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My Sons Are Dead: A Mother’s Cry for Justice

16 min read.

As Kenya’s forgotten mothers get worn out by the load of a nation’s collective misdeeds in pursuit of political power, a day shall come when the Mama Victors will no longer be in a position to continue doing national duty as national trauma-bearers.

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My Sons Are Dead: A Mother’s Cry for Justice
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It was around 2 pm, 9th August, a day after the 2017 general election. Bernard, 25, and Victor, 22, alighted from different matatus in Nairobi’s Mathare neighbourhood. Bernard got off at stage number 10, while Victor, who was technically his younger brother, was dropped off hapo kwa vitanda (at the roadside kiosks)according to their mother’s account. Born to sisters, Bernard’s mother passed away when he was barely in his teens. He then moved in with his aunt, Mama Victor, who raised him alongside her three sons and daughter.

‘‘They grew up together,’’ Mama Victor told me when I met her in Mathare. ‘‘They were both my sons.’’

Bernard was back from Gikomba, where he worked as a tailor. Victor, a casual labourer, had come from his place of work in Westlands. They had voted in Mathare the previous morning, before reporting to work a little late than usual. On reporting to work on the 9th, they were both granted a day off, seeing that the country was on edge awaiting results of the hotly contested presidential election. Upon arriving in Mathare, the brothers found the roads blocked by protestors coming from as far as Dandora and Kayole, held back by a police cordon. That is why both Bernard and Victor disembarked from their matatus before arriving at their designated stage.

‘‘When they got off the matatus,’’ Mama Victor narrates, ‘‘they found huge crowds gathered in front of them.’’

After quickly reconnecting, Bernard and Victor looked around, recognizing familiar faces. Curious to know what the hullabaloo was all about, they walked over to their friends, asking what the matter was.

‘‘They liked asking each other Rada?Rada?’’ Mama Victor tells me, Sheng for, what’s the plan?

‘‘They didn’t even get too far into the crowd,’’ Mama Victor recollects being told by witnesses what happened.

‘‘Bernard was suddenly shot in the head, his brains blown out. Victor was shot in the stomach. I believe Victor was shot twice, though the medical report says he was shot once. His intestines spilled out. He had to hold them back using both his hands.’’

‘‘When Victor’s intestines fell out,’’ Mama Victor says and pauses, drifting away in thought…‘‘You know there are those things which if they happen to you, your body suffers a huge shock. I think when both Victor and the policemen saw his intestines hanging, they were all terrified. So Victor tried holding his intestines back, as the policemen rushed to where he was, as if they had just realized whatever damage they had done.’’

‘‘He succumbed before getting to the local hospital,’’ she says, ‘‘where the police were rushing him to.’’

Bernard, who Mama Victor says died instantly from the shot in the head, was left lying at the scene. There was nothing to salvage, with his skull shattered. A third young man, who Mama Victor says was called Paul Omena from Huruma area, and whose parents she hasn’t been able to locate to date, was also shot dead. A fourth, the luckier one of the lot, survived with a bullet wound.

Mathare had swallowed her sons alive

News reached Mama Victor at her Mathare Area 4A home that kuna vijana wameangushwa ( Some young men have been shot dead). What no one told her was that two of those vijanas were her sons. At about 3 pm, a sympathetic eyewitness knocked on her door and broke the news. Her two sons were dead.

‘‘I didn’t understand what they meant when they said my sons had been killed by the police,’’ Mama Victor remembers, ‘‘They had never had any run-ins with law enforcement. I even wondered why they had to kill them both. It didn’t make sense. Families in Mathare lost sons, but losing two sons at one go was strange.’’

By the time she got to the scene, Bernard’s body had been taken away. There was heavy police presence at the scene, Mama Victor recollects. Mathare was uninhabitable and inconsolable.

Permission to Mourn

Amid the chaos that followed the August 8 general election ( 2017) – protests by opposition supporters and police crackdowns in informal settlements like Mathare – Mama Victor had to find a way to hurriedly fundraise before transporting the bodies of Victor and Bernard to their rural home in Western Kenya for burial.

‘‘I was lucky because at least the police allowed us to mourn my sons,’’ she says. ‘‘Others are not so lucky.’’

