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SMOKE AND MIRRORS: What the demolitions are really about

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The handshake may have provided cover for the ongoing selective demolitions of buildings on public land. However, unless the economy improves, Uhuru Kenyatta may be storing up trouble for himself. By DAUTI KAHURA

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SMOKE AND MIRRORS: What the demolitions are really about
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Days after I had written on the Kibera slum demolitions by the government, I met with some senior General Service Unit (GSU) intelligence officers. The GSU is a paramilitary outfit that was formed in 1948 by the British as Regular Police Reserve to suppress native resistance in the Kenyan colony. Today, the unit supports the Kenya Police Service in accordance with Section 24 of the National Police Service Act, 2011. GSU officers are basically trained to deal with riots and civil disturbances. Menacing, merciless and ruthless, the government usually deploys them to beat up and maim Kenyans who stand up against state authorities.

“The Kibera demolition was a litmus test for the government,” said one of the officers. “The demolitions were a 100 per cent success in view of the government’s projected plans on future demolitions elsewhere in the city and countrywide, especially in the slum dwellings.” The government had gone to Kibera armed to the teeth, expecting resistance. “Tough orders had been issued from the presidency to quell any semblance of remote resistance by scorched earth policy – clear anybody and anything on site,” surmised one of the officers.

The Kibera demolitions were the testing ground of the state to gauge its effectiveness in completely subduing the bastion of opposition politics in Nairobi city and indeed in the country. “If the government succeeded in pulverising the Kibera populace, breaking its will to fight back, cowing any remaining residue opposition to the government, the government would, easily now demolish any slum within the city,” opined another officer.

According to Jacinta Wanjiku, a resident of Mathare, the government has already issued notices for evictions from the expansive Mathare Valley in order to complete Muratina Road – the road linking Jogoo Road to Juja Road and the Mlango Kubwa slum which links to Thika Superhighway. However, the government has been dithering in effecting the demolitions for several reasons: Huge sections of Mathare Valley slum, unlike Kibera, are populated by the Kikuyu, the bedrock of President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta’s, and by extension, his Jubilee Party’s loyal support. Some of the Mathare Valley slumlords have invested heavily in brick and mortar structures that are protected by the so-called Nairobi Business Community aka Mungiki.

Both loyal supporters and Mungiki were used by President Kenyatta and Jubilee as a bulwark against a recalcitrant and rejuvenated opposition that threatened to snatch the reins of power. If politically irritated, both can mount a backlash against a ruling party now riven with divisions. “Now Uhuru can find a justification to destroy buildings and structures in Mathare in the full knowledge that even if he faces resistance, he will cow in easily. If Kibera can come down, what other slum in Nairobi cannot come down?” posed a GSU officer.

But there is also another reason why the pulling down of a section of Kibera was possible: The March 9, 2018 political handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga on the steps of Harambee House. “The Kibera demolitions could not have been effected had the handshake not taken place,” said one of the GSU officer’s friend. “One of the enduring and biggest benefits of the handshake is that it has given President Uhuru a breather and a lifeline – he can at least now plan his exit agenda freely and without too much pressure, without constantly having to look over his shoulders and worrying what Raila could be up to.”

According to the officers, if there had been no rapprochement between Raila and Uhuru, a section of the Kibera slum would not have been flattened to create room for the link road. “We would have been deployed there to beat the people into total submission. The people, properly mobilised by Jakom [Raila] would have fought back. There would have been multiple deaths and destruction all over. Ngong Road would have been a no-go-zone and the central business district, uneasy about protests and looting, would have shut down.”

“One of the enduring and biggest benefits of the handshake is that it has given President Uhuru a breather and a lifeline – he can at least now plan his exit agenda freely and without too much pressure, without constantly having to look over his shoulders and worrying what Raila could be up to.”

This scenario would have likely played out given the social and economic challenges facing the country. Faced by a populace that is reeling from hard economic times because of massive theft by state officers, an already discredited President coming out of a seemingly stolen election would have found little favour among the people and, therefore, would have been forced to back down. The glare of the international media would have made the demolitions untenable.

The GSU officers told me that the next biggest slum awaiting demolition was Mathare Valley. “We have already been signalled to stay alert. The Mathare people saw what happened in Kibera – the message is clear: you cooperate or we come down on you like a tonne of bricks.” All the buildings and structures that line the valley and river, from Muthaiga to Mathare 4A, are expected to be pulled down. “But for now the government has to tiptoe around the slum, looking for the best opportunity to pounce.”

