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FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY: The church ‘business’ in Kenya

14 min read.

Fettered with neo-liberalism, ethnic chauvinism and corruption, DAUTI KAHURA explores the colonial roots of the church and why despite fifty-five years of independence, the church in Kenya is unable to play its prophetic role in society.

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FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY: The church ‘business’ in Kenya
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Set on a 20-acre piece of land in the Athi plains, the Mavuno “Hill City” Church (a Kiswahili word meaning harvest) looks like anything but a church: its mega dome tent resembles one huge dance hall – complete with discotheque-type revolving multi-layered and multi-coloured strobe lights that flash on and off, and a soundtrack system that would rival sound system proprietor DS Njoroge’s, 10,000-watts sound system equipment. Kendrick Lamar, the American hip-hop mega star rapper would have no problem holding a concert here. As a visiting Anglican Church cleric commented: “There’s nothing to suggest this is a holy sanctuary: a rap reggae artist could as well find his footing here. The tent could also be used to hold a conference for businessmen or entrepreneurs discussing multi-billion-shilling investments.”

Hill City, which can hold up to 4,000 worshippers, is one of the symbols of the growing influence of America’s evangelical religious culture of giant churches, whose preaching is beamed in real time on billboard-sized LED smart screens. The church precincts are no longer referred to as a compound, but a campus.

It is the kind of church where testimonies warm and cheer up the worshippers. Testimonies of success abound. “Since coming to this church, I cannot keep up with the growth of my company…my products are moving faster than I can replenish them.” Or “After I started attending this church, my prayers were answered – I got a job, which flushed the anxiety from my heart. The job gave me a relaxing feeling, the kind of feeling you have when you know you’ve a big bank account somewhere.”

Surrounded by Chinese-themed mega estates, Hill City is 35km from Nairobi city centre. Located off the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, it is a 3.5km walk from Stage 39, the nearest bus stop for worshippers intending to trek to the church. It would really take an inspired Christian to attend this church – the scorching sun and choking dust is not made for trekking. In short, it is not your typical walk-in-walk-out church. Its parking bay can easily hold 500 vehicles.

“Mavuno Church’s relocation of its headquarters to a location just beyond the city limits in 2014 resulted in a number of members moving to other churches, as well as to other Mavuno campuses closer to their areas of residence,” said Pastor Linda Ochola-Adolwa, who oversees Mavuno Crossroads Church, which meets in the Lavington suburbs.

Mavuno Crossroads was started in June 2016. Its worshippers are the remnants of the original Mavuno Church that used to meet at Bellevue in South C. Reluctant to move to “Hill City”, they finally found a suitable location where they could pray and worship: at the Lavington Primary School. They refurbished seven classrooms and gave a face-lift to the primary school. Today, the congregation is made up of nearly 400 worshippers.

“The people who formed Crossroads were the well-heeled Christians who had been supporting the Mavuno Bellevue Church with their big tithes,” said a Mavuno church-goer. “The Crossroads Church worshippers are all professionals and affluent and they meet in a rich suburb, away from the prying eyes of the less privileged Christians.” It was just a matter of time before Mavuno Crossroads’ leadership and the headquarters at “Hill City” were at crossroads over the issue of control of money allocation and tithe contribution, whispered a Crossroads Mavuno worshipper.

“Pastor Muriithi Wanjau [founder of Mavuno] is upset about the fact that Crossroads, which is a much smaller congregation, has a lot bigger slice of money than the huge congregation at Hill City,” said a Mavuno Church Athi River worshipper. “He has always wanted control of the Crossroads money, but he seems to be encountering headwinds. It is a public secret that Pastor Muriithi has shown displeasure with Mavuno Crossroads Church’s leadership over his inability to oversee its finances.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth”, retorted Pastor Muriithi. “In fact Hill City, with its big contribution of tithe is able to fund other churches that are not as endowed as Mavuno Athi River. Every church (independently) controls its finances and its choice of projects, even as they contribute their share to the central operations of the Mavuno Church,” posited the pastor. The biggest operation of the church is planting Mavuno churches where there are none.

“Hill City contributes 42 per cent of its finances to the centre, Crossroads about 15 per cent, the same as Downtown, but generally churches give between 5 and 20 percent of the finances to Mavuno Church, of course, depending on their financial capabilities.” There has been a lot of rumours and misinformation out there about Hill City and me, said Pastor Muriithi.

“It is true, there was a disagreement between Pastor Linda and I”, the soft-spoken Pastor Muriithi told me, “but let me not disclose what the disagreement was about.” Pastor Muriithi said he and Pastor Linda agreed to engage “a trusted resource person,” in the person of Oscar Mureu, who is considered to be the titular bishop of Mavuno/Chapel group of churches. “We sat down with Oscar and he agreed to arbitrate our pressing issues and, we all agreed to leave the matter with him, so it’s an ongoing matter because he is currently looking into it.”

There are seven Mavuno churches in Kenya, “but because of planting churches along the logic of colonial lines within the city, the outcomes of this has been a subtle segregation within the Mavuno congregations,” said a Downtown Mavuno church-goer. Downtown Mavuno meets at Ufungamano building near the University of Nairobi. “Crossroads is the best example of a group of people for whom class and space are more important than just being called Christians.”

Mavuno Church encourages the starting of satellite churches based on specific area’ needs to cater for specific Christians, said the worshipper. In Eastlands, for instance, there is Mavuno Mashariki (Kiswahili for east). For long Mashariki used to meet in Donholm estate, but now meets at Naivas supermarket’s premises, where they erected a tent off Rabai Road opposite Buru Buru Phase V. “That church is for people from Eastlands…that’s just it,” said the worshipper.

There are seven Mavuno churches in Kenya and, in addition to their apparent intra-competition over which among its branches has the most money, “Mavuno is a church that practises subtle segregation,” said a Downtown Mavuno church-goer.

Mavuno Churches are led, presumably, by pastors influenced by the American televangelists from the south and mid-west who preach the message that success comes to those who pray. Forty-nine-year-old Senior Pastor Muriithi, takes no prisoners and pulls no punches in his preaching. In the month of October, he aptly called his preaching, “Wakanda Unchained – The Financial Liberation” series. “It was one of my boldest preaching,” confessed the pastor. “I will tell you something – our church looks rich…many are in debt…Christians give the illusion of success, you know, the idea is to fake it until they make it.”

In one of his Sunday sermons (which the church uploads online and which are available for all to view), Senior Pastor Muriithi rankled some of his congregants by talking about Jews and them being God-inspired money geniuses. He claimed Jews were successful because they understood the language of money and that is why they continue to attract hatred from other races as their blessings get multiplied.

“In a country riven with deep ethnic passions and where Kikuyus refer to themselves as Jews, it was deeply inconsiderate and insensitive to use the analogy of the Jews as God’s chosen people, whose success is seen as money-driven in a heterogeneous and multi-ethnic congregation,” said a Hill City worshipper to me. “Pastor Muriithi was preaching about Uthamaki theology in the guise of extolling Jews’ money virtues.”

