem.

A section called ‘Dangerous Drugs’ in the Annual Crime Report by the Kenya Police details trends in arrests of drug users and traffickers. It reveals a consistent increase in cases related to drugs in the past 10 years. For instance, dangerous drugs (which is the description for heroin, cocaine and meths) recorded a 12% jump in 2014 over the previous year. That year’s report shows that there were 73 heroin cases that led to 94 arrests, and recoveries amounting to 10.5 kilos, 558 sachets, 2,000 litres of diesel mixed with heroin, and 3,200 litres of liquid heroin.

In the 2015 annual report, the incidence of dangerous drugs went up 14% over the previous year.

On the other hand, the UNODC Maritime Crime Programme in its 2014 annual report talks about an ‘alarming spike’ in illicit drug trafficking throughout the Indian Ocean Rim. It says that there has been a ‘surge in rates of drug trafficking throughout the region, particular with respect to heroin’. Another report by this UN agency, Drug Trafficking to and from Eastern Africa, paints Kenya as a country in the grip of drug cartels. It says that ‘a review of drug seizures from 1998 to date indicates an increase in the trafficking of heroin’ in Kenya.

It turned out wasn’t just cars and TVs the clearing and forwarding agencies were clearing. Heroin and cocaine were far better earners. In fact, of the 10 known local drug barons, nine own, or once owned, import and export companies in Mombasa and Nairobi

In a report published this year, the US State Department says, ‘Kenya is a significant transit country for a variety of illicit drugs, including heroin and cocaine, with an increasing domestic user population.’

Kenya’s transformation into a trafficking hub has been picking up speed in the past 10 years. In April 2014, an Australian Navy patrol seized heroin valued at $290 million (about Ksh29 billion) off Kenya’s Coast. This amount is equivalent to all heroin seized in the East African region in the two decades 1990-2009. Today, 40 tonnes of heroin are believed to be trafficked through East Africa annually, up from 22 tonnes in 2013 and four tonnes in 2009.

Alarmed by the amount of drugs coming from Kenya into the West, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) jointly with the Kenya police created a 16-member specialised force called the ‘Vetted Unit’ to track down drugs and drug lords. And as will be seen later in this article, this is the unit that set up and arrested the Akasha brothers (Baktash Abdalla and Ibrahim Abdalla) and their Indian cohorts in a sting operation last January.

The multibillion-dollar trafficking business has attracted international drug barons, created local cartels, and left a legion of ‘mules’ serving jail terms in foreign lands, with dozens of them on death row. The industry’s proceeds are laundered through banks, supermarkets, forex bureaus, clearing and forwarding companies, hotels and real estate, lottery and gaming companies, casinos, hospitals and high-end bars and exclusive clubs.

The statistics that do exist would place a figure on the business as being worth between $100 million and $160 million annually. But these figures are based merely on seizures, and as the US State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs says, ‘Only a tiny fraction of the drugs believed to transit in and through Kenya is seized by authorities. Due to a lack of political will and institutional capacity, arrests rarely lead to convictions. When convictions occur in Kenya, they are of lower level couriers and distributors.’

The deportation of 120 suspected drug barons in 2013 is an indicator of the allure of the Kenya market for the global underworld.

NO LONGER A BLIP ON THE GLOBAL MAP

Indeed, as indicated earlier in this report, it isn’t happenstance that Kenya finds itself in this situation. As early as 1990s, Noah Arap Too, the then Criminal Investigation Department head, had warned about an impending crisis in the country. ‘It will be a hard and challenging job for law enforcement officers,’ to eradicate narcotics in Kenya, he said.

Prior to this warning, Kenya was perceived a mere blip on the global map of heroin. News reports then named countries such as Nigeria, Colombia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact, in Kenya, most drug-related stories were about marijuana that was being produced locally. Only a tonne of heroin was seized off the East African coast between 1990 and 2009.

This picture turned out to be deceptive. According to later reports, cocaine and heroin were already here, having arrived during the tourism boom of the 1980s.There were red flags here and there but authorities, either out of complacency or because of corruption or both, declined to read the warning signs.

Attempts to arrest suspected barons have been hampered by the fact that many are in government or have business associates within the government

For instance, drug lord Ibrahim Akasha was at the time assembling a deadly kinship machine that would later torment the West, forcing Americans to demand the deportation of his children to answer charges of transporting drugs to the United States and Europe. The Akasha family ‘controlled drugs along Mombasa to Europe’ as early as the 1990s, according to Wikileaks cables.

Another red flag was the mushrooming of clearing and forwarding companies, ostensibly to cash in on the booming imports of second-hand cars and electronics. By 2007, at least 824 had registered with the Kenya Revenue Authority, a figure that would shoot up to 1,298 by 2014. It turned out wasn’t just cars and TVs these agencies were clearing. Heroin and cocaine were far better earners.

In fact, of the 10 known local drug barons, nine own, or once owned, import and export companies in Mombasa and Nairobi.

And when the drugs business boomed, the barons went ahead to create their own Container Freight Stations (CFSs). At the CFSs, containers are verified, cleared, unpacked and delivered to their destinations. Until recently, these stations were barely policed, and so became conduits through which drugs could be smuggled into the country with relative ease.

Kenyan authorities have thus been sleeping on the job. Apart from an anti-narcotics law – that provides for life imprisonment, Ksh1 million ($10,000) fines and seizure of ill-gotten wealth, little if any concrete action has been taken. In 2009, some 11 years after Noah arap Too’s statement, the Anti-Narcotics Unit, had just 100 officers to police the entire country. They couldn’t even track the 824 clearing and forwarding companies registered at the time.

Now, Kenya is suffering from the sins of omission. That explains why Huffingtonpost.com, views Kenya as ‘a forgotten hotspot of the international drugs trade’.

A CONSUMER REPORT FOR THE UNDERWORLD

There is an Internet portal that prides itself on being ‘a consumer report for the underworld.’ Havoscope.com publishes the global prices of drugs, as well as figures for money laundering, piracy and counterfeiting on the black market. In the latest upload, the price of heroin in Kenya was listed as $1.9 per gram, the cheapest among the 72 countries the Internet portal has surveyed. Brunei’s $1330.04 per gram is the most expensive followed by New Zealand at $717.4 per gram. In the United States, the price is $200 while in the United Kingdom it is $61.

In Africa, South Africa’s price is $35.1 per gram, Zimbabwe’s is $27.1 and Nigeria’s is $6.8.

In one of the cables it has released, whistle-blower Wikileaks confirms the local prices of heroin at between Ksh100 and Ksh200 a gram. The same cables say mules earn between $3,000 and $6,000 depending on the destination of the drugs and how easy it is to traffic them to that destination. Mules can make as many as six trips in a year.

Yet these figures, mindboggling as they are, do not tell the entire story about the Kenyan narcotics business. Heroin here is almost the purest in the world – usually above 80 per cent and ‘readily available and relatively inexpensive,’ according to the Wikileaks cables.

(Addicts wary of contracting HIV/Aids prefer pure heroin because it can be snorted through the nose as opposed to the diluted form used by IDUs).

A number of reasons explain why the drug, though pure, is cheap: Corruption (within politics, government and security agencies), ease of operation by drug lords (entry and exit from the country), geographical location of Kenya in relation to the drug’s origin and destination, a poorly secured and policed financial market, legislation that is not deterrent enough, and the high stake politics that drive the country.

i. Corruption

The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, in its 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INSR) says: ‘Stemming the flow of illicit drugs is a challenge for Kenyan authorities. Drug trafficking organisations take advantage of corruption within the Kenya government and business community, and proceeds from drug trafficking contribute to the corruption of Kenyan institutions. High level prosecutions or large seizures remain infrequent.’

Indeed, politics has come in the way of the work of the country’s anti-narcotics agency. ‘Politicians may be opposed to the drug barons in theory but when it comes to business, they are bed-mates,’ says an ANU officer. Attempts to arrest suspected barons have been hampered by the fact that many are in government or have business associates within the government.

Drug lords have contacts in the government, politics (governors, senators, MPs), the religion industry (evangelical preachers) and in the country’s top security agencies

The police source calls it ‘high-stakes politics’ because of the price drug lords pay to protect themselves and their trade. Almost all senior politicians, even those not directly involved in drugs, find themselves on the payroll of the narco-barons.

They have amassed considerable wealth they can use to intimidate and threaten the law and law enforcers.

Sometime back in December 2010, the then Internal Security Minister George Saitoti named in Parliament five lawmakers (Harun Mwau, William Kabogo, Hassan Joho, Simon Mbugua and Mike Mbuvi) as well as tycoon Ali Punjani and long-rumoured unofficial Kibaki second wife, Mary Wambui, all of whom he said were involved in narcotics trafficking. The unprecedented move followed pressure from the international community to have Kenya act against the vice.