Informal settlements and the state’s response to them

As you drive down on the Thika superhighway from Muthaiga, you descend into a depression. Looking askance on your right, there is a river at the bottom of the valley. There is a lot of activity at this point of the river: the first obvious one is the car wash that is evident from afar. But as you approach the river, you will find women washing clothes and up river young boys, some as young as 10, swimming and generally having a great time playing in the water.

This part of the river is called Githathuru River, a tributary that feds into Nairobi River. It is from here that the demolitions will take place. The Nairobi River basin consists of three main rivers: Ngong, Nairobi and Mathare. These rivers assemble east of Nairobi and join river Athi, eventually draining into the Indian Ocean. Other than Githaturu tributary, Nairobi’s other tributaries are Kamiti River (aka Gathara-ini), Karura Ruiru, Kirichwa and Rui Ruaka.

Over the last couple of weeks, “riparian” has become a catchy word for Nairobians, much to the amusement of environmentalists and riverine settlers. The word first became prominent among Kenyans when John Njoroge Michuki was made Minister of Environment and Natural Resources by President Mwai Kibaki in 2008. As soon as he assumed his new portfolio, he decreed that all people and structures along riparian lands would be ejected and that the rivers would be restored and reclaimed.

Michuki’s first target was the polluted Nairobi River, which rises 20 km west of Nairobi in the southern extreme of the Aberdares, sometimes referred to as Kikuyu Springs. He began cleaning the river at it most polluted stage – along Kirinyaga Road and Kijabe Streets in the central business district, where mechanics had turned its banks into garages.

Over the last couple of weeks, “riparian” has become a catchy word for Nairobians, much to the amusement of environmentalists and riverine settlers. The word first became prominent among Kenyans when John Njoroge Michuki was made Minister of Environment and Natural Resources by President Mwai Kibaki in 2008. As soon as he assumed his new portfolio, he decreed that all people and structures along riparian lands would be ejected and that the rivers would be restored and reclaimed.

But I am jumping the gun.

In reality, the fight against riparian lands, land reclamation and forest lands was actually started by Prof Wangari Maathai, the late Nobel laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement (GBM). Prof Maathai started the GBM in 1977 and by the time of her death seven years ago in 2011, her organisation had planted 47 million trees across the country. The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, awarded solely on the account of her sustained battle against environmental degradation, Kenyans particularly remember her for waging war in 1989 against former President Daniel arap Moi and his Kanu party in their attempts to “grab” and erect a 60-storey building in Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s largest public park, complete with a full-size statue of Moi and an underground car park for an upward of 2,000 cars. Maathai eventually won that battle, but had to suffer repeated police brutality and arrest.

Maathai is also credited with saving Karura Forest. Today, Kenyans from all walks of life and expatriate denizens can walk, run and just saunter around the forest, thanks to Prof Maathai, who in her many battles to save the forest, which is just five kilometres from Nairobi city centre, was once beaten by Moi’s security forces and her braids plucked out, leaving her bleeding from the head. Invariably, Prof Maathai also vociferously opposed the construction of the recently demolished Ukay Nakumatt Centre and Oshwal community hall and temple, which face each other in the Westlands area of Nairobi. Together with the posh Westgate Mall, which is 100m from the Ukay Centre, Prof Maathai argued for their demolition to save riparian land from further destruction.

The first demolitions of any kind in the city of Nairobi are believed to have taken place half a century before. This was in the mid to late 1960s and mid-1970s during the mayoral tenures of Charles Rubia and Margaret Kenyatta. Rubia was the mayor from 1962 to 1967, while Kenyatta took over City Hall in 1970 and stayed till 1976.

Just like riparian is now a cautionary word, seemingly portending disaster and doom among Kenyans who have encroached on the riverine ecosystem, today Nairobians first came to learn of the word “bulldozer” – and to fear it – in the late 1960s. “Bulldozers were first sent to ‘City Carton’ slum on Kijabe Street along the Nairobi River around 1966, I think,” says Mzee Sylvester Oduor, a long-time resident of Nairobi. “The poor lived in houses made of cardboard boxes which were considered an eyesore as well as a security threat by the city elites, said Oduor, who knows the history of Nairobi like the back of his hand. “Most of these people when they were ejected from City Carton moved to Mathare Valley and joined the people who were already living there – near the banks of the river.” Once they had settled in Mathare, they took up urban farming – they started growing arrow roots, sugarcane, sweet potatoes and yams and vegetables such sukuma wiki (kales) and spinach. Sukuma wiki and spinach supplemented dietary consumption at home, while arrow roots, sweet potatoes and yams acted as “cash crops” to be sold for surplus income.