One may wonder why anyone would need permission from the police to mourn their loved ones, usually shot dead by the police. But in Mathare’s stark reality, when young men are shot dead by the police, families have to negotiate with law enforcement for them to be allowed to either hold vigils, publicly fundraise or even erect a tent where mourners gather to condole with the family.

Amid the chaos that followed the August 8 general election ( 2017) – protests by opposition supporters and police crackdowns in informal settlements like Mathare – Mama Victor had to find a way to hurriedly fundraise before transporting the bodies of Victor and Bernard to their rural home in Western Kenya for burial.

‘‘Here in Mathare,’’ Mama Victor explains, ‘‘if your son is killed and the police label him a criminal, they won’t allow you to mourn him. You can’t have any gatherings. They won’t allow it to happen and if you insist on going ahead with one anyway, they will walk in and arrest you. Everyone here knows that much”.

Besides the ‘privilege’ of mourning Victor and Bernard, neighbours warned Mama Victor that she had to transport the bodies of her sons out of Nairobi before the Supreme Court ruled on the validity of the August 8 presidential election. By this time, the opposition coalition was in the final stages of arguing its petition against what it considered an irregular presidential vote. Kenya continued to be on tenterhooks.

‘‘There were fears in Mathare that whichever way the Supreme Court ruled,’’ Mama Victor remembers,‘‘a fresh wave of protests and police killings would break out, meaning no one would risk coming out to help me with either fundraising or funeral arrangements. I had to move fast. I was mourning and simultaneously thinking on my feet. You carry the pain of unfair deaths in your heart, but still keep your head functioning.’’

By this time, Victor and Bernard had already stayed in the morgue for close to a month, due to lack of money to transport their bodies home for burial. The meetings in Mathare could not raise a substantial amount of cash in good time, meaning they had to continue holding mini-fundraisings. In the end, Mama Victor made do with whatever little she had managed to raise, lest the Supreme Court ruling found her in Nairobi.

‘‘It was a quick burial,’’ Mama Victor narrates. ‘‘By the time we got to Western Kenya, we found the graves had already been dug and went right ahead with the internment. My sons had overstayed at the morgue.’’

By this time, Victor and Bernard had already stayed in the morgue for close to a month, due to lack of money to transport their bodies home for burial. The meetings in Mathare could not raise a substantial amount of cash in good time, meaning they had to continue holding mini-fundraisings. In the end, Mama Victor made do with whatever little she had managed to raise, lest the Supreme Court ruling found her in Nairobi.

The Pursuit of Justice

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind in Mathare that Victor and Bernard were killed by the police. Hundreds of protestors witnessed their shooting.The police themselves went as far as attempting to save Victor’s life, seeing that he hadn’t died instantly. In an ideal scenario, the case should have been an open and shut matter, with the National Police Service owning up to its officer’s excesses. Even more encouraging was the fact that there now existed the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian agency created by an Act of Parliament (2011), which is mandated with ensuring civilian oversight on police action.

However, to the surprise of Mathare residents who have been following the case, justice remains elusive.

‘‘There are people here in Mathare who have video recordings of the police either summarily executing or beating someone to death,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘If you asked people to bring those video clips today,they’ll come forward. But what we have learnt is that no matter what amount of evidence you have, there are no guarantees that justice will be done. I have waited since 2017 for something to be done to get justice for my sons. To date, nothing has been done by either IPOA or the numerous human rights organizations.’’

After the shooting of her sons, the Mathare Social Justice Center (MSJC), one of the pioneer grassroots documenters of extrajudicial killings, reached out to Mama Victor. In a sense, MSJC has become the last line of defense for Mathare residents, where beyond just securing and preserving evidence in the form of detailed statements, young men have literally sought refuge at the center while being pursued by killer cops. However, for a community-based organization, MSJC, like other social justice centers across Nairobi’s informal settlements, has huge limitations, starting with budgetary and capacity constraints. MSJC therefore acts as a conveyor belt for IPOA and more established human rights organizations, to whom they hand over statements and evidence, with the expectation of an escalation of matters; prosecution and compensation.