“Let me say this, I regret the comments made afterwards by one of my congregants on my Jews’ analogy,” surmised Pastor Muriithi. “She misinterpreted my choice of Jews as people who have succeeded financially and otherwise as the biblical people of God. I could as well have used the example of the Ismailis. What I was saying is this: Jews are successful because they have stuck together, they are there for each other and, unlike some of our people who are socially and economically envious of one another, Jews help each other.” The pastor pointed out that after Jews were persecuted and suffered immensely, they learned that their success and survival lay in hanging together and not separately.

“I’m not a career pastor,” Pastor Muriithi reassured me as we concluded our somewhat difficult conversation suppressed by muttered breaths from both sides. He told me tithe- giving has been abused no doubt by many pastors, who are out to make money from their churches. “But that doesn’t invalidate the fact that Christians must not offer their tithes as commanded in the Bible. It is scriptural, it isn’t Pastor Muriithi’s command.”

‘Poverty does not glorify God”

“Africa suffers from [a] deficient money idea,” sermonised Senior Pastor Muriithi in one of his Wakanda series (the title is taken from the runaway success Black Panther movie about a mythical East African country). “Poverty does not glorify God,” boomed the pastor. Fired up like an American prototype televangelist, some of Senior Pastor Muriithi’s biblical pronouncements have been putting some of his worshippers on edge: “By God, where did he get that one from?” asked an exasperated Hill City church-goer.

“All what Pastor Muriithi seems to be preaching about is money, money and money,” said the church-goer. When does he get to preach about theological foundations?” As the presiding and founding pastor of the Hill City Church, one of the first sermons he preached at the newly inaugurated church in Athi River in 2014 was “financial plan for couples and money.”

As he preached in one of his Wakanda series, Pastor Muriithi plucked his authored pamphlet – “Financial Foundations” – and waved it to the crowd, saying it was the key to unlocking financial success. In an unflattering comment, a worshipper confided to me: “Pastor Muriithi is less concerned with spiritual matters, but with making money. How I wish he could write on the theological foundations to understanding the Synoptic Gospels,” bemoaned the worshipper.

“All what Pastor Muriithi seems to be preaching about is money, money and money,” said the church-goer. When does he get to preach about theological foundations?”

“Mavuno Church is run like a business,” said one of its pastors, who asked for anonymity for fear of antagonising his congregation and upsetting the church’s leadership. “It has a business plan model that must fit its expansion plans – in the country and elsewhere in Africa.” The church’s grand mission is to conquer and evangelise to African cities’ urban wannabes, “hence money is at the core of its expansionist manoeuvres,” said the pastor.

It is true Mavuno has an ambitious plan: “to plant culture-defining churches across the capital cities of Africa and the gateway cities of the world,” observes Pastor Linda.

Other than preaching about their favourite subject (money), “evangelical pastors have become experts in everything and anything,” said a Mavuno church-goer. “From investments and wealth creation, to sex and sexuality. From marital issues and parenting, to what type of people you should be associating with and who to invite in your house.” Senior Pastor Muriithi has been advising and discussing how to set up a business and how to avoid the pitfalls of incurring debt by not going to a bank to borrow money, said the Christian. “Is Pastor Muriithi an investments banker or an economist?” queried the churchgoer.

“It’s true I teach about saving and investing,” said a confident Pastor Muriithi. “And it is my desire to teach about money, because I consider it to be part of my obligation to preach on social transformation as a way of uplifting the Mavuno Church. I am raising a church to bring change among the younger generation, the so-called millennials and Generation Z. It is important for our people to understand why poverty exists amidst us and for the blessed to use their blessing to uplift the less privileged in society.”

“It is very strange that some people would accuse me of preaching about money,” said a somewhat miffed Pastor Muriithi. “My Wakanda series came after two years of not talking about money…I think I spoke about money one other time in those two years.” The pastor reminded me that this year alone, he preached for only three months “and out of those three months, I only spoke about money for four weeks out of 52 weeks. It is not as if my preaching is all about money,” the pastor said.

In 2012, Fr Ambrose Kimutai described some of his colleagues as church ministers who put the love of money above everything, in essence, “bastardising the holy shrine of God.”

“The new churches of the evangelical type are in the business of promoting capitalism and neo-liberalism through their prosperity teachings and have nothing to do with spiritual nourishment or contemporary societal problems facing Kenyans,” said Njonjo Mue, the Oxford-educated lawyer with a theology degree from the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST), today known as African International University (AIU). “These pastors are just careerists, advancing their own causes of enriching themselves in the churches.”

“The church in Kenya is still colonial in form and structure,” said Njonjo. “After the exit of the colonial church, presumably with the colonial government, it bequeathed its reign of power to the ‘white community’ of Kenya – the Kikuyus. Is it any wonder that the former Attorney General, ‘Sir’ Charles Njonjo (no relation), in his heydays would decide, for instance, who was going to be the Anglican Archbishop in Kenya?” he posed. “The majority of Kikuyu church leaders fought former President Daniel Moi, not because he was dictatorial and oppressive, but because he was a Kalenjin,” said Njonjo, a born-again Christian.

“The new churches of the evangelical type are in the business of promoting capitalism through their prosperity teachings and have nothing to do with spiritual nourishment or contemporary societal problems facing Kenyans,” said Njonjo Mue, the Oxford-educated lawyer with a theology degree…”

The reference to picking Anglican archbishops by Charles Njonjo cuts back to the 1980 elections of the second Anglican archbishop. Archbishop Manasses Kuria, who died in 2005, was the second Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Archbishop after Festo Olang’ who retired in 1979. In line to succeed him was the fiery Henry Okullu, the Bishop of Maseno South. The elections became a contest between ethnicities.

In his autobiography, The Quest for Justice, Okullu wrote: “The Luhya and Kikuyu ethnic sentiments enforced by political tribalism blocked my way, such that a third person, out of the 25 electors could not be found to sign my nominations.” Okullu said that Bishop David Gitari told him, “Since Archbishop Olang’ was from Western Kenya (Olang’ was a Luhya), this time, you people from Western are to be prepared to support an Archbishop from Central Province.” Okullu shot back: “This time the election of the Archbishop must be geographically decided?”

In the ensuing cacophony – of who should succeed Olang’ – Olang’ himself asked Okullu to throw his support towards the Assistant Bishop of Mombasa, Crispus Nzano, a nondescript auxiliary bishop, but a bishop nonetheless. Okullu declined. To break the impasse, Nzano had been nominated alongside Mannases Kuria, an equally unknown bishop from Nakuru. On the eve of the election, Attorney General Njonjo telephoned Nzano and prevailed him to step down for Kuria and he obliged. James Hamilton, the then Chancellor of ACK, declared Kuria the second Anglican Archbishop of Kenya unopposed.

