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THE SONKONIZATION OF NAIROBI: How Mike Sonko Is Reshaping City Politics

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On June 2, 2010, the then Speaker of the National Assembly Kenneth Marende declared the Makadara seat in Nairobi vacant. The MP, the late Dick Wathika had lost the seat after a successful petition by Rueben Ndolo, a former holder of the seat (2002—2007). The by election was slated for September 20, 2010.

Three weeks to the by election, I had an interview with Wathika — popularly known as Mwas, his mtaa (estate) nickname — at a posh Nairobi hotel. He was in his element: exuding an unusual confidence. He boasted to me how he was going to wallop yet again his opponent Ndolo, who was contesting on an ODM ticket.

Finding him vain, I reminded him the fight was no longer between him and his known adversary, but was now going to be a three-pronged battle, which in my view, needed a different tact and strategy. A third contestant had entered the fray and his name was Gideon Mbuvi Kioko alias Mike Sonko.

“Wewe Dauti ni nini sasa…kwani umesahau kule tumetoka?” (You Dauti what’s up with you? You’ve forgotten where we’ve come from?), he chided me. “Huyo ni nani unaniambia stori yake. Ndolo ndiye opponent wangu. na nitam KO.” (Who’s that you telling me about? My opponent is Ndolo and I’ll knock him out). Wathika, in his heydays, just like Ndolo was an amateur boxer, the only difference being Ndolo had taken his boxing a notch higher and fought as a professional.

Within two and a half years, Sonko was transformed from a political neophyte to a juggernaut.

Mwas could afford to get up close and personal with me, because I had known him since childhood. We had grown up together in Maringo estate. In 1991, after former President Daniel arap Moi had repealed the infamous Section 2(a) of the old constitution, multi-party politics had returned to the fold.

The following year, Wathika joined politics through the Ford Asili party which had split from Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), the first opposition party formed after the political liberalization. Kenneth Matiba formed Ford Asili, while the then doyen of opposition politics Jaramogi Oginga Odinga formed Ford Kenya.

As luck would have it, Mwas was a boy wa mtaa (local boy), all the electorate; young and old who had desired change voted for him and he run away with the popular vote. Wathika was elected as the Maringo ward councillor — defeating the KANU incumbent, Kiura Kirandu — hands down.

Wathika had had a great run as a politician from 1992, when as a 19-year-old elected rookie, he become one of the youngest minted multiparty party era politicians. In between 1992—2010, he had served three terms as a councillor, a mayor for two years and an MP for two and half years, including a stint as Assistant Minister for a year and four months. But his streak of luck would suddenly end with the arrival of Sonko.

Sonko, shot to political prominence, when he was first elected to parliament as Makadara MP on September 20, 2010. To the utter surprise of Wathika and Ndolo, Sonko, then 35 years old and running on a Narc Kenya ticket, caused a major upset by polling 19,535 votes against his closest rival, Ndolo’s 16,613.

Wathika, the incumbent pooled a poor third. “I must admit I did not see the defeat coming…I had had it too easy,” he was later to tell me when we again met in December 2010.

The entry of Sonko into the abrasive city politics immediately did two things: He sent Wathika packing — first to an emotional declaration of quitting politics altogether, and after he had recollected himself, into exile in Mukurweini constituency in Nyeri County. Sonko also confined Ndolo to ODM party politics. Within two and a half years, Sonko was transformed from a political neophyte to a juggernaut.

The naming of his matatus completed the picture and in a somewhat subtle way, told Sonko’s own shady story. They bore names such as — BROWN SUGAR, CONVICT, FERRARI, LAKERS and ROUGH CUTS.

By March 2013, he was so confident he had outgrown his parliamentary seat, he threw his force into contesting the newly created senator seat. He won the Nairobi senator seat by the biggest number of votes cast for any senator or governor countrywide. Running against his closest competitor Margaret Wanjiru, he polled 808,705 votes against the burly priestess’ 525,822 votes.