MSJC was therefore Mama Victor’s first port of call, from where she was assisted to lodge her case with IPOA and a number of human rights organizations, whose mandate includes seeking legal redress in cases such as hers. Mama Victor must have been mistaken to imagine that her case would be given first priority, because of the available evidence and the enormity of her loss. The death of her two sons. To date, IPOA is yet to present her case to court over a year and a half later.

‘‘A lot of times these women don’t even have bus fare,’’ Wangui Kimari of MSJC, tells me. ‘‘Yet we try to convince them to miss a day’s work for them to record statements with IPOA or attend follow up meetings. Sometimes we take their cases to human rights organizations with capacity to prosecute, but after going through the motions, they send us back to IPOA, citing one technicality or another. It gets extremely tiring and frustrating for these women. It starts to feel like justice is a mirage.’’

‘‘Being a witness in a case against the police can be difficult,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘You can be killed either before or after you testify. Yet if you go to IPOA, it doesn’t matter if you have video clips. They want witnesses, yet everyone is afraid. Why don’t they use other methods like examining bullets found in the bodies of victims and determining whose gun they originated from? People are totally afraid of testifying.’’

If you asked anyone in Mathare to testify in a courtroom against a policeman, they will most likely remind you of the case of Christopher Maina, where the lead witness was assassinated. Maina, a twenty-something year old who was picked up from Pirates base in Mathare just before the 2017 general election and shot dead by a plain clothes policeman. The summarily execution was witnessed by one of Maina’s friends. In the course of justice for Maina, the friend became a voluntary witness, going as far as recording a statement with IPOA. It was not long before Maina’s friend was murdered, a murder that Mathare residents attribute to a notorious killer cop.

‘‘If they can kill an IPOA witness,’’ a Mathare resident posed, ‘‘then who is safe to ever testify?’’

Organizations such as the International Justice Mission (IJM) have taken up some cases involving police shootings, which complaints were originally with IPOA. However, there is discontentment in the manner the cases are selected. Mathare residents wonder, why some cases are seemingly more equal than others.

‘‘We want the police prosecuted and our families compensated,’’ Mama Victor offers. ‘‘That’s all we want.’’

In the process of speaking to residents of Mathare, I learn that there are more families whose loved ones were shot during the 2017 general election. However, due to the amount of fear the police have instilled in Mathare, these aggrieved families have opted to suffer in silence than dare step up and speak up against police brutality. They won’t even record statements, suffering from a mind numbing mix of fear and trauma.

‘‘The other reason why some mothers and wives choose to live quietly with the pain is because they feel that even if they speak up, justice can never be done,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘They can see the trouble some of us have gone through, yet to date, nothing has happened. Not even a mere court case has been opened.’’

‘‘Some of those who are suffering the most are survivors of police shootings during the elections, from the campaign period,’’ a resident who sought anonymity tells me. ‘‘We have some who can’t even afford healthcare. They are rotting in their houses, straining their financially incapacitated families as they await death. Majority have become disabled. In fact there’s one who is still living with a bullet. Doctors said if they remove it, he would die. He is traumatized because he knows death is only a matter of time. Another one was shot on the shoulder. He was released from a moving police vehicle, and as he was running into his home when he got shot. We have all these cases in Mathare. But IPOA doesn’t want to come and setbase here.’’

Mothers and Widows

United in grief, Mama Victor joined a number of women and widows whose sons and husbands were either killed or injured by police bullets during the 2017 general election. They formed an association, the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors, borrowing a leaf from the hundreds of mothers and widows across Nairobi’s informal settlements, who have lost loved ones to extrajudicial killings over time.

‘‘Currently, my network has mothers and widows of 35 survivors, 12 victims and 12 orphans,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘The victims are the dead, survivors are those who were shot but didn’t die. Some are disabled.’’

Mama Victor, who is the group’s coordinator, tells me that after she met the mothers and widows inside the network she realized how dire things were for these women, not only for her who had lost two sons.

‘‘The youngest widow in my group is an 18 year old,’’ she says, ‘‘who lost her first husband to police bullets before she was 16. On turning 16, her second husband was shot during the 2017 general election. She’s now raising a three year old without a job or anyone to fend for her. Her own mother is bed ridden. Imagine that.’’