A team of police officers formed to carry out investigations into the matter uncovered no evidence to charge the five. Kenya’s leading newspaper, Daily Nation, claimed succinctly that the probe had come ‘up with zero’.

The Interim Report on Drug Trafficking Investigations had said of Mwau, thus ‘No evidence has so far been found to link him with drug trafficking.’ Six months later, the US government declared Mwau a global ‘narco-kingpin’ and moved to freeze his assets. Americans estimate that he is worth $300 million.

Saitoti, who had earlier served as Kenya’s vice president, would die in a plane crash in June 2012. Several MPs, incidentally among them Mwau, claimed in Parliament that he was killed by drug syndicates although they released no evidence to corroborate their charge.

There are politicians and police who facilitate the trafficking of drugs and provide protection to the cartels, there are those who conceal the identity of the cartels, and there are those who get paid to ensure that vessels carrying drugs are not destroyed. And lastly there are those who benefit from drugs seized from traffickers. ‘The nexus is huge,’ says an anti-narcotics officer based in Mombasa.

‘Drugs barons have bought some of our officers and this is very sad… We have information that police vehicles and ambulances are being used to transport drugs within Mombasa County and the Coast region,’ Mombasa County Commissioner Nelson Marwa told journalists in December 2015.

Drug lords have contacts in the government, politics (governors, senators, MPs), the religion industry (evangelical preachers) and in the country’s top security agencies.

ii. Links

In 1998, Koli Lur Kouame, then local head of the UN control agency, described Kenya as a ‘port of call’ for traffickers. Since then, various reports have portrayed the country as a major transit hub for drugs.

Kenya has extensive air and marine links to Europe, the Americas and Asia, as well as within Africa.

According to sources, bulk heroin comes from Afghanistan through Pakistan or Iran, often concealed in consignments of sugar, rice, used motor vehicles, second-hand clothes, tea, fish and other imports. It is stuffed in bulk cargo to make it difficult for scanners to detect it at the entry points. The $290 million’s worth of heroin destroyed by Australian Navy in Mombasa in April 2014 was concealed in bags of cement.

UN officials say the coastline between Somalia and Mozambique is the major trafficking zone for heroin. Apart from the official entry points, such as Mombasa and Dar es Salaam ports, this coastline has hundreds of unregulated entry points that emerged centuries ago to facilitate the slave trade and now serve as trafficking points for drugs, humans and smuggled goods. The drugs enter directly through Kenya’s coastline or via its porous borders with Somalia and Tanzania.

The porous borders the country has with Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania ‘provide low risk opportunities … for those engaged in illicit trade,’ Peter Gastrow says in his ground-breaking study, Termites at Work: A Report on Transnational Crime and State Erosionin Kenya, published in 2011.

In Kenya, the heroin is blended and repackaged as tea or coffee and chocolate to avoid detection, then transported through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) or shipped to West Africa, Europe and the United States. Some couriers, especially West Africans and Kenyans, ferry the drug as pellets in their tummies.

Initially, heroin made in Afghanistan entered Europe via Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and the Balkans, what is known as the Opium Trail, and the northern route via Central Asia and the Caucasus to Russia and the West.

For decades, it was the preferred route for drug networks. But in 2010, authorities in Tanga, northern Tanzania, after arresting four Tanzanians and two Iranians with 95 kilos of heroin destined for Kenya, stumbled on another route, the Smack Track or Southern Route.

The absence of a Coast Guard has made drug trafficking easy. The Navy boats on patrol cannot possibly track all the boats that ply Kenya’s 1,420-km coastline. Authorities are convinced that dhows, boats and big vessels pick up drugs on the high seas on a large scale and transport them to the mainland.

It is not certain how many boats and dhows ply the coastline but Lamu County alone, which covers 45.7 per cent of the coastline, has 4,000 registered boats. The actual number is unknown because most vessels are not registered with the Kenya Maritime Authority.

Kenya’s coastline, and Mombasa port in particular, is like a magnet for traffickers. Kilindini Harbour handles 700,000 standard size containers annually. Only 1% of the containers are inspected. Transit containers and big vessels are barely searched.

Joanna Wright in the UNODC report Transnational Organised Crime in Eastern Africa: A Threat Assessment, claims that there is ‘an awful lot (of heroin) coming in from the (Kenya) Coast’. The country is no longer ‘a backwater producer of marijuana,’ as it was regarded two decades ago.

However, reports indicate that Nairobi appears to be taking over from Mombasa as heroin distribution hub. ‘While international heroin traffic might still be heavy around the Kenyan coast, local supply chains are predominantly coordinated from Nairobi,’ says Margaret Dimova in the report, A New Agenda for Policing: Understanding the Heroin Trade in Eastern Africa.

iii. Laundering

Kenya’s 43 licensed commercial banks, dozens of microfinance institutions and mortgage finance companies, almost 100 forex bureaus, dozens of Somali-style hawallah networks, and many makeshift or unregistered/unlicensed ‘saving and lending’ organisations, are a major attraction to the underworld.

For years now, Kenya’s relatively developed financial infrastructure has been a boon to drug barons. The country’s 43 licensed commercial banks with their extensive branch networks in the region, dozens of microfinance institutions and mortgage finance companies, almost 100 forex bureaus, dozens of Somali-style hawallah networks, and many makeshift or unregistered/unlicensed ‘saving and lending’ organisations, are a major attraction to the underworld.

There are almost 130,000 money agents in Kenya, working mostly with the mobile money provider M-Pesa.

This vast infrastructure is attractive to drug lords out to conceal their earnings. They can transfer their ill-gotten wealth to their home countries, pay for the ‘goods’ or receive payments for the same, and clean up the money within Kenya by investing in the financial markets, real estate and other properties.

In fact, Kenya is among the 67 countries the US Department of State denotes as ‘money laundering countries of 2015.’ In Africa, only Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and Zimbabwe appear in the classification of ‘jurisdictions of primary concern,’ according to its publication, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2016. It states, ‘Kenya remains vulnerable to money laundering and financial fraud. It is the financial hub of East Africa, and its banking and financial sectors are growing in sophistication. Furthermore, Kenya is at the forefront of mobile banking.’

It is for this reason that the Financing Reporting Centre (FRC) was established in 2012 to track such illicit proceeds. However, because of the lack of capacity, the FRC has only managed to process 254 of the 878 suspicious transaction reports (STRs) submitted to it since it was created, and forwarded the results to investigation and prosecution agencies. Nobody has been convicted.

iv. Legislation

The Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act came into force in 1994. It provided for a Ksh1 million ($10,000) fine and seizure of wealth. At the time, this was regarded as highly punitive and deterrent enough. But as it turned out, the legislation has hardly proved a deterrent.

Indeed, in hindsight, this piece of legislation may be a blessing in disguise for cartels.

Firstly, the drafters lacked foresight; the legislation appears to target marijuana and not necessarily hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin and the designer drugs. If you look at the penalties, in particular the fine, it is clear that authorities didn’t foresee a much higher-value drug. Heroin, cocaine and the so-called designer drugs are pricey. An offender needs just a half kilo of heroin to pay the fine.

In a report published after Kenya’s 2013 general election, the US Department of State said of Kenya, ‘Drug barons use the proceeds to contribute to political campaigns and to buy influence with government officials, law enforcement officers, politicians, and the media.’

Second, this legislation gives judicial officers considerable leeway that they can abuse to let drug barons off the hook – or mete out very lenient sentences. Ideally, the weight of the sentence should depend on the amount of drugs and/or their street value. But as a look at some of the rulings shows, the prices are arbitrary. For instance, in Criminal Case 313 of 2010, some 20 grams of heroin were valued at Ksh200. But in Criminal Case 702 of 2010, in Kibera, 11.054 kilos were valued at Ksh11,054,000 (Ksh1 million per kilo). And in Criminal Case 1302 of 2010, Mombasa, 2 grams were valued at Ksh4,000.

There is also a wide discrepancy in the sentences. In Criminal Case 1176 of 2011, the Mombasa principal magistrate convicted George Awuor Mbwana to 10years and Ksh1 million for trafficking 10 sachets of heroin valued at Ksh3,000 – although this sentence would be reduced to five years in 2014 upon appeal. In Criminal Case 705 of 2009, the Malindi chief magistrate sentenced Carolyne Auma Majabu to life imprisonment plus a Ksh1 million fine for trafficking seven sachets of heroin valued at Ksh700.

According to UNODC’s Country Review Report of Kenya 2010-2015, there appear to be problems in regard to proportionality, consistency and adequacy in sentencing/convictions in cases related to drugs as well as economic crimes, such as money laundering.

Cartels Battle

A year ago, Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero complained about ‘state capture’ by organised criminals. Without mentioning their identity, he said they were providing Nairobi residents with free-of-charge services that are meant to be sources of revenue to counties. He said the underworld individuals were out to purchase political power by using the proceeds of drug trafficking.

