As he was leaving for work, Stephen Mumbo closed the door to his apartment. It was still dark outside, but he had to be at work early enough to finish a report and prepare for a meeting. In one hand he carried the lunchbox his wife, Roselyne, packed for him every night. In the other, he held his car keys.
A quiet, shy bespectacled man with a balding head and a nerdy aura, he was always polite to a fault. He was also a workaholic, rarely seen anywhere else but at his office desk. But this morning, as he left the apartment, got to the parking lot, and into his maroon Mitsubishi Lancer, registration plate KAS 843M, something else was on his mind.
He was tired, but that fatigue would have to wait. He had barely seen Roselyne and their infant daughter in the preceding two months as he had been busy undoing one of the biggest corporate messes in Kenyan history. It was his brief, but for most of the previous decade and a half, such assignments had been his life.
To anyone watching, nothing was outwardly unusual about Mumbo that cold Friday morning.
From his apartment building, the 9-storey Pangani Palace Apartments off Muthaiga roundabout, he joined the early morning rush hour traffic. Although Nairobi wakes up early to beat the city’s infamous traffic jams, it took him less than 30 minutes to reach his office in Westlands. The sun rose on the horizon and with it, the city. It would be the last time he would take that route.
As he took a gentle left turn off Waiyaki Way to the paved driveway of the twin Delta Towers, the headquarters of his employer, Stephen Mumbo was already a man on edge. But his permanent calm demeanor, which had only failed him on rare occasions, hid the turmoil beneath.
Mumbo waved at the guards as they let him through the barrier. He drove to his parking slot, reverse-parked into it, and walked to the lift. Once in, he pressed the 12 button and waited. When the doors opened, he got off and walked to his office.
Mumbo used his access card to enter the office a few seconds before 6:15 a.m. Even that early on a Friday morning, he was not the first person at the Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) Kenya office. At least four of his colleagues were already at their desks, typing up reports, trying to meet deadlines and preparing for meetings.
Mumbo removed his suit jacket and draped it over his seat. On any other day, he would only wear it again if he had a meeting or if it got cold. He sat at his desk, which was a neatly arranged table with no personal items. It was where he spent days and nights working on assignments, and where, this fateful morning, he would sit one last time. On his mind was a report he had been toiling on for the previous two weeks that was due that morning. But there were many other things troubling him.
Mumbo used his access card to enter the office a few seconds before 6:15a.m. Even that early on a Friday morning, he was not the first person at the Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) Kenya office. At least four of his colleagues were already at their desks, typing up reports, trying to meet deadlines and preparing for meetings.
Six weeks before that morning, UBA Bank had placed ARM Cement, a listed manufacturing company, under PwC’s management over massive debt. The company had been suspended from the Nairobi Stock Exchange (NSE) as its shareholders reeled in disclosures of hidden debts and other forms of corporate malfeasance. While for outsiders it was a story of yet another typical Kenyan company, for Stephen Mumbo it was a direct challenge.
As the Assistant Manager of Executory and Forensic Investigations, the complexities of understanding the company’s true position, and then figuring out ways to solve the mess, fell directly on his desk – and he was just the man for the job. He was not only reliable, he was also driven. In a profession that demands brilliance, he could be considered a proper nerd. Besides, he had worked for PwC for nearly a decade and a half and had proven his skills countless times. If there was a complexity you couldn’t untangle, on just about any project, Stephen Mumbo was the man to ask.
He’d spent 18-hour work days working on the ARM proposal, which was not unusual for him or anyone who worked at PwC. What was specifically different was that Mumbo was a perfectionist par excellence. Grammar was important to him; a comma out of place would unnerve him, and more than once he had chosen to file reports late rather than table them with errors. He approached his work, as one colleague put it, like the civil engineer he had been trained to be. One centimetre off, and the whole structure risks collapse. That perfectionism meant he spent hours and days labouring on not just getting the right proposals on paper, but also on making sure that the language in the reports was clear and concise. It made him irreplaceable, but at the same time, it meant that he could not be promoted.
Sometime between 7:30am and 7:40am, Mumbo asked a colleague whether there was any free meeting room on the 17th floor. There wasn’t, she told him. Despite having this information, he still went upstairs, hoping that the administrator there could find him one. He needed it for a meeting, which was scheduled for 9am, but he also had other things on his mind.
The only thing that might have caught anyone’s attention was that he wasn’t wearing his spectacles, which was rare. His eyes were red, but for a man in his profession, that was considered just another day at the office. It was also not unusual for him to go upstairs hours before a meeting. Since he had left his jacket draped on his chair, everyone assumed he was coming back.