“The Christianity Kenya received from Western missions seemed to have emphasised personal piety at the expense of public and social implications of the Christian faith,” said Pastor Linda. She described the Mavuno congregation as largely middle class, professional, and young: “Hill City is a young congregation having started in 2005. This middle class congregation, which is multi-ethnic and sometimes multi-racial, tends to be apolitical in its approach to socio-economic and political matters.”

These types of Christians have come to view politics as anathema to their well-being: cushioned and shielded from the vicissitudes of real politik because of their privileged class backgrounds and professional lives, their economic largesse has also afforded them the luxury of ignoring the politics of the day around them. But after the post-election violence of 2008, many middle class (Mavuno) Christians woke up to the crude reality that politics was part and parcel of their lives and, even if it did not affect their lives directly, they had friends and relatives who had suffered because of politics gone awry.

Living in a ‘Christian bubble’

“Middle class Christians are aware of the corrupt political system, the socio-economic breakdown of our institutions and ethnic chauvinistic politics, but they seem to be exasperated and worn down by all these societal ills,” says Pastor Linda. “The greater temptation for this class of Christians is to live in a ‘Christian bubble’ of donating Christmas gifts to the poor and children’s homes, hence believing they have done their bit of civic and societal obligations.”

Yet, according to Pastor Linda, the church’s greater dilemma seems to lie in how it views its defined prophetic role: Does it obey the secular rules here on earth as stated in Romans 13 and just preach for peaceful co-existence as St Augustine proposed, or does it engage in the politics of the day and hope not to be muddied by it or shun politics altogether?

“Middle class Christians are aware of the corrupt political system, the socio-economic breakdown of our institutions and ethnic chauvinistic politics, but they seem to be exasperated and worn down by all these societal ills,” says Pastor Linda. “The greater temptation for this class of Christians is to live in a ‘Christian bubble’ of donating Christmas gifts to the poor and children’s homes, hence believing they have done their bit of civic and societal obligations.”

“Although the majority of Kenyans are Christians – more than 80 percent – they have relegated their church sanctuaries to politicians,” said a senior Anglican Church cleric. “Nowadays, it is the politicians who are crafting and dictating what messages the pastors and priests are to preach to their congregations.” The result: church leadership has become impotent and obsolete.

“After the poll violence of 2008, it became increasingly difficult for the Catholic Church to speak collectively in one voice,” said an Archdiocese of Nairobi priest. “The post-election violence had exposed the deep running ethnic fissures within the church. The Church had taken political sides, and one of its clergy members had been killed because of the ethnic mayhem and the dangerous ethnic and political emotions,” said the priest. “The Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) meets nowadays to preach bland messages, such as the need for Kenyans to keep peace. It has ceased to have the moral compass to direct and guide the people.”

The priest told me that it was implicitly agreed among the bishops who form the episcopal conference that the church would not “impose” its collective stand on the politics of the day, or even pretend to inform it on the individual priests. “Politics became an individual priest’s responsibility – so long as he did not purport to speak on behalf of the Catholic Church of Kenya.”

“You cannot fight the government,” the priest said. “Even a powerful church like the Catholic Church is bound to be on the receiving end.” The priest confidentially told me that the government had allegedly sent a subtle message to the church’s leadership that if it pushed it too hard, it would impose taxes on its land and other properties it owns. The Catholic Church is the largest landowner in Kenya outside of the government. The cleric informed me that the government had even “threatened” to repossess some of the land it owned controversially, or land it had given the church.

The church and the state

Instead of effecting these threats, the government had done the opposite: Three weeks ago, President Uhuru Kenyatta, officiating at the funeral mass of the retired Archbishop John Njenga, asked the Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Land, Nicholas Muraguri, to return to the Catholic Church land that could have been appropriated or otherwise from the church. It is obvious that the Catholic Church leadership has been playing ball with the Jubilee Party state and hence the reward.

Although most of the Catholic Church’s land was acquired before Kenya attained its independence in 1963, “once Jomo Kenyatta became president, he gave the church a plot of land in the posh Lavington area,” said the priest. In Nairobi County, the Catholic Church’s land is concentrated in the Langata/Karen area, leading to the area being referred to as the “Little Vatican”. The other prime land is the Lavington property, where they have built posh schools, convents and even have a cemetery for their priests.

“If the state turns on the church it would be the worse for it and it will lose big time,” said the priest. “The church has never contemplated paying taxes, it would never pay taxes and therefore, it would do anything to avoid creating such a scenario.” The Catholic Church imports tonnes of drugs for its clinics and hospitals across the country, all tax-free. It is exempt from paying land rates. More than that, it has a large expatriate workforce that works in hospitals, schools and universities. “The last thing the church would want is for the government to make it difficult for the foreigners to work for the church,” pointed out the priest.

“When President Moi vacated office in 2002, and his former VP Mwai Kibaki stepped into his shoes, relations between the church and the state altered dramatically,’ wrote John Githongo in 2013. “The visceral antagonisms of the prior era melted away. A number of church leaders, including significantly, the National Council of Churches of Kenya’s (NCCK) Mutava Musyimi, were elected to Parliament. President Kibaki, not one for direct confrontation, cultivated a close relationship with the Catholic Church, whose national leadership seemed to share his conservative instincts, especially, in regard to property and acquisition.”

A senior Anglican cleric, who was a close friend of Archbishop Gitari, told me, “Once Kibaki became president, the archbishop ceased any fiery attacks against the state. He even subtly cautioned criticism of the new NARC government from fellow Anglican clerics.” It would seem the upshot of Archbishop’s Gitari’s pullback from finding fault with Kibaki’s government, unlike his constant attacks on Moi’s government, was that their man a (Kikuyu) had re-captured state power and that is all that mattered.

“When President Moi vacated office in 2002, and his former VP Mwai Kibaki stepped into his shoes, relations between the church and the state altered dramatically,’ wrote John Githongo in 2013. “The visceral antagonisms of the prior era melted away…”

So was the Catholic Church – which had tested Moi’s patience by its stinging episcopal pastoral letters, which talked of social justice, political accountability and morality, among other pressing socio-economic and political issues – compromised?

Raphael Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki, the Catholic prelate who had been at the forefront of demanding political transparency and of fighting against state corruption, which was rife in Moi’s KANU government in the 1990s, suddenly went mute, as did the church leadership, when his friend Mwai Kibaki became the president. It was not lost on Kenyans and keen observers that Kibaki shared the archbishop’s faith. Even more noticeable was the decline of the “sharp” pastoral letters that spoke truth to power.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

East or West? What Africans Think of China and America

A majority of Africans favour democracy over other forms of governance but an authoritarian system with a capacity to deliver public goods rapidly on a vast scale cannot be dismissed off-hand.

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What Africans Think of China and America
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That a major contest has kicked off between the US and China over their influence in Africa is now abundantly clear, an integral part of the monumental spat between the two superpowers that blew out into the open under President Trump — partly articulated in America’s 2017 National Security Strategy — but whose essentials are clearly being retained by the Biden administration. China is now considered America’s most significant geopolitical competitor and threat, a posture that is reciprocated by Beijing.