This wasn’t the first time such a complaint had come up. Within and outside Kenya, people are convinced that the underworld is not only entrenched in Kenyan society, but that it is influencing the country’s political development. MPs, Senators and Governors, military and police officers, preachers and businesspeople are linked to trafficking but their identities are only mentioned in hushed tones.

None of them has been prosecuted or charged in court for their involvement in the illicit business.

In a report published after Kenya’s 2013 general election, the US Department of State said of Kenya, ‘Drug barons use the proceeds to contribute to political campaigns and to buy influence with government officials, law enforcement officers, politicians, and the media.’

According to CID sources, authorities have isolated four types of networks that drive the Kenyan drugs underworld: The loose or fluid network often cobbled together for a one-off deal – which collapses thereafter; the highly secretive patriarchal or kinship-based networks that control the illicit trade at the Coast; the upcountry syndicates that bring together mostly business allies and their political friends; and the trans-border cartels that bring together Kenyans and foreigners.

Cartels operate on political expediency. Specific cartels emerge during specific political seasons or regimes. That apart, the divisions – sometime blurred – may also be based on location or base of operation of the cartel, smuggling routes, and nationality and family links

Whatever type of network, close relationships among the players, also called nodes, are critical to their conduct and survival – what Margarita Dimova calls ‘compact, supple’ in the report, A New Agenda for Policing: Understanding the Heroin Trade in Eastern Africa.

Normally, the Kenyan cartels comprise just dozens of players who are mostly family members or business partners or acquaintances. Extra hands may be roped in case of extra load or work.

According to sources within the ANU, the cartels combine drug trafficking and smuggling (of humans and goods) and counterfeiting. Thus, Kenya’s underworld never lacks choices; drug lords can easily switch their business to conceal their tracks.

Interestingly though, the networks transform very fast in response to the changing political landscape. In the past 15 years, a number of cartels have collapsed while new ones have been formed to fill the void. The Mombasa-based Akasha organisation went down during President Kibaki’s regime while others emerged, linked to the new crop of politicians at the Coast and further inland.

It is important to note that churches have become key conduit for drug lords. In February 2014, a New Zealand missionary who often travelled to Nairobi was jailed for 12 years for trafficking 6.15 kilos of meths and 2.87 kilos of heroin, all valued at Ksh200 million, to Australia

Cartels operate on political expediency. Specific cartels emerge during specific political seasons or regimes. That apart, the divisions – sometime blurred – may also be based on location or base of operation of the cartel, smuggling routes, and nationality and family links.

Nairobi-based operatives, Kenyans and foreigners, depend on the airports and land routes to transact their illicit business. On the other hand, the so-called Coast Mafia has seized Mombasa port, airstrips at the coast, and myriad docking points on the Indian Ocean coastline.

BRIBING A GOVERNMENT ALREADY STEEPED IN CORRUPTION

For a long time, while Kanu was in power and Daniel arap Moi was president, the narco-trade was controlled from Kenya’s Coast, especially at the port and in Malindi. The Coast Mafia (including the Akashas and a former nominated MP based in Mombasa) and Europeans (Italians and Germans) were in firm command of the business. Kenyans and Nairobi-based West Africans (Nigerians, Ghanaians and Guineans) played the role of couriers or middlemen.

Drug lords used their ill-acquired proceeds to bribe a government that was already steeped in corruption. In the process, the kingpins were able to easily launder money by investing it in real estate, exports and imports, and in trans-shipment.

The Italians, after elbowing out the Germans, invested their proceeds in real estate – constructing 4,000 villas and homes along the beach and on second row plots. There were complains that the villas were hideouts for fugitives but the government did little to investigate the claims. It now emerges that convicted Italian fugitive Leone Alberto Fulvio used Malindi as a hideaway from Italian authorities for close to 23 years. While in Kenya, Fulvio got citizenship, a gun licence and a certificate of good conduct, and was cleared by the Kenya Revenue Authority. His cover would later be blown by the Interpol. He is now fighting extradition.

According to Frederico Varese, the author of the book Mafias on the Move: How Organised Crime Conquers New Territories, Malindi provides an ideal mafia revenue source, and a locale for money-laundering.

On the other hand, the Coast Mafia formed clearing and forwarding companies and got into export and imports and the transport business. And during Kibaki’s regime, they began setting up Container Freight Stations.

THE AKASHA EXTRADITIONS

Earlier this year, a specially selected team of Police officers assisted by America’s DEA spirited the so-called Akasha brothers – Baktash Akasha Abdalla and Ibrahim Akasha Abdalla – and their Indian cohorts Gulam Hussein and Vijaygiri Goswani to the United States to face charges of narco-trafficking.

US prosecutors who sought the extradition say their organisation is responsible for ‘production and distribution’ of large quantities of narcotics. ‘As alleged, the four defendants who arrived yesterday in New York ran a Kenyan drug trafficking organisation with global ambitions. For their alleged distribution of literally tonnes of narcotics – heroin and methamphetamine – around the globe, including to America, they will now face justice in a New York federal court,’ said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

The four were arrested in a sting operation originating with a Moroccan informer in November 2014. It came four months after the Vetted Unit seized 341 kilos of heroin concealed in a ship’s fuel tank.

But it wasn’t until after the murder of their father, Ibrahim Akasha, that Kenya woke up to the fact that it had its prototypical global drug lord. For a long time, Ibrahim, killed in Amsterdam in 2000, was the drug kingpin of the East African region. He controlled Mombasa port and landing sites between Kilifi and Vanga in the south of Mombasa. The Italians reigned unchallenged from Kilifi north to the Somalia border.

Ibrahim’s battles with local businessmen were muted and rarely became public because he never ventured out of the drug business, even as his rivals moved into transport, import and exports, and real estate to launder their profits.

He suffocated the West Africans, especially the Nigerians and Guineans, who were forced to take up the secondary role of couriers or middlemen from their bases in Nairobi. Other Kenyans who have since amassed wealth from drug trafficking also played second fiddle to the Akasha narco-machine.

The Akashas used Mombasa port to bring in heroin and hashish from Pakistan and cocaine from the Americas. It would then be blended with tea or coffee, to confuse sniffer dogs, and then packaged, ready for export to Europe and the United States. He also had associates who did the refining, dilution and repackaging

While the Akashas controlled the maritime routes, foreign networks held sway at the JKIA and the Moi International Airport in Eldoret.

The Akashas’ empire flourished because it was kinship-based. But two things happened that changed the fortunes of this cartel and placed it on a warpath with itself: Patriarch Ibrahim was murdered; and Mwai Kibaki replaced Moi as president of Kenya.

When Akasha senior was killed, his protégés/understudies were left splintered and in confusion. The death stoked a bitter feud within the family that led to several deaths. A number of Kibaki allies used their influence in Nairobi to target the Akashas and get into the business.

It has taken time for the Akashas to rebuild. Now they are part of the supply chain that stretches from the poppy fields of Afghanistan through India into East Africa. US authorities who extradited two of the Akasha sons and their Indian cohorts say their organisation is responsible for ‘production and distribution’ of large quantities of narcotics.

In India, it was reported last year that the Akasha organisation and their Indian collaborators had transported 100 kilos of morphine base, which can be refined into heroin, in January 2016. Some months ago, the Times of India newspaper reported on a plan by the Akasha sons and their Indian collaborators – Vicky Goswami and his former actress girlfriend Mamta Kulkarni – to set up a manufacturing and drug refining operation in Kenya.

ENTER THE EUROPEANS, EXIT THE NIGERIANS

European cartels have also moved into Kenya following the collapse of the Opium Trail. They managed to solidify their base during Kibaki’s regime by creating networks with Nigerians and local politicians.

In the decade from 2003 to 2013, this would morph into what Anti-Narcotics Unit sources called a ‘super cartel’ that roped in several MPs and foreign drug lords. It also recruited security and military personnel and powerful businessmen at the Coast.

The vicious cartel, which coalesced around close allies of president Kibaki, almost wiped out the Akashas and other networks of drug-lords cum politicians developed during president Moi’s time.

The super-cartel is alleged to have been behind the assassination on New Year’s Day 2006 of DCIO Hassan Abdillahi who had been tasked with investigating the theft of containers at the Mombasa Port. Three brothers of Kiambu governor William Kabogo (whom then US ambassador William Bellamy described in the Wikileaks cables as ‘known thug and rich-far-beyond-visible-means’) were arrested over the murder.

The cartel feared that the lead investigating officer was working with the Akashas to target them.

The government’s crackdown on the West Africans has created a void in the heroin trafficking business that has now attracted Kenyan, Tanzanian, Chinese, Indian and Eastern European cartels. Indeed, according to ANU sources, West Africans appear to have lost the heroin market to Asians, Tanzanians and Kenyans following the emergence of the Smack Track route. They had dominated this market so long that they had managed to push the pioneer drug-lords, including the Akashas, out of Nairobi, only to find themselves out of the loop when conflicts in North Africa and parts of Europe made the Turkey route impassable.