On the 17th floor, Mumbo tried several rooms. He found someone talking on her phone in one of them. She asked him if he had booked the room. He said no, and closed the door. That woman was probably the last person to see him alive.
When he got to Kilimanjaro 2 meeting room, he found it empty. He closed the door behind him. He was physically alone, but no one will ever truly know what kind of torment he was going through. He walked across the room’s polished floors, passing the black and yellow chairs, probably tapping his fingers on the grey top mahogany table. Then he placed his Lenovo laptop on the table, walked to the window, and climbed outside. From there, he could see the Westlands rush hour traffic below him. He could see Waiyaki Way, and even the stretch he had turned into two hours earlier to get into his office, as well as the Westlands matatu stage on the other side of the road. There was the luxury car dealership at the end of the complex, and the parking lot between it and his building. But maybe he didn’t notice any of this as he steadied himself on the ledge.
Then he jumped.
To anyone watching from outside, the fall lasted the blink of an eye. One second Stephen Mumbo was standing on the ledge of the window, and the next he was on the balcony of the 2nd floor, fifteen floors down. It must have looked macabre, the sight of a man falling to his death against the backdrop of Delta Towers’ imposing façade. To the employees at SBM Bank, on whose second-floor window ledge Mumbo died, it sounded like a sudden thud.
Many things drove his choice of the 17th floor, including the fact that it was mostly empty at that time of day, and that from that high up, he was unlikely to survive the fall. Later images from witnesses in the buildings across show four first responders around his lifeless body dressed in a light blue shirt and black suit pants. There wasn’t much anyone could do at that point, and he was pronounced dead immediately after he was taken to the hospital.
Inside PwC Kenya, the immediate members of his team were told to go home or wait if they needed to see a counsellor. Someone retrieved Mumbo’s Lenovo laptop from the meeting room, and from it the report he had spent his last two months alive working on. Everyone else was ordered back to their assignments, even while Mumbo’s body still lay on a ledge below.
As the news of Stephen Mumbo’s fall broke in the capital city, people speculated on whether he had jumped or he had been pushed. On Twitter, people wondered whether there had been foul play; some connected the dots from Mumbo’s sensitive work as a forensic investigator to his fall. There are no cameras in the corridors outside the boardroom, only on the staircases. That blind spot would make it hard for investigators to determine if anyone had joined him in the room.
Others focused on the suicide angle; many wondered why a 41-year-old man with a well-paying job would choose to end his life. Some suggested domestic issues had driven Mumbo to his death; one strangely detailed tweet suggested infidelity. But the public speculation ignored the probability that only Stephen Mumbo knew what Stephen Mumbo was going through. In the absence of a suicide note in any form – none has been found – piecing back the last few years of his life is probably the only way to understand why he killed himself.
As the news of Stephen Mumbo’s fall broke in the capital city, people speculated on whether he had jumped or he had been pushed. On Twitter, people wondered whether there had been foul play; some connected the dots from Mumbo’s sensitive work as a forensic investigator to his fall.
By the time he died, Stephen Mumbo was one of only three employees who had been at PwC Kenya for more than 13 years. He’d only had one job outside PwC (as a design engineer between March 2003 and April 2004) before joining the accounting firm. The only other company he had worked for was a small Malawian smallholder farmer’s company where he had done a brief consultancy in 2016. PwC was, by all accounts, more home to him than his apartment was. The job fit his personality as it required a meticulous, borderline obsessive mind.
Mumbo was, by many accounts, a good boss and an effective team leader who avoided office politics. In a profession where kindness is rare, he was overly compassionate and helpful. Sometimes, according to several people who worked with him over the years, he would volunteer to help on a project and eventually take a leadership role. But he was the kind of colleague who took on team projects and then credited everyone else. According to at least one insider, the kind of work Stephen Mumbo was handling on ARM Cement was probably work that should have been handled by a team of six.
Mumbo’s perfectionism and thoroughness also made him irreplaceable. Most of the people who eventually became his bosses owed some of their success to him. He trained them, as he did many other people, but they passed him in rank because he was not assertive. In a meeting room, he would point out flaws in plans in a heartbeat, but recoil when asked how to change them. Instead, he would draft his thoughts and offer them to someone else to present.
But he enjoyed the work itself. The constant mental challenge must have been a thrill at the beginning of his career, but it slowly chipped away at his mental health.