Aside from Mama Victor, the group, which has representation from various informal settlements in Nairobi including Dandora, Kayole, Mukuru, Kiambio, Kibera, among others, has a 27 year old who is raising two sons, a 12 and 7 year old, as the oldest member. The median age of group members is below 25, with majority of their children aged under 5. This terrifying reality is a function of a poverty stricken environment, where early marriage becomes a way out of destitution for most young girls.

On the passing of Victor and Bernard, Mama Victor was left with two young widows to cater for.

‘‘Both Bernard and Victor left a wife and a child’’ she says, ‘‘and so for the months following their killing, I had to support the young wives as much as I could. But in the end, I couldn’t manage to keep them afloat. Bernard’s wife, who was an orphan, remarried. She now has a two month old baby from her new marriage. Victor’s wife, who lost her mother, retreated to her village. They’re both just trying to move on with life.’’

From time to time, women in Mama Victor’s network have to make tough choices. One of the more common ones is the decision whether to work or pursue justice for their husbands and sons. But seeing that most women from Mathare work as domestic workers, it becomes difficult for their employers to allow them consecutive off days, especially when they need to interact with either human rights organizations or IPOA, in pursuit of their cases. Therefore a good number of the women end up either losing their jobs, or not earning enough to support their young families.

‘‘I had to quit my job because I had to seek justice for my sons,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘My employer couldn’t allow me to keep missing work. It became difficult chasing two birds at one go. I had to let go of one.’’

Even for those willing to work, Mama Victor tells me of kukaa kwa mawe (Sitting on stone blocks), where women go looking for work, but because the economy is doing badly, they end up sitting on the roadside the whole day, waiting for families to call them in for menial work. When the jobs aren’t forthcoming, it means families sleep hungry.

‘‘I visit them and feel their pain,’’ she says, ‘‘just to make them know we’re in this together. Someone should come to the rescue of these women, even if they’ll just take care of the kids. We’re already well organized.’’

‘‘I am sorry to say this,’’ Mama Victor opens up, ‘‘but the most heartbreaking thing I have had to live with has been knowing that some young widows have had to turn to prostitution. As a mother, nothing hurts me more than seeing young women resort to selling their bodies for survival. It tells you they have reached the end of the road and given up. They come to me hoping I can offer them something, anything. But when they get to my house, they realize that I am also literally living hand to mouth. We are really suffering.’’

‘‘My heart hurts deeply,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘It’s just that I can’t always display my heartbreak.’’

Being Mama Victor

After telling and retelling her story, either to human rights organizations documenting extrajudicial killings or to investigators at IPOA, Mama Victor has gotten to a point where all she can afford in terms of emotional giveaways is to strike a forlorn look. She tells me she has run out of tears, to a point where she now speaks about her sons’ deaths as if it were a distant occurrence from a faraway dream. She is a lonely spectator, burdened with nightmarish enduring memories.

Three weeks after burying her sons, Mama Victor was back in Mathare. She would have wanted to stay in the village longer, but things were a little complicated. Following Baba Victor’s death in 2010, she had run into problems with her husband’s family over her children’s inheritance, land. A helpless widow, she lacked financial or other muscle to push back against errant family members. She surrendered to her fate.

‘‘The entire village was on my side,’’ Mama Victor tells me, ‘‘but at the end of the day, there’s nothing they could do. The immediate family had the final say on the matter, and no one could overrule them. I lost out.’’

Mama Victor first came to Nairobi with the sole intention of pursuing her husband’s pension. He worked as a civil servant, but on investigating what had happened to Baba Victor’s retirement benefits, she was informed that the money had been disbursed to his bank account by the government, but that someone had mysteriously withdrawn the entire amount. There was no way she could be assisted, unless she pursued the matter with the police. Broke and dejected, Mama Victor retreated to a church in Eastleigh, where she was urged by a group of women congregants to start afresh, lest the weight of her tribulations overwhelmed and killed her.

‘‘I started doing domestic work for families in Eastleigh,’’ Mama Victor recalls, ‘‘earning 2,300 shillings per month. At the time, my children had moved in with my parents at their rural home in Busia.The money was so little. I felt stuck, unable to provide for my children in any meaningful way.’’

With the help of women from the church, who donated household items; a blanket here, a mattress there and a few sufurias, Mama Victor managed to start all over again. Her plan was to stabilize before bringing the children over, to join her in Nairobi. With a meagre salary and chattel from the women, she rented a place.