It is important to note that churches have become key conduit for drug lords. In February 2014, a New Zealand missionary who often travelled to Nairobi was jailed for 12 years for trafficking 6.15 kilos of meths and 2.87 kilos of heroin, all valued at Ksh200 million, to Australia. Ms Bernadine Terry Prince (aka Pastor Bernie McCully), 42, who was married to a Nigerian, was arrested after she had toured Nairobi, Nigeria, and Cambodia. She claimed she was the Australian chief executive of Oasis of Grace Foundation that has affiliates in Kenya, Ghana, and several other countries. She was a missionary with Oasis of Grace International Church in Nairobi’s Kayole Estate.

Prior to her arrest, she had attended a conference in Nairobi and later spent time in Nigeria and Cambodia. In her defence she claimed that a Kenyan, Mummy Rose, her given her seven backpacks with handicrafts to sell in Australia. The court found drugs and not handicrafts.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has moved to dismantle the cartels that formed during Kibaki era. But his war is unstructured and some of those he is targeting are close allies of his friends. Uhuru first targeted foreigners, clipped the wings of a cartel run by a former assistant minister and later trained his guns on the Coast Mafia, including Joho’s family.

A Senator allied to the ruling party runs a trafficking network that operates from Wilson Airport. According to senior military officials who have served in Somalia, as at last year, authorities in Somalia had confiscated two containers destined for Kenya that belonged to the Senator. ‘One had electronics and the other had a white substance. We couldn’t isolate the substance so it was anybody’s guess,’ a Somali official said. The military officer has since been redeployed elsewhere so it’s still not clear what happened to the containers.

According to the International Drugs Policy Consortium, a policy network that promotes open discussion on drug policy, the Kenya-Somalia border is a playground for drug cartels that operate without fear of being detected

‘Local and international drug smugglers are taking advantage of the limited resources of security forces and borders control like, for example, on the border between Kenya and Somalia where drug smugglers can operate without being detected,’ says the consortium report.

But, in an interview for this report, police spokesperson George Kinoti denied knowledge of the Somalia route. ‘So far, we have not been able to detect drugs trafficking on the Somalia route. The route has not been known for drugs coming to Kenya.’

The Mail&Guardian warns that drugs, crime and dirty money are so entrenched in Kenya that any threat to destabilise this underworld could actually be detrimental to the entire economy

STATE CHALLENGE: NO COHERENT RESPONSE

Kenya’s anti-drugs war is characterised by haphazard half-measures. Authorities appear to dither even as the prevalence of trafficking – illustrated by the number of couriers in jails and large seizure amounts – continues to rise. There hasn’t been a coherent response to the menace. Indeed, responses have oscillated from ‘mute, bizarre or half-hearted reactions, to outright lies to bold admission,’ according to a Western diplomat.

In a recent interview, Kinoti said, ‘Here in Kenya, I can say drug trafficking is a challenge but not a huge problem. Our security agencies are up to the task when it comes to dealing with drug trafficking.’

Hamisi Masa, the ANU boss, told Reuters, ‘Now, it is not just about us here in Kenya …The whole world is involved.’

When he destroyed a vessel seized with 370 kilos of heroin in 2014, President Kenyatta thundered, ‘We will not allow drug barons to destroy the future of our young people. We will track and deal with them decisively.’ Commenting on the destruction, John Mututho, the NACADA boss, promised to reveal the people behind the narco business in Kenya. ‘We are investigating 50 suspected drug barons and we are sure we will recommend action by the end of the year.’

After more than two years, no names have been released.

Few believe the government is serious in its war against the drug barons

Narcotics Impact

The Mail & Guardian, a leading South African newspaper, warned in a recent report that Kenya was hurtling towards becoming Africa’s second ‘narco-state’ after Guinea Bissau. Titled The Making of an African Narco State, the news piece warns that drugs, crime and dirty money are so entrenched in Kenya that any threat to destabilise this underworld could actually be detrimental to the entire economy. ‘Kenya is emerging as a money laundering hub; incredibly, trying to stop the illicit flow of money could hurt the economy more than letting it continue.’

(A narco-state, according to Collins English Dictionary, is ‘a country in which the illegal trade in narcotics drugs forms a substantial part of the economy.’)

‘We are in deep trouble,’ a senior anti-narcotics officer told this writer. ‘The security agencies, the police, the politicians and some mandarins are either in bed with the drug barons or are the kingpins. You cannot isolate the barons.’

According to reports, more than 3,000 Kenyans are rotting in foreign jails, with some serving life sentences while others await execution. Others have died in jails abroad. About 3,000 are in local jails, convicted over hard drugs. The politics of Kenya’s major towns, Nairobi and Mombasa, is now influenced by drugs. While some drug-lords hold top offices in the country – two governors, a Senator, several MPs and other politicians are on the radar of the Vetted Unit, others, including top bureaucrats, police and judicial officers, provide protection to the barons.

‘We are in deep trouble,’ a senior anti-narcotics officer told this writer, but asked that his name not to be published lest he offended his bosses, some whom are allies of known drug barons. ‘Will we get out this? I doubt it. The arresting agency is a prisoner too. In fact, the security agencies, the police, the politicians and some mandarins are either in bed with the drug barons or are the kingpins. You cannot isolate the barons.’

Undeniably, Kenya is a major trafficking hub for drugs. It also has a growing consumption problem. Those interviewed for this report detailed a number of approaches that can help defeat traffickers and trafficking: Detect, deter and interdict. It needs strengthening of the country’s data collection systems, international co-operation, effective border controls, and law enforcement.

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Mr Opala is a freelance investigator based in Nairobi.

Politics

What Ails the Cashew Nut Sector in Kenya?

The lack of a focused policy since the 1990s has pushed the cashew nut sector into perennial decline. The sector’s disintegration started when the state-owned Kenya Cashewnut factory ollapsed in 1997 – a time when the political environment was not inclined to rescue a sector that had been a lifeline for thousands of Kenya’s coastal residents.

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Lake Kenyatta Cooperative Society (LKCS) in Mpeketoni in Lamu – perhaps the only remaining cooperative society in Kenya’s coast region formed by cashew nut farmers in the 1970s – once collected 9,000 metrics tonnes of cashew nuts from its members during the sector’s heydays in the 1980s. Currently, despite boasting a membership that has stretched to over 6,000, the cooperative does not expect to collect anything beyond 300 tonnes this year. This is the volume it managed to collect in the last calendar year.

From a peak harvest of over a total of 36,000 tonnes in the late 1970s, when the cashew nut sector was at its highest peak, the sector is today struggling to even produce 11,000 tonnes.

Cashew nut farming and processing was once a thriving undertaking in Kenya. After nationalising the economy shortly after independence, the government of Jomo Kenyatta took full control of the cashew nut sector, which was dominated by Mitchell Cotts, a shipping giant. In 1975, the government formed Kenya Cashewnut Limited (KCL) and established a large-scale processing factory in Kilifi, with a capacity to process 15,000 metric tonnes of cashew nuts per year.

The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), one of the shareholders of the newly created KCL, was granted legal monopoly to buy all the cashew nuts from farmers. Other shareholders of KCL were the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC), the Industrial and Development Bank (IDB) and the Kilifi District Cooperative Union (KDCU).

Farmers were organised into many cooperatives across the coast – big ones such as LKCS and KDCU and also small ones. To be able to pay farmers in time for cashew nuts collected, KCL pre-financed NCPB. The factory would determine its raw material requirements and the excess would be exported in shell to India. Essentially, the factory guaranteed a stable farm gate price and provided a predictable and reliable market.

In post-independence Kenya, market stability saw the sector expand production from about 5,000 tonnes in 1965 to over 36,000 tonnes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1982, KCL made a net profit of Sh26 million (US$325,000), up from Sh3 million (US$37,500) in 1975 – nearly a ten-fold increase in just seven years.

At its peak, the KCL cashew nut factory employed over 4,000 people. During this period, coastal residents were able to send their children to good schools, raise their incomes, and develop local micro-economies.

Dwindling fortunes

Those heydays didn’t last for long though. In the 1980s, President Daniel arap Moi and his cronies started engaging in rent-seeking from parastatals in order to sustain a regime that was under threat.

By 1989, KCL got caught up in governance and financial challenges, and in February 1990, it rendered a large chunk of its employees jobless. At the same time, powdery mildew disease (PMD), which had not been witnessed before, hit crop yields and production. The resultant dwindling economic fortunes of KCL meant that it could not provide extension services to the cashew nut farmers, which spelt doom for the sector.

In post-independence Kenya, market stability saw the sector expand production from about 5,000 tonnes in 1965 to over 36,000 tonnes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1982, KCL made a profit of Sh26 million (US$325,000), up from Sh3 million (US$37,500) in 1975 – nearly a ten-fold increase in just seven years.