By October 2018, he couldn’t take it anymore. “They [PwC] plied him with so much work, and he wasn’t the type to say no, so he did it anyway. He was always very well groomed, but always tired,” said a relative.
By the time Pricewaterhouse Coopers bought part of Delta Towers in late 2012 for Sh4.4 billion in a joint deal with the University of Nairobi, it was already one of the biggest auditing firms in the world. The company was founded in 1998 through a merger between Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse, and rebranded to PwC in September 2010. By then, it was present in 158 countries and 743 locations, battling it out with three other audit firms, Deloitte, EY, and KPMG. PwC had over 236,000 people in its ranks, among them a quiet Kenyan nerd called Stephen Mumbo.
The PwC Tower, one of the two towers that make up Delta Towers, became PwC’s new home from early 2013. It was a remarkable investment by a company partially owned by Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani. PwC Kenya settled for Wing B of the 20-storey twin towers, occupying half and renting out the other half. Upper Hill, its former home, was losing its lustre as new buildings came up without the infrastructure to support them. Now, in the newest building on the corner of Waiyaki Way and Ring Road Westlands, its employees were spoilt for choice on where to live. Location was important because many of them would work long hours, driving to and from work while the city slept.
As an employer, PwC Kenya consistently ranks as one of the best places to work in Nairobi. Entry-level graduate trainees earn an average monthly salary of Sh120,000, and its partners, according to Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), are some high-net-worth individuals with gross annual incomes of between Sh350 million and Sh1 billion.
For the ARM job, PwC charged Sh65.6 million for the first three months, in addition to Sh7.9 million for preparatory work. While the PwC partners appointed to do the job were Muniu Thoithi and George Weru, the actual legwork went to a quiet nerd on the 12th floor called Stephen Mumbo. Thoithi and Weru would earn Sh43,000 per hour, while associate directors would earn Sh37,800, senior managers Sh30,000, and project managers Sh25,000 per hour. As a manager, Mumbo’s pay most likely fell in the two lower ranks. But to earn his keep, he would have to spend hours on end poring through reports, preparing his own recommendations, and presenting them to his bosses and the client.
By the time Mumbo got to his desk at 6:15am on Friday, 12th October, he had had less than three hours of sleep. He had gone home at 1am the previous night. He fell asleep fast, but he was clearly distressed, according to several close family members. He kept tossing and turning and woke up before daylight to get back on the grind.
Multiple conversations with past and current employees of PwC Kenya paint the picture of a firm with little space for work-life balance. Long hours and mind-breaking work are the norm, and most employees, like Stephen Mumbo, tend to live close to Delta Towers to ease the commute to work. The employee turnover rate is understandably high, as the work environment becomes more unbearable as one ages and begins seeking a better work-life balance.
Describing his experience at PwC, one employee said, “Deadlines have to be met and bonuses have to be earned. Your health is your problem. If you can’t handle the pressure, quit.” Another termed PwC’s work culture as “ruthless”, adding that even “having a baby is frowned upon.” Lunch breaks, several employees said, are not exactly an option: “Nobody goes for a long leisurely lunch at PwC. Many people eat at their desks.” The average work day, said several employees, is 14 hours. If you are on a project, it’s not unusual to work 18-hour days.
Under Kenyan law, normal working hours are between 45 hours and 52 hours a week for day employees and 60 hours for night employees. The law also provides for at least one rest day a week. At 14-18 hours a day, Stephen Mumbo and his colleagues were clocking between 84 hours to 126 hours a week, twice the legal limit. While the law also provides for overtime, the overriding element is that it be properly compensated, and not result in overworking, which impairs sleep patterns and increases the risk of stress, depression, and lower immunity. Overwork has been associated with heart problems, and among low-income workers, with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. People who overwork tend to lead unhealthy lifestyles, having less time to exercise, eat. They also tend to smoke or drink more.
Describing his experience at PwC, one employee said, “Deadlines have to be met and bonuses have to be earned. Your health is your problem. If you can’t handle the pressure, quit.” Another termed PwC’s work culture as “ruthless”, adding that even “having a baby is frowned upon.”
Stephen Mumbo seemed to have navigated many of the physical challenges of overworking for almost a decade and a half. He was in good health, didn’t smoke, and barely drank alcohol. But the mental strain was showing.
All the interviewees for this story did not want to be named for fear of retribution for breaking company policy. In more than one case, there were also descriptions of the kind of retribution they might face, down to being put on track to be fired. More often than not, the interviewees still within PwC Tower outlined their basic exit plans and described Mumbo’s death as the latest in a series of wake-up calls.
