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THE TRUMP PHENOMENON IS REAL: How the Counterculture Inspired Trumpism

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“If democracy is someday to regain control of capitalism, it must start by recognising that the concrete institutions in which democracy and capitalism are embodied need to be reinvented again and again.” (Piketty 2014: 570).

During the run-up to the US elections in November, a number of my African colleagues and friends told me that Trump would win the presidency. Several even opined that something good would come out of it in the end. Experience has taught me to treat such counterintuitive observations with a degree of cautious respect. But this particular appraisal was a tricky proposition.

Trump ran more on outrage with the status quo, homespun economic nationalism, and anti-Hillary sentiment than workable policies for reversing the domestic malaise framing his rude political rhetoric. The Tea Party crowd flocked to Trump’s campaign, presenting Trump with the kind of political stage suited to his unconventional and often reptilian behaviour. The national media feasted on Trump’s antics and divisive positions, but the condescending coverage of the campaign of a candidate who started out as an outlier also camouflaged the more clinical aspects of his strategy to defeat Hillary Clinton.

The poll numbers and sophisticated data analyses dismissed the likelihood of a Trump victory. But then the same electorate who twice elected Obama by sizeable majorities propelled his polar opposite into the White House.

For the many millions of Americans and others around the world distressed by the Trump campaign, the implications of his electoral-college victory was like waking up to a collective nightmare. Most of my friends, family and colleagues were stunned. Anger and agitation quickly replaced the shock. Obama’s bleak reaction, “Well, it’s not the Apocalypse,” offered little comfort.

This added up to a lot to think about as I made my way back to the US for the first time since 2004, arriving in the country two days after Trump’s inauguration. I was told to expect massive changes. My destination was Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah, socially the most conservative of the red states of the American West.

Exposure to racist theology like that of the Church of Latter Day Saints was a primary motivator for the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Tommy Smith won the 200 metres in world record time followed by John Carlos in third place. The medallists mounted the podium barefoot, to symbolise the poverty of their African-American community, and raised black-gloved fists in defiance during the raising of the American flag. The protest triggered an explosion of institutional indignation and recriminations portraying Smith and Carlos as Nazis and traitors

For decades, many Americans considered the Mormon-dominated state to be a quasi-theocratic no-go zone with a unique past that set Utah apart from other ultra-conservative Western states like Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas.

During my two previous trips I had found a large and variegated landscape of rangeland, desert, and mountains, with a large inland sea thrown in to boot. I found many similarities between Utah and Marsabit and the Lake Turkana region, including its traditional spatial and social separation from the rest of the country.

Mormons fleeing religious persecution in the East settled in Utah at a time when almost everyone else was heading to California. The Territory of Utah was officially recognised in 1851. It was the only Western state to allow slavery, and attempted to secede from the Union shortly afterwards. Washington was compelled to send in the army. Brigham Young, who had succeeded the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, capitulated, but with the promise that the government would grant the Mormons autonomy to live according to their religion. The Church of Latter Day Saints has dominated the state’s economy and government ever since.

The Book of Mormon stated that the indigenous peoples the white settlers found in their new home originally came from the Middle East, but had divided into two antagonistic groups. The “Lamanites” were idolaters revealed to have extinguished a population of “Nephrite” Hebrews who had migrated to the New World several hundred years before the coming of Christ. Mormon scripture saw dark skin as a curse from God for wickedness, but otherwise taught that peoples of colour who converted and abandoned their culture would become white over time.

Exposure to this racist theology was a primary motivator for the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Tommy Smith won the 200 metres in world record time followed by John Carlos in third place. The medallists mounted the podium barefoot, to symbolise the poverty of their African-American community, and raised black-gloved fists in defiance during the raising of the American flag. The protest triggered an explosion of institutional indignation and recriminations portraying Smith and Carlos as Nazis and traitors. The firestorm also curtailed the running career of the Australian silver medallist who in solidarity wore the same human rights badge pinned to the Americans’ jerseys.

It was a radicalising moment: I compiled a comprehensive report of the protest and the conditions leading up to it for a high school project. The racism of the church of Latter Day Saints added to my impressions of the state based on the gruesome fate of the Westward-bound Donner party caravan and the numerous massacres of the local Amerindian communities during the early days of the territory. Many of us growing up at that time saw Utah as the American equivalent of Albania or North Korea.

The Civil Rights movement had already done most of the heavy lifting. This in turn provided a platform for the anti-war movement. Before long, what began as a political movement for peace and racial inclusion coalesced into a much broader social upheaval

Utah has evolved during the intervening decades. The US government has resettled refugees of diverse backgrounds in the state. Salt Lake City’s industry-friendly environment also attracted the tech companies relocating from California, bringing the formerly isolated state into the American mainstream over the past two decades. Readily available jobs, a reasonable cost of living, and a network of Kenyan friends and family already established in the former no-go zone attracted several of my kids to Salt Lake City.

The growing cultural diversity has not altered the state’s bedrock conservatism. Mitt Romney and George Bush Jr still received a phenomenal 72 per cent of Utah’s vote in 2012 and 2008. Although Donald Trump’s tally did not reach these heights in 2016, the sum of these factors designated this most red of states an appropriate re-entry point for my tour of Trump’s America.

Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News executive who became one of the key architects of the Trump campaign, declared that if you want to change politics you have to change culture first. There was the angst on the surface and uncertainty lurking underneath, but was the Republican clean sweep of White House, the Senate, and House of representatives really a marker of far-reaching culture change?

THE COUNTERCULTURAL ROOTS OF THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY

Bannon clearly arrived at his change-the-culture thesis by observing the counterculture that emerged while my generation came of age, a phenomenon that reshaped American society and politics along the way.

The post-World War II period was an era of unprecedented prosperity, middle-class growth and technological progress for the USA. Politics was something that our parents followed as it came around in four-year cycles. America was a truly great place to grow up, as long as you could keep the fear of nuclear Armageddon, and other industrial-scale threats, at a safe distance.

For the young Americans growing up in customisable bubbles coloured by the scientific advances underpinning the futuristic orientation of American society, that was harder to do as the 1960s wore on. The raised fists in Mexico City — along with other radicalising events like the Vietnam war, the violent suppression of the Yippie protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and the river in Cleveland that actually caught fire and burnt for 17 days — confirmed my own doubts about how wonderful everything was or was supposed to be.