When the disastrous 1990s’ World Bank-led Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) hit the country, they found an already struggling cashew nut sector. By November 1992, the Parastatal Reform Programme Committee (PRPC) recommended the sale of 65 per cent of the shares the government held in KCL through NCPB, ICDC and IDB.

The PRPC recommended that Kilifi District Cooperative Union (KDCU), the owner of the remaining 35 per cent of the shares, be granted pre-emptive rights to buy the 65 per cent government shares. A parliamentary committee would later discover that partly due to the high cost involved in buying these shares, the three main directors of the KDCU had decided to strike a deal with some of President Moi’s closest business friends.

A Ministry of Agriculture report in 2009 noted that with a value of Sh141.2 per share, the 65 per cent share of the government was valued at Sh78 million (US$1.34 million). Debts acquired by the KCL in previous years that were owed to NCPB, ICDC, the Treasury, and the Italian government amounted to over Sh118 million (US$2.03 million). The company also owed Sh33 million (US$0.56 million) in redundancy payments to former employees. In total, the KDCU would have had to invest roughly US$4 million to finance the acquisition of the company – money it did not have. This is how private money was used to buy government shares in KCL.

In 2000, the Public Investments Committee (PIC) recommended that the factory be handed back to the farmers. The same year, a subsequent cashew nut report tabled in Parliament by PIC noted that the factory’s shares were illegally acquired by Moi’s cronies, including the president’s personal secretary, Joshua Kulei, who was accused of having defrauded the farmers.

A Ministry of Agriculture report in 2009 noted that the actual majority shareholders had the KDCU appoint themselves as the management agents of the factory, which was renamed Kilifi Cashew Nut Factory Limited (KCFL), and which was under the management of P.K. Shah, who took complete de facto control of the day-to-day business of the factory.

In 1996, the KDCU received a loan of Sh2 million (US$ 35,000) from its main owner, Kenya Plantations and Products Limited, to purchase raw cashew nuts (RCN) – which it secured with its 23 per cent shares, valued at a much higher Sh28.07 million in 1992 – as collateral for the loan. When it failed to pay back the loan, these shares were transferred to private investors.

Eventually, in 1997, KCL collapsed under its financial and operational burden. Unable to service an outstanding loan of about Sh95 million, Barclays Bank placed the factory under KPMG- managed receivership in 2000, and on 8 May 2002 sold all its assets, including the plant and machinery, to Millennium Management Limited (MML) for Sh58 million (US$ 0.97)

In just a few years, the marketing monopoly that the NCPB enjoyed and the logistical machinery it had put in place to procure cashews came a cropper. The board completely withdrew from marketing cashew nuts. This decision led to the disappearance of key functions, such as financing cooperatives and reliably supplying KCL with affordable raw cashew nuts.

The lack of a focused policy in the last three decades has pushed the cashew nut sector into a perennial multi-year production and profit decline. The sector’s decline and disintegration started when the state-owned KCL collapsed in 1997 – a time when the political environment was not inclined to rescue a sector that had been a lifeline for thousands of Kenya’s coastal residents.

New players  

With the stake of the factory diminished, and the end of its monopoly in cashew nut matters, exporters of raw cashew nuts emerged. These exporters were able to offer significantly higher and faster payments due to the high rebates they enjoyed for exporting raw materials that would in turn create jobs in the importing countries.

By buying through middlemen – who became the sector’s main players – the new market structure undermined the role of cooperative societies that had enjoyed state-sanctioned market support. They could not survive and all but collapsed.

The first main processor, Wondernut Ltd, came into the country in 2003. Kenya Nut Company (KNC), owned by Pius Ngugi, and Equatorial Nuts, owned by Peter Munga, which predominately deal in macadamia nuts from the Mount Kenya region where their factories are based, made forays into processing cashew nuts as well.

In just a few years, the marketing monopoly that the NCPB enjoyed and the logistical machinery it had put in place to procure cashews came a cropper. The board completely withdrew from marketing cashew nuts. This decision led to the disappearance of key functions, such as financing cooperatives and reliably supplying KCL with affordable raw cashew nuts.

With the Kilifi Cashew Nut Factory (partially revived by MML) and the later entry of another Central Province macadamia processor, Jungle Nuts, the number of active cashew processors in Kenya had expanded to five.

Even so, these five processors had to compete with the well-established exporters of raw, unprocessed nuts who had gained favour with farmers due to their market flexibility and higher prices. In the 2007/8 season, for instance, exporters of raw cashew nuts went on a buying spree that saw the share of processed export nuts drop by over 20 per cent that season. This posed a huge threat to local processors.

Despite a total ban on the export of raw cashew nuts in 2009 (which nut processors had called for) the industry has gone horribly wrong in the last decade. In their call to the government to ban exports, the nut processors argued that the ban would allow them an opportunity to gather enough harvest to enable them to utilise their excess installed processing capacity.

A baseline survey that had been done on the crop in 2009 by the Institute of Development and Business Management Services (IDS) on behalf of the Micro Enterprises Support Programme Trust (MESPT), a value chain government initiative, had revealed a sector reeling in distress.

This is the situation that the sector found itself in 2009 when the Nut Processors Association of Kenya (NutPAK) – the result of processors pulling together resources – was formed to lobby for the industry’s protection, with a keen focus on the export ban.

Despite a total ban on the export of raw cashew nuts in 2009 (which nut processors had called for) the industry has gone horribly wrong in the last decade. In their call to the government to ban exports, the nut processors argued that the ban would allow them an opportunity to gather enough harvest to enable them to utilise their excess installed processing capacity.

William Ruto, the current Deputy President who was then the Minister of Agriculture, met stakeholders in the cashew nut industry at Pwani University in Kilifi in March 2009. He ordered a Cashew Nut Revival Task Force (CNRTF) on 9 April 2009 to submit a report by the end of April and to come up with recommendations on measures to be taken to revive the cashew industry. John Safari Mumba, the former Managing Director of KCL and former MP for Bahari Constituency, and then the Chairman of the Kenya Cashew Growers Association, led the four-member task force.

When the task force finally submitted its report based on views it received from various players, it recommended banning the export of raw nuts.

That same year, Ruto heeded their call and pronounced an export ban on RCN after the four-member task force hastily collected views from the industry’s key players. On 16 June 2009, barely one month after the task force’s report had been submitted, Ruto published “The Agriculture (Prohibition of Exportation of Raw Nuts) Order, 2009” banning the export of raw cashew and macadamia nuts.

The government also announced that all nuts would be sold through the NCPB, which was then struggling to buy maize from farmers. It would later sell the produce to processors.

The population of cashew nut trees then stood at about 2 million, with 20 per cent of them beyond the production age and more trees projected to graduate to the unproductive age bracket in just a couple of years. Inadequate crop husbandry, the IDS study further revealed, saw farmers exploit less than a half of the total crop’s potential.

A disorganised nut market that followed the exit of KCL and the coming up of new entrants (largely exporters of RCN who relied mainly on brokers), affected the growth of the crop’s production and productivity since these traders would only emerge during the harvest season and did nothing to promote the crop. The exporters of RCN shifted base to neighbouring Tanzania, one of the world’s leading producers of cashew nuts that exports most of its nut produce raw.

Cashew nut woes

Fast forward to the 2010s. A statistic by the Nut and Oil Directorate shows that the area under cashew nut production went down from 28,758 hectares in 2015 to 21,284 hectares in 2016. Production also declined from 18,907 tonnes to 11,404 tonnes in the same period, with the value of the crop recording Sh398 million compared to Sh506 million in 2015. This was attributed to crop neglect and logging of cashew nut trees for charcoal and to pave way for other crops.

In the absence of farmers’ groups, a poorly structured NCBP and lack of enough collection centres in the cashew catchment areas, NCPB was not able to buy the nuts, so middlemen continue to dominate the scene to date.

To address these shortcomings, the sector’s stakeholders, led by the Provincial Director of Agriculture, formed a multi-sectoral task force to lead in revitalising the sector. Its other members included NutPAK, Cashew Nuts Growers Association and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), which was to lead in production expansion.

The task force set out a cashew nuts revival programme that included increased production, streamlining the marketing system to rid the sector of middlemen and setting up minimum farm gate prices, among other measures. However, due to financial challenges, especially for the growers association, the team’s initiatives were not realised.

In the absence of farmers’ groups, a poorly structured NCBP and lack of enough collection centres in the cashew catchment areas, NCPB was not able to buy the nuts, so middlemen continue to dominate the scene to date.

The matter was made worse in 2013 when the agriculture function was devolved and the task force initiatives lost the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, which dealt a devastating blow to its programmes. Unfortunately, the foundation it had sought to build since 2010 was not transitioned to county governments in cashew catchment areas after devolution.

The county governments have continued to under-fund the cashew nut sector and lack strong policy guidelines to promote the sector. Last year, Kwale County allocated only Sh1.5 million to promote procurement of cashew seedlings in a programme that was being funded by the European Union (EU) to increase production in Lamu, Kwale and Kilifi counties. The EU injected Sh240 million through Ten Senses Africa, which was meant to plant 333,333 trees in each of the three cashew-producing counties.

