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HITTING WHERE IT HURTS: How effective has NASA’s boycott been?

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HITTING WHERE IT HURTS: How effective has NASA’s boycott been?
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On November 3, 2017, Kenya’s main opposition party, the National Super Alliance (NASA), spelt out to its supporters the names of three companies whose products they ought to boycott because of these companies’ association with the ruling Jubilee party. The three companies were: Safaricom, the giant money-minting mobile telecommunications company; Brookside Dairies, the largest milk-producing company in East and Central Africa; and Bidco Industries, one of the leading edible oil products manufacturer in this part of the world.

One month later, how has the embargo faired?

The better option?

Bina Wambui has been selling mobile phones’ airtime and sim cards for well over a decade in Nairobi’s city centre. She is an agent for both Safaricom and its main competitor Airtel. Her Charity Sweepstake-type kiosk is located on Moi Avenue, one of the busiest streets in the central business district. “Let me be honest with you,” she told this writer. “The boycott on Safaricom is definitely working. Does Baba (Raila Odinga) have shares in the company (Airtel)?” she asked me, half in jest. “His bonuses should be coming up well. Airtel has a lot to thank Raila for.”

“Let me be honest with you,” she told this writer. “The boycott on Safaricom is definitely working. Does Baba (Raila Odinga) have shares in the company (Airtel)?” she asked me, half in jest. “His bonuses should be coming up well. Airtel has a lot to thank Raila for.”

Bina told me that one of the biggest revenue streams for Safaricom remains the mobile money transfer service M-Pesa. The others are airtime for making voice calls and bundles for surfing the Internet. “My M-Pesa customers are still intact, but Safaricom customers for airtime and sim cards have dipped. I have sold more Airtel sim cards and airtime than at any other time,” she said.

On the day I went to interview her, she told me she had just received her day’s bonus from Airtel’s management. She did not divulge how much the bonus amounted to, but she said it was a good incentive for any Airtel agent who is keen on pushing sales. “An Airtel supervisor, not believing the money I am making in selling Airtel cards and airtime, came personally to see me at my kiosk,” said Bina. “I cannot complain. While my Safaricom sales have been fluctuating, my Airtel sales have been soaring. Should I call it a blessing in disguise?”

“I bank money every single day – money that I cannot dare venture out with from my kiosk. That should give you an inkling of the sales I make in a day.” Bina told me that mobile telecommunication products salespeople who operate in the central business district hold weekly meetings. “The story is the same from the rest of my colleagues: unprecedented booming Airtel sales. Now, the company is even giving a bonus for airtime sold apart from every sim card sold – even on the lowest airtime of 20 bob, you get a bonus.”

However, not all her Safaricom customers have jumped ship. “I will tell you why my M-Pesa customers are still with me: Airtel money transfer is very poor – it is inefficient and hopelessly disorganised and slow – its network is perpetually on a hang mode and if, by bad luck, you make a mistake, it takes between three to four days to sort out the problem. It is too much trouble for a supposedly cheaper money transfer system,” noted Bina. “If only Airtel would fix its money transfer issues, it would really give Safaricom a run for its money.”

A former senior Safaricom executive told me that the sprawling Eastleigh “town” or “little Mogadishu” – so named because of its large Somali population – together with the famous Kibera slum represent the largest Safaricom markets in Nairobi city. Between them, they generate for Safaricom millions of shillings in profits.

“Eastleigh might not be the best place to gauge whether the Kenyatta family’s products are faring well or not,” he said. “There has been a deliberate effort by hoteliers and restauranteurs in Eastleigh and elsewhere where there are food outlets to promote camel milk.”

Eastleigh – which is today a commercial hub of every imaginable type of business, as well as humungous residential estates and three-star hotels – has some of the biggest and busiest Safaricom shops anywhere in the country as well as small retail traders and street vendors hawking airtime and sim cards. My random check on the impact of the Safaricom boycott showed that Airtel had increased its airtime and sim cards sales in this area.

Near the famous Garissa Lodge shopping mall, a woman was selling Safaricom and Airtel airtime from the boot of her car. “Do I need to answer your question of whether the boycott is working?” she asked me. In the fifteen minutes I watched her mostly sell sim cards, only one asked for a Safaricom line; the rest all bought Airtel lines. “Some of my new customers have been forthright on why they are buying new Airtel cards – they are responding to the boycott/resist call,” while keeping their Safaricom lines, said the saleslady.

