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SAP – SEASON TWO: Who is driving civil service reform in Uganda? The people or the IMF?

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Ugandans should be alarmed that issues settled in the 1990s are having to be revisited in 2018. By MARY SERUMAGA

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SAP - SEASON TWO: Who is driving civil service reform in Uganda? The people or the IMF?
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Two recent announcements made in Uganda recently create a sense of history repeating itself. The first, a plan to reduce the number of ministries, departments and agencies; 24 out of 29 agencies and authorities, regulating everything from road building to cotton and coffee development, will either be put back in parent ministries, merged with other authorities or abolished. Potential savings run to billions of shillings a year in salaries alone. The second edict followed a few weeks later; it was to freeze allowances payable to civil servants.

Both come against the background of broadening the tax base to increase revenue and are a repeat of similar measures under the Civil Service Reform Programme (CSRP) of 1992 to 1997. All three interventions are aimed at increasing resources available for loan servicing, service delivery and improving efficiency (in that order).

SAP II: Who are the drivers?

On the face of it, it looks as though the government is finally getting serious about improving service delivery. The president has been praised in offline and social media for these visionary interventions. Unfortunately, none of it is new. If anything, Ugandans should be alarmed that issues settled in the 1990s are having to be revisited in 2018. In 2018, as in 1992, the government is in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for bailout loans and it is the IMF driving the reforms.

Reduction of expenditure on administration is simply one conditionality of the new Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP II) as it was in SAP I. This should not be necessary in 2018, particularly because in the 1990s, the programme included a component called “Developing Establishment Control Mechanisms” that intended to keep the size and structure (i.e. the establishment) of the civil service affordable. Had those been effectively put in place, there would have been no crisis in the cost of the administration today.

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In the first SAP programme, there was an attempt to bring the public on board. Programme components were made public, and privatization – the most controversial aspect of the programme – even had a strategic communications office that branded and shared information about the programme through mass media and drama.

In contrast, in 2018, when the National Resistance Movement (NRM) has exhausted the goodwill and patience of many, SAP II is being rolled out by stealth. A meeting on increasing the tax base was recently invaded by an activist demanding to know why she as a citizen was not privy to the decision-making.

Apart from the three interventions announced, the rest of SAP II remains a mystery. The nature and size of the financial package sought (new loan, rolled-over old loan or capitalisation of interest etc.) and the conditionalities Uganda has signed up for in order to qualify remain a secret. In other words, Ugandans don’t know how broke they are and how much more debt they are taking on and for how long.

Given the recent unprecedented but inevitable challenge to the NRM’s monopoly of political power by the People Power movement, what is certain is that Uganda’s development partners (DPs) will prepare for a successor regime willing to continue to carry illegitimate debt. Put another way, lenders will not accept a repudiation of loans wasted or stolen by the current regime, but will lend more money to cover the bad debts. The transition to this regime is known by a code called Rule of Law. The laws in question are those governing the enforcement of exploitative agreements with corrupt leaders.

Apart from the three interventions announced, the rest of SAP II remains a mystery. The nature and size of the financial package sought (new loan, rolled-over old loan or capitalisation of interest etc.) and the conditionalities Uganda has signed up for in order to qualify remain a secret. In other words, Ugandans don’t know how broke they are and how much more debt they are taking on and for how long.

At the same time, opposition to the economic crimes of the NRM government and demands for structural change is called “hooliganism”. The privileged few to whom the NRM regime has channeled economic opportunities are working overtime to project the violence of the state (all victims were either shot or bludgeoned) on unarmed demonstrators and innocent bystanders.

In their reluctant statements on the atrocities of August 2018, the UK and European Union called for the government and its victims – civil society – “to cooperate to ensure that the events that had caused suffering to Ugandan citizens and damaged the country’s global image were addressed swiftly and transparently with full respect for the Rule of Law”. The implication is that somehow the victims contributed to the attack.

All of this is underpinned by militarising public order. Repressive public order laws were first used to try and suffocate the independence movements of the 1940s and 50s. In the 21st century they are being implemented by a military trained and equipped to maim and kill supporters of the People Power movement. It seems civil disobedience as a means of political expression is not a privilege to be enjoyed by dollar-a-day people whose immunisation and ARVs are gifts from foreign governments.

This will be denied, of course. It will be pointed out that the United States withdrew support from the deadly Special Forces Command (SFC). But they didn’t uninstall the capacity for state terror. They withdrew after having created a killing machine.