The main processors have scaled down operations in the cashew nut sector. Most of them are located in the Mount Kenya region, where they have mainly focused on macadamia nuts. The ban on the export of raw cashew nuts favoured the macadamia sector, which has recorded a five-fold increase to reach a production of 50,000 metric tonnes per year.

The industry has thus been left to new entrants but there are strong indications that it still has potential, if well supported. In 2019, for instance, the total estimated area under cashew growing was reported to be 22,686 hectares, which is a marginal improvement from the 22,655 hectares reported in 2018, due to efforts to plant new seedlings.

The sector’s revival

The COVID-19 pandemic has simply worsened the cashew export market. This decline has been exacerbated by rare new pests, and a disorganised free-for-all market that has dampened supplies for cashew cooperatives and nearly sealed the sector’s fate.

LKCS’s chairman, David Njuguna, doubts that the cooperative will be able to offer a farm gate pre-2019 price of Sh30 a kilo once the farmers dispose of the harvest they are still hoarding. According to his estimates, a highly compromised cashew nut quality this year means that farmers will only be able to recover 34 per cent from their entire harvest. This can be attributed to poor crop husbandry, thanks to the low price the crop has been fetching, thus denying farmers the capacity to profitably commercialise the sector.

Mumba led a task force in 2009 that formulated seven clear recommendations that were to be carried out before the ban was effected:

  1. To revive the cashew nut industry, the Ministry of Agriculture should first establish a cashew nut revitalisation desk with immediate effect to coordinate the task report’s recommendations;
  2. The ministry should with immediate effect establish a regulatory apex body for the development of the cashew nut industry to be named the Kenyan Cashew Nut Development Authority (KECADA);
  3. KECADA should initiate the process of formulating a cashew nut policy independent from other crops;
  4. Immediately following the formation of KECADA, regulation for a minimum farm gate price should be put in place;
  5. The government, in conjunction with KECADA, should establish funds to support farm input subsidies, as well as guarantees for public-private partnerships financing cashew farmers;
  6. Former farmers’ cooperatives should be revived; and
  7. Most importantly, only once these recommendations have been put in place (particularly the minimum price), should the government consider implementing an export ban on raw cashew nuts, which should be reviewed regularly regarding its effects.

By putting together the right structures and policies, both the national and county governments can bring this important cash crop back to its former glory.

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Politics

Why Cash Transfers Are an Efficient Method of Reducing Food Insecurity

With high levels of mobile phone and internet penetration, coupled with advanced digital technologies in the financial sector, Kenya has favourable conditions for cash transfers to the most vulnerable populations. However, corruption and lack of reliable data on beneficiaries can derail efforts to make all Kenyans food secure during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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As governments across the globe continue to grapple with the economic effects of COVID-19, many are faced with the additional burden of guaranteeing food security for millions of their citizens. Restrictions in movement and other social distancing measures adopted to contain the spread of the virus have put a significant strain on food supply chains, both at production and distribution links. As a result of this, millions have been pushed to the brink of hunger. The United Nations estimates that up to 265 million people will face acute food shortage by December 2020, a sharp increase from earlier predictions of 135 million people. A disproportionate share of these people live in low- and middle-income countries where shock-responsive social safety nets are inadequate or poorly managed.

In Kenya, long before the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, an estimated 1.3 million Kenyans were already facing acute food shortage as a result of prolonged droughts, extended long rains well into the harvesting season and a locust infestation not witnessed in a decade.

On 13th March, after the country reported its first case of the virus, the government instituted containment measures in the interest of public health. This further disrupted food supply chains and consequently put a strain on the country’s food systems. Stay at home advice, a night curfew, closure of non-essential social spaces and social distancing requirements have reduced economic activity resulting in job and income losses. The resultant reduced household purchasing power further propelled more households into crisis food shortage.

Further, and with schools closed, millions of students who benefit from school feeding programmes are losing out on this benefit, with parents having to fully take on an all-day feeding responsibility. The World Food Programme (WFP) now projects that a total of 5 million Kenyans will require food and livelihood assistance as a result.

Three months into the pandemic, we can already see a deacceleration of philanthropic acts to provide food supplies to the most vulnerable populations compared to the early days of the pandemic, an indication that private charity, while important, is not adequately prepared to address the need and is not sustainable. Given the uncertainty of when a vaccine will get to the market and when we will see the resumption of normalcy, it is expected that millions will require food assistance and government and private philanthropy will need to better coordinate this assistance and ensure that households remain food secure during this pandemic.

Food packages vs cash transfers

According to the Kenya Food Security Steering Group, despite the adverse climatic shocks, Kenya’s food availability remains stable as a result of a favourable harvest due to above average short rains towards end of the year in most agricultural areas. COVID-19, however, presents a challenge of affordability for many households, who no doubt will require food assistance.

However, how can governments, development agencies and philanthropists provide this assistance in a manner that provides choice, flexibility, and dignity to those that need it and in line with their individual circumstances?

Three months into the pandemic, we can already see a deacceleration of philanthropic acts to provide food supplies to the most vulnerable populations compared to the early days of the pandemic, an indication that private charity, while important, is not adequately prepared to address the need and is not sustainable.

How do we put people at the centre of this assistance by not only providing food, but promoting financial inclusion of the poorest and most vulnerable during this pandemic? How do we ensure that the nutritional needs and requirements of the vulnerable are not generalised and reduced to a few food and other household items? How do we move away from paternalistic tendencies that have long viewed hunger as a question of charity rather than one of justice? Who decides what food items a given household requires in comparison to the rest?

These questions require reflection on the forms and manner in which food assistance can be provided. Should we provide households with food packages or should we provide cash transfers?

In determining a suitable approach, we will need to be cognisant of the unique challenges COVID-19 throws into this long-standing debate of food packages vs cash transfers in development circles. Firstly, and from an epidemiological standpoint, there is a need to reduce social contact as much as possible to ensure food distribution does not become a conduit for virus transmission. Secondly, it is worth noting that the pandemic is causing involuntary stay-at-home, therefore disengaging many from meaningful economic activities, and thereby creating COVID-induced dependency.

This group is particularly of concern given that there is no telling how long they will require assistance even when restrictions are eased. As such, cash transfers remain a lifeline for many as they allow people to navigate through the pandemic and rebuild their lives after the crisis. Thirdly, given the reduced household purchasing power and the resultant decreased demand in household and food items, cash transfers can be an effective tool in turning food need into an effective food demand to sustain supply chains, particularly among downstream smallholder farmers. This, however, needs concerted efforts to ensure distributional links, particularly to small open-air markets, as a majority of lower-income households in urban areas depend on these markets for their food supplies.

Interventions to ensure that households remain food secure will, therefore, need to provide households with flexibility and choice in determining food and other household items that meet their unique circumstances. Choice will need to be devolved to the household level and not left to the imaginations of benefactors – government or private.

Cash transfers have proven to do exactly this by increasing household expenditure, particularly food expenditure, thereby enabling households to meet their unique and diverse dietary requirements, improved health and nutritional outcomes and other outcomes, such as savings and investments. The 2015/16 Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey (KIHBS), for instance, shows that food remains a high expenditure item at the household level, with 33.5 per cent of cash transfers received from within Kenya used on food items, only preceded by education, at 44.6 per cent.

However, food consumption is higher in rural households compared to education spending, at 38.9 per cent and 38.2 per cent, respectively. Further, the survey shows a higher proportion of food expenditure in female-headed households compared to male headed households, especially in the rural areas, at 41.8 per cent and 35.2 percent, respectively.

In addition to providing beneficiaries with choice, cash transfers have a positive spillover effect of stimulating local markets to the benefit of downstream local producers and retailers. However, in determining amounts for disbursement, it is worth ensuring these are informed by household food consumption rates to sufficiently cover food needs.

Granted, food packages bear the benefit of cushioning beneficiaries against commodity price spikes, especially where markets are disintegrated and retail prices are vulnerable to erratic price changes. But on the flip side, they often limit dietary diversity and may fail to respond to disparate nutritional needs across households, especially those with infants, young children, lactating mothers, pregnant women, and the elderly. Food packages normally contain food items with long shelf life (i.e. cereals, rice, maize, wheat flour, salt, cooking oil and other household items), often leaving out short shelf life items, such as milk and other dairy products, that have essential nutrients for household members with unique nutritional requirements.

The 2015/16 Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey (KIHBS), for instance, shows that food remains a high expenditure item at the household level, with 33.5 per cent of cash transfers received from within Kenya used on food items, only preceded by education, at 44.6 per cent.

Administratively, food packages present logistical challenges in distribution, and depending on the approaches of distribution, may be inconsistent with measures to curb the further spread of the virus. For instance, social distancing measures require minimal social contact, yet distribution of food packages require social proximity, which makes these packages possible conduits for virus transmission.