Still, it is also obvious that the US is racing to catch up with a China that has dramatically deepened and expanded its relations with Africa since the early 2000s. Ironically, just as the US was checking out of Africa in terms of trade and development and focussing instead on security — and in particular on the so-called “war on terror” — China shifted gear, especially through its giant Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker, China has made a total value of US$303.24 billion in investments and construction in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2005. Indeed, by 2019 one in five major infrastructure projects in Africa was financed by China and one in three was being constructed by Chinese companies. China is now Africa’s biggest trading partner and, under President Xi Jinping, the country has rapidly expanded its cultural, social, military and other relations with African countries. In typical Chinese style, this scale-up has been both huge, efficient and rapid.

In East Africa, it is estimated that 55 per cent of all large-scale construction projects are undertaken by the Chinese who also finance a quarter of them. There has been considerable controversy about the extent to which these projects have contributed to a deepening debt crisis on the continent. The opacity and alleged corruption that surround the accumulation of this debt have also been the cause of deepening concern for policymakers and citizens alike. That said, the infrastructure projects align most closely with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) — currently our biggest “existential project” as Africans. The relationship between Africa and China is complicated. Indeed, relations with all great powers are complex and difficult for developing countries.

The Chinese model

A majority of African countries are aspiring democracies in one form or another. This democratisation stated after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and by 1995, multiparty democratic constitutions had been promulgated across the continent. The US was a prominent driver of this process and at that point, the West’s push converged with the will of a majority of Africans exhausted by the single-party regimes and dictatorships that had ruled since independence. Today we can agree that the quality of this democracy varies considerably from country to country.

What is increasingly referred to as the “China model” is most obviously not a liberal democracy. All serious polling done by respected organisations such as Afrobarometer confirms that a majority of Africans continue to favour democracy — despite its messiness — over other forms of governance. I should think that this is in part because between independence and the early 1990s, Africa tried a wild assortment of authoritarian models of governance. These were stifling at best and disastrous at worst, especially when led by military cabals who had taken power through violent coups.

By 2019, one in five major infrastructure projects in Africa was financed by China and one in three was being constructed by Chinese companies.

The freedoms that have come with our democracies have in turn become embedded in our broader governance DNA, with our young population unable to conceive of a time when their basic freedoms of thought, speech, association, movement, etc., could be dramatically curtailed. And yet, the “China model” of an authoritarian system that combines a high level of state capacity to deliver public goods such as health, education, etc., to the majority of its people rapidly and on a vast scale cannot be dismissed off-hand.

On the African continent, the Rwandan and Ethiopian models have been compared to the Chinese model. The engagement with China, including its controversial debt-related aspects, has been transformative, especially in regard to the development of critical infrastructure. This cannot be argued with. And this transformation has taken place with unprecedented speed, changing skylines across a continent which has some of the world’s fastest growing cities and the world’s youngest, most rapidly growing population.

Still, the opacity and corruption that sometimes seems to typify the accumulation of commercial debt has been particularly troublesome in a range of developing countries around the world. This is still playing out and African countries are in the middle of a delicate diplomatic balancing act between a risen China, a giant and often thin-skinned partner, and a West that is now in aggressive competition with China. We are caught in between. Western nations are also increasingly vociferous in their complaints about human rights abuses in China. The human rights situation vis-à-vis minorities such as the Uyghurs of Xinjiang Province and the peoples of Tibet has for decades been the source of intense advocacy among human rights activists. The recent governance overhaul backwards in Hong Kong and apparently upcoming one in Taiwan have caused similar distress. Understandably, African policymakers have been profoundly circumspect about joining in these calls. This is despite the fact that African states have over the last 30 years gradually become less tolerant of gross human rights abuses on the continent. Coups are generally a no-no in this day and age, and a state that deliberately seeks to destroy an ethnic group would cause even the usually politically judicious African Union to voice strong opposition. This is in part because orchestrated mass violence against particular groups in one country inevitably spills across our fake borders. The 1994 Rwandan genocide was, and remains, profoundly chilling.

China has been steadfast in its policy of non-interference in the governance of other nations, a stance which is deeply appreciated by an Africa that is finding its voice. Supporters of democracy point out that this approach can sometimes end up propping up some of the most incompetent and dictatorial regimes on the continent. The West has its list of similar clients too though. Suffice it to say that China also retains currency among African elites because it has never been a colonial power on the continent despite China’s Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) and his fleets visiting the East African coast several times between 1405 and 1433. China’s engagement with Africa back then contrasts starkly with Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama’s blood-soaked expeditions in the region from 1497 as he sought a plunder route to India. From the 1950s onwards, China also contributed significantly to African liberation struggles, often in direct opposition to the US and its allies.

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From the language and tone over the last few years, one would be forgiven for believing that the US is ready to adopt a Cold War posture with China. There is nothing that causes greater nervousness among African policymakers than the continent finding itself forced into the kind of stark polarity President George W. Bush encapsulated on the 20th of September 2001 when he told the world, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. This time around however, the relationship between China and Africa is very different from the one Africa had with the Communist bloc in the period after independence. Whereas ideology and the practicalities of the struggle for independence were at the heart of the Cold War relationship, for African elites in particular, China today is first and foremost a development partner. Besides, the Cold War posture was also generally bad for basic freedoms.

From the language and tone over the last few years, one would be forgiven for believing that the US is ready to adopt a Cold War posture with China.

Part of the challenge the US faces as it ramps up the contest with China is one of perceptions: the “shithole” countries, as President Trump called them, aren’t that shitty to other countries that have travelled the difficult development road we are on. For urbanised African youth with access to the internet, the America they view and read about today isn’t necessarily the one America’s unrivalled soft power juggernaut, Hollywood, portrays. A significant amount of bandwidth is instead taken up watching black people being murdered by a clearly systemically racist police force and the ensuing consequences. However, it is also part of the fundamental dynamism of US democracy that President Biden and his team have made so many progressive policy U-turns since taking office 100 days ago. Since he took office Biden’s administration has overseen the vaccination of over 130 million Americans – half the population!

Africans still overwhelmingly support the democratic model but feel the relationship with China is a win-win for Africa.

Other critical rising powers

While there has been considerable focus on China, India, Russia, Turkey and other rising nations have raised their profiles in Africa as well.  They have done so without much fanfare but in a manner that has afforded local elites policy choices that were unthinkable as recently as the 2010s. The Russia-Africa Sochi Summit in late 2019, for example, was part of an accelerated engagement by Russia with Africa over the past decade especially in the extractive sector and military trade. Today Russia is by far the continent’s largest arms supplier, accounting for almost half of all military sales to Africa. In 2019, 12 African ministers of foreign affairs visited Russia, and that country’s long serving minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, and his deputy Mikhail Bogdanov, held talks with nearly 100 top African politicians between January and September 2019 alone. Bogdanov is said to maintain sustained intensive interactions with African Ambassadors in Moscow. While Russian policymakers emphasise a deepening of “political cooperation” with Africa, they have indicated heightened interest in economic relations — especially in the extractive sector, agriculture, health and education. The speed with which Russia developed its Sputnik V vaccine was startling and its “vaccine diplomacy” in Africa has been more aggressive and successful than that of any other region. Welcome to our new multi-polar world.