For those who choose to stay, like Stephen Mumbo, the back-breaking work eventually leads to burnout. There was at least one other breakdown at the office in 2017, and several employees whispered about people self-harming or using drugs to cope with the pressure. For Stephen Mumbo, years of such pressure had finally taken their toll.
Mumbo’s distress on that last night was not the only time he had shown signs of work-related stress and depression. In the years before his death, he had had at least three visible episodes of burnout and mental distress at work. In 2015, he had a breakdown in the office and walked out on his boss. He was away from the office for a month. Meanwhile, work was still piling up; Shah Karuturi, the Kenyan subsidiary of the world’s biggest producer of cut roses, was placed under administration sometime during his break. This project was on his desk when he got back.
Then, in mid-2017, a colleague recalls, Mumbo fell asleep in the middle of a presentation with a client. “He was totally burned out, but his bosses simply told him to go to another boardroom and sleep for 45 minutes and then get back to work,” remembered the colleague. Such was life for him, going from one burnout to the next.
The third instance was perhaps the most significant in piecing together Stephen Mumbo’s last years alive. It happened years before he finally took his life, and linked back to the pillars in his adult life.
Run to the finish
Mumbo’s village in Kisumu, Nyamasaria, is a hot, dry, humid area. The land is infertile because its black cotton soil sucks the life out of any cash crop. Only weeds, euphorbia, and coarse grass are stubborn enough to grow on the land.
It was in this unforgiving terrain that Stephen Henry Mumbo was born to Arthur Waore Mumbo, an administrator at KEMRI, and Abigael Waore, a teacher at Nyamasaria Primary School in 1977. Mumbo was the last-born in a family of five.
Arthur Waore died in 1992, the year before Stephen joined St. Paul’s Amukura. The young teen moved to Alupe, Busia, to live under the care of his uncle, Mzee Obura, a doctor who still works for KEMRI. All accounts of Stephen Mumbo then match the man he would become: quiet, studious, and driven. According to his cousin, Fred Obura, Mumbo was more than just a brother. They were best friends and even went to the same high school.
Then, in mid-2017, a colleague recalls, Mumbo fell asleep in the middle of a presentation with a client. “He was totally burned out, but his bosses simply told him to go to another board room and sleep for 45 minutes and then get back to work,” remembered the colleague. Such was life for him, going from one burnout to the next.
In the 1990s, St. Paul’s Amukura, founded by Catholic priest Father Louis Okidoi in 1962, was an academic giant in what is now Busia County. The school motto, Cursum Consumavi, is Latin for “Run to the Finish.” When Stephen Mumbo was a student there, between 1993 and 1996, he lived in Nehru dormitory, named after the charismatic Indian leader.
In his teens, Stephen Mumbo walked awkwardly and avoided conversation. Several fellow alumni of St. Paul’s describe Mumbo’s shyness with fascination. Mumbo was, one says, the guy who wanted the key to the library when everyone else was chasing girls and dates. Odeo Sirari, a KTN news editor, was in Form One when Mumbo was in his final year. “As a new student, it was easy for me to notice Mumbo because he looked so serious, a total book worm,” recalls Sirari.
Another schoolmate, Caleb Etyang, who was a year ahead of Mumbo, says Mumbo would never be found on the school Isuzu bus, christened Kisisiata 3, which served the school between 1990 and 1999, and was driven by a gentle old man the boys fondly called Boyo. “He wasn’t a guy to go for sports or drama outings, he was much more at home in the school and in the library.” In his first two years at the school, he was the class prefect. In his last two years, he was the library prefect.
Mumbo topped the class of 1996 at the school, his only disappointment being that he hadn’t beaten the record of Adiema Aura, a renowned educationist who attended the school in the 80s. He’d only failed to overthrow Aura because he didn’t do well in Kiswahili; he scored an A-minus in the subject.
From St. Paul’s, he made his way to JKUAT, where he would spend the next few years training to become a civil engineer. Engineering offered the challenges a nerd like him yearned for, with its tenets of approaching problems and challenges with a tenacity that combined knowledge, skills and experience. After graduating, he did an accounting course and then took a brief engineering gig. Then he joined PwC Kenya, where he would spend the rest of his life, save for two unpaid sabbaticals.
Throughout this life, Mumbo relied mostly on his mother, Abigael, for emotional support. He had his siblings as well, as well as his adopted ones who were in fact, his cousins. But it was Abigael who represented the most profound influence on her shy young son’s life before and after school.