‘‘Rent was 1,300,’’ she says. ‘‘The deposit for the house was another 1,300. That means on the first month when I rented the place, I was left without a coin. In fact, I had to look for an extra 300 to clear the payment.’’

In her little house in Mathare, Mama Victor lived with her daughter and four sons, among them Victor and Bernard. They were joined by two sons born to Mama Victor’s brother in-law. It was a full house in the literal sense, but Mama Victor had no complaints. They were all happy together. With time, the boys started getting work, marrying and moving out. Other than her youngest son, who is now 12, Victor was the youngest of the lot, much as he seemed older than everyone else due to his impressive height.

‘‘He was handsome and tidy,’’ she says of Victor. ‘‘Everyone wanted to be like him, to imitate him. He loved cleanliness from the time he was a little boy. He always stood out. He was such a lovely boy.’’

Mama Victor runs out of adjectives describing her son. There is no doubt that Victor was his mother’s pride.

‘‘Bernard and Victor loved to fool around,’’ she says, ‘‘you can’t say they were violent. Bernard was talkative whenever he was with Victor, but wouldn’t talk much ordinarily. He used to stutter. They loved each other, but beyond that, they had so much love and respect for me. I wish you saw how they behaved around me. If they had passed here and seen me, they’d have come running, saying mathe, mathe, we hadn’t seen you. ’’

Listening to Mama Victor talk, there is no doubt that something truly precious was brutally taken away from her. She speaks fondly, especially of Victor, as if he left with some unfulfilled promises, possibly to work hard and lift his mother out of the precarious existence of his birth. Despite her stoicism, one cannot miss the moments of frailty in Mama Victor’s voice. No one can bring Victor and Bernard back to life but they should at least be consensus that their deaths were unfair and unjustified.

‘‘Vitu zilienda mrama,’’ she says, things went south.

‘‘Sijui nitafanyaaje.’’ I don’t know what to do now.

Tell Uhuru and Raila

On the day I am meeting Mama Victor, she has just come back from her last born son’s school, where the 12 year old is facing a disciplinary case. The teachers have refused to allow him back in class, demanding a considerable sum of money as compensation for whatever damage the boy caused at school. Mama Victor doesn’t have that kind of money, and therefore the headteacher turned her away, refusing to give her back her son’s school bag or allow him anywhere near the school.

With her is Terry, Victor’s three year old daughter, who keeps pulling at her dress, calling her shosho. After Victor’s wife retreated to live with her father in the village, Mama Victor was left with the responsibility of raising her grandchild, who was pretty unwell at the time of our meeting. Looking at Mama Victor nursing Terry – holding her in her lap, giving her water as if breastfeeding and offering her a sole ten shillings coin to buy candy at a nearby kiosk when the little one got restless, one is extremely moved by the plight of a woman, who has had to bury her sons and now single handedly raise their little children.

‘‘Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘Look at a day like today. I am coming from my son’s school where the teachers are being unreasonable. Then I have to deal with Terry’s health complications, keep pursuing justice for her father and uncle and still find a way to earn a living. Feeding these children is the toughest task because they can’t understand that sometimes one lacks even a cent.’’

After our long chat, Mama Victor tells me she has a message for two individuals; former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta. According to her, Victor and Bernard, among tens of others – over 100 individuals according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), including a six-month infant and a 9 year old – all died because the two men were fighting for Kenya’s presidency. But after the dust settled, Uhuru and Raila made peace, and are now bosom buddies. Mama Victor’s question is, were Victor and Bernard, and the many others, mere collateral damage in a game of political chess? She wonders how the country can ever heal yet the bearers of the nation’s collective terminal pain and wounds have never spoken to it. Are they a sore reminder, to be erased and forgotten?

Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘Look at a day like today. I am coming from my son’s school where the teachers are being unreasonable. Then I have to deal with Terry’s health complications, keep pursuing justice for her father and uncle and still find a way to earn a living. Feeding these children is the toughest task because they can’t understand that sometimes one lacks even a cent

‘‘I want them to come here,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘We want nothing from them. We want to see them with our eyes, for them to see us and know that we exist. They need to know curses come in different forms. Our pain alone is a curse to them. We want absolutely nothing from them. But they must come here and see us.’’