What Africans think of China

As I said, Africans still overwhelmingly support the democratic model but feel the relationship with China is a win-win for Africa — with China winning more of course — being  qualitatively different from the relationship with the West.

Source: Source: What Africans think about China: Findings from Afrobarometer, E. Gyimah-Boadi, CEO, Afrobarometer, February 2021

Source: Source: What Africans think about China: Findings from Afrobarometer, E. Gyimah-Boadi, CEO, Afrobarometer, February 2021

Afrobarometer recently polled African attitudes towards China in 22 countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea, Uganda, Nigeria, Angola, Namibia, Zambia among others. In the 22 countries, an average of 33 per cent of those polled thought the US was the best model for development. Twenty-three per cent felt China was the best model of development followed by former colonial powers at 11 per cent and South Africa at 10 per cent. China is emphatically  the preferred model for development in Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali. In Liberia, Angola, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde the US is by far the preferred model. In Kenya 43 per cent of respondents prefer the US model compared to 23 per cent who prefer the Chinese model.

Source: What Africans think about China: Findings from Afrobarometer, E. Gyimah-Boadi, CEO, Afrobarometer, February 2021

Source: What Africans think about China: Findings from Afrobarometer, E. Gyimah-Boadi, CEO, Afrobarometer, February 2021

Importantly, 62 per cent of all those polled across Africa felt China has a largely positive economic and political influence on their countries while 60 per cent felt the same for the US.

Source: Afrobarometer

Source: What Africans think about China: Findings from Afrobarometer, E. Gyimah-Boadi, CEO, Afrobarometer, February 2021

Indeed, the main takeaways of the Afrobarometer report released in February 2021 include the fact that Africans feel generally positive about China. Significantly, according to the researchers,

“Though new on the block, the attractiveness of China’s development model is second only to the US (especially among older adults). Perceived Chinese influence is on a par with that of the US and well above that of the former colonial powers. Chinese economic and political influence is seen in largely positive terms. Respondents who feel positively about the influence of China also tend to have positive views of U.S. influence as well – suggesting that for many Africans, U.S.-China “competition” may not be an “either-or” but a “win-win” proposition. Popular awareness of China as a lender/giver of development aid to African respective countries is unmatched by the common place talk of Chinese “debt trap” diplomacy in Africa…
Be that as it may, a plurality of Chinese loan aware Africans perceive fewer strings attached to those loans/development compared to other donors. 
Awareness of repayment obligations to Chinese loans/aid is however high among those who know about Chinese loans/aid to their country – suggesting the need for more information sharing about Chinese aid. 
Indeed, awareness of Chinese loans to the country generally goes hand in hand with expression of concern about the entailed indebtedness…”

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The former top Singaporean diplomat, academic and author of Has China Won?, Kishore Mahbubani, argues that the COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed the shift of global power from West to East. He points out that from 1AD until 1820 the world’s largest economies were India and China and that the last 200 years of Western domination are a historical aberration. All aberrations ultimately end. We are living through these tectonic changes. Exciting times. Nothing expresses the contradictions that this means in our daily lives than the way our urban youth use their mobile phones and American platforms such as Twitter and Facebook as instruments of accountability in a complex age.

It is ironic too that the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman that caused such powerful global outrage last year was filmed by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier using her iPhone made in China and uploaded onto American social media platforms not allowed in China, provoking a powerful reaction that continues to reverberate around the world.

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Do You Know What Is on Your Plate?

You may not know it but you’ve probably been ingesting carcinogenic, mutagenic and neurotoxic chemicals along with your ugali, sukuma wiki and kachumbari.

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I had never really given much thought to what I ate and how it was produced. That is until, in the early 90s, an outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy – BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease – led to the slaughter of 4.4 million head of cattle in the United Kingdom in an effort to contain the disease, and to a decade-long ban of British beef exports that ruined that country’s beef industry. The BSE outbreak is thought to have been caused by the practice of supplementing cattle feed with meat-and-bone-meal (MBM) rendered from the remains of other animals. The disease soon crossed over to humans through the consumption of BSE-contaminated beef, a new version of the neurological Creutzveld-Jakob Disease (vCJD) that took its first victim in May 1995 and has killed 177 people to date. In 2013 researchers reported that one in 2,000 people in the UK are carrying the human form of mad cow disease.

That same year, in February, a government livestock inspector was assassinated outside his home in the Belgian Flanders; Karel Van Noppen had been investigating the illegal trade in synthetic growth hormones that unscrupulous beef farmers were using to speed up the fattening of beef cattle and turn a quick profit. The use of synthetic growth hormones in cattle rearing has been found to have adverse effects on human health. I was living in Belgium at the time and I started asking myself what I had been eating. I wasn’t the only one; by the end of the decade, astute beef farmers were turning a tidy profit from the sale of organic beef to consumers like me who had become wary of the factory methods of production that had led to the BSE crisis.

With the appearance of organic beef on Belgian supermarket shelves, other organic produce soon followed and the shelf space dedicated to organic foods steadily grew. IFOAM-Organics International defines organic agriculture as “a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and good quality of life for all involved.”

Today, in the West at least, it is perfectly possible to eat, drink and even dress only organic; but you must have deep pockets because organic produce is more expensive than conventionally grown produce.

The right to adequate food is recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of which Kenya is a signatory. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations clarifies that the right to adequate food implies that food must be available, accessible and it must also be adequate, meaning that “the food must satisfy dietary needs . . . be safe for human consumption and free from adverse substances, such as contaminants from industrial or agricultural processes, including residues from pesticides, hormones or veterinary drugs . . . .” The irony is that even though produce that is certified organic meets all of these requirements, it is not produced in sufficient quantities and where it can be found, it is beyond the reach of most consumers, whether they are in the West or here in Kenya.

Having jumped on the organic consumers’ bandwagon back in Brussels after the 1998 dioxin- contaminated chicken crisis finally convinced me to abandon conventionally-grown produce, I was keen to maintain the lifestyle once back in Kenya, only to find the limited choice of produce that is certified organic prohibitively expensive. I did the next best thing and decided to grow organic fruits and vegetables, both for my own consumption and for sale to the end consumer, and thus did I come into close contact with the world of farming.

City girl born and bred, and never having grown so much as a blade of grass, I needed all the help I could get and turned to Mr John Wanjau Njoroge, founder and director of the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming and a pioneer of the organic movement in Kenya. Mr Njoroge sent me a recently graduated young couple who set me on the road to organic farming. It has been a steep learning curve; after a first successful crop of greenhouse tomatoes, bacterial wilt decimated the second one.