The Civil Rights movement had already done most of the heavy lifting. This in turn provided a platform for the anti-war movement. Before long, what began as a political movement for peace and racial inclusion coalesced into a much broader social upheaval. The country entered a state of agitation sustained by an expanding range of worthy causes from the conditions of migrant farm workers to rampant industrial pollution. Much of the conflict was generational, and reflected a polarising explosion of new memes, pheromones, and mind-altering visions.

As the awakening and the activism of the Vietnam era ran its course, American conservatives felt increasingly isolated. Not only had their values been shunted aside, the country’s conservative hard core saw the reforms and new liberalism as a direct threat to the sources of their wealth. Conservative partisans like Steve Bannon may have missed the party, but they were taking notes

The sentiment at the time was that only a far-reaching cultural reorientation could triumph against the entrenched political order and the military-industrial complex controlling it. The mix of hot politics and cool culture was always more about challenging the conventional assumptions underpinning American exceptionalism than the political revolution advocated by the far-left fringe.

Waves of new music, innovative lifestyles, radical role models, and more mundane concerns like promoting healthy dietary choices rocked the national status quo. People started searching for alternatives to the mindless consumption of the planet’s limited resources. Tabs, buttons, and mushrooms opened up new internal vistas that encouraged interest in ancient cultures and their spiritual religious traditions. We probed the mystical symbols adorning the dollar bill and investigated the esoteric philosophies guiding the new nation’s founding fathers.

The combination of protests, new cultural orientations, and developments in the war zones of Southeast Asia shifted public opinion. Withdrawal from Vietnam accompanied progress on other fronts from race relations to female liberation. New legislation addressed discrimination based on colour, creed, and gender, reined in the CIA, and created the Environmental Protection Agency to control serial polluters.

The ship had been righted, the course of the nation redirected, and use of the term “politically correct” offered backhanded acknowledgement of the nation’s cultural makeover in politics. In the end, many of the political attitudes engendered by the counterculture followed long hair, frayed jeans, and recreational marijuana use into mainstream America.

The changes, affected over a relatively short period, had made America even more exceptional in our eyes. But some observers disagreed. The eminent anthropologist Marvin Harris opined that the main impact of the counterculture was selling a lot of records. Iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa said that rock music’s potential revolutionary impact had been felt mostly in the textile industry. Cultural revolution did little to change the nation’s political structures and economy.

As the awakening and the activism of the Vietnam era ran its course, American conservatives felt increasingly isolated. Their champion, the embattled president Nixon, resigned office in disgrace. Not only had their values been shunted aside, the country’s conservative hard core saw the reforms and new liberalism as a direct threat to the sources of their wealth. They were still wealthy, but had become dinosaurs inhabiting a political landscape dominated by progressive ideas and proponents of activist government. Conservative partisans like Steve Bannon may have missed the party, but they were taking notes.

IT’S NOT REALLY ABOUT TRUMP

The Koch brothers are ferociously independent heirs to one of the largest private corporations in the United States. Like the Bush family and their cronies, their father, Fred Koch, built up his fortune during the 1930s, training Bolshevik engineers and selling his advanced oil refining technology and refineries to Stalin and Hitler’s Germany. His children’s nanny was a Hitler sympathiser, and after the war Fred Koch became a strong supporter of the rabidly anti-Communist John Birch Society to assuage his guilt over aiding the USSR. He transferred his extreme libertarian values to his sons, and after his death in 1967, Charles and David Koch bought out their two more liberal minded siblings.

In Dark Money, a book first released in 2016, Jane Mayer tells the story of how the Koch Brothers assembled a network of 400 über-wealthy industrialists. Mayer’s documentation of their activities reads like a virtual symphony of corporate crime in the form of fraud, tax avoidance, violations of workplace safety and employee welfare, foreign bribery, and environmental violations

Under the brothers, Koch Industries became the country’s second wealthiest private corporation, and they parlayed their financial muscle into the single most influential political machine in the country. Their first venture, David Koch’s run for the presidency on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980, failed miserably. Plan B was based on a totally different approach. It began with annual summits attended by a handpicked list of like-minded individuals opposed to most forms of government regulation and taxation.

In Dark Money, a book first released in 2016, Jane Mayer tells the story of how the Koch Brothers assembled a network of 400 über-wealthy industrialists who leveraged their money and influence to penetrate the American political system for their personal financial benefit. The brothers are the sixth and seventh wealthiest Americans and their combined wealth makes them number one. Most of those they recruited belong to the top .01% of the country’s wealthiest billionaires and are known as the “invisible rich” because they operate private companies that shield them from public scrutiny and government rules for fiscal disclosure.

Mayer’s documentation of their activities reads like a virtual symphony of corporate crime in the form of fraud, tax avoidance, violations of workplace safety and employee welfare, foreign bribery, and environmental violations. Over several decades, this network, or the Kochtopus as it was dubbed by one analyst, spent billions of dollars funnelled through tax-free foundations and charities exempted from public oversight to promote their objectives.

The Koch summits provided the institutional foundation and financial support for a long-term strategy based on three overlapping components: The reformulation of libertarian ideology in terms of ideas and concepts enabling its propagation within mainstream society; the creation of institutions for translating this free-market ideology into policy positions and legislation; and building political vehicles on the ground for placing politicians aligned with their ideas and policies into public office.

Most of the Koch-networked and -funded institutions and political action committees, like Americans for Prosperity, flew underneath the radar. At the same time, an array of media personalities, talk show hosts, and academic celebrities duplicated the role that rock musicians, intellectuals and artists, political activists, and outspoken athletes like Mohammed Ali played in energising the masses several decades before. They elevated the role of divisive social issues like abortion rights in the political arena, fuelling the culture wars that influenced otherwise politically moderate citizens.

The Koch network funded think tanks based in respected universities to reinforce their anti-government ideology and critiques of public spending. Covertly funded political action committees were used to gain control of executive offices and legislative bodies. Over a period of 40 years, the Koch Brothers and their clique of archconservative supporters patiently cultivated a right-wing movement, often with more power to block and obstruct than to legislate their own agenda.

An array of media personalities, talk show hosts, and academic celebrities duplicated the role that rock musicians, intellectuals and artists, political activists, and outspoken athletes like Mohammed Ali played in energising the masses several decades before. They elevated the role of divisive social issues like abortion rights in the political arena

But despite the inroads and influence generated by their free-flowing money, the Koch network still lacked a nation-wide vehicle for mobilising grassroots supporters.