Farming was a new venture for the former City Carton dwellers. But one activity they carried along from Kijabe Street was chang’aa brewing. Chang’aa is a traditional liquor from western Kenya. The British colonial government had outlawed the brewing of traditional drinks, such as busaa, changaa’a and muratina, and the independence government, under Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, adopted the same colonial logic and continued to view traditional brews with the same suspicion with which the British had viewed them.

The growing of sugarcane by the enlarged Mathare Valley slum dwellers by the river side was to augment their chang’aa brewing business. The brewing of the illicit liquor was the other reason that the City Carton dwellers had been ejected from Kijabe Street. The City Council, then under Mayor Charles Rubia, argued that the Kijabe Street chang’aa dens were too near the city.

The first informal settlement in the city was the Majengo slum created after World War II in 1945 in Pumwani, northeast of Nairobi, for migrant African male labour. In 1967, Thomas Joseph Mboya (popularly known as TJ), the mercurial and youthful MP for Kamukunji constituency, led the first demolition of Majengo’s mud-walled Swahili houses. “TJ had the clear intention of completely doing away with Majengo,” said Mzee Oduor. “He is the one who canvassed for the building of California estate next to the slum by the City Council. TJ’s American connections were evident even in the naming of the well-designed estate in his constituency. TJ’s policy was to house every resident who had lived in Majengo – whether they were sex workers, some of whom came from Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi – or government workers.”

The first informal settlement in the city was the Majengo slum created after World War II in 1945 in Pumwani, northeast of Nairobi, for migrant African male labour. In 1967, Thomas Joseph Mboya (popularly known as TJ), the mercurial and youthful MP for Kamukunji constituency, led the first demolition of Majengo’s mud-walled Swahili houses.

Mzee Oduor told me that many of the commercial sex workers were a priority in Mboya’s housing scheme and ended up getting the houses, which then were some of the best-modelled houses in Nairobi’s Eastlands area. “The sex workers were compensated by being the first to acquire the houses. To this day some of the sex workers who got houses in California still remember Tom Mboya fondly and nostalgically,” said Mzee Oduor.

Two of the most famous Kenyan artists in the 1970s and 1980s, Mzee Pembe (Omar Suleiman) and Mama Tofi (Aisha Juma), who lived in the slums, got houses in California estate. Another famous TV artist, Kipanga Athumani, whose full-time job was as a Kenya Bus Service (KBS) driver, was moved to Wood Street in Eastleigh. The trio acted in the popular Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) TV skit called Jamii ya Mzee Pembe, a precursor to Vioja Mahakamani. Today, Wood Street is named after Kipanga Athumani, arguably Kenya’s first stand-up comedian. Athumani was an ethnic Maasai.

Kipanga lived in Pangani slums. “In those days, Pangani slums, which stretched from today’s Riverside posh residences all the way to the current Pangani Girls High School, was then one of the largest slums in Nairobi,” narrated Mzee Oduor, “It bordered Ngara estate, then an exclusive estate for Indians. Pangani slums were called Pangani because the tin houses had iron sheets for their roofing. The Pangani and Majengo slums were homes to people from the coast of Kenya, Tanzanians, Ugandans and other Kenyans who professed Islam as their religious faith and that is why even up to today Kiswahili is widely spoken in Majengo. In fact, Pangani and Ziwani estates’ names are derived from the Kenyan coast. The original Pangani is in Kilifi,” said Mzee Oduor.

One of the reasons why TJ was unbeatable in Kamukunji was his sophisticated cosmopolitan type of politics. Itself a cosmopolitan constituency, Kamukunji, even in those days, had the ethnic Kikuyu as the majority voters, “but TJ’s representation knew no tribe, or favouritism,” said Oduor. “The California estate project propelled Mboya’s political profile to even to greater heights – he became unstoppable and unconquerable. But as fate would have it, he was gunned down in July 1969 and that is how TJ’s Majengo housing project came a cropper.” Today, Majengo is hemmed in and marooned by Bondeni estate (named so because it is built on the valley across Nairobi River; bondeni is Kiswahili for valley), Gorofani estate, Shauri Moyo estate, Starehe and Biafra estates.