Kenyan smallholder farmers produce 80 per cent of the 400,000 tonnes of tomatoes produced annually — representing 7 per cent of all horticultural produce grown every year — but commercial production of the fruit is fraught with difficulties; if it isn’t tuta absoluta, it is fusariam wilt, or if you’re really unlucky, it is both. And so, to control these and other pests and diseases, farmers reach for chemical pesticides and fungicides.

The trade in pesticides in Kenya is largely in the control of private sector distributors and retailers who import and distribute the products to the Kenyan end-user, but there appears to be a training deficit in the safe use of these chemicals. Farmers rely on agrovets and agricultural extension officers for information on pesticides, yet the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) has reported that “they are recommending pesticide products that are toxic to human health, bees and fish”.

An analysis of pesticide residues in tomatoes and french beans from Murang’a and Kiambu counties found the presence of omethoate in tomatoes, an active ingredient whose use in vegetables is banned in Kenya, suggesting “poor pesticide handling practices by some tomato farmers in the two counties”.

And the situation is not much better in Laikipia County where a 2019 study of pesticide application and pesticide residue levels in kales and tomatoes in the Ewaso Narok wetland found that the majority of farmers had no training in the use of pesticides. The study also found chlorpyrifos and diazinon residues in the tomatoes sampled; both these active ingredients are banned in the European Union.

It is particularly worrying that chlorpyrifos — a pesticide that is harmful to the brains of foetuses and young children — can still be found on the Kenyan market. Chlorpyrifos was banned in the EU in February 2020 but it is also one of the seven active ingredients in the pesticides and fungicides that were found by KOAN to be in use in Kirinyaga and Murang’a counties.

KOAN reports that “The pesticides withdrawn in Europe are mostly used on tomatoes (15 active ingredients), followed by kale (14), maize (14), cabbage (10), coffee (10) and french beans (6). Since tomatoes, kale, maize and cabbage are part of the daily Kenyan diet, there is a real and significant threat to food safety.” The study found that tomatoes had the highest toxicity score, followed by kales and maize, all foods eaten by Kenyans daily.

It is particularly worrying that a pesticide that is harmful to the brains of foetuses and young children can still be found on the Kenyan market.

But even more worryingly, KOAN reports having found high residue levels of acephate and methamidophos in the tomatoes sampled. Acephate, which has been withdrawn in Europe, is registered by the Pest Control Products Board for use on roses and tobacco. Methamidophos is not registered for use in Kenya.

The reason why active ingredients which have been withdrawn in the EU (or whose use is restricted) find their way to Kenya is because of the so-called Double Standard; EU Regulation EC304/2003 allows EU companies to produce and export to other countries pesticides that are banned or restricted in the EU, effectively protecting EU citizens while exposing non-EU citizens to the ravages of dangerous chemicals and infringing on their right to food that is safe for human consumption. Indeed, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Toxic Wastes and the Right to Food have found that “widely divergent standards of production, use and protection from hazardous pesticides in different countries are creating double standards, which are having a serious impact on human rights.”

And while the Rotterdam Convention requires an exporter based in an EU member state to indicate their intention to export banned or severely restricted chemicals to a non-EU country so that the latter is alerted, this arrangement is hypocritical and merely serves to enable EU companies to continue manufacturing dangerous chemicals for sale in non-EU countries while providing them with the ready excuse that importing countries are aware of the nature of the chemicals they are bringing in.

Domesticating the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 43 (1) (c) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 states that, “Every person has the right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality.” In line with this last requirement, and in the face of the dangers presented by the poorly regulated trade in pesticides, the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI), Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, Kenya Organic Agriculture Network and Resources Oriented Development Initiative petitioned the National Assembly in September 2019 to withdraw harmful pesticides from the Kenyan Market.

In their petition, they reported that there are products on the Kenyan market which are classified as carcinogenic (24), mutagenic (24), endocrine disrupter (35), neurotoxic (140) and many others which have been shown to have an effect on reproduction (262). The petitioners argued that, while the volume of imports of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides had grown 144 per cent between 2015 and 2018, there was no data available concerning pesticide use and its impact on food and the environment, and also noted that the increase in pesticide use had not been accompanied by the necessary safeguards to control their application.

The petitioners also said that by failing to publish information in its possession on the levels of pesticide residues in food samples collected, and to put in place a monitoring system, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) was acting in contravention of Section 15 of the Pest Control Products Act. The petitioners also accused the Pests Control Products Board (PCBP) of failing to adhere to the international codes of conduct of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In its report on the petition tabled a year later in October 2020, the National Assembly’s Departmental Committee on Health responded that a blanket ban “without due consideration or risk assessment will not help, especially in the tropical conditions and areas experiencing an invasion of pests and diseases throughout the year.” The committee also argued that “severe limitation of the number of products available . . . will make sustainable use of plant protection products difficult, particularly managing the development of resistant pest populations.” The committee claimed that such a ban would threaten food security, lead to expensive food and reduced farmer incomes due to insufficient production.

The committee did however recommend that the PCPB develop regulations to ensure that only licensed and registered persons run agrovet outlets, and that the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries undertake an analysis of the products on the Kenyan market in order to exclude those that are carcinogenic, mutagenic, neurotoxic and endocrine disruptors, and recommend the withdrawal from the Kenyan market of harmful and toxic pesticides. All this was to take place within 90 days.

Well, I visited two agrovets in our little township here in Nyandarua County who both told me that PCPB inspectors came calling last year to ensure that licence fees were paid and to ascertain that the products on their shelves had the PCPB logo indicating that they are authorised for sale in Kenya. Neither has been informed of any changes in the PCPB list of pest control products registered for use in Kenya and I could have bought pesticides and fungicides containing all but two of the active ingredients that KOAN found on produce in Kirinyaga and Murang’a counties: chlorpyrifos, which as I have mentioned above is harmful to the brains of foetuses and young children; diazinon, a neurotoxic organophosphate;  permethrin, a neurotoxin that is also highly toxic to animals, particularly fish and cats; bifenthrin, which has been classified as a possible carcinogenic; and carbendazim, a mutagenic fungicide that can cause birth defects and damage fertility. These active ingredients — all of which are banned in the EU — are among the top ten most harmful ingredients in terms of toxicity for humans and the environment.

Route to Food, which has done a study on pesticide use in Kenya, notes that, “Pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a global threat to the entire ecological system upon which food production depends. Excessive use and misuse of pesticides results in contamination of surrounding soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying beneficial insect populations that act as natural enemies of pests and reducing the nutritional value of food.”

If we are agreed that access to safe food is a human right, then we must reject food production methods that endanger our health and put our lives in peril, that pollute our water and our environment and jeopardise our biodiversity, methods that put the profits of the shareholders of companies domiciled in foreign countries before the wellbeing of Kenyan consumers.

It is ironical that Kenya goes to great lengths to meet the phytosanitary conditions and Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) imposed by the EU – Kenya’s main market for horticultural exports – while at the same time exposing its own citizens to the dangers of toxic pesticides manufactured in the EU.