ENTER BARACK OBAMA, PURSUED BY MAD HATTERS

Help came from an unexpected source.

The election of Barrack Obama in 2008 triggered the formation of the anti-government Tea Party movement. Its emergence enabled the Koch network to dedicate their annual summit in 2009 to organise an all-out assault on the Democrats during the 2010 mid-term elections. Tea Party candidates defeated Democrat and mainstream Republican incumbents as the GOP regained control of the House and Senate. The trend continued in 2012, even though Obama retained the White House with a 5.5 million-vote margin of victory.

Despite their growing clout within the federal and state governments, the Koch-Tea Party coalition could not field a viable presidential candidate of their own creation, as demonstrated by the succession of inchoate candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Michelle Bachmann, and the pizza king Herman Cain.

The problem was about to repeat itself in 2016, until along came the Donald. Trump blitzed the field, reducing both establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Tea Party aspirants to props in his carnival-style campaign. He proceeded to tweet himself into the White House, portraying himself as a new and independent force in American politics.

That he was. “I even did without a guitar and piano,” he quipped, a jibe referring to the star power Hillary Clinton trundled out at the end of her self-satisfied campaign.

Actually, the Trump team had something much better. Cambridge Analytica is a company dedicated to “the use of data to change behaviour,” or in the case of the 2016 election, using emotional manipulation based on psychological profiling to induce people to vote against their own socioeconomic interest. Electoral analysts confirm that CA helped sway the vote in key swing states like Florida, North Carolina, and Michigan, but their advanced analytics arguably required the distortionary prism cultivated by the alt-right players like Breitbart News and Steve Bannon to be effective.

THE REAL HOMELAND INSECURITY

It is easy to denigrate Trump the person. But Trump the politician scored some important points on my political scorecard. I had witnessed the beginning of the decline overtaking rural areas in the American South, and now even communities and people in America’s heartland who did everything by the book to adapt to the industrial decline still couldn’t win. The economic nationalism agenda clearly spoke to their concerns, even if it was short on viable solutions.

Despite their growing clout within the federal and state governments, the Koch-Tea Party coalition could not field a viable presidential candidate of their own creation, as demonstrated by the succession of inchoate candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Michelle Bachmann, and the pizza king Herman Cain. The problem was about to repeat itself in 2016, until along came the Donald

A Trump versus Bernie Sanders contest focusing debate on the overlapping issues at the core of both candidates’ campaigns would have been much better for the country and the eventual winner. That did not happen thanks to the Democratic National Committee’s pro-Hillary machinations. Instead, we got a noisy post-truth spectacle that made one candidate look like a sleazy demagogue while the other came across as an opportunistic mannikin compromised by special interests.

The country emerged from the polls more polarised than ever, and the acrimony of the aftermath offered little hope for improvement. The fact that Trump was not part of the Kochtopus and the Koch brothers did not support his campaign offered some hope: Maybe the guy would revert to the former Democrat who was cool with Dennis Rodman on The Celebrity Apprentice. But then again, Vice President Michael Pence was a Koch-funded poodle; Trump promptly loaded his Cabinet with Koch partisans like Betsy DeVoss and Ben Carson.

It was not easy to see where my friend’s “something good will come out this” would come from with these people in charge.

A few days after I arrived in Utah, Trump announced his Muslim travel ban. A wave of spontaneous protests erupted as airport authorities detained several hundred arrivals from abroad including a former Middle Eastern head of state. The mainstream media went into overdrive and anti-Trump posts proliferated on social media, many of them creative, incisive, and entertaining. This and the breaking news about Russia drove a former State Department official to lament that the US has become a “Banana Republic.”

Although a federal judge declared the ban unconstitutional on the first working day following the executive order, a Utah-based friend from Lamu, spooked by the ban, still felt it necessary to travel back to Kenya to escort his wife, who had just received her long-awaited US visa, past airport immigration and security. More significantly, three days later, the LDS church issued a statement opposing the ban.

I argued that the election was the best thing that happened for progressive forces in decades. It woke people up, and saved the world from a hawkish and dissembling Hillary. At least the decades of drift culminating in the aristocratic takeover of party and state by the Clinton dynasty were over

This was unexpected news, as was a University of Utah study that reported most Muslim immigrants found the state more welcoming and adjusting to the US easier in Utah’s family oriented and no-alcohol Mormon culture. I also discovered that the religion’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, was actually an abolitionist, and that the Utah territory granted women the right to vote in 1870, 50 years before the federal government legislated universal suffrage by passing the 19th Amendment (Congress responded by disenfranchising Utah women with the Edmunds–Tucker Act, which was designed to weaken the Mormons politically and punish them for polygamy).

Red America is not as monolithic as it may appear in media political narratives. I spent Super Bowl Sunday in Salt Lake City with a houseful of Mexican relatives. More of them were more upset with the New England Patriot’s last minute Trump-style victory than worried about Trump’s wall.

I visited blue America. We convened a large family gathering in Los Angeles, and spent time with friends in San Francisco. There were a lot of Teslas and other electric cars, and a few self-driving vehicles on the freeways, their passengers contently working on phones and tablets.

THE COMING SECESSION OF HOTEL CALIFORNIA?

California is the high-tech future. But it is also the land of a new long-tail market peasantry. Internet-savvy entrepreneurs were surviving by reselling appliances and other recycled items. Co-operatives in the form of Internet-based groups were pooling their knowledge to utilise the online economy.

I have in-laws in LA who subsist by swapping coupons and minimising household costs through scientific shopping for bargains and stocking their freezer with food reduced for clearance.

Despite their struggle to keep body and soul intact, every month they host poetry readings and other cultural events in their home that are attended by dozens of friends and associates more concerned with the fate of the country than their own declining incomes.

The two coasts had emerged as the centre of anti-Trump activism, and some of the protests, like the student protests in Berkeley that forced the administration to cancel an appearance by the Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, crossed the line, violating basic constitutional and democratic principles. When I mentioned the retrogressive nature of some of these developments, my friends in California ranted about the new regime and talked about secession in terms that recalled my conversations with the Mombasa Republican Council’s leadership.