The huge amounts spent on immunisation and ARVs will be given as evidence of goodwill. However, most people understand that the primary purpose of immunisation of livestock is not to change the outcome for the livestock (it will still be butchered) but to ensure that the farmer gets maximum economic benefit from it.

Nevertheless, the fall of the regime is a real possibility and its attempts to cling to power by increasing repression makes even tacit support by development partners increasingly untenable. Because repudiation of illegitimate debt is more likely to be successful following a Compaoré–style exit, all hands are on deck to frustrate the People Power movement that has the potential to bring it about sooner rather than later.

Alternative candidates to People Power are already positioning themselves for nomination as the leaders most likely to maintain the economic status quo. Their language of “conciliation” between the government and its victims and calls for Yoweri Museveni to casually apologise and announce a retirement plan minimise the latter’s culpability and indicate that should they take office, Museveni and his regime would not be held accountable for either economic crimes or the latest sustained wave of assaults, wounding and murder. They are playing for time while the new formation is crafted.

The risk is that by enabling Museveni’s government to continue the pretence of being in control of the economy, DPs are keeping Uganda in a holding pattern until they are ready to airdrop their preferred candidate in time for the 2021 elections. Those negotiations will be happening in background mode around about now.

Recent evidence of a concrete policy of impunity in exchange for continuity can be found in the DPs’ selective application of the law governing the type of international corruption that has brought Uganda’s economy to its knees. The decision not to charge Cheikh Gadio under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is, according to defence lawyer Robert Precht, “in part a political move – the US government wants to maintain good diplomatic relations with [its ally] Senegal.” The United States also wants to maintain diplomatic relations with Uganda, one of the two countries involved, and has declined to charge the Ugandan recipients of the bribes either.

The international media can be expected to continue doing its part by pitching for candidates on the basis of their “sophistication”, work and travel experience and general dining-at-Davos capabilities.

Meanwhile, SAP edition II announcements are being disguised as the head of state’s own initiatives. In a letter instructing his cabinet to reduce the number of agencies, Museveni asked, “Why have an agency when you have a department of government dealing with the same area of responsibility?” He conveniently forgot that these agencies were entities of his own creation in his system of patronage.

Agencies critical to Uganda’s economic health have suffered from the appointment of unqualified personnel, such as Jolly Kaguhangire, who with a certificate in secretarial work became an Assistant Commissioner in the Uganda Revenue Authority before moving up to be Executive Director of the Uganda Investment Authority. She was ousted only after staff, smothered by her relatives, petitioned the Ombudsman regarding her alleged “high level tribalism, mismanagement, corruption, favouritism [….]” In another example, Jolly Sabune, the permanent managing director of the Cotton Development Organisation, who failed in her mandate to add value to raw cotton, donated UGX500 million ($130,000) to political supporters of the regime and another UGX20 million (over $5,000 at today’s lower rates) of state funds to her brother’s wedding fund.

Meanwhile, SAP edition II announcements are being disguised as the head of state’s own initiatives. In a letter instructing his cabinet to reduce the number of agencies, Museveni asked, “Why have an agency when you have a department of government dealing with the same area of responsibility?” He conveniently forgot that these agencies were entities of his own creation in his system of patronage.

The proposed removal of over 100 government ministries and agencies is a re-run of the “downsizing” of the civil service in 1991/2. It was part of the SAP component called “Optimising the Size and the Structure of the Civil Service” that resulted in merged ministries, retrenchment and voluntary retirement. Mergers between ministries reduced the number of ministries from 38 to 22, and the staff complement was reduced by about half.

The new rightsized civil service was to benefit from pay rises on the smaller, more affordable payroll. Salary surveys of the private sector were done and comparable jobs in the civil service measured against them. It was decided that the gap would be closed by gradual salary enhancement. In preparation, allowances were to be monetised, i.e. allowances were to be abolished and replaced with a cash equivalent. Instead of a house, a public servant was entitled to a house allowance that he or she could use to rent a house or buy one on mortgage. Government houses were sold, with the sitting public servants given priority.

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Other allowances, such as cars, were meant to be withdrawn and public servants’ salaries increased to a level allowing them to buy and insure their own personal vehicles on easy credit terms. Credit agencies supplied the numbers necessary to calculate a new pay scale.