The City Council argued that it was demolishing illegal structures within the capital city essentially because it had enough houses for anybody who wanted to live decently and legally. “The City Council was building houses, especially in Eastlands, such as the Huruma and Kariobangi South flats and large estates like Jericho (Lumumba and Ofafa), Maringo, Uhuru and Jerusalem, where Jaramogi Oginga Odinga maintained a council house for a very long time.”

When in the 1970s manufacturing processing factories and plants started expanding and mushrooming in the Industrial Area in the southeast of Nairobi, the Mukuru slums (today referred to as Mukuru Kaiyaba, Mukuru kwa Njenga and Mukuru kwa Reuben) quickly mushroomed next to the plants and along the Ngong River. “The slum dwellers were putting up structures on riparian land because they claimed it was no man’s land,” explained Oduor. (Ngong River runs through Kibera and passes through the Industrial area. Mukuru is the Kikuyu word for valley.)

More fundamentally, the river provided fresh water for human consumption, as well for urban farming, a practice the slum dwellers took up, just like their counterparts in the Mathare Valley. The dwellers also took up chang’aa brewing because there was lots of water, a crucial ingredient.

“In the days of Rubia and Margaret Kenyatta (Kenyatta succeeded Isaac Lugonzo as mayor who had served from1967–1970), the biggest rationale both the City Council of Nairobi and government used for demolishing the people’s structures in the slums was because they were illegal. City by-laws and the laws of the land did not allow semi-permanent structures in the city,” recalled Oduor. “And, because slums then did not have electricity, criminals used them as hideouts.”

Selective demolitions

The current demolitions are ostensibly spurred by infrastructural developments on government land that has been grabbed and illegally occupied for ages through political patronage, and like President Uhuru said on August 12, 2018 to Faith Evangelistic Ministries’ Church’s Karen congregation, “it is difficult to stop the (demolitions), because we must fight impunity”. According to the president, it is also the desire of the Jubilee government to reclaim riparian lands and preserve the fragile riverine ecosystem.

“Road expansion, fighting runaway (state) corruption, saving our environment…there is something eerily disingenuous about these suddenly discovered lofty social ideals by President Uhuru,” quipped a former Central Kenya MP. “Most of the plots of land along Langata Road all the way to Galleria Mall opposite Bomas of Kenya are owned by politicians – past and present – and were illegally acquired through political connections and impunity. Will President Uhuru ask for their demolitions now that we know from Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko that it is President Uhuru who has sanctioned the arrest of certain individuals and the demolition of the suddenly ‘undesired’ buildings?”

“Road expansion, fighting runaway (state) corruption, saving our environment…there is something eerily disingenuous about these suddenly discovered lofty social ideals by President Uhuru,” quipped a former Central Kenya MP. “Most of the plots of land along Langata Road all the way to Galleria Mall opposite Bomas of Kenya are owned by politicians – past and present – and were illegally acquired through political connections and impunity.”

In a video clip that went viral several days ago, Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko is heard telling his counterpart from Kiambu, Governor Ferdinand Waititu, that orders to arrest the latter’s wife for putting up a building on unapproved piece of land are from above. Who else would be above Governor Sonko other than the President himself? “Orders from above”, the former MP told me, can only mean one thing, and in Kenya, it has always meant one thing: the President himself.

Impunity and patronage politics in Kenya did not start today, said the former MP. “Are you aware the land where InterContinental Hotel is built was once Parliament land? Are you also aware that the land was hived off from Parliament by none other than President Jomo Kenyatta?” Similarly, the ex-MP told me, Serena Hotel sits on Uhuru Park, which was public land that was given to the Aga Khan, again by Jomo Kenyatta. “So the question we must ask ourselves as Kenyans is: From when should the government seek to reclaim grabbed government land or land meant for public use that is now in the hands of private entities?”

In the church where the President was addressing the congregation on the difficulty of stopping the demolitions, he also spoke of losing many friends because of the ongoing destructions. He said his friends had been calling him, asking him to stop the demolitions, but he reiterated that impunity must be fought. And it did not matter whether the “culprits” are politically powerful, influential or moneyed.

“Can the people of Kenya reclaim Uhuru Park, can the Parliament sue to get its rightful land back?” posed the former MP. “The current demolitions by any stretch of imagination are selective and targeted. It is doubly interesting that Java Coffee House and the Shell Petrol Station in Kileleshwa … had to come down. Just next to the Java there are flats whose rear parking bay encroaches onto the river bank. Why was it spared?” The Central Kenya politician said the flats belong to a member of a former First Family. “There are demolitions and there are demolitions. I can guarantee you that these demolitions are political – they have nothing to do with fighting corruption, neither are they for curbing corruption.”