I responded by arguing that the election was the best thing that happened for progressive forces in decades. It woke people up, and saved the world from a hawkish and dissembling Hillary. Contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union were spiking; at least the decades of drift culminating in the aristocratic takeover of party and state by the Clinton dynasty were over.

Other developments of the past several months painted a much more nuanced picture of the state of the nation. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick revisited the spirit of the Mexico Olympic protest by refusing to stand for the national anthem. In pro-Trump Louisiana, the city of New Orleans took down the statue of Robert E. Lee — the state’s last remaining symbol of the Confederacy. John McCain penned an incisive op-ed in the New York Times underscoring the importance of human rights in foreign policy as an extension of domestic American values. Bob Dylan, the first poet of the counterculture, became a Nobel laureate.

The United States is a highly dualistic nation held together by a strong political centre. The nation’s political trajectory has consistently zigzagged between right and left of centre over the course of my lifetime. The transition from Obama to Trump was consistent with this dialectic

After the election, the website for the largest Tea Party PAC crowed that it took the anti-war movement 25 years to elect one of their own to the White House while they had done the same over the course of two electoral cycles. In reality, the success rate of Tea Party candidates peaked in 2012. Now minority politicians with names like Chokwe Lumumba and Khalid Kamau were winning seats in local government. Unheralded candidates recently won by-elections for seats in New Hampshire and New Jersey districts that had never elected a Democrat.

In his book What’s Wrong With Kansas, Thomas Frank describes how conservatives used religion and the culture wars to flip the formerly progressive state into a Republican stronghold. A decade later, the economy is tanking, while the state’s model education system deteriorates due to the spending cuts instituted by the Koch-supported Governor. Back in another flyover state, there are helped wanted signs everywhere and the Utah economy is booming. The difference is not accidental.

After I returned to Kenya, Bloomberg News published an article entitled How Utah is Keeping the American Dream Alive. The writer begins by confessing, “There’s no getting around it: For a girl raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Salt Lake City is a very weird place.” She then proceeds to detail how the state government is collaborating with Latter Day Saints agencies to provide social protection for the poor while providing job training addressing local demand for skilled and semi-skilled labour. The formula is generating Scandinavian levels of social mobility in a state with a small but committed civil service and the country’s lowest per capita expenditure on education.

FACING AN UNEXCEPTIONAL FUTURE?

In 2017, I found a country not so different from the one I left on the brink of electing Barack Obama. Communication was efficient and uncomplicated; people were without exception polite, helpful, and friendly. The malls were filled with new versions of the usual stuff, and if you shopped smart most of it was much cheaper than it would cost in Kenya. Smoking reefer was laissez faire or just legal. The junk food was healthier, and the country was awash with innovative ideas and creative content. East Africa has changed so much more during the interim. But appearances can be deceptive.

Truth will make a comeback, and there is a world of well-informed and innovative solutions out there to get things going. Once again, it’s looking like my African friends got it right

The United States is a highly dualistic nation held together by a strong political centre. The nation’s political trajectory has consistently zigzagged between right and left of centre over the course of my lifetime. This makes for a lot of contradictions, but also for a more purple Republic over the long run. The transition from Obama to Trump was consistent with this dialectic, which is also a source of American democracy’s distinctive pattern of continuous change and incremental reform. President Trump is the latest exhibit in this tradition, but there are caveats.

The problem is not that Trump’s diagnoses of the nation’s problems were not on target. His vision for making America Great Again, in contrast, is informed by nostalgia, special interests, and backward-looking solutions. Trump’s proposed budget and tax cuts will injure the less educated and economically insecure voters who flocked to his rallies. The jobs at the Carrier factory Trump “saved” from being outsourced to Mexico are to be automated. Many elements of the economic nationalism he showcased on the stump are already in remission, and he is retreating from the foreign policy positions he used to whip up the crowds. He turned the government’s Middle East foreign policy over to the Saudis in exchange for a large order of weapons.

The future of the middle class is uncertain. The accelerating pace of machine learning and artificial intelligence may bring about the economic singularity within a generation. The country I grew up in was about exploration, problem solving, and optimising potential as we moved forward. Now I sense that for many Americans, the future is as murky as the Great Salt Lake on a cloudy winter day.

EVIL WINNERS WHO INVESTED IN PSEUDO-CHARITIES

The Koch Brothers and their friends tried to manufacture a new political culture based on libertarian values, but are really perpetuating the same financial industrial royalty presidents from Jefferson to Eisenhower warned us about. The likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are following the tradition of other American philanthropists guided by noblesse oblige; the super wealthy populating the alt-right are evil winners who invested in pseudo-charities dedicated to advancing their own narrow interests.

Things were humming along until an outsider crashed the party.

Now the Trump presidency is unravelling in the face of problems largely of his own making. Our institutions are engaged, and my only hope is Trump & Co stay in office long enough to take down the whole prevaricating, alternative fact, toxic waste emitting and hate-mongering circus. We have seen worse, and I don’t begrudge the sincere citizens who played their trump card on the Donald having their day in the sun. But now it’s time to sort out the unprecedented crisis of inequality facing capitalism everywhere. Truth will make a comeback, and there is a world of well-informed and innovative solutions out there to get things going.

Once again, it’s looking like my African friends got it right.

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Chief Black Hawk went down in flames over Somalia in the early 1990s. This is a missive from beyond the grave, exclusive to The Elephant.

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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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Politics

Food Protectionism and Nationalism in the Age of COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the global farm-to-plate conveyor belt, including related value chain and support industries. This has led to the overhaul of certain sectors and the expansion of others. On the upside, the disruption has also encouraged citizens to audit the resilience of their local food systems and their capacity to feed people over the long haul.

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Food Protectionism and Nationalism in the Age of COVID-19
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In June 2018, Kenya’s food and beverage import bill crossed the psychological 100 billion mark, underscoring the country’s overreliance on food imports for sustenance. This isn’t news to those in the agriculture sector who recently witnessed our diplomatic kerfuffle with Tanzania degenerate into a blockade that dented food imports and spiked the price of produce in the local market. Kenya imports onions and oranges from Tanzania; eggs, tomatoes, and pineapples from Uganda; poultry products from the United States; as well as fish and garlic from China.

This kind of skewed dependency on imports strains an already dysfunctional agricultural supply chain that has atrophied and shrunk over the decades, thanks to mismanagement, theft and a lax policy environment. The agriculture sector, despite its potential, has been the victim of legislative failures, beginning with the decimation of parastatals in the Ministry of Agriculture in the 1990s, and the consolidation of state functions in ways that were incongruent with the needs of the respective agriculture sub-sectors.