Are Mama Victor’s words a warning shot, a threat, a plea, or all of them rolled into one? Will the big men and their peace-architects listen, or will Mama Victor’s cries and those of others go unheeded? As Kenya’s Mama Victors get worn out by the load of a nation’s collective misdeeds in pursuit of political power, a day shall come when the Mama Victors will no longer be in a position to continue doing national duty as national trauma-bearers. That day, the chain holding Kenya together shall surely break.

 

Postscript: The network of mothers and widows of victims and survivors invited the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) to the Mathare Social Justice Center (MSJC) on 04 July, to ‘‘reflect on case management, witness protection, advocacy and psychosocial support.’’ IPOA didn’t show up. 

A criminal human rights reporting project by Africa Uncensored (AU) and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Politics

What Ails the Cashew Nut Sector in Kenya?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwindling fortunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New players  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cashew nut woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sector’s revival

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Cash Transfers Are an Efficient Method of Reducing Food Insecurity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food packages vs cash transfers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong digital infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constraints

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

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

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

Corruption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Curfews, Lockdowns and Disintegrating National Food Supply Chains

The disruption of national food supply chains due to COVID-19 lockdowns and curfews has negatively impacted market traders, but it has also spawned localised – and more resilient – supply chains that are filling the gap in the food system.

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Curfews, Lockdowns and Disintegrating National Food Supply Chains
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Our stomachs will make themselves heard and may well take the road to the right, the road of reaction, and of peaceful coexistence…you are going to build in order to prove that you’re capable of transforming your existence and transforming the concrete conditions in which you live.” – Thomas Sankara, assassinated leader of Burkina Faso

 On July 6, 2020, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced phased reopening of the country as the government moved to relax COVID-19 restrictions. That day found me seated in a fishmonger’s stall in Gikomba market, located about five kilometres east of Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) and popularly known for the sale of second-hand (mitumba) clothes. The customer seated next to me must have received a text message on her mobile phone because she began howling at the fishmonger to tune in to the radio, which was playing Benga music at the time. It was a few minutes after 2 p.m.

“I order and direct that the cessation of movement into and out of the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, Mombasa County and Mandera County, that is currently in force, shall lapse at 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, 7th July, 2020,” pronounced the president on Radio Jambo.

The response to this news was cathartic. The female customer, on hearing the words “cessation of movement shall lapse” ululated, and burst out in praise of her God – “Nyasaye” – so loudly it startled the fishmonger. The excited customer jumped on her feet and started dancing around the fish stalls, muttering words in Dholuo. Nyasacha, koro anyalo weyo thugrwok ma na Nairobi, adog dala pacho. Pok a neno chwora, chakre oketwa e lockdown. Nyasacha, iwinjo ywak na. Nyasacha ber.” Oh God, I can now leave the hardship of Nairobi and go back to my homeland. I have not seen my husband since the lockdown measures were enforced. Oh God, you have heard my prayers. Oh God, you are good to me.

“She, like most of us are very happy that the cessation measures have been lifted. Life was becoming very hard and unbearable,” said Rose Akinyi, the fifty-seven year old fishmonger, also known as “Cucu Manyanga” to her customers because of her savvy in relating to urban youth culture. “Since the lockdown, business has been bad. Most of my customers have stopped buying fish because they have either lost their sources of income while others have been too afraid of catching the coronavirus that they have not come to make their usual purchases,” explained Akinyi.

Gikomba market is also Nairobi’s wholesale fish market.  Hotels, restaurants, and businesses flock there to purchase fresh and smoked fish from Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana. But with the government regulations to close down eateries, fish stocks have been rotting, lamented Akinyi. She has had to reduce the supply of her fish stocks in response to the low demand in the market.

“With the re-opening of the city, I plan to travel to my home county of Kisumu and go farm. At least this way I can supplement my income because I don’t see things going back to normal anytime soon,” she explained.

Two days later, I found my way to Wakulima market, popular known as Marikiti. The stench of spoilt produce greets you as you approach the vicinity of the market, Nairobi’s most important fresh produce market. News of the president’s announcement had reached the market and the rush of activity and trade had returned.