In Nairobi County, Sonko proved to all and sundry he was the king of politics. Running on The National Alliance (TNA) party, he polled even more votes than either his party boss, Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, who got 659,490 votes, or he latter’s rival, Raila Amolo Odinga, who received 691,156 votes. It was evident that Sonko had stomped the city politics like no other and, any politician who ignored him could only do so at their own peril.

Who is Sonko and how is it that today he is the most talked about politician, only after President Uhuru Kenyatta and the leader of Opposition Raila Odinga?

Sonko appeared on the Nairobi scene in the early 2000s just like in the movies: with a bang. One day, Nairobian woke up to the sleekest No. 58 matatus operating on the Buru Buru Phase V, IV and III estates’ route. Sonko had invested in a fleet of matatus that came to be known as nganya — a super pimped matatu — a superlative of manyanga, which is an ordinary pimped matatu.

His crew staff did not disappoint: His drivers and conductors were the whippiest lads you could find anywhere in the matatu transport industry. They were funky and wore the latest fashions. Equipped with the latest hi-fi music systems complete with woofers, Sonko’s matatus could be heard a kilometre away.

The naming of his matatus completed the picture and in a somewhat subtle way, told Sonko’s own shady story. They bore names such as — BROWN SUGAR, CONVICT, FERRARI, LAKERS and ROUGH CUTS. His matatus were so hip, trendy Buru Buru schoolkids would not board any other matatus.

Sonko’s investment in the matatu industry has been surrounded with a lot of mystery and allegations of money laundering. He entered the industry with a great deal of razzmatazz, buying many matatus at one go and for a while, the quiet talk among his fellow matatu owners was that the source of his wealth was the illegal drug trade.

Two years after he was arrested and taken to Shimo-la-Tewa Prison, it is said he smuggled in cash in a briefcase into the prison, which his acolytes had passed onto the prison warders.

Indeed, the late Minister of Interior Security, Prof George Saitoti in December 2010, named him in Parliament as one of the country’s drug lords. Talking to one of his close buddies recently, he reiterated that Sonko has never been taken to court over that mention or the allegations that were swirling before and even after. “To the best of my knowledge, the mention by the late Saitoti about Sonko involvement in drugs, has remained just that: a mere mention, nothing, more…nothing less,” he said.

The source of Sonko’s wealth though has never been fully publicly explained. Years before, then known as Gidion Mbuvi Kioko, he was a middle man selling parcels of lands in the Coast region, where he had grown up.

Many a time, it is alleged, he would take off with all the money after a land sale. In 1997, he was accused of having falsified documents relating to land belonging to Eliud Mahihu, the former all-powerful Coast Provincial Commissioner during Mzee Kenyatta’s era.

Two years after he was arrested and taken to Shimo-la-Tewa Prison, it is said he smuggled in cash in a briefcase into the prison, which his acolytes had passed onto the prison warders. They, in turn, are said to have facilitated his escape after he was taken to Coast General Hospital feigning a range of ailments — from epilepsy, HIV/AIDS to Typhoid. Later, in mitigation, Sonko was to argue that he had run away from jail to attend his mother’s funeral.

Just a few years later, Sonko was hanging around then Wab Hotel, at the Buru Buru shopping centre, clad in denim jeans and a T-Shirt, chatting away the boys. His matatus then employed an upward of 50 youth.

In January 2003, after the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), an alliance dislodged the ruling KANU from its 24-year-old stranglehold of power, President Mwai Kibaki appointed the late John Michuki as the Minister of Transport. Michuki was used to getting his way — from his days as a colonial administrator in the 1950s, when he was a district officer in Nanyuki, up to even when he entered politics. The “Michuki rules” which he initiated immediately he assumed the transport docket and which quickly resonated with the people, remained a diktat, until Sonko went to court in 2006. Sonko won his case because, as the High Court reminded the Transport Ministry, without official publication in the Kenya Gazette, the rules were just that: Michuki “personal rules”. It was only after the court case that the rules were now formally gazetted.