The litany of social and economic ills that result from this laxity stretches long – from local farmers to reduced earnings in state coffers, disadvantaged agro-processors, heightened pressure on the shilling and import shock risks.

Kenya’s agriculture sector employs more than 50 per cent of the labour force, accounts for 34.1 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and yet only contributes Sh23.3 billion to state coffers. The growing of crops and animal production combined account for 31.8 per cent of GDP, while support activities account for 0.5 per cent.

However, a weak regulatory environment, lax enforcement, brazen importers who gang up with state operatives to bring in cheap agro-imports, and depressed prices that have precipitated a significant decline in acreage under farming have negatively impacted the sector. The resulting drop in local supply, coupled with low yields and erratic rain models, have since produced critical shortages such as the ones that hit maize supplies in 2018.

Hence, while competing countries have been regulating their agro-industries, modernising their agro-supply chains, firming up the value chain, and managing the market to control prices, Kenya’s unofficial policy has been one of irascible cartelism, fueled by a few powerful industry players both on the regulatory and market side, who seek to cash in on their connections to state powers.

It also hasn’t also been helpful that in recent years, cash crop farming has monopolised acreage at the expense of other crops. Additionally, the top foods consumed in Kenya constitute milk, maize, wheat, vegetables, potatoes and bananas, which are easier to produce under mechanised farms controlled by a few oligopolies. The end result is loss of agency by the consumer and a patent inability to determine what ends up on a typical Kenyan dinner table.

Kenya’s agriculture sector employs more than 50 per cent of the labour force, accounts for 34.1 per cent of GDP and yet only contributes Sh23.3 billion to state coffers. The growing of crops and animal production combined account for 31.8 per cent of GDP, while support activities account for 0.5 per cent.

This marks the genesis of the cycle that has ensured that Kenyans are vulnerable to the certain kind of food protectionism and nationalism, such as the recent border shutdown by Uganda to truckers and Tanzanians due to a diplomatic tussle that saw food prices spike in the country. While Kenyans made fun of Mexican maize imports, Ugandan ginger, and tomato shortages, underneath that satire lay the profound vulnerability of Kenya’s 50 million tummies to the whims and impulses of random policy makers in countries hundreds of miles from our borders.

If the current food protectionism has taught us anything, it is that food has to become a national security issue and should be accorded the respective policy and structural and supply chain securitisation needed to forestall potential starvation.

The global picture

In March 2020, Vietnam and China stopped rice exports. Russia and Kazakhstan followed suit and briefly banned wheat exports. Around the world, two dozen nations took the cue and started hoarding their primary food exports in false anticipation of global shortages amidst the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic. In total, seventeen major food supply nations placed some form of constraint on agricultural exports in the early weeks of the pandemic. Luckily, speculative behavior in agricultural commodity markets and imposing unnecessary trade restrictions, didn’t trigger food price spikes similar to those in 2007-8. The respective states almost immediately rescinded on the move amidst piling pressure and global economy concerns since the protectionism didn’t bode well for global supply chains and consumers around the world.

In recent years, we’ve increasingly gotten accustomed to the geography and ethnicity of food: that tea is British, coffee is Kenyan; tomatoes and onions are Tanzanian; ginger and bananas are Ugandan; strawberries are South African and Egyptian; fish and garlic are Chinese, poultry is from the United States; maize is from Mexico; and butter comes from South Africa. While this may portend well for global culinary multiculturalism, in times of pandemics such as this, the nationalistic fervour and export disruption exposes us to the vagaries of shortages on the shelves, potential hoarding, and hiked prices.

In recent years, the international food system has been built around the capacity of certain countries to specialise in the production of some foods to feed demand in other countries, while importing food items that could not be efficiently produced locally. This has produced a complex cog of farmers, transporters, financiers, and distributors spread across all corners of the globe. In this system, the world has become highly dependent on a globalised production chain in which dozens of countries straddle the middle of this chain, each adding a new component to the final agro-product. Take the US for example, whose imports account for half of the fresh fruits, a third of the vegetables, and 90 per cent of the seafood consumed in the country.

Food nationalism sometimes gets politicised around origins, such as whether falafel originated in the Mediterranean or in the Middle East, or whether rice from Vietnam is better than rice from Pakistan. In some jurisdictions, this has taken the form of policy protectionism, such as the European Union (EU)’s Protected Geographical Status framework that limits the production of certain potato, tequila, vinegar and cheese varieties to certain regions under specified conditions.

In recent years, the international food system has been built around the capacity of certain countries to specialise in the production of some foods to feed demand in other countries, while importing food items that could not be efficiently produced locally. This has produced a complex cog of farmers, transporters, financiers, and distributors spread across all corners of the globe.

Luckily it isn’t only the exoticism of certain foods that drive food nationalisms; even the working classes in recent years have expressed their concerns through political dissent driven by food: Sudan’s 2018 Bread Revolution, Kenya’s 2011 Unga Revolution, Egypt’s 2017 Wheat Revolution, the French Milk Farmers’ Revolution, among a host of other displeasures with the volatility of the national food basket.

Food sub-nationalism

Within gastro-nationalism there exists local nuance that drives certain protectionisms too. Nyandarua produces 35 per cent of our national potato output. Cashewnuts come from Kilifi. Mwea and Ahero produce rice. Flowers are grown in Naivasha. Vegetables come from the Kisii highlands. Maize is from Kitale. Freshwater fish is from Kisumu. Sisal is from Taveta. Milk comes from Githunguri. Tea comes from the Nandi region.

The March 26th shutdown of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties disrupted huge markets that are the purveyors and outlets for these agriproducts. Because of claims of corruption at police barriers along these counties’ borders, rural farmers effectively reduced their supply of farm products, sending the prices of food sky high in urban neighbourhoods.

Barriers erected to contain in-country COVID infection rates have, in turn, created logistical bottlenecks that reduce the supply of basic food commodities, creating an overcapacity in the producing counties while precipitating shortages in urban agricultural markets, such as Kondele and Kibuye in Kisumu, Mwembe Tayari and Kongowea in Mombasa, Soko Mjinga in Kitale, Marikiti in Nairobi, Daraja Mbili in Kisii county, Kagio in Kirinyaga and similar large food markets spread across Kenyan urban centres.