If we are agreed that access to safe food is a human right, then we must reject food production methods that endanger our health.

We are not condemned to remain on the path of industrial agriculture, which has proven to be so devastating to the environment and to human health. As Daniel Maingi notes, “Perhaps it is time we looked to nature and farmers’ know-how in using another branch of science called agroecology” which, as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recognised, is “holistic, balancing focus on people and the planet, the three dimensions of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental – while strengthening the livelihoods of smallholder food producers.”

We must therefore be vocal in our support of the endeavours of organisations such as the Route to Food Initiative, Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, the Kenyan Organic Agriculture Network and Resources Oriented Development Initiative, in order to ensure that the recommendations of the National Assembly’s Departmental Committee on Health do not remain a dead letter but form the basis of a fundamental change in the way we produce the food we eat.

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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How Biotechnologies are Shaping Kenya’s Food Ecosystem

Kenya has severally taken the top spot in “enabling the business of agriculture” annual rankings, opening its doors to patent-protected biotechnologies that could lead to the effective loss of our food sovereignty.

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It has been said that he who controls the food, controls the people. But others have added that he who controls the seed, controls the food system. The race by multinational corporations (MNCs) to own and register patent protection on seeds and genetic traits, including DNA sequences, has led to a hierarchy of big players who now dominate the global markets through national and international legal instruments.

We have reached the stage where only four corporations dominate the global seeds and genetic traits markets, as they roll out patent-protected biotechnologies to both large and smallholder farmers worldwide. This is seen as a critical step in shaping food ecosystems here in Kenya and elsewhere in the world.

Power relations and roles in the biotech industry

During the last three years the world has witnessed spectacular mergers and acquisitions amongst the biggest actors in the industry — DowDuPont now Corteva, Bayer-Monsanto now just Bayer, and Syngenta/ChemChina. Together with BASF, these merged MNCs now control over 70 per cent of the global seed and pesticides market.

Their far-reaching wealth and power has been enabled by states and government actors working with global organisations such as the WTO (World Trade Organization) and UPOV (Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties). The consequences have been a concentration of market share and influence, capital accumulation, and unprecedented economies of scale which have led to the marginalisation and the disinheritance of our common seed and genetic resources. The process of agricultural investment in so-called biotech innovation has come to be known as “the Green Revolution” or, increasingly now, the “Gene Revolution”.

Green Revolution (GR) is best understood as the wide-scale adoption and use of disruptive agricultural research and various technologies, including biotech, that are intended to increase agricultural productivity. Green revolutions therefore effectively convert farming and agriculture into an industrial system, because of the extensive adoption and use of new high-yielding seed varieties that often must be accompanied by the intensive use of mechanisation, large volumes of water and expensive irrigation infrastructure, pesticides, and fertilisers. The seed is a critical piece of GR and is the first portal to creating large-scale bio-economies, and imposing and enforcing patent and breeders’ rights protection through national and binding international laws.

The larger GR endeavour was initiated by Norman Borlaug. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Borlaug helped develop high-yielding dwarf varieties of rust-resistant wheat. The Green Revolution’s early success in India was led by the agricultural scientist M. S. Swaminathan. He is known as the “Father of Green Revolution in India” for his role in introducing Borlaug’s dwarf varieties of wheat and rice in India. One of the impacts of this green revolution was that the yields of wheat and rice doubled, but the production of other food crops such as indigenous rice varieties, sorghums, millets, and pulses declined. This led to the loss of distinct indigenous varieties from cultivation and also caused the extinction of others.

Seed biotechnologies have profoundly changed consumption patterns over the years; the dietary diversity of India’s population has decreased as Indians eat more wheat and rice devoid of nutritive value.  Studies have shown that traditional coarse cereals (complex carbohydrates, high protein) have been permanently replaced by more white wheat and polished rice diets (simple carbohydrate, low protein), with the accompanying effects of obesity and malnutrition. An overweight population (BMI>25) has emerged as a new public health challenge, and this is most evident in large-landholding households, especially in the high-input agriculture areas.

In Africa, the first green revolution was a failure and efforts have been underway for a relaunch. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded in 2006 to bring high-yield agricultural practices and biotechnologies to millions of smallholder farming households. Bill Gates has an absorbed relationship with the wonder of computers and technologies.  Fascinated by the possibilities of big data and biotechnologies as the centerpiece for a new disruptive revolution in Africa’s agriculture, Bill Gates, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, together with partners including the Rockefeller Foundation, have collectively pumped more than US$1 billion in funding to the Nairobi-based AGRA.

Indians now eat more wheat and white rice devoid of other nutrients that used to come from the inclusion of sorghum, millet and mung beans in traditional diets.

To the delight of agribusiness corporations, GR means an expansion in the use of new biotech seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and, of course, irrigation infrastructure and the related mechanisation. To ensure that new seed technologies are adopted and used on a larger scale, Bill Gates has also channeled significant funding to entities such as the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), African Seed Trade Association, Kenya’s seed trader associations, and private companies. The goal is to influence and catalyse the transformation of agriculture policies and legislations and open up Kenya for commercial agriculture.

Together with the World Bank, the Gates Foundation has funded local stakeholders to lobby and advocate for reforms to remove “obstacles” in policies, laws, and regulations in agriculture, in what they term as “enabling the business of agriculture” (EBA). The annual ranking of countries is closely watched by investors and used by the World Bank, USAID, DfID, and other bilateral donors, to guide their funding. As a result, EBA drives the race to deregulate. Governments in poor countries compete with each other to “reform and change their agricultural laws” so that they can be ranked among the “Doing Business” best performers. Kenya’s performance in these rankings is also keenly followed by pro-biotech advocacy lobby groups.

The technology is the seed

Seeds carry the genetic traits or DNA sequences claimed as proprietary rights by the breeders or corporations that control them. The technology is in the seed and is the seed. Through stewardship agreements, farmers purchase seed, promise and sign on the dotted line that they are merely renters of the biotechnology and not owners. As such, they cannot multiply that seed for replanting; new seed must be purchased. They can also not store, give to others or even sell their harvested seed. Failure to adhere to these terms is a violation punishable by national and international laws. This means that MNCs are effectively controlling what food ecosystems emerge once a country decides to rely on biotech-gene seeds. It is an effective loss of food sovereignty and an abuse of farmers’ rights to seed, including the right to food at the household level.

Unfortunately, there have been many incidences where seed corporations systematically replace indigenous seeds with their proprietary hybrids through “generous donations”. After a few seasons, faced with a lack of alternative sources, the users must purchase patent-protected seeds.