One of Michuki’s more infamous edicts was that of barring matatus from entering the central business district of Nairobi. It was a clearly selfish decree because of the conflict of interest that arose from an exception to the rule, allowing in vehicles belonging to the City Hoppa matatu company in which the Minister had invested heavily.

Listening to him explaining his tribulations, Kenneth inadvertently casts himself as a “choice candidate” who was owed and had been let down by the Jubilee Party cabal at the Pangani headquarters.

Sonko, whose matatus were affected by this unlawful rule, went to court. To the surprise of many, he won the case after a protracted battle. His matatus were allowed back into the city centre, along with a select few from other owners. The judicial victory improved Sonko’s standing among his employees and followers, who viewed him as their “Mr fix it”.

But more significantly, it, catapulted him to the chairmanship of the then amorphous and now defunct Eastlands Matatu Operators Association. The position gave Sonko influence and power commanding then close to 8000 matatus.

From being the darling of the youth, he became the darling of the masses. The passengers who used to be dropped off at the dusty Muthurwa, and who would then have to trek to the city centre — there were no boda bodas at the time — could not thank him enough. It was just a matter of time before he moved to the next level. When the Makadara constituency election was nullified by the High Court in April 2010, an opportunity availed itself and Sonko seized the moment and ran with it.

After becoming MP, Sonko sought to endear himself to his constituents. He would engage the City Council to get his constituents exempted from paying parking fees within Makadara constituency. The court injunction was only temporary but he had made his point: he would always be ready to fight for his people. For a while, he also made it tenuous for slum lords to arbitrarily evict tenants. He would go to court on behalf of the tenants and file a case.

On Sunday March 19, 2017 on national TV, Sonko ranted against Peter Kenneth, then one of his more formidable opponents for the Jubilee Party ticket for the Nairobi gubernatorial contest. From the onset, it was evident in the interview Sonko pulled no punches and held no prisoners when describing Kenneth. His apparent contempt for the former presidential candidate was palpable.

The 51-year-old Kenneth would later quit Jubilee Party, after losing the nomination battle to Sonko, to run as an independent candidate. He came off as a sore loser who had expected his path to the nomination to be smoothened for him. And therein lay his Achilles Heels: entitlement. Listening to him explaining his tribulations, Kenneth inadvertently casts himself as a “choice candidate” who was owed and had been let down by the Jubilee Party cabal at the Pangani headquarters.

But more than giving the implicit impression that he was the favoured son, Kenneth has been unable to shake off the label of being a “political project” or a front for other interests. First, he was a project of the “Murang’a Mafia”. Now, he is viewed as a “Governor Evans Kidero project”. It cannot get worse.

Yet, the project tag is not the only label he is struggling with. When Sonko first taunted him as a foreigner and a Johnny-come-lately to city politics, Kenneth laughed it off and made light of the remark by pointing out that even when he represented Gatanga constituency, he slept in Nairobi.

The bad news for Kenneth is that this refuses to go away. “Peter Kenneth is a foreigner to Nairobi politics”, says a Nairobi lady restaurateur known as Wa Carol. “Where has he been for four years?” the restaurateur, who herself voted for Sonko during the nominations, muses loudly. His goose was cooked the day he announced he was running in Nairobi, she says.

Still, of the 15 mayors Nairobi had between 1963 and 2012, only 4 were non-Kikuyu. Many Kikuyus have therefore come to regard Nairobi city as an extension of Kiambu County

“After PK first announced his bid in January, Maina Kamanda afterwards came over and addressed us Kikuyu business people in Nairobi and told us: ‘we need someone to protect our property and the man to do precisely that is Peter Kenneth’. I thought Kamanda was kidding me. I do not own any property in Nairobi”, says the lady who is in her late 40s.

It is the same reaction that my friend, Elvis Kinyanjui, who has been a street vendor in the CBD for the last three decades, had: “Kamanda is talking of protecting property — whose property?”