Additionally, food packages are prone to mismanagement by those responsible for distribution. When factored in, the cost of corruption may significantly impact the overall cost of food distribution. For instance, a 2011 World Bank review of India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) showed that 58 per cent of food did not reach the intended beneficiaries.

In contrast, because cash transfers are distributed through mobile money, not only are the administrative costs of this form of assistance reduced, but cash transfers provide a transparent framework for distribution, thereby minimising misappropriation.

Cash transfers have their limitations too. Targeting of the most deserving beneficiaries may be a challenge where accurate identification and validation of beneficiaries is hampered by lack of reliable data.

Strong digital infrastructure

Kenya’s ICT sector has rapidly grown over the years, placing the country’s mobile phone and internet penetration at 91 per cent and 84 per cent, respectively, which is above Africa’s average of 80 per cent and 36 per cent, respectively. Although variations exist in mobile ownership between rural and urban populations, at 40 per cent and 60 percent respectively, Kenya still fairs relatively well in reaching rural populations. On the gender front, more females (10,425,040) than males (10,268,651) own a mobile phone, according to the 2019 Kenya Population and Household Census.

Kenya’s digital payment infrastructure is equally advanced, making it a global leader in mobile money usage. Data from the Central Bank of Kenya shows that as by December 2019, there were 58 million active mobile money accounts and 242,275 mobile money agents across the country. In 2019, Kenyans transacted a total of Sh4.35 trillion (almost half the country’s GDP) through their mobile phones. According to the KIHBS 2015/16, mobile money transfer was used more by households in rural areas compared to those in urban areas, at 46.2 per cent and 38.9 per cent, respectively, an indication of the effectiveness of mobile money- enabled cash transfers in reaching the most vulnerable.

To further deepen reach and ensure vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, women and remote populations, are reached, there is a need for the government and mobile phone operators to temporarily relax the know-your-customer requirements, and ensure all targeted individuals/household are facilitated to access cash transfers through mobile money.

These advancements provide a strong digital infrastructure that when effectively deployed can support a massive cash transfer programme to ensure households are adequately cushioned during this pandemic. Given the time lag in collecting socio-economic data at the national level, a lag that may not quickly correspond to the changing socio-economic characteristics of the population, data from mobile and internet usage offer a quick and verifiable option of targeting the most vulnerable and therefore making them food insecure.

In 2019, Kenyans transacted a total of Sh4.35 trillion (almost half the country’s GDP) through their mobile phones. According to the KIHBS 2015/16, mobile money transfer was used more by households in rural areas compared to those in urban areas, at 46.2 per cent and 38.9 per cent, respectively…

Combined, mobile phone use and historical mobile money transactions provide massive data, which when carefully analysed, prove a useful resource for assessing the socio-economic standing of individuals, and therefore accurately determining individuals who most qualify for assistance.

Additionally, technology offers a robust and trusted framework that when optimally utilised limits leakages that are often associated with traditional methods of cash disbursement. For one, they make visible households that qualify for cash transfers and when disbursements are due. The predictability they offer also enables households to know when to expect cash and therefore plan better for both food and other household expenditure.

Constraints

Effective mobile-enabled cash transfer programmes rely on rich verifiable data that accurately capture the changing socio-economic positions of citizens. Employment and income status of citizens need to be regularly updated to ensure they accurately capture the most deserving. While the government has over the years invested in collecting socio-economic data through the national census, most recently during the 2019 Kenya Population and Household Census, as well as digital registration of citizens during the Huduma Namba registration, there is a need to build on to these databases, and regularly update the same for purposes of establishing robust social welfare systems.

COVID-19 and its impact on household well-being is perhaps bringing to the fore the value of big data in building such systems and cushioning livelihoods through evidence-based social protection policies, particularly as far as these policies are meant to guarantee household food security. The ability of applying these lessons will determine how prepared governments are in fighting the next pandemic and food security challenges, especially as climate change continues to threaten food security systems.

In the immediate term, and as the government props up its cash transfer programme, there is a need for community-based participatory approaches in assessing the most vulnerable and needy households to ensure efficient utilisation of funds. Relying on community social capital is an effective way of determining households that were vulnerable prior to COVID-19 and those that have become dependent as a result of the pandemic.

Corruption

A pandemic itself, corruption is a systemic problem in Kenya, with proven ability to cripple noble initiatives aimed at benefiting the poor. Worse, this problem has significantly reduced trust levels between the government and citizens and has limited citizens’ participation in governance matters. There is, therefore, a need to build safeguard measures in cash transfer programmes to minimise avenues for leakages. This should include digitised and transparent targeting criteria, citizen-led participatory monitoring and oversight, as well as effective complaint mechanisms.

Corruption thrives in information asymmetry. Therefore, automated platforms that make information accessible to the public on who qualifies for transfers, how much they are eligible for, and the frequency of distribution (with all data privacy protocols observed) provide a better bet in bridging this gap.

Information and communication technologies (mobile-enabled transfers coupled with digitised social safety net frameworks) have the potential effect of limiting the discretionary powers of public officers in determining who benefits. This reduces human intervention in the process, thereby limiting opportunities for cash diversion for personal gain. The technologies, when properly managed, can also minimise political manipulation, capitalisation and clientelism to the advantage of the political class. This, however, is dependent on a strong commitment by the government in ensuring cash for disbursement is made available in the first instance. More importantly, citizens will need to push for structured collective social accountability mechanisms, such as social audits and citizens reports, and will need to actively participate in holding public officials accountable.

Corruption thrives in information asymmetry. Therefore, automated platforms that make information accessible to the public on who qualifies for transfers, how much they are eligible for, and the frequency of distribution provide a better bet in bridging this gap.

Given the uncertainty of COVID-19’s staying power, and its disruption to food supply chains, there is no doubt that food security will remain a key concern that requires better coordinated approaches in feeding those who are most vulnerable. The approaches and manner in which this is done will need to take into consideration the unique challenges the pandemic presents.

With advanced digital technologies, particularly in the financial sector, Kenya is well ahead of many countries in the developing world and well prepared to deepen cashless assistance as it works to contain the spread of the disease. Perhaps this is the litmus test for the government’s ability to rise up to the challenge of walking the talk on ensuring its food security and nutrition commitment under the Big Four Agenda.

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Politics

Curfews, Lockdowns and Disintegrating National Food Supply Chains

The disruption of national food supply chains due to COVID-19 lockdowns and curfews has negatively impacted market traders, but it has also spawned localised – and more resilient – supply chains that are filling the gap in the food system.

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Curfews, Lockdowns and Disintegrating National Food Supply Chains
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Our stomachs will make themselves heard and may well take the road to the right, the road of reaction, and of peaceful coexistence…you are going to build in order to prove that you’re capable of transforming your existence and transforming the concrete conditions in which you live.” – Thomas Sankara, assassinated leader of Burkina Faso

 On July 6, 2020, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced phased reopening of the country as the government moved to relax COVID-19 restrictions. That day found me seated in a fishmonger’s stall in Gikomba market, located about five kilometres east of Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) and popularly known for the sale of second-hand (mitumba) clothes. The customer seated next to me must have received a text message on her mobile phone because she began howling at the fishmonger to tune in to the radio, which was playing Benga music at the time. It was a few minutes after 2 p.m.

“I order and direct that the cessation of movement into and out of the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, Mombasa County and Mandera County, that is currently in force, shall lapse at 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, 7th July, 2020,” pronounced the president on Radio Jambo.

The response to this news was cathartic. The female customer, on hearing the words “cessation of movement shall lapse” ululated, and burst out in praise of her God – “Nyasaye” – so loudly it startled the fishmonger. The excited customer jumped on her feet and started dancing around the fish stalls, muttering words in Dholuo. Nyasacha, koro anyalo weyo thugrwok ma na Nairobi, adog dala pacho. Pok a neno chwora, chakre oketwa e lockdown. Nyasacha, iwinjo ywak na. Nyasacha ber.” Oh God, I can now leave the hardship of Nairobi and go back to my homeland. I have not seen my husband since the lockdown measures were enforced. Oh God, you have heard my prayers. Oh God, you are good to me.

“She, like most of us are very happy that the cessation measures have been lifted. Life was becoming very hard and unbearable,” said Rose Akinyi, the fifty-seven year old fishmonger, also known as “Cucu Manyanga” to her customers because of her savvy in relating to urban youth culture. “Since the lockdown, business has been bad. Most of my customers have stopped buying fish because they have either lost their sources of income while others have been too afraid of catching the coronavirus that they have not come to make their usual purchases,” explained Akinyi.

Gikomba market is also Nairobi’s wholesale fish market.  Hotels, restaurants, and businesses flock there to purchase fresh and smoked fish from Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana. But with the government regulations to close down eateries, fish stocks have been rotting, lamented Akinyi. She has had to reduce the supply of her fish stocks in response to the low demand in the market.