Then, on 3rd June 2008, Abigael Waore died.
Multiple accounts point to a marked change in Mumbo’s life, work, and demeanor after his mum died. He simply couldn’t work anymore; he took a one-year unpaid sabbatical before going back to work. At some point, either then or after, Mumbo also mounted a massive portrait of his mother in his bedroom. Her face was the last thing he saw before he slept and the first thing he saw when he woke up.
Colleagues say that whenever he was not shy, he would talk about his mum a lot. After she died, he mostly talked about his wife Roselyne. They had been married for seven years but had spent a considerable time apart as Roselyne focused on a project in Kisumu and Mumbo toiled at PwC Tower. On days when they were together, his lunch box was the source of envy, as colleagues listened to him go on and on about his wife’s cooking. On any day, even when out of the country on assignment, he would speak to her on the phone for at least an hour.
In the three months before his tragic fall, he also talked about his daughter. The couple had tried to have a baby for several years before finally settling on adoption to grow their family. The toddler was a new addition, and a happy one at that. Mumbo often talked about his daughter, but also said how he didn’t get enough time to be with her.
Mumbo’s suicide was not the first time a PwC employee had died after jumping from a floor in a PwC office. In April 2016, a 23-year-old employee of the PwC headquarters in London had jumped to his death from PwC’s ten-storey office building. His decision was attributed to a secret gambling habit, which he had begged his parents not to inform PwC about. He died on a walkway outside the office.
In another case, in May 2012, a 46-year old man jumped off the eighth floor of the PwC building in Largo, the third largest city in Pinellas County, Florida. In 2015, a director at PwC in the UAE, Jumana, was found dead in an apparent suicide pact with her sister, Soraya Saiti, at the base of a building under construction in Amman, Jordan. Then in August 2017, a PwC director named Werner Haupfleisch died by suicide in his home in Royldene, South Africa.
While none of these deaths were directly linked to PwC’s organisational culture, there have been other related deaths. In 2011, for example, Angela Pan, an auditor at the Shanghai PwC office, died ten days after first showing flu-like symptoms. Although her death was attributed to viral encephalitis, social media users of Sina Weibo speculated that she had been “worked to death”, Sometime before her death, Pan sent an update on Sina Weibo that said, “I can accept overtime. I can also accept out-of-town business trips. But on learning a young worker died from fatigue at KP (KPMG), I feel something has broken my bottom line to endure.” She had only worked for the company for six months, after graduating from Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Faith Atsango, a psychologist, says that work-related stress should be classified as a safety hazard. “People in high pressure jobs are prone to have mental breakdowns,” she adds, “and such incidents should be treated as physical health and safety issues at work.” Atsango says that similar to how factories provide safety gear, stressful work environments should find ways to help employees cope, and ease burnout. Many of these are included in the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which also safeguards employees from “mental strain”.
Faith Atsango, a psychologist, says that work-related stress should be classified as a safety hazard. “People in high pressure jobs are prone to have mental breakdowns,” she adds, “and such incidents should be treated as physical health and safety issues at work.”
Despite these safeguards, high unemployment and weak enforcement of labour laws mean that work-related stress is not properly addressed. Mental health is still largely a taboo topic, despite an increasing number of deaths directly connected to it.
Part of the stigma attached to mental health is gender-related; statistics show that more than 70 per cent of the suicide-related deaths in 2017 were of males. Two days after Mumbo’s death, another man jumped into a borehole in Matisi Estate, Kitale. Five months before that, another man had jumped off the 8th floor of the 15-storey NSSF building in Mombasa.
There are numerous reasons for the gender disparity, most of them revolving around the social silence on depression and other mental health issues among men. Even worse, the stresses of living and working in a fast-paced urban centre pile up. The stresses include underemployment, overwork, length of the commute to work, and stagnant pay levels in a struggling economy.
A 1982 study on the subject showed that while the population in Nairobi grew by 7.5 per cent between 1975 and 1979, the rate of suicides grew by 300 per cent. The study also found a pattern in the months with the highest suicide rates; suicides tend to occur in the months of January to March, April to June, and October to December. There have been other studies focusing on at-risk groups, such as university students, but there is barely any substantive research on work-related stress and depression.
Then there’s the law. Instead of the law taking a pragmatic approach to the reasons why people take their own lives, it treats suicide as a crime. Attempted suicide is a misdemeanour punishable by two years’ imprisonment or fines, or both. This means that if Stephen Mumbo had survived his fall, which was unlikely, he would have promptly been arrested and thrown before a judge. That legal perspective and the social stigma also mean that suicide goes largely unacknowledged as the social issue it is.