The Peter Kenneth who ran for presidency in 2013 is radically different from the man seeking to be the governor of the capital city. In 2013, he projected himself as a de-tribalised, smooth and urbane Kenyan — the poster child of cosmopolitanism with refined features. Barely four years later, he agreed to be repackaged as a Kikuyu sheriff coming to the city with a mission to rescue a propertied class ostensibly under siege.

Pitted against a man — Sonko — who has carved himself a niche as the spokesman for the city’s underclass and defender of their trodden rights, Kenneth’s apparent aloofness and association with the moneyed class casts him as removed from the everyday struggles of the city dweller.

In the nominations that he has bitterly disputed, Kenneth was walloped by Sonko, 138,185 votes to 62,504. Could Sonko have wrestled the power and glory from the Murang’a business elite’s grip on Nairobi, thereby redefining the politics of Nairobi?

Nairobi city politics have always been under the grip of Kikuyu business and political elites save for two major periods — between 1969 to 1970 and 1983 to 1992. In 1969, Isaac Lugonzo took over from Charles Rubia and in 1983, former President Moi disbanded the City Council when Nathan Kahara was mayor to form several commissions till the return of multiparty politics in 1991.

From way back in the 1960s, when the first Minister of Trade and Commerce was Dr Gikonyo Kiano, who like Rubia, the city mayor, hailed from then Murang’a District, the city’s business allocations and licenses tended to favour the Kikuyus from Murang’a. That is why, it not a coincidence that many of the city business godowns in the industrial area are owned by Murang’a tycoons. That is also why many of the buildings in downtown Nairobi, especially on River Road and Kirinyaga Road, are owned by the famous Rwathia group, which has its origin is in Rwathia in Murang’a.

Similarly, many of the small traders — from hawkers to street vendors— are Kikuyus from Murang’a many of whom are today settled in Starehe constituency. It is equally not a coincidence that Maina Kamanda, another Murang’a supremo, started his political career at Ngara West Ward (one of the wards that make Starehe constituency), eventually running for the parliamentary seat. The ward, and indeed the entire Starehe constituency, is populated majorly by Kikuyus from Murang’a.

“The thought of Sonko running the affairs of the biggest economy outside the national government at the City Hall is just frightening”, the earlier quoted businessman confided.

After the re-introduction of multiparty politics, the position of the mayor may have been whittled down, but still, Kikuyu political mandarins controlled the mayoral seat, if not directly, then indirectly. Between 1992, after the first multiparty elections and 2002, the mayors were all Kikuyus. From Steve “Magic” Mwangi, John King’ori, Sammy Mbugua, John Ndirangu to Dick Waweru, whose second term ended in 2002.

The only other time a non-Kikuyu was boss at City Hall was between 2003—2004 when Joe Aketch, a nominated councilor, was mayor. Aketch owed his mayoral seat to Kamanda. The vicious infighting between the Kikuyu councillors at City Hall that ensued after the Narc victory, forced Kamanda, the newly elected Starehe MP, to throw his weight behind Aketch’s candidacy.

Geoffrey Majiwa, then the Baba Dogo ward councillor was the Nairobi mayor after President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga formed the grand coalition government in 2008. George Aladwa served between 2010—2012, after he took over from Majiwa, who had to step aside after he was allegedly implicated in a cemetery land corruption scam. Following the 2013 election, which rung in new constitutional arrangements, especially devolution, Evans Kidero, a Luo, defeated his Kikuyu rivals to clinch the Governorship.

Still, of the 15 mayors Nairobi had between 1963 and 2012, only 4 were non-Kikuyu. Many Kikuyus have therefore come to regard Nairobi city as an extension of Kiambu County due to its proximity, notwithstanding the fact that Kiambu Kikuyus appear to have ceded control of the city businesses to their cousins from Murang’a. In March 2017, a Jubilee Party parliamentary candidate from Roysambu was interviewed on Inooro TV. When asked who should be the governor of Nairobi, his answer was curt. “A Kikuyu of course”. “Why?” posed the interviewer. “We Kikuyus are the owners of the city”.