Gikomba market is also Nairobi’s wholesale fish market.  Hotels, restaurants, and businesses flock there to purchase fresh and smoked fish from Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana. But with the government regulations to close down eateries, fish stocks have been rotting, lamented Akinyi.

“Since the lockdown, business has been dire to say the least,” complained one Robert Kharinge aka Mkuna, a greengrocer and pastor in a church based in Madiwa, Eastleigh. Robert, who sells bananas that he gets from Meru County, noted that “business has never been this bad in all my twenty years as a greengrocer. Now, I’ve been forced to supplement my income as a porter to make ends meet. Before COVID-19, I would sell at least 150 hands of bananas in a day. Today, I can barely sell five hands,” he explains.

Robert, who is also a clergyman, leans on his faith and is hopeful that things will get back to normal since the cessation of movement has been lifted. He also hopes that the county government of Nairobi will finally expand the Marikiti market to cater for the growing pressure of a city whose population is creeping towards five million.

A short distance from Robert’s stall and outside the market walls stands Morgan Muthoni, a young exuberant woman in her early twenties selling oranges on the pavement. Unable to find space in the market, she and a number of traders have opted to position themselves along Haile Selassie Avenue, where they sell produce out of handcarts.

“When President Uhuru announced the cessation of movement in April, our businesses were gravely affected,” Muthoni says as attends to customers. “I get my oranges from Tanzania and with the lockdown regulations, therefore, produce hasn’t been delivered in good time despite what the government has been saying. Before COVID-19, I would get oranges every two days but now I have to wait between four and five days for fresh produce. My customers aren’t happy because they like fresh oranges and I’m now forced to sell them produce with longer shelf life.”

COVID-19 vs the Demand and Supply of Food
With the prior government lockdowns in Nairobi and Mombasa’s Old Town, which have large populations and are key markets for various food products, the government had to ensure that people in those areas were not cut off from essential goods and services. It was also the mandate of the government to shield farmers and manufacturers of the goods from incurring heavy losses because of the restrictions. Despite good attempts by the authorities to introduce measures that allowed the flow of goods to populated areas affected by the lockdown, there were several reports of police harassment.

“Truck drivers are complaining that they are been harassed by the police for bribes at the police stops, which is gravely affecting our businesses. The police, with their usual thuggery, are using this season of corona to mistreat and extort truck drivers to pay bribes in order to give them way at police checks even if they have adhered to the stipulated regulations,” complained Muthoni.

The movement of goods is further complicated by the disjointed health protocols. “We also hear that because Magufuli’s Tanzania has a different policy towards COVID-19, trucks drivers are taking longer at the border because they need to be tested for coronavirus before they are allowed to pass. But we don’t know how true these reports are. For now, we believe that things will get better since the cessation has been lifted. If God is for us, who can be against us?” Muthoni concludes.

Divine intervention is a recurring plea in these distressed economic times, but unlike Muthoni and Robert, who remain hopeful, this is not the case for Esther Waithera, a farmer and miller based in Mwandus, Kiambu, about 15 kilometres from Nairobi. Kiambu, with its fertile rich soils, adequate rainfall, cool climate, and plenty of food produce, is a busy and bustling administrative centre in the heart of Kikuyuland.

After the president’s announcement of the quasi-lockdown and curfew, Waithera has been spending her afternoons selling fresh produce from her car that is parked opposite Kiambu mall on the weekends and in Thindigwa, a splashy middle-class residential area off the busy Kiambu Road, on weekdays.

“Before COVID-19, I used to supply fresh farm produce to hotels and restaurants across the city. But now I have been forced to sell my produce from my car boot because if I don’t, my produce will rot in the farm. My husband runs the family mill and even that has been doing badly since the coronavirus came to plague us. We have had to decrease our milling capacity and the cost of maize flour to adjust to new market prices as demand reduces.”

After the president’s announcement of the quasi-lockdown and curfew, Waithera has been spending her afternoons selling fresh produce from her car that is parked opposite Kiambu mall on the weekends and in Thindigwa, a splashy middle-class residential area off the busy Kiambu Road, on weekdays.

Maize is Kenya’s staple food and Kenyans rely on maize and maize products for subsistence but, “Kenyans are going hungry and many households are skipping meals to cope with these harsh times,” explains Waithera.