Ahmed, who I met in Eastleigh, told me that he had recently bought an Airtel card, “because I decided to heed Raila’s call of boycotting some of these consumer products. But I will be honest with you: I will not abandon my Safaricom card – I need it for my M-Pesa transactions. He did not give us a viable option, Airtel is not the option for now – its network system for money transfer is hopelessly inefficient. If Airtel would improve on its money transfer system, I would be the first one to move.”

Airtel has been recruiting massively to beef up the number of its agents countrywide. “One of Airtel’s weakest marketing link has been its inadequate agents to push their products,” said Peter Achayo, a marketing consultant. “Now they have begun advertising aggressively in Nairobi and the other major towns. It is evident they are experiencing a windfall.” Achayo said that part of the reason why Safaricom has been successful is because of its army of agents nationwide. “Agents give your products visibility and generate market competition, which ensures your products are moving fast.”

Like Bina, the saleslady at Garissa Lodge said that the Airtel money transfer system was grossly incompetent. “That is why many people who would gladly want to wholly migrate to Airtel will not: what they are doing is keeping their Safaricom sim card intact specifically for M-Pesa transactions and buying a cheaper non-smartphone phone for their Airtel line.”

Achayo said he had been conducting an impromptu survey to gauge to what extent people had moved from Safaricom to Airtel. “The entire WhatsApp NASA fraternities have changed their mobile numbers to Airtel. I have gone through nearly all the Opposition coalition groups’ on social media, which have members running into their thousands – Airtel fell on a windfall, like manna from heaven, without spending a penny doing any marketing promotion. Safaricom may pretend the shift, however slight it may be, has not affected them, but it sure like hell is feeling the heat.”

Six years ago, Gor Mahia Football Club, named after the famous Luo medicine man and magician, was looking for a sponsor after Brookside Dairy terminated its contract with the club after two years. The premier league soccer club with a fan base across Kenya, whose base support lies among the passionate Luo people, sought Safaricom’s sponsorship.

“My customers warned me I would be playing with fire if they found me selling Brookside. They have formed a vigilante group made of youths who are now moving from shop to shop to detect who is flouting the boycott.”

Its argument was simple and straightforward: We are a leading football club in Kenya and our major colour is green, which is also the brand colour of Safaricom. The club’s management argued that if Safaricom sponsors them, it would be a win-win for both: Safaricom would enjoy enhanced visibility with the green and white matching colours of the two brands, while the club would gain access to much needed financial help. Safaricom dithered and did not consider the offer.

“Safaricom is today regretting not jumping at the offer,” whispered a senior sales and marketing manager at the telecommunications company. Faced with a marketing boycott, the company is now facing the threat of a dent in its profits and market share, which could result in a collision with its major shareholders. Safaricom has been mulling over how to now approach Gor Mahia.

The company is in a dilemma: If they show interest now, it will be obvious they are responding to the boycott and the club may call its bluff and embarrass the company. If they continue dithering, without trying to woo the club, whose supporters are as passionate about football as they are about the opposition and its leader Raila Odinga, they may lose a chance to salvage their company’s reputation. The manager admitted that if Safaricom had agreed to sponsor the club, it would have been difficult and perhaps unlikely that Raila would have asked his supporters to boycott its products.

Camel milk in your tea?

Ahmed invited me for tea in one of the many Eastleigh restaurants that offer exquisite mouth-watering Somali cuisine. It provided me with the perfect opportunity to also ask him whether Eastleigh residents were boycotting Brookside Dairies’ milk. “Personally I take tea made with camel milk – it’s the best nutritionally and it is not overly skimmed,” Ahmed replied. He added that many Somali restaurants were increasingly turning to using camel milk in tea. “Eastleigh might not be the best place to gauge whether the Kenyatta family’s products are faring well or not,” he said. “There has been a deliberate effort by hoteliers and restauranteurs in Eastleigh and elsewhere where there are food outlets to promote camel milk.”

Camel milk is brought to Nairobi in trucks daily from Ilbisil, Isinya, Kitengela and Namanga towns where camel farming, specifically for milk production, is booming business. The milk is distributed to various hotels and restaurants in Eastleigh as well as in Nairobi’s central business district. Increasingly, camel tea is becoming popularly as an alternative to the usual cow milk that Kenyans are used to. A couple of years ago, if you had told Kenyans that camel milk was a practical alternative to what they are used to, they would have smirked, but today it is even sold in supermarkets.