This chokes a critical cog of an already disadvantaged food infrastructure, given that there is an annual demand for 4.5 million tonnes of maize, 2 million tonnes of wheat, 1.3 million tonnes of sugar and 0.7 million tonnes of rice, which is barely met by local production. This deficit is often filled by the import of 1.3 million tonnes of maize, 1.8 million tonnes of wheat and 625,000 tonnes of rice. The overall outlay of Kenya’s food system, therefore, is a combination of disempowered (mostly urban) eaters, powerful agro-cartels who chase higher margins through unregulated food imports, and traders who, as a result of overreliance on imports, have reoriented their supply chains.

Food capitalism

Ironically, hoarding and food nationalism hit amidst a global sufficiency and oversupply mainly driven by China’s and India’s massive investment in grain production, and investments in agriculture in Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Overall, less than 25 countries in the world are global net exporters though many in South America, Eastern Europe and South East Asia range between food sufficient and stable exporters.

The world’s poor are bearing the brunt of this, thanks to their poor storage capacities as well as the fact that they often merely make up the unskilled labour needed within the global food supply systems. Britain, a key importer and exporter, had to rely on the importation of labour as a deficit of 90,000 workers had left fruit farms unattended, thus heightening the possibility of farm losses. Britain was forced to seek nearly 10,000 workers from EU and non-EU countries, which remained closed during the height of the pandemic.

Cross-border supply chains and the free movement of consumer goods have increasingly been subjected to unfair trade subsidies, consumer protectionism, and border logistical bottlenecks that reduce the flow of consumer foodstuffs. Surprisingly the hoarding happens just when, unlike previous periods of rampant food inflation, global inventories of staple crops like corn, wheat, soybeans and rice are plentiful.

Food nationalism feeds a strain of food capitalism that sees approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of food wasted globally even as the COVID pandemic impacts food production and supply and guts distribution. Meanwhile, 2020 estimates are that due to the pandemic, a billion people face starvation globally and suffer from some form of hunger brought about by war, climate change, or simply a lack of means, especially in the Global South, while 300 million are at a crisis point.

It’s a testament to the global architecture of hunger that the majority of those in need are in the Global South, partly due to conflicts and climate disasters, but also predominantly due to economic instability that hampers both physical and economic access to food. Resource-rich nations in Africa, Latin America and Asia get stunted by unfair global practices, disastrous political systems propped up by and from the West, and predatory firms from both the East and the West who loot these countries through tax havens and illicit financial flows.

Hence, the food systems across the Global South are impoverished through laxity and political interference, while critical capital that could boost agri-production gets siphoned to the Global North. The resultant losses and deficit are what precipitate the vulnerability and susceptibility to shocks, such as that which has been wrought by the current pandemic.

Culinary identities

While food nationalism entrenches a protectionist model that compromises the legal and political rules of global trade espoused by many treaties and pacts, culinary nationalism simply raises the pride in a country’s culinary history. Large swathes of societies are having to rediscover their comparative advantages as the imports from farmers halfway around the world grind to a halt.

The coronavirus strain and its disruption of supply and value chains has simply fed into a hand- wringing method of protectionism quietly accepted and sometimes loudly proclaimed by belligerents like Donald Trump. This localisation inadvertently provides a perfect cover for those who have long embraced the idea of nationalism.

Food nationalism feeds a strain of food capitalism that sees approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of food wasted globally even as the COVID pandemic impacts food production and supply and guts distribution. Meanwhile, 2020 estimates are that due to the pandemic, a billion people face starvation globally and suffer from some form of hunger…

Even so, the pandemic has also necessitated the closure of some plants, resulted in bankruptcy among some agro-producers, and slowed down processing plants in India, in parts of China, in the United States and Canada, across Brazil, and in Western Europe. On the upside, this has helped citizens to audit the resilience of their local food systems and their capacity to feed people over the long haul.

Grounding of flights and border restrictions have limited the flow of migrant workers to farms that rely on hired labour during the growing and harvest seasons. Meanwhile, wars have decimated grain research centres in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, while coercive legislation is being pushed in certain African countries even as there is criticism of the “NGO-isation” of agriculture in Africa and the push for legislated monopoly on seeds in countries like Kenya and India.

The global food infrastructure in the entire farm-to-plate conveyor belt and the related value chain industries and their support industries are staring at a significant disruption that will overhaul certain sectors, expand others, neuter many, and rejig the wider global reserves, primary producers and suppliers.

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Politics

Market Shutdowns, Policy Failures and the Mishandling of Food Logistics

COVID-19 has had a huge and immediate negative economic impact on low-income households, especially in urban areas. The Kenyan government’s mediocre response to this economic shock has not only increased people’s vulnerability, but has also laid bare the government’s inability to provide basic services.

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Market Shutdowns, Policy Failures and the Mishandling of Food Logistics
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Way before Kenya officially reported its first case of COVID 19, it was an open secret that the country was woefully unprepared to deal with the pandemic. The public health system was deplorable and ill-equipped to handle the country’s ongoing health concerns even without the added strain of managing the pandemic. Lack of piped water in informal settlements in urban areas presented an infrastructural headache, which was compounded by the high population densities in these areas. About sixty per cent of Nairobi’s population, Kenya’s capital, is said to be living in informal settlements, which occupy just 5 per cent of the city’s land.

Between the crowded living arrangements, lack of running water to guarantee constant and proper handwashing and a poorly managed health system;, the lack of preparedness made for a grim situation. By the time the first case of COVID 19 was officially reported on Friday, the 13th of March 2020 (the more superstitious amongst us were quick to connect the date with the event), there were concerns that low-income urban households, due to the nature of their design (or lack thereof), were more prone to infections. Experts also warned of the economic effects of the pandemic mainly taking the form of reduction or loss of income and reduced supply and access to basic utilities.

On 25 March, with a total number of 28 positive cases nationally and over 400,000 cases globally, the President of Kenya announced a raft of measures to contain the pandemic. Movement in and out of the country was heavily curtailed as borders with neighbouring countries were closed, passenger flights were suspended, schools were closed, large gatherings were banned and a countrywide dusk-to-dawn curfew was announced. Many have argued that the move to put in place a curfew rather than a total lockdown was seen as a compromise, a political economy calculation that took into consideration the socio-economic structure of Nairobi whilst endeavouring to reduce the spread of infection.