Waithera, who is a mother of three children, doesn’t seem hopeful about the future. “This government that we voted for thrice has let us down. They have squandered the lockdown and have caused economic harm without containing COVID-19. Now we are staring at an economic meltdown, a food crisis and a bleak future for our children.”

A devout Christian of the evangelical persuasion, Waithera deeply believes that “God is punishing the country and its leaders for its transgressions because they have turned away from God and taken to idol worship and the love for mammon”. And like the biblical plagues, “the recent flooding, the infestation of desert locusts and the corona pandemic are all signs from God that he has unleashed his wrath on his people unless we repent our wrongdoings and turn back to God”, laments a bitter Waithera.

For Joyce Nduku, a small-scale farmer and teacher based in Ruiru, this new reality has provided her with opportunities for growth. She acknowledged that her sales have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “I now have more customers because there are not enough vegetables available in the market from upcountry”.

Localised and more resilient food systems

At a time when regular food supply chains have not been assured, some food markets have closed, mama mbogas (women vegetable vendors) are out of business, and the cessation of movement is deterring travel, Nduku attributes her increased food production to meet the growing demand to a business model that lays emphasis on a localised food system and short food supply chains.

Approaching food production through a localised food system, she says, “gives me local access to farm inputs”.

She adds, “I get my manure from livestock keepers within my locale and my seeds from local agrovets. I have direct access to my consumers, removing middlemen who expose my produce to unsafe and unhygienic handling and high logistical and transport costs. Hence I’m able to increase the access to safe and affordable food.”

Agriculture, forestry and fishing’s contribution to GDP in 2019 was 34.1 per cent, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ Economic Survey 2020. Another 27 percent of GDP is contributed indirectly through linkages with other sectors of Kenya’s economy. The sector, the survey revealed, employs more than 56 percent of the total labour force employed in agriculture in 2019. It also provides a livelihood (employment, income and food security needs) to more than 80 percent of the Kenyan population and contributes to improving nutrition through the production of safe, diverse and nutrient dense foods, notes a World Bank report.

Yet, in a matter of weeks, Nduku tells me, “COVID-19 has laid bare the underlying risks, inequities, and fragilities in our food and agricultural systems, and pushed them close to breaking point.”

These systems, the people underpinning them, and the public goods they deliver have been under-protected and under-valued for decades. Farmers have been exposed to corporate interests that give them little return for their yield; politicians have passed neoliberal food policies and legislation at the peril of citizens; indigenous farming knowledge has been buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit; and families have been one meal away from hunger due to untenable food prices, toxic and unhealthy farm produce and volatile food ecosystems.

Nduku firmly believes that the pandemic has, however, “offered a glimpse to new, robust and more resilient food systems, as some local authorities have implemented measures to safeguard the provision and production of food and local communities and organisations have come together to plug gaps in the food systems.”

Food justice

Many young Kenyans have also emerged to offer leadership with more intimate knowledge of their contexts and responded to societal needs in more direct and appropriate ways. If anything, Nduku tells me, “we must learn from this crisis and ensure that the measures taken to curb the food crisis in these corona times are the starting point for a food system transformation”.

The sector, the survey revealed, employs more than 56 per cent of the total labour force employed in agriculture in 2019. It also provides a livelihood (employment, income and food security needs) to more than 80 per cent of the Kenyan population…

To achieve the kind of systematic transformation Kenya needs, we must “borrow a leaf from Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara”, Nduku adds. Sankara emphasised national food sovereignty and food justice, advocated against over-dependence on foreign food aid, and implemented ecological programmes that fostered long-term agro-ecological balance, power-dispersing, communal food cultivation, and the regeneration of the environment, which remain powerful foundations for food justice today.

Indeed, we must also not rely on discrete technological advances or conservative and incremental policy change. We must radically develop a new system that can adapt and evolve to new innovations, build resilient local food systems, strengthen our local food supply chains, reconnect people with food production, provide fair wages and secure conditions to food and farm workers, and ensure more equitable and nutritious food access for all Kenyans.

Importantly, Nduku emphasises, “We must start thinking about the transformation of our food systems from the point of view of the poorest and those who suffer the greatest injustice within the current framework of our food systems.” This will provide a much more just, resilient and holistic approach to food systems transformation.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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