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The Case Against GMOs: Cautionary Tales From Uganda

12 min read.

The impression being created is that GMOs are about food security and survival, yet experience shows that they are more about the undisclosed interests of foreigners.

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The Case Against GMOs: Cautionary Tales From Uganda
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The official introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Uganda has been delayed yet again as President Yoweri Museveni declines to assent to the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, first passed by Parliament in October 2017. President Museveni sent the Biosafety Act back to Parliament in December 2017, citing a number of concerns he had with it, which he said were “inimical to our future”.

Nearly two years later, he states that Parliament has not addressed those issues to his satisfaction in the reviewed legislation now called the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act (GERA) passed in August 2019. His second rejection has reopened the GMO debate. The name change signals a new understanding of the paramount need to regulate the technology if its promotion is to serve its purpose and achieve its ends.

In January 2018, the issues were that the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Act should provide for:

  • Preservation of biodiversity in indigenous crops by construction of a gene bank;
  • Clarification of the ownership of patents for GMOs;
  • Identifiability of GMOs by compulsory and regulated labeling;
  • Provisions for isolation