This reasoning among the Kikuyus is buttressed by the notion that many of the city businesses and investments’ operations are run by Kikuyus. Also, because of the proximity of Kiambu and to a large extent Murang’a Counties, coupled with the fact that the first post-independent government of Mzee Kenyatta encouraged many Kikuyus to come to Nairobi, Kikuyus have always been numerically superior. According to some reports, one in three Nairobians is a Kikuyu.

Since Sonko declared his intention to run for the governor’s seat, a section of the city’s business community has become uneasy and wary of his burgeoning grassroots support across the city electorate. Towards the end of last year, Kikuyu businessmen in the city met and proposed a “sober and mature” person to run for the seat, in the hope of unseating governor Evans Kidero. “We had to act and come up with a name, in view of Jubilee Party’s apparent lack of a saleable candidate,” said one businessman who was privy to the meeting.

That is when they proposed Peter Kenneth. There is no gainsaying the fact the bulk of the most influential Kikuyu businessmen in Nairobi hail from the greater Murang’a County. Before, the carving out of additional districts from the original Murang’a largely by President Daniel Moi, Murang’a District began just after Thika town extending all way to the border of Karatina town, which is in Nyeri District. The urban and thoroughly cosmopolitan Kenneth is from Kirwara sub-location in Murang’a.

When the businessmen argued that they did not know where Sonko came from and what business he does, they were subtly saying he is not one of them. It did not matter that he is a Jubilee Party loyalist. “The thought of Sonko running the affairs of the biggest economy outside the national government at the City Hall is just frightening”, the earlier quoted businessman confided. To calm the Murang’a Mafia fears and sooth their egos, Sonko has picked a mid-career corporate professional, Polycarp Igathe, who hails from Murang’a County as his deputy.

I was informed that Sonko oftentimes sneaks in at night to catch up with wazito — the gangland (heavy weight) leaders, who also boasted of having Sonko’s direct contacts.

Sonko’s mocking of academic papers during his high pitched monologues to Citizen TV host Mohamed Hussein — never mind he has himself rushed to get them — is a testament to how these credentials have come to mean nothing insofar as the governor’s seat is concerned. Dr Evans Kidero with his “excellent” academic papers and “management experience” and presumed “track record” has ensured that these qualifications will not be anything to brag about when canvassing for the governor seat’s votes.

Kidero’s rival was Ferdinand Waititu, a former MP of the larger Embakasi constituency. Waititu started off as a councillor for Njiru ward, which was then part of the constituency. He also deputized mayor Wathika. Waititu is always remembered for his “unparliamentary” behaviour of throwing stones and boxing his constituents.

Yet, in uncanny twist of fate, he outmanoeuvered his competitors to clinch the TNA party ticket. One of the more formidable candidates in the Nairobi governor seat elections in 2013 was one, Jimnah Mbaru who ran on the defunct Alliance Party of Kenya (APK) after he failed to secure the TNA nomination. He performed dismally, coming a distant third.

Like Kenneth today, Mbaru had always been dogged by claims of being elitist and not “a man of the people”, since the first time he entered electoral politics in 1992, when he first ran for a parliamentary seat. Waititu’s chief campaigners in 2013 rode on that narrative to besmirch Jimnah. He was painted by Waititu as a man who would not soil his (well pressed) suits to get into the mud to help the people.

A cursory glance at Sonko’s city support base today quickly reveals a demographic stratum that comprises voters who care nothing about academic qualifications and management experience. Disenchanted with Kidero’s apparent lack of vision for the city — Nairobians were hoping for a makeover and an invigorated capital city — this voter bloc has all but dismissed these “elite” qualifications.