Government pool cars were auctioned. (Pool cars were those available to a group of entitled staff for work purposes but which were usually monopolised by senior civil servants. In addition to those assigned to them, they commandeered the rest to ferry their children around and take relatives to and from hospital etc.)

Difficulties in implementation surfaced early on. There was a lack of commitment to the efficiency principle on which CSRP was built. The size of the government began to balloon. The number of ministries rose from 22 in 1997 to 75 today, plus the 29 agencies. The Ministry of Finance was detached from the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development before being merged again. Several of the statutory bodies slated for reabsorption in parent ministries have been cited for financial mismanagement in a number of Auditor General reports, meaning the expected efficiencies did not materialise.

There were two types of allowances: duty facilitating (needed to carry out the work e.g. transport for school inspectors) and remunerative (perks that went with the status of the job). The push-back against abolishing duty facilitating allowances was justified and successful but other allowances began to be reinstated. Ministers who had benefitted from the car purchase scheme became entitled to each subsequent scheme. The car ownership schemes themselves were very generous to the beneficiaries and a burden to the taxpayer.

Pool cars made a comeback and budget item 1010 (transport) reaffirmed its position as one of the most used and most frequently over-spent budget items. The unintended consequence of CSRP on transport was that civil servants at the top of the pay scale received higher salaries and subsidised vehicles yet continued to have access to pool cars fuelled and maintained by the state.

Salary enhancement did materialise for the most senior public servants as well as specialist staff. Doctors and the judiciary received considerable increases although their pay still remained well below private sector levels.

More specialised agencies and authorities were set up over the years with salaries at par with, if not greater than, private sector salary structures. While the agencies with their private-sector level salaries drained the Treasury, corruption in them outstripped levels in the traditional civil service. The Uganda National Roads Authority, the Uganda Revenue Authority, the Cotton Development Organisation, the National Environment Management Authority, and the new National Identification and Registration Authority are cases in point.

Teachers, on the other hand, are so numerous that salary enhancement for them was deemed impossible at the time. Years later, secondary school teachers were given a boost while primary school teachers’ pay remained below what is considered a living wage. However, the removal of ghost teachers from the payroll gave hope that genuine teachers would eventually receive meaningful salaries from the savings. The number of teachers’ strikes since then indicates that this has not been the case. At the time of writing, teachers in one district are on strike after a seven-month delay in their pay.

What went wrong? A number of things. First, the divestment procedure itself featured in numerous financial scandals. The accounts of the privatisation programme have never been published.

Privatisation was expected to reduce the amount the government was paying in subsidies to inefficient parastatals, such as the Uganda Electricity Board (UEB), thus freeing up revenue for service delivery. Since UEB was divested, however, subsidies to the electricity distribution company, Umeme, have been described as astronomical in Parliament and in fact exceed pre-privatisation levels in this sector.

The sale of other assets, such as government houses and vehicles, was similarly disappointing. In the meantime, health units, such as Kalisizo Hospital, are only able to attract 20 percent of the staff required. A mandatory transfer to such places is seen as equivalent to being homeless, there being no accommodation considered suitable by qualified personnel. For this reason, many newly refurbished rural health centres remained unused for lack of personnel.

Privatisation was expected to reduce the amount the government was paying in subsidies to inefficient parastatals, such as the Uganda Electricity Board (UEB), thus freeing up revenue for service delivery. Since UEB was divested, however, subsidies to the electricity distribution company, Umeme, have been described as astronomical in Parliament and in fact exceed pre-privatisation levels in this sector.

There are insufficient funds for salary enhancement and service delivery generally. Cash management on such a tight budget requires a degree of fiscal discipline that is impossible to maintain in a system of patronage.

Concluding his assessment of the CSRP of 1989–2001, Dr. Yasin Olum states:

“very little has so far been achieved due to the socio-economic and political state in which the country is in today. Issues such as public accountability, competence, and corruption are still high on the agenda. These and issues related to physical infrastructure have equally to be addressed.”

Since then, as documented by this writer in 2016, unsuccessful parts of the programme were re-done with poor results and high price tags. It is unfortunate, but World Bank internal assessments have falsified some reports to disguise failures and justify further lending.

The saga continues in 2018 with a new programme to repeat financial management capacity – building in local government, UgIFT (Uganda Intergovernmental Fiscal Transfers Programme), has been approved at a total cost of US$787.59 million in 2017. So far the World Bank has approved US$200 million. No wonder SAP must now go undercover.