Nairobi is a city where the majority of the labour force comprises casual workers and informal petty traders who survive on daily earned wages and income. A total lockdown would have denied these citizens access to money for food, rent and basic utilities, which could potentially pose a political threat of social unrest. Others have speculated that the night curfew was intended to forestall criminal activities to supplement lost incomes.

On 6th April 2020, the president announced further containment measures, including a 21-day ban on all movement in and out of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale and Kilifi counties except for movement of food supplies and other cargo. By this time, 158 infections and 4 fatalities had been reported.

On 22nd April, Mandera County was added to the list of counties with restricted movement. On April 25th, the nationwide curfew and the cessation of movement in the four counties was extended for another 21 days until May 16th. Another extension was announced for 21 days until 6th June. On 6th June, the cessation of movement in and out of Kwale and Kilifi counties and Eastleigh (Nairobi County) and Old Town (Mombasa County) neighbourhoods was lifted, and the nationwide curfew hours reduced to 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Movement in and out of Nairobi, Mombasa and Mandera counties remained restricted until 6th July 2020. (At the time this article was being written, the restrictions in and out of all counties had been lifted and there was a scheduled roadmap to allow for intra-country travel and the resumption of domestic and international flights. Places of worship had been reopened on condition of adherence to social distancing precautions along with a limit to 100 faithful and gatherings not lasting more than an hour. It was announced that schools would reopen in January 2021.

Taking cues on precautionary measures from the national government, county governments also put in place containment measures that mainly targeted market places. In March 2020, Kwale, Kiambu and Kajiado county governments ordered all their open-air markets closed. Kisumu County closed the famous Kibuye market and Nyandarua County closed all Sunday markets. In June 2020, Machakos County closed 8 markets in Kangundo and Mwala sub-counties, where it was reported 3 people who had tested positive for COVID-19 had interacted with local residents.

The economic impact of COVID-19

As earlier speculated, the economy has taken a beating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the Central Bank of Kenya revised its 2020 economic growth forecast from the original 6.2 per cent to 3.4 per cent.

More ominously, in late May, the Central Bank indicated that up to 75 per cent of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) were at risk of collapsing by the end of June 2020 due to the hostile COVID-19 business environment. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forecast a 0.3 per cent economic contraction, the result of disrupting livelihoods across the country.

Findings from household surveys on the effect on COVID-19 seem to reflect this gloomy macroeconomic prognosis. They all indicate loss of jobs, decline in incomes, rising cost of living and hunger as key concerns for those interviewed. A survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics released in mid-May 2020 revealed that 30 per cent of households sampled were unable to pay rent. In addition, 21.5 per cent of households that met their rent obligations on time were unable to do so and had to renegotiate with their landlords on repayment. This goes to show the extent to which the COVID-19 economic shock has affected households’ ability to pay recurrent bills.

On 30th June 2020, TIFA Research, a market research company, released a report focusing on the impact of the global pandemic on low-income neighbourhoods in Nairobi. The study, which sampled respondents from Huruma, Kibera, Mathare, Korogocho, Mukuru kwa Njenga, and Kawangware, had several key findings. Over 90 per cent of those interviewed said the COVID- 19 pandemic had had a huge and immediate impact on their lives, with 54 per cent of the respondents reporting having lost their jobs and attributing this to COVID-19. Ninety-four per cent of the respondents reported having to cut down expenditure on food and drinks.

More worrying was the 42 per cent whose immediate concern was hunger. The seriousness of this is reflected in the subsequent finding that only 6 per cent of those interviewed had been able to save during the pandemic, which exposed the economic vulnerability of most households. Most of those interviewed had supplemented lost income by selling off assets and cutting down on their expenditure on food and drink.

Over 90 per cent of those interviewed said the COVID- 19 pandemic had had a huge and immediate impact on their lives, with 54 per cent of the respondents reporting having lost their jobs and attributing this to COVID-19. Ninety-four per cent of the respondents reported having to cut down expenditure on food and drinks.

Another survey conducted between 28 May and 2 June this year by Infotrak Research Consultancy had similar findings. The survey showed that more than 80 per cent of those interviewed struggled to feed their families. More than 60 per cent of Kenyans were unable to pay rent in full, with an almost similar proportion who were struggling to pay rent on time. In urban areas, almost 4 out of 5 of those interviewed who used to send remittances to rural homes were unable to do so.

The government containment measures, whilst reducing the spread of infections, have also had a domino effect on other parts of social and economic systems, particularly in urban areas where the effect of these restrictions has been felt the most. They have had direct and indirect effects on food security in urban centres and on their linkages with food production areas and distribution networks.

Hybrid food systems and systems of care

Most African urban centres tend to have complex hybrid food systems characterised by a delicately balanced co-existence of informal and formal food systems. Nairobi, Mombasa and other big towns in Kenya are no exception. The restrictions on movement and closure of markets have had three immediate effects on informal food systems in the areas the markets are located. First, the income of the traders operating in these markets is lost. Depending on their business size, traders could be wholesalers getting produce from outside counties to retailers selling their wares to customers. Second, informal retail traders, such as hawkers, who normally source their food supplies from these markets are unable to do so. Closure of markets means there is a reduced supply of food produce in urban areas, leading to an increase in food prices. Third, the curfew was already eating into the operating hours of informal traders to get supplies from the markets in the morning and the hours they would have used to sell their wares in the evening. These hawkers have to work within reduced hours and still ensure they sell enough wares to make ends meet. They face another challenge in their potential customers having less money to spend, thus reducing the hawkers’ returns.

Most African urban centres tend to have complex hybrid food systems characterised by a delicately balanced co-existence of informal and formal food systems. Nairobi, Mombasa and other big towns in Kenya are no exception.

Another secondary effect on the food supply chain is the transport of food produce from the source county to the destination county. While the government announced that food supplies were essential services and movement would not be curtailed by the imposed restrictions, implementing that is not a clear-cut intervention. Whereas formally registered transport businesses can get the documentation and clearance to supply food without restriction, smallholder farmers use other forms of transport to get their produce to markets, such as passenger vehicles or motorcycles. Since these have been restricted from moving during the curfew hours, a key element of the food supply chain has been disrupted.