Four months ago, I conducted a reality check in Mathare constituency, one of Sonko’s electoral bastions. Mathare is made up of six wards. In Huruma, the “area boys” told me Sonko was their guy. No doubt. Speaking to me in that lyrical Sheng only spoken in the toughest of the city ghettos, the young men spotting crew cuts dismissed Kenneth as an “impostor”. “Huyo mlami alikuwa wapi hizo siku zote?” Where was the white man all these time? “Kenneth ni candidate wa mababi”. Kenneth is the city’s bourgeoisie choice.

Of course, Mathare is not Sonko’s only voter catchment area. The entire Eastlands area — including the Central Business District — is considered to be his political playground. From the City Stadium roundabout, the area sandwiched between Jogoo Road and Lusaka Road is populated with Sonko’s presumed loyal supporters. This area straddles basically four constituencies: Makadara, Starehe and Embakasi South and Embakasi West.

In Makadara constituency, Sonko’s support is to be found in the larger Buru Buru, Ofafa Jericho and Jericho Lumumba, Maringo, Mbotela and Hamza estates. Add to these estates, Mukuru kwa Njenga slum. In Starehe constituency, Sonko’s biggest support base is in the Mukuru kwa Rueben sprawling slum which is adjacent to the other Mukuru and other scattered slums in the Industrial area. In Embakasi South constituency, his most ardent supporters are in the heavily populated Pipeline area. In Embakasi West, his supporters are to be found in Umoja I and II, Mowlem and Kariobangi South.

Separate from the Jogoo Road/Lusaka Road axis, Sonko also commands great support in the area between Juja Road and Heshima Road, which runs through Bahati and Jerusalem estates. This area mainly encompasses Kamukunji and Embakasi North constituencies. In Kamukunji constituency, his greatest support resides in Biafra, Majengo — popularly known as Kije — and Shauri Moyo estates. Majengo, one of the city’s oldest and most densely populated slums, is heavily Islamized and Swahilised — cultural traditions that Sonko easily identifies with and vice versa.

In Embakasi North, the sprawling Dandora areas I, II, III, IV and V, including Gitare Marigu ghetto are Sonko’s forte. Away from Eastlands, Sonko can also call support in Dagoretti South, a peri-urban and semi-rural constituency.

To the macho ghetto youth, the fact that Sonko spent time in prison, means he is a “made man”. “Sonko ni mtu alikuwa piri…na saa hii yuko wapi?” (Sonko was in prison…now look where he is).

Sonko’s penetration of these urban poor areas was facilitated by his supposedly philanthropic outfit; the Sonko Rescue Team, which would supply the one golden commodity that is scarce to many Nairobians, rich and poor — water. For many of these people, they did not need to see Sonko physically: The SRT vehicles would announce the presence of the unseen Sonko.

Invariably, Sonko’s supporters will not be voting for him because he is in Jubilee — his core constituency is to be found across the ethnic divide and would vote for him wherever he would take them. It is that simple. Nobody cares to remember that Sonko is a Mkamba from Mua Hills in Machakos County.

My street vendor friends — many of them Kikuyus and who ply their trade in the CBD, have told me they are rooting for Sonko. They believe he will be kinder to them. “Sonko ni mtu anaelewa works ya vijana.” (Sonko is a man who understands the struggles of the youth). “Yeye hukuja kutucheki na ametupromise ata deal na mabigi wa hii tao.” (He comes by to say hello, and has promised, he will deal with the city’s bigwigs).

Sonko won the street vendors’ favour, when he confronted the city askaris, who consistently and persistently harassed the vendors. Sonko had been consistently vocal about the violence at least since 2014, and in January 2016, three notorious city askaris, who have since been charged with a spate of murders involving street vendors, were arrested days after he threatened to resign.

Sonko has promised to put the city askaris firmly in their place, should he win. “Sonko alitushow atanyorosha hao makanjo.” (Sonko told us he will straighten up the city askaris — if he becomes the governor).

Typically, nearly all the boda boda riders who operate in the CBD are Sonko’s supporters. Like their counterparts, the street vendors, they regularly fall afoul of the archaic city by-laws, and hence are a perpetual target of harassment by city askaris seeking to extort bribes; oftentimes violently.