Ahmed, who holds a PhD in Business Administration, told me people only change their habits when they are offered viable options that work just as well, or better. “As of now, Airtel is not that option, so naturally and ordinarily, what people do is such situations is they fall back to what is predictable and what they know best.”

The camel milk option among Kenyans will, in the fullness of time, become an acquired taste, said Ahmed, because just as cow milk is an acquired taste, so too is camel milk. In any case, what cow milk offers, camel milk can offer too, if not better in terms of nutritional value and taste.

Eastmatt Supermarket is a mwananchi (common man’s) shoppers’ departmental store that has three outlets in the central business district. The biggest one is on Tom Mboya Street, across from the Nairobi County Fire Station. Every day before 9.00 a.m., the supermarket receives 100 crates of Brookside Dairies milk products, namely, Brookside, Delamere, Ilara, Molo and Tuzo. A couple of years ago, Brookside Dairies, which is owned by the Kenyatta family, bought out Delamere Milk, which was formerly owned by the Delamere family that is domiciled at Elementaita in Naivasha.

A supervisor told this writer that the supermarket receives 20 crates each of each brand, that is, a total 100 crates every day. Each crate has 18 packets of milk, so it receive 1,800 packets of Brookside products daily. On a good day almost all the packets are sold.

However, in the days following NASA’s announcement of the boycott – which was aimed at hurting the Kenyatta family and its scion President Uhuru Kenyatta – the supermarket was left with a lot of unsold milk. Since the milk has an expiry date, it is the shelf manager’s job to ensure that all unsold milk approaching its expiry date (most expiry dates last three days) is returned to the company.

“Our sales seems to have stabilised somewhat, the boycott now is not as biting,” said the supervisor. Normally, by 8.30 p.m., the sales figures are reconciled and summed up. The day I visited the supermarket, the supervisor said they had 10 unsold crates. That month, Brookside had chosen to rebranded the Ilara brand. When I asked the shelf manager why Ilara milk had been repackaged, he was coy with the answer, only saying, “The company is responding to market demands.”

But if Brookside Dairies’ products have been jolted in the supermarkets, it is in the small retail outlets that the company has faced its greatest challenge. In the slums of Nairobi, from Baba Dogo, Gomongo, Huruma, Kibera to Kariobangi North, Mathare to Mlango Kubwa, Mukuru kwa Reuben, Lucky Summer and Riverside, shopkeepers have been warned to stock Brookside milk at their own risk. People in these areas, who make up NASA supporters in great numbers, have completely boycotted the milk.

Japwoyo, a shopkeeper in Kibera, near Ayany estate, the bastion of Raila’s support in Nairobi, said he had stopped accepting Brookside milk from his distributors. “My customers warned me I would be playing with fire if they found me selling Brookside. They have formed a vigilante group made of youths who are now moving from shop to shop to detect who is flouting the boycott.” Japwoyo said even the Brookside distributors are no longer bringing milk to Kibera in their lorries. “One distributor escaped with his dear life after he was accosted by the vigilante one early morning. He pleaded with them not harm him, and to take the milk and not burn his van. They obeyed, but just this one time.”

“Why Lato is sold in Kenya is ostensibly because Museveni and Brookside Dairies entered into a deal: The Kenyatta family is allowed to access the Uganda market, in return, Lato is allowed to penetrate the lucrative Kenyan market. It was a deal between two business entities and has got nothing to do with a bilateral agreement between two countries,” said my Ugandan friend.

In Kibera, people have taken to Lato milk. Lato is from Uganda and it has both fresh and the long life UHT (Ultra Heat Treatment) milk brands. Although it is manufactured all the way in Mbarara town in western Uganda, Lato UHT milk is 10 shillings cheaper than Brookside UHT. I called my friend from Mpigi in Uganda and enquired about Lato milk. She told me Lato was supposedly produced by President Yoweri Museveni’s company.

“Apart from keeping the cultural and traditional long horned Ankole cows, Museveni also keeps dairy cows in Mbarara. Why Lato is sold in Kenya is ostensibly because Museveni and Brookside Dairies entered into a deal: The Kenyatta family is allowed to access the Uganda market, in return, Lato is allowed to penetrate the lucrative Kenyan market. It was a deal between two business entities and has got nothing to do with a bilateral agreement between two countries,” said my Ugandan friend.