“President Uhuru Kenyatta told Rev Bishop Teresia Wairimu that he is being bombarded by telephone calls from people asking him to stop the demolitions,” said the former MP. “That might well be so. My friend Maina Kamanda (former Starehe MP and now a Jubilee Party nominated MP) has two blocks of flats in Buru Buru Phase III. They are built on a road reserve and he acquired them when he was a powerful political city honcho and when he hobnobbed with the political aristocracy. Now I hear they may be pulled down. My political bird whispered to me that Kamanda had reached out to fellow Murang’a political buddy David Murathe to plead his case to President Uhuru on his behalf.” (One of the block of flats faces Buru Buru Community Centre, Church of God and houses Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) offices and ATM machines on the ground floor.)

“President Uhuru is just entertaining the masses…bringing down a building here and there, as the masses clap and ululate. In their temporary excitement, they crave for another building to come down and momentarily forget that the President is involved in a nested game of political juggling and survival as he buys time and crafts the trajectory of his tempestuous second term,” said the former MP.

A game of optics

“Kenyans are living under one of the harshest economic times in modern Kenya, but they have been made to believe that demolishing an important building here and there will assuage their hardships,” said the former MP. “The president is engaged in a game of optics – what he is doing is creating optical illusions and mirages for Kenyans as they wallow in socio-economic difficulties. What happens when he will have demolished enough buildings and cannot demolish more? He will have to move onto something else, because Kenyans must be kept preoccupied,” he lamented.

“Just the other day, President Uhuru enthralled Kenyans by telling them that the government would import polygraph equipment that would be used on civil and public servants, in a move to ensnare corrupt employees,” observed the former MP. “What happened to the furore that accompanied the President’s June 1, 2018 pronouncements? Are government employees still waiting to be lined up for the lie detector tests? What about the much talked about lifestyle audit – is it ever going to materialise?”

“Kenyans are living under one of the harshest economic times in modern Kenya, but they have been made to believe that demolishing an important building here and there will assuage their hardships,” said the former MP. “The president is engaged in a game of optics – what he is doing is creating optical illusions and mirages for Kenyans as they wallow in socio-economic difficulties.”

President Uhuru is stuck; he does not know what to do or, even where to move next and is desperate, said the politician. “There is no money at all in the government: all the money was scuttled in a stealing spree that emptied the coffers in the first term of Uhuru and his deputy (William) Ruto’s rule.” The 2013–2017 Jubilee coalition government profligacy was of unmitigated proportions, said the former MP, “and now the people are lurching from hope to desperation. They are disillusioned and dispirited and a trifle embarrassed: They gave President Uhuru their all. At the very least, they expected he would cushion them economically. Now that that may not happen, not even in the foreseeable future, they cannot turn around to claim they did not know that they were being duped.”

The former MP said Central Kenya people are now quietly wishing that Raila Odinga, the opposition supremo, who led the National Super Alliance coalition against President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party in the 2017 August elections, would be in the opposition to check President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government. “Raila is the only person who can candidly and openly shout about flagrant theft in the government, expose the culprits – whether they are Cabinet Secretaries or parastatal heads – thereby shaming them and helping stop the haemorrhage and pilferage.”

Among the Central Kenya political elite, the MP former intoned, some have been audacious, albeit in hushed tones and in private corners, to suggest that President Uhuru should bite the bullet, swallow his pride and call in David Ndii to fix the economy as the Treasury boss. (David Ndii is an economist who played a significant role in the economic recovery strategy of Mwai Kibaki’s first presidential term. Until the famous “handshake” between Raila and Uhuru, he was also instrumental in steering Raila’s campaign against the Jubilee government.) “He [Uhuru} can play politics later if he so wishes…he can, after two years, either instigate his [Ndii’s] sacking or blame him for the flailing economy if it refuses to pick up,” said the former MP, seemingly capturing the sentiments of his fellow Central Kenya politicians.

“There might, after all, be a logic to the demolition ‘madness’. If that be the case, more power to President Uhuru. If, on the other hand, the demolitions end up as a sob story for those whose property has been destroyed for nothing, and if the demolitions will not have solved the economic morass that Kenyans find themselves in, then President Uhuru could as well be riding a dangerous, mutinous horse.”

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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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