Sam Ochieng who is an Advertising Executive, says he will vote for Sonko. “Sonko animates politics in a way no other Kenyan politician does.” My restaurateur friend, Wa Carol, told me she will cast her vote for Sonko, because she believes he is a man of action and will be accessible. “Kidero is a total flop. All he did was to increasingly levy taxies on small enterprises without offering any services. Look at my restaurant’s backstreet: piles and piles of garbage…and every month we are required to pay service charge.”

Away from Sonko’s presumed multicultural support base, his ethnic city support is also as good as assured. It is not for nothing that Mukuru kwa Reuben and part of the Mukuru kwa Njenga slums are solidly behind Sonko: in the city politics’ parlance, they are Kamba ghettos. So is Biafra in Kamukunji, Mbotela in Makadara and Pipeline in Embakasi South.

According to Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) latest figures on the total registered voters, out of the city’s 2.3 million registered voters, 450,000 are Kambas, the second-largest voting block after the Kikuyus. With his entry into the governor’s race, Sonko has complicated the ethnic arithmetic for Evans Kidero/Jonathan Mueke ticket. The retention of Mueke as a running mate was essentially to tap and harvest this Kamba vote.

Three weeks ago, Johnstone Muthama, one of NASA’s fundraisers and campaigners called for a meeting at City Stadium, where every eligible Kamba voter had an automatic invitation. On the agenda: how to marshall Kamba support for Kidero/Mueke NASA ticket. Regardless, Hannah Mutiso from Buru Buru, told me her vote for the governor is for Sonko and so did Mbula from Pipeline in Embakasi South.

If the Kamba vote will prove to be problematic to Kidero, the Luhya vote may also not be automatic. A City County Luhya employee, who requested anonymity, confided in me that not all Luhyas will vote for Kidero. “We have not forgotten how he caused so much grief for our people when he was the boss at Mumias Sugar Factory.” Kidero has been variously accused of mismanaging and misappropriating the company’s finances, a charge that has yet to be proven in the courts, but which has refused to go away and sticks out of Kidero’s lapel like a rotten flower.

Sonko’s works of charity — though driven more by his need to shore up his votes rather than real philanthropy — in places like Kosovo, another of Mathare’s wards, are seen as actos of noblesse oblige in one of the riskiest slums in Nairobi. There, I was informed that Sonko oftentimes sneaks in at night to catch up with wazito — the gangland (heavy weight) leaders, who also boasted of having Sonko’s direct contacts.

Some of the philanthropic activities that Sonko continues to dazzle Nairobians with include paying school fees for some needy students and providing a free ambulance service. As MP, he claimed to have regularly purchased a geometrical set for every pupil in his constituency who sat for the Kenya School of Primary Education (KCPE) examination.

In six short years, Nairobi politics has seen Sonko capture the aspirations of the hoi polloi sequestered in the dangerous, horrid city ghettos, where in the true Hobbesian fashion, “life is short, nasty and brutish”. If his criminal record is supposed to stick out as a sore thumb, the contrary is true. The record, which he does not shy away from, has proved to be a magnet to the youth — who form the strength of his fundamental support.

To the macho ghetto youth, the fact that Sonko spent time in prison, means he is a “made man”. “Sonko ni mtu alikuwa piri…na saa hii yuko wapi?” (Sonko was in prison…now look where he is).

Cutting the figure of a flashy, flamboyant, jewelry-clad gung-ho, Robin Hood type of a Mafia don, Sonko popularised the street slang name — sonko — connoting a man of limitless wealth. Adored by the millennial and generation Z, whose every day dream is to be a sonko, like the real Mike Sonko, they are expected to come out and vote for him en masse.

Sonko who converses in the “rebel language” of the slum-trodden youth, has impressed on them that you do not need an education to live it up. In the process, he has “sonkonised” the politics of Nairobi.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

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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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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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