The People Power movement gaining momentum in Uganda to fight the impact of these injustices is being vigorously fought by the NRM and its beneficiaries. The government is undermining resistance with a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, urban artisans, drivers and other workers and “ghetto youths” (of whom between 60 and 80 per cent are unemployed) who are the prime movers in the movement are being appeased with cash handouts. For instance, the first batch of traders along Entebbe Highway received a total of UGX180 million ($47,000) and a truck. Youths in Kamwokya, in the constituency of R. Kyagulanyi, the leader of the People Power movement, were given UGX100 million (over $26,000) to share. The following week, taxi operators and market vendors in the central business district received or were promised UGX3 billion ($800,000). During the six stops he made in the CBD, the president chided the traders for voting against the NRM in three mayoral elections and promised to take care of their financial needs from then on. Naturally, Ugandans outside central urban areas are beginning to demand a share in the bonanza.

The second prong is the militarisation of public order in anticipation of resistance to further economic outrages. A fourth announcement launched the ongoing nationwide recruitment drive of 24,000 youths for local defence units (LDUs). To understand the magnitude of this militia, compare it to the traditional Uganda Police Force establishment of 30,000.

LDUs are normally civilian patrols recruited by their neighbourhoods to carry out neighbourhood watch type tasks. However, the current drive has been launched and is being carried out by the military. According to Dr Kizza Besigye, the recruitment is a covert reinforcement of the Special Forces Command to be used to quell growing civil unrest. A creation of the NRM and the US government, the SFC has been responsible for most of the state brutality seen in recent years. It was established in the colonial era when Zanzibaris and Sudanese were used to subdue what became Uganda, that atrocities are more effectively carried out by people foreign to the area in which they are committed.

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Dr Besigye’s suspicion is borne out by the fact that it is the military carrying out the recruitment exercise and not civilian local councils. It was the army commander who announced the arrangements. New LDU members will be paid UGX200,000 per month as compared to the UGX10,000 per month their civilian bosses, the chairmen of local defence councils, are entitled to. The new LDUs will cost a total of US$20 million a year.

Note also that the military, parliament and some agencies have not been paid for two months although the funds were released by the Ministry of Finance. Like the cash handouts to urban dwellers, expenditure on the new militia was not provided for in the budget.

Public planning, public audits and People Power

Looking forward, the Ugandan public can avoid repeating the errors of the past by demystifying public finance altogether. The people of Uganda can and must take charge of decisions on whether or not to enter into further debt. And it must be the people who decide what is an acceptable level of service delivery.

The service delivery cycle – budget planning-implemention-audit – can only be diligently overseen by those it is meant to serve. What the public is unaware of is that an Auditor General can only cover so much ground and so audits are done selectively. Targets for audits are picked according to the materiality (relative size) of the budget item in question, meaning that average-sized accounts can be plundered or wasted in a serial fashion as long as they are not caught by the auditor’s net. The relatively new value-for-money audits are separate from annual audits and occur as and when the Auditor General deems them fit or when ordered by parliament.

Looking forward, the Ugandan public can avoid repeating the errors of the past by demystifying public finance altogether. The people of Uganda can and must take charge of decisions on whether or not to enter into further debt. And it must be the people who decide what is an acceptable level of service delivery.

Parliament (to which the Auditor General reports) has been so compromised that it is no longer feasible to leave public financial management oversight exclusively to it. Elected representatives are becoming clients of the Executive as was seen when they received cash for votes, most recently to defeat opposition to the mobile money tax. Furthermore, some recently-dropped members of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee were alleged to have sat on reports implicating officials in major financial scandals for the benefit of the perpetrators.

Monitoring the quality and quantity (value-for-money) of services also needs to be devolved. For example, Service Delivery Surveys (SDSs) introduced in the late 1990s were an intervention that seemed to have promise. The idea was that government departments would survey public perception of their service delivery and respond appropriately. Not being overly enthusiastic about monitoring themselves, it is no surprise that allowances for the survey personnel and other logistics are often not available. SDSs have not caught on as a regular part of the budget cycle.

Legislation for public audits would allow end-users of public services, citizens who have intimate knowledge of a particular government entity, to carry out their own audits where they suspect they are receiving inadequate value for money. It is such people-driven initiatives that will bring fundamental change to the quality of life of ordinary Ugandans.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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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