Jack Oduor, who lives in Riverside estate – which is ensconced between Mathare North and Baba Dogo – told me that Lato was selling like hot cakes in these adjoining areas. “My shopkeeper at Riverside is a guy from the Jubilee supporting community. He was warned not to annoy the residents by stocking Brookside milk. The shopkeeper had to extend the warning to his distributors.”

In Riverside, Mathare North, Baba Dogo and Lucky Summer, sales of Brookside milk have suffered, said Jack, who has been doing his own random survey in these areas to find out whether the boycott has been effective. “The truth of the matter is the boycott has been biting,” said Jack. “In these areas, there are boycott vigilante youth groups, whose task is to ensure that Brookside milk is not sold in the shops.”

Just for the record, the boycott is not only confined to Nairobi’s ghettoes. Dan Shikanda, who was Peter Kenneth’s running mate in the city’s gubernatorial election in August, lives and runs a shop in Nyayo estate, a middle-class suburb in Embakasi area, 12km southeast of Nairobi. Once a famous footballer who played for AFC Leopards, Shikanda is also a medical doctor-cum-politician. Shikanda’s customers in the larger Nyayo estate told him that if he wanted to keep them as his loyal customers, he should “re-stock” his shop. Translation: Do not sell Brookside milk.

“Like Airtel, Pwani Oil, Kapa Oil Refineries and Menegai Oil companies have Raila to thank,” said a Bidco sales and marketing manager, who requested anonymity to safeguard his job. “Let me tell you just how bad things are at Bidco: The company has had to do two things quickly to reposition itself: suspend the launch of a new product and do something that we have never done before – enter into sports sponsorship.”

In other multi-cultural and multi-ethnic suburban areas like Buru Buru, Donholm, Umoja, Jacaranda, Greenview Innercore, all in Eastlands, plus Kitengela and Ongata Rongai in Kajiado County, shoppers have found a way to boycott, Safaricom, Brookside and Bidco companies’ products. “We have gone ethnic: we Luhyas in Buru Buru Phase 1 have opted to buy from our Luhya shopkeepers, because we know they will not stock these products. The same goes for the Kisiis and Kambas.” In Kitengela and Ongata areas, where the Kisii diaspora mostly live, my friends in those areas told said that it is a strategy they had also opted for: “Just buying from shopkeepers from our own ethnic communities.”

These boycott warnings are not without their dire consequences. Three weeks ago in Mbita, Homa Bay County, a Brookside milk distributor was nearly lynched for showing up with his canter truck. Confronted by a rowdy vigilante mob, the driver, a Luo, was spared his life because he spoke the youth’s language. Evans Otieno, who runs a retail shop at Katitu on the Katitu-Kendu Bay Road opposite the Sondu Miriu power plant, told me that what saved the distributor’s life was that he was one of their own. “But he was given a stern warning not to be seen distributing Brookside milk in that area.” Of course, the vigilantes emptied the canter truck of all its milk. Otieno himself received the same warning from the vigilante youth group: “I cannot sell or stock Brookside milk.”

Brookside Dairy not only sells fresh and long shelf life milk, but each of its five brands have an accompanying yoghurt product: so there is Brookside Yoghurt, Delamere Yoghurt, Ilara Yoghurt, Molo Yoghurt, and Tuzo Yoghurt. Brookside Dairies’ yoghurt products have not also been spared the boycott – and nowhere has this been felt more than on the Nakuru-Naivasha Highway.

This highway is mostly used by long-distance buses and shuttles going to western Kenya and all the way to the Kenya-Uganda-Tanzania borders. Many of the travellers are destined for Busia, Bungoma, Homa Bay, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Kitale, Luanda, Malaba, Mbale, Migori, Oyugis and Rongo, among other smaller towns. In western Kenya, these towns form the bedrock of NASA’s support.

At the Gilgil weigh bridge 110km from Nairobi city centre, the buses and the shuttles have to slow down as they file in a queue as the 24-wheel trucks get weighed. Over time, the toll station and weigh bridge have become places that sell Delamare yoghurt and other Brookside yoghurts. Roving yoghurt traders and hawkers have become famous at this Gilgil weigh bridge stop, where they usually do roaring business selling cold fresh yoghurts to travellers. But since the boycott, the hawkers have decried their plummeting sales. “The travellers have been boycotting the yoghurts,” said Edward Okul who lives in Nakuru, and who plies that route between Nairobi and Nakuru every week.