Such is the case of the recently rolled-out Bt. cotton hybrids in Kenya. Dubbed first-generation biotech crops, Bt. traits focused on increasing market share and profits to patent holders by promising to eliminate the need for pesticide sprays against a limited range of insects. Another GM crop resistant to Round-up herbicide sprays caused enormous increases in Bayer’s sale of its herbicide, resulting in massive increases in market dominance. Once these crops become entrenched in the market and food ecosystem, farmers are often faced with a serious challenge as there are no alternative versions from other competing companies. In Kenya — as in India — Bayer-Mahyco has absolute power and market control, a situation enabled by the government with little public discourse.

Through stewardship agreements, farmers must purchase seeds and promise by signing on the dotted line that they are merely renters of the seed and not owners.

In the second-generation biotech crops, there was a focus on the traits desired by farmers, and much of the research was funded by public-private partnerships, as opposed to being funded only by the private sector, as was the case for first-generation GMOs. Virus-resistant cassava and sweet potato, together with GM banana in Uganda, are candidates in the former category, which is seen as an attempt by MNCs to repair their public image with the help of philanthro-capitalists like Bill Gates. These Biotech crops are vegetatively propagated (not grown from seed), and are not amenable to traditional plant breeding, creating an opening for a GM approach. Critically, vegetative propagation also means that farmers do not need to repurchase seed every year. What effect these second-generation feel-good biotech crops will have on the food ecosystems is yet to be ascertained. Second-generation GMOs in agriculture include “functional” plants designed to produce pharmaceuticals, fuels, and industrial compounds. It is doubtful that these new biotechnologies will have a role in Kenya’s food ecosystem.

The future of GR in Kenya’s food system

In India, GR technologies were rolled out in 1967 when dwarf and rust-resistant wheat varieties were released. The results were so fast and so significant that, just three years later, Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply. It is claimed that he saved a billion people from starvation.

In Africa, it has now been 15 long years since the new GR was launched. AGRA pledged in self-declared milestones that it would double the earnings of 20 million small farmers by 2020 while halving food shortages in 20 African countries. A Tuft University study found little evidence of significant increases in productivity, income, or food security for people in the 13 main AGRA target countries, but rather, demonstrated that AGRA’s Green Revolution model is failing. Between 2013 and 2015, AGRA and CIMMYT released at least 25 water-efficient drought-tolerant maize hybrids (WEMA) for farmers in Kenya. To date, there have not been any magical yield increases as was evident in India when the hybrid wheat and rice varieties were released. Despite the widespread use of these biotech varieties, the increased use of pesticides and fertilisers, and the extensive use of tractors, GR remains a dream in Kenya’s food economies.

There have been many incidences where MNCs systematically replace farmers’ own indigenous seeds with their proprietary hybrid seeds by providing “generous seed and fertiliser donations”.

Why is it so difficult to ignite a green revolution in Africa? AGRA has funded projects and lobbied African governments for the development of policies and market structures that promote the adoption of Green Revolution technology packages. Kenya has taken the top spot in enabling the business of agriculture, opening its doors to these biotechnologies. It has won praise and accolades from donors and partners. What else is there to be achieved? It is highly doubtful that affixing Bayer’s Bt. insect toxin gene to the drought-tolerant WEMA (now TELA) trait will be the launch of Kenya’s green (maize) revolution. It is also highly uncertain that Kenyans will suddenly change their modern dietary habits and start eating biotech cassava, engineered, not for high yields, but to resist viruses.

There is a wave of “new genetic modification techniques” touted to lead to the third generation of GMOs. These include genome editing using various tools such as special enzymes to cut, repair, or even bring new segments into the DNA of living food organisms. Such technics appear to be science visioning, with biotech supporters saying that one will be able to delete allergy traits from the DNA of peanuts and make lactose-free milk to the joy of lactose-intolerant populations.  These modification techniques have already been tested out in the current roll-out of mRNA-mediated covid-19 vaccines, and appear poised to make a thundering entrance into Kenya’s and Uganda’s food ecosystem through cassava that is protected against viruses. Noteworthy is that citizen resistance against this GMO technology will be met with a stern and stark reminder that it is the same GM technology that was used to protect us from the coronavirus and its associated mutations. The new GM technology skipped many important safety and risk assessments and the vaccines were released under public emergency orders worldwide.

In 1967, Norman Borlaug’s GR varieties undoubtedly averted food shortages albeit temporarily. But they were unable to deter poverty. In fact, GR technologies might have added to it. The high-yielding seeds demand expensive fertilisers and more water. In India, GR led to rural impoverishment, increased debt, social inequality, and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers.

What then must we do to ensure a just and equitable food system in Kenya? What is the way forward for gene and green revolutions in Kenya? It appears that our experts and technologists have had every room and resource to make Kenya food-secure using all forms of modern biotechnologies yet there have been no significant results to phone home about. Perhaps it is time to cut our losses and shirk the industrial-agricultural model that is based on industrial principles. Climate change is not helping Kenyan farmers. Researchers have been unable to come up with solid biotechnologies that can sustainably overcome stresses from our unique harsh farming climates. Perhaps it is time we looked to nature and farmers’ know-how in using another branch of science called agroecology.

GR agriculture increased farmer debt, which resulted in increased social inequality, and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers who had to make way for larger farms.

Agroecology encourages the building of resilience through crop and varietal biodiversity on the farm. Monocrops are to be avoided to reduce pests and diseases. Farmers and extensionists teach that planting mixed varieties of locally adapted maize on the same farm creates resilience against pests like stem borers and fall armyworms that GMO Bt. maize seeks to control. Farm-level diversity is the key to survival. Seeds with many traits – drought resistance, early ripening tendencies – make for greater ability to adapt to climate change. Relying on just a few varieties is dangerous and making unending royalty payments to the holders of those food varieties is worse as it undermines food sovereignty at the farm level.

Agroecology encourages the defense of farmers’ rights, the rights to nature, and demands the renegotiating of the contract between state and society as stipulated in our 2010 constitution. Farmers have a right to seed for food and livelihoods. They should be able to freely keep, further develop, sell or even gift their planting material as is culturally accepted. The government should be at the forefront of protecting their rights – and not creating skewed power relations between farmers and farm input providers.

Good agroecology practices further demand an accelerated shift towards local food production and short supply chains. The emphasis is on local food sufficiency that encourages ethical consumerism.

There is an urgent need to review, reform, and reconfigure the UN’s agri-food agencies to be more responsive to the poor and disadvantaged in the food system. The FAO (Food Agriculture Organization) and the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) have received funding from the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, swaying research and policy priorities towards more biotechnologies in our food systems. Dr Agnes Kalibata, President of AGRA and board member of the International Fertilizer Development Center, has been appointed as the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit to be held in September 2021. This signals that the summit will be yet another forum that advances the interests of MNCs and agribusiness at the expense of farmers.

It is time to put the seed back into the hands of the farmers. Remember, he who controls the seed controls the food system. If Kenya is to take back control of its food system and reassert its sovereignty over its agriculture, its citizens — free from corporate influences — must be at the forefront of any restructuring of the food system. This is the only path to a just and sustainable food bio-economy that is not subject to the whims and fancies of corporate controllers of biotechnologies.

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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