Despite the legal and social hurdles, there have been some attempts to provide psychological wellness for several at-risk groups. In October, the same month Stephen Mumbo died, the National Police Service created a new department to assess the psychological wellness of officers. There had been at least five reported suicides of police officers in the preceding months. A few months later, the education ministry raised the alarm on an increasing number of death by suicide among university students.
In corporate workplaces such as PwC Kenya, the inclusion of psychological wellness has been at best abstract. PwC Global has made several public commitments to facilitate mental health awareness within its ranks. PwC UK, for example, has a “Green Light to Talk Day” and hired Beth Taylor as its new mental health leader in January 2016. PwC Malaysia has a “FitPwC” programme that combines physical and mental wellbeing. PwC Kenya does not have any such programme, and several employees described recent events, such as a meeting where management sought ideas on how to improve the work environment, as window-dressing.
As a consulting firm, PwC has published several reports on workplace stress. In 2017, PwC UK published a report on tackling workplace stress with technology. Three years before that, PwC Australia published a report titled “Creating a mentally healthy workplace.” The irony of such reports, according to a former long-term employee of PwC, is that they were most likely prepared by people who were themselves working in a mentally unhealthy environment.
A few hours after Mumbo’s death, Peter Ngahu, PwC’s regional and country senior partner, held a press conference where he said, “It’s difficult to keep track of what each and every person is doing.” He refused to answer the question about whether Mumbo had been alone in the meeting room before he fell to his death. His response was: “He may have had a meeting, but he’s not here to answer the question.”
After that, Ngahu and Mumbo’s bosses, Muniu Thoithi and George Weru, declined any more media interviews into the death. Both Ngahu and Thoithi didn’t pick calls or answer text messages about the company’s work culture and measures they would institute to help employees deal with work-related stress. Reached for comment, George Weru declined, saying “No, no, no, I would not wish to say anything about this issue. The boss, Ngahu, issued a press statement and held a press conference on the matter last Friday.”
At PwC Tower, life continued almost as if nothing significant had happened there on October 12th. If Mumbo’s death had been “a big blow” to PwC Kenya, as Ngahu termed it in his press release, then it didn’t show. There was counselling for a few of the staff members in Mumbo’s team, but then everyone went back to work even before his body was removed from the scene.
The ARM project, his last, continued unabated, as did the entire firm. Eleven days after he stepped off the ledge of the 17th floor meeting room, ARM’s creditors approved an extension of PwC’s mandate to September 2019. It will be going on to this next phase without one of its ablest minds. In a meeting on October 22nd, the creditors also gave PwC permission to implement several options to revive the company. These, most likely sourced from Mumbo’s work, include getting a strategic investor and selling off some of the company’s key assets. It is unclear whether he had been the one who discovered that for years, ARM Cement had been treating a loan to its Tanzanian subsidiary as a performing loan while Maweni had been defaulting for years.
At PwC Tower, life continued almost as if nothing significant had happened there on October 12th. If Mumbo’s death had been “a big blow” to PwC Kenya, as Ngahu termed it in his press release, then it didn’t show. There was counselling for a few of the staff members in Mumbo’s team, but then everyone went back to work even before his body was removed from the scene.
Even before the shock of his sudden death waned, Mumbo’s friends and family organised meetings and fundraisers. At Tumaini Meeting Chambers behind Kencom House, they planned a farewell to a man who had seemed like he had it all. Many of his colleagues could not make it to the meetings because they were working. Instead, they sent cash donations and condolences.
On Friday, 26th October 2018, exactly two weeks after Mumbo had ended his life, they left in a convoy from Montezuma Funeral Home and drove to Mumbo’s home in Nyamasaria. The next day, at 9 am, they sat as the priest prayed, and then watched in grief as the casket bearing Mumbo’s body was slowly lowered into the grave. It was heartbreaking, a tragedy by any measure. A man who, after living off his brilliance, had ended up back in the unforgiving soil where he had first seen the world. For Roselyne and their daughter, it was the beginning of a life without Mumbo, who was at the time the sole breadwinner in the household.
On the 2nd floor ledge at Delta Towers, where Mumbo breathed his last, the dent his body left is still prominent, a stark reminder of his tragic end. In the parking lot, his Mitsubishi Lancer sat untouched for months, parked in the same spot where he left it.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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