“With the re-opening of the city, I plan to travel to my home county of Kisumu and go farm. At least this way I can supplement my income because I don’t see things going back to normal anytime soon,” she explained.

Two days later, I found my way to Wakulima market, popular known as Marikiti. The stench of spoilt produce greets you as you approach the vicinity of the market, Nairobi’s most important fresh produce market. News of the president’s announcement had reached the market and the rush of activity and trade had returned.

Gikomba market is also Nairobi’s wholesale fish market.  Hotels, restaurants, and businesses flock there to purchase fresh and smoked fish from Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana. But with the government regulations to close down eateries, fish stocks have been rotting, lamented Akinyi.

“Since the lockdown, business has been dire to say the least,” complained one Robert Kharinge aka Mkuna, a greengrocer and pastor in a church based in Madiwa, Eastleigh. Robert, who sells bananas that he gets from Meru County, noted that “business has never been this bad in all my twenty years as a greengrocer. Now, I’ve been forced to supplement my income as a porter to make ends meet. Before COVID-19, I would sell at least 150 hands of bananas in a day. Today, I can barely sell five hands,” he explains.

Robert, who is also a clergyman, leans on his faith and is hopeful that things will get back to normal since the cessation of movement has been lifted. He also hopes that the county government of Nairobi will finally expand the Marikiti market to cater for the growing pressure of a city whose population is creeping towards five million.

A short distance from Robert’s stall and outside the market walls stands Morgan Muthoni, a young exuberant woman in her early twenties selling oranges on the pavement. Unable to find space in the market, she and a number of traders have opted to position themselves along Haile Selassie Avenue, where they sell produce out of handcarts.

“When President Uhuru announced the cessation of movement in April, our businesses were gravely affected,” Muthoni says as attends to customers. “I get my oranges from Tanzania and with the lockdown regulations, therefore, produce hasn’t been delivered in good time despite what the government has been saying. Before COVID-19, I would get oranges every two days but now I have to wait between four and five days for fresh produce. My customers aren’t happy because they like fresh oranges and I’m now forced to sell them produce with longer shelf life.”

COVID-19 vs the Demand and Supply of Food
With the prior government lockdowns in Nairobi and Mombasa’s Old Town, which have large populations and are key markets for various food products, the government had to ensure that people in those areas were not cut off from essential goods and services. It was also the mandate of the government to shield farmers and manufacturers of the goods from incurring heavy losses because of the restrictions. Despite good attempts by the authorities to introduce measures that allowed the flow of goods to populated areas affected by the lockdown, there were several reports of police harassment.

“Truck drivers are complaining that they are been harassed by the police for bribes at the police stops, which is gravely affecting our businesses. The police, with their usual thuggery, are using this season of corona to mistreat and extort truck drivers to pay bribes in order to give them way at police checks even if they have adhered to the stipulated regulations,” complained Muthoni.

The movement of goods is further complicated by the disjointed health protocols. “We also hear that because Magufuli’s Tanzania has a different policy towards COVID-19, trucks drivers are taking longer at the border because they need to be tested for coronavirus before they are allowed to pass. But we don’t know how true these reports are. For now, we believe that things will get better since the cessation has been lifted. If God is for us, who can be against us?” Muthoni concludes.

Divine intervention is a recurring plea in these distressed economic times, but unlike Muthoni and Robert, who remain hopeful, this is not the case for Esther Waithera, a farmer and miller based in Mwandus, Kiambu, about 15 kilometres from Nairobi. Kiambu, with its fertile rich soils, adequate rainfall, cool climate, and plenty of food produce, is a busy and bustling administrative centre in the heart of Kikuyuland.

After the president’s announcement of the quasi-lockdown and curfew, Waithera has been spending her afternoons selling fresh produce from her car that is parked opposite Kiambu mall on the weekends and in Thindigwa, a splashy middle-class residential area off the busy Kiambu Road, on weekdays.

“Before COVID-19, I used to supply fresh farm produce to hotels and restaurants across the city. But now I have been forced to sell my produce from my car boot because if I don’t, my produce will rot in the farm. My husband runs the family mill and even that has been doing badly since the coronavirus came to plague us. We have had to decrease our milling capacity and the cost of maize flour to adjust to new market prices as demand reduces.”

After the president’s announcement of the quasi-lockdown and curfew, Waithera has been spending her afternoons selling fresh produce from her car that is parked opposite Kiambu mall on the weekends and in Thindigwa, a splashy middle-class residential area off the busy Kiambu Road, on weekdays.

Maize is Kenya’s staple food and Kenyans rely on maize and maize products for subsistence but, “Kenyans are going hungry and many households are skipping meals to cope with these harsh times,” explains Waithera.

Waithera, who is a mother of three children, doesn’t seem hopeful about the future. “This government that we voted for thrice has let us down. They have squandered the lockdown and have caused economic harm without containing COVID-19. Now we are staring at an economic meltdown, a food crisis and a bleak future for our children.”

A devout Christian of the evangelical persuasion, Waithera deeply believes that “God is punishing the country and its leaders for its transgressions because they have turned away from God and taken to idol worship and the love for mammon”. And like the biblical plagues, “the recent flooding, the infestation of desert locusts and the corona pandemic are all signs from God that he has unleashed his wrath on his people unless we repent our wrongdoings and turn back to God”, laments a bitter Waithera.

For Joyce Nduku, a small-scale farmer and teacher based in Ruiru, this new reality has provided her with opportunities for growth. She acknowledged that her sales have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “I now have more customers because there are not enough vegetables available in the market from upcountry”.

Localised and more resilient food systems

At a time when regular food supply chains have not been assured, some food markets have closed, mama mbogas (women vegetable vendors) are out of business, and the cessation of movement is deterring travel, Nduku attributes her increased food production to meet the growing demand to a business model that lays emphasis on a localised food system and short food supply chains.

Approaching food production through a localised food system, she says, “gives me local access to farm inputs”.

She adds, “I get my manure from livestock keepers within my locale and my seeds from local agrovets. I have direct access to my consumers, removing middlemen who expose my produce to unsafe and unhygienic handling and high logistical and transport costs. Hence I’m able to increase the access to safe and affordable food.”

Agriculture, forestry and fishing’s contribution to GDP in 2019 was 34.1 per cent, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ Economic Survey 2020. Another 27 percent of GDP is contributed indirectly through linkages with other sectors of Kenya’s economy. The sector, the survey revealed, employs more than 56 percent of the total labour force employed in agriculture in 2019. It also provides a livelihood (employment, income and food security needs) to more than 80 percent of the Kenyan population and contributes to improving nutrition through the production of safe, diverse and nutrient dense foods, notes a World Bank report.

Yet, in a matter of weeks, Nduku tells me, “COVID-19 has laid bare the underlying risks, inequities, and fragilities in our food and agricultural systems, and pushed them close to breaking point.”

These systems, the people underpinning them, and the public goods they deliver have been under-protected and under-valued for decades. Farmers have been exposed to corporate interests that give them little return for their yield; politicians have passed neoliberal food policies and legislation at the peril of citizens; indigenous farming knowledge has been buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit; and families have been one meal away from hunger due to untenable food prices, toxic and unhealthy farm produce and volatile food ecosystems.

Nduku firmly believes that the pandemic has, however, “offered a glimpse to new, robust and more resilient food systems, as some local authorities have implemented measures to safeguard the provision and production of food and local communities and organisations have come together to plug gaps in the food systems.”

Food justice

Many young Kenyans have also emerged to offer leadership with more intimate knowledge of their contexts and responded to societal needs in more direct and appropriate ways. If anything, Nduku tells me, “we must learn from this crisis and ensure that the measures taken to curb the food crisis in these corona times are the starting point for a food system transformation”.

The sector, the survey revealed, employs more than 56 per cent of the total labour force employed in agriculture in 2019. It also provides a livelihood (employment, income and food security needs) to more than 80 per cent of the Kenyan population…

To achieve the kind of systematic transformation Kenya needs, we must “borrow a leaf from Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara”, Nduku adds. Sankara emphasised national food sovereignty and food justice, advocated against over-dependence on foreign food aid, and implemented ecological programmes that fostered long-term agro-ecological balance, power-dispersing, communal food cultivation, and the regeneration of the environment, which remain powerful foundations for food justice today.

Indeed, we must also not rely on discrete technological advances or conservative and incremental policy change. We must radically develop a new system that can adapt and evolve to new innovations, build resilient local food systems, strengthen our local food supply chains, reconnect people with food production, provide fair wages and secure conditions to food and farm workers, and ensure more equitable and nutritious food access for all Kenyans.

Importantly, Nduku emphasises, “We must start thinking about the transformation of our food systems from the point of view of the poorest and those who suffer the greatest injustice within the current framework of our food systems.” This will provide a much more just, resilient and holistic approach to food systems transformation.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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