Most urban Kenyan households have ties to their rural homes and get care packages of food supplies from relatives in rural areas to supplement their urban food sources. These systems of care – what some would categorise as informal social protection – also offer a sanctuary to urban families, a space they can retreat to and reconfigure their livelihoods when urban life is too expensive. A recent article in the Daily Nation revealed an increase in these care package to families in urban areas in the last three months as urban households struggle to get food. Food sent includes cereals, bananas, Irish and sweet potatoes, dried fish, among others. So lucrative is this business that previous passenger shuttle businesses are repurposing their vehicles and obtaining permits to transport food to urban centres.

Rural-urban support systems also allow parents to send their children upcountry to stay with relatives over school holidays. During these dire circumstances, families can relocate to the countryside where the cost of living is much lower than in urban centres. The restriction of movement in and out of the major urban centres in Kenya has disrupted these systems of care as families are unable to exercise the option of easing the economic burden of their urban households by moving to their rural homes. In a past Infotrak survey, up to 40 per cent of Nairobi residents were willing to move to rural areas the moment the government lifted the movement restrictions.

Food security during this pandemic is also compromised by challenges faced by counties that grow food. Where production is going on as normal, restriction in movement has seen source counties facing a glut in food. This has led to reduced prices of food and increased wastage as food producers lack the storage capacity for their supplies.

So, depending on which county one looks at, there are rural food-producing households that have a lot of food, no market and reduced income from food sales. Meanwhile, low-income food-consuming households in urban areas are experiencing a scarcity of food, high food prices and reduced household income.

The restriction of movement during the pandemic also affects access to farm inputs at two levels. One, import supply chains have been disrupted and slowed down, hence it may be more difficult and expensive to buy imported inputs, such as fertilizer and pesticides, which are crucial to maximising yields. Two, where these inputs find their way into the country, they are typically found in urban areas and require to be transported to rural areas. Restrictions in the transport of good and services will affect the transport of these inputs to rural areas. Furthermore, the financial costs of importation as well as urban–rural transport are likely to be passed onto the farmer in the form of increased prices, thus disincentivising the farmer from accessing the inputs.

So, depending on which county one looks at, there are rural food-producing households that have a lot of food, no market and reduced income from food sales. Meanwhile, low-income food-consuming households in urban areas are experiencing a scarcity of food, high food prices and reduced household income.

The locust invasion across the Horn of Africa has compounded Kenya’s food insecurity. The country experienced the first wave of locust attacks from late 2019 to early 2020, with swarms moving through the country from arid and semi-arid areas hosting pastoralist communities to the food-producing counties. The Food and Agricultural organisation (FAO) issued a warning in late June 2020 about the second wave of locusts, with some estimating it to be 400 times bigger than the first wave. According to FAO, Turkana and Marsabit counties’ crops and pastures are likely to be affected in this wave as the swarms of locusts migrate northwards into South Sudan and Ethiopia. This would reduce the amount of pasture available for livestock in these areas, resulting in loss of incomes and increased health concerns, such as hunger, particularly childhood malnutrition. The food security outlook is grim to say the least, with forecasts of a food shortage in East Africa caused by the locust invasion, low food reserves and the disrupted supply chain of food and inputs.

Mediocre mitigation measures

Pandemic mitigation responses by the government have mostly favoured corporates and individuals in formal employment. The government offered VAT and corporate tax reprieves, financial support for businesses and creatives, and wage tax subsidies for those in formal employment. None of these measures directly targeted the majority low-income earners in urban areas whose employment situation has been worsened by COVID-19.

The Treasury has been criticised for the recommendations it made in the 2020/2021 budget, which included proposals for the removal of zero-rated status on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as well as flour whilst fully aware of the economic impact of COVID-19, especially on urban low- income communities. Members of the National Assembly vetoed these proposals when they were discussing the Finance Bill.

The government reduced its budgetary allocation to agriculture by 18 per cent, from Sh59.6 billion in FY 2019/2020 to Sh48.7 billion in FY 2020-21. The agriculture sector in Kenya plays a significant role in employment, job creation and food supply. Its importance during this pandemic cannot be overstated as it covers issues of production, supply and even access of food, linking producers and consumers.

Government mitigation measures targeting the urban poor have been lacklustre at best. Even as the government moves to reopen the economy, there are no mass testing measures in place, hence there is no credible way of ascertaining the spread of the pandemic within communities. The distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) has been minimal and uncoordinated, putting many residents at risk as the move around in their communities.

Questions have also been raised about the targeting of potential beneficiaries for relief support measures, such as cash transfers and food package distribution. There are claims of government agencies misappropriating funds intended to contain the negative impact of the pandemic at the community level.

Pandemic mitigation responses by the government have mostly favoured corporates and individuals in formal employment. The government offered VAT and corporate tax reprieves, financial support for businesses and creatives, and wage tax subsidies for those in formal employment. None of these measures directly targeted the majority low-income earners in urban areas whose employment situation has been worsened by COVID-19.

As a society we have been forced to reckon with the consequences of long-term underinvestment by the government in public services. Informal settlements, where the majority of urban residents live, still do not have piped running water and residents have to buy their water at exorbitantly high prices from water vendors. The lack of piped water and the high cost of purchasing water in a time of reduced incomes reduces handwashing campaigns into a classist privileged initiative that only a few residents can comply with. According to Nahashon Muguna, the Acting Head of the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company, the daily demand for water in Nairobi is 810,000 cubic metres whereas the company, at its most efficient, is only able to supply 526,000 cubic metres.

Poor investment in housing and health offer little consolation to those who become infected with the virus. The hospitals are not equipped to handle the pandemic, and with the current state of housing in informal settlements, it is impossible to implement the self-isolation homecare guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health. Moreover, it is one thing to tell people to stay at home and avoid going outdoors. Assuming that they can afford to stay indoors, one has to ask what kind of dwelling spaces do they reside in.

COVID-19 has laid bare the inability of the government to provide basic services to the country’s people, services that are enshrined in our constitution under the Bill of Rights. It ultimately boils down to a breakdown of trust and a weakening of the social contract between the government and people it is mandated to serve.

This yawning disconnect between leaders and citizens has to be bridged. It is not enough to guarantee life; the government, in its dealings with citizens, should make sure that people lead a good life, a life of dignity, productivity and happiness. It is time for the Government of Kenya to ask itself what it has done for its citizens and what it should do for them going forward.

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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