Fishy business

Bidco Industries, which has its main offices in Thika town in Kiambu County, has also been suffering as a result of the boycott. A market leader in manufacturing cooking oil (both liquid and solid) and laundry soaps – known in the consumer market as domestic consumables – Bidco is now having to contend with a sustained onslaught from other market competitors.

Bidco produces more than 10 brands of cooking oil, such as the popular Elianto, Gold Fry, Soya Gold and Yellow Gold and cooking fats aimed at low-income households, such as Chipsy, Chipo, Mallo, Kimbo and Cowboy.

The boycott caught the company flatfooted. “Like Airtel, Pwani Oil, Kapa Oil Refineries and Menegai Oil companies have Raila to thank,” said a Bidco sales and marketing manager, who requested anonymity to safeguard his job. “Let me tell you just how bad things are at Bidco: The company has had to do two things quickly to reposition itself: suspend the launch of a new product and do something that we have never done before – enter into sports sponsorship.”

In the face of a sudden stiff competition amid a dipping market, Bidco Industries halted the launch of a carbonated drink that was to be unleashed in this quarter of the festive season. It also entered into a sports sponsorship deal with the rugby team Kenya Sevens.”

Bidco Industries has divided its Kenya market into three regions: Nairobi, western and coast regions. “All the regions are suffering,” said the manager, who oversees one of the regions. But your guess is as good as mine about which regions are suffering most, Coast and western regions, of course.”

Just after the announcement of the boycott, the sole distributor of Bidco products in western Kenya pulled out. Junet Mohammed, the MP for Suna East constituency in Migori, a great friend and supporter of Raila Odinga, said he could not continue with the distribution no matter however lucrative it was.

The western region begins at Flyover 60kms from Nairobi city centre and covers the region that stretches all the way to Busia, Malaba (Kenya-Uganda border) and Sirare (Kenya-Tanzania) border towns. This market, particularly, the fried fish business mainly concentrated on the Busia-Muhuru Bay along Lake Victoria – commonly knowns as the fish belt market – is key to Bidco Industries’ sales of its cooking oil products. “The fried fish business run by women is big time in western Kenya. Bidco had managed to convince the women that we have the best cooking oil for frying fish,’ said the Bidco manager.

Just after the announcement of the boycott, the sole distributor of Bidco products in western Kenya pulled out. Junet Mohammed, the MP for Suna East constituency in Migori, a great friend and supporter of Raila Odinga, said he could not continue with the distribution no matter however lucrative it was. He recalled all his trucks, which today are packed back in Migori town, which has been his home since the family emigrated from the border town of Mandera 30 years ago. “Our competitors are zeroing in hard and quick on us. It is a huge market that no company can afford to lose,” admitted the Bidco manager.

The same story is replicating itself in the coast where Bidco oils have been used to fry fish and make mahamri, a sweet doughnut that is popular in the region. Bidco’s woes are accentuated by the fact that Pwani Oil and Kapa Oil Refineries are based in Mombasa. Pwani Oil products include Fresh Fri, Fry Mate, Mpishi poa and Salit, while Kapa Oil Refineries manufactures Rina. “Bidco is seriously thinking of revising its prices in the hard hit regions as a way of stemming the slipping market to the competitors,” said the manager.

In Nairobi’s slums, most Bidco oil products are also used by traders who make chapati, fry chips, mandazi (a delicacy similar to mahamri) and fish. “These chapatis, chips and mandazi are daily delicacies that are consumed by low-income people at very friendly prices, so what we did, we tailored a cooking fat that is cost effective,” said the manager. “We had penetrated this market – from the frying fish business of Gikomba Market to these feisty small time traders of Congo, Kariobangi, Korogocho, Kibera, Mathare and Mukuru slums.”

It is still too early to conclusively tell if the boycott, called barely a month ago, has thrown these companies’ products off-balance. But as Ahmed of Eastleigh reminded me, habits are acquired and learned and people can be taught to appreciate new tastes.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

What Ails the Cashew Nut Sector in Kenya?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwindling fortunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New players  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cashew nut woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sector’s revival

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Cash Transfers Are an Efficient Method of Reducing Food Insecurity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food packages vs cash transfers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong digital infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constraints

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

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

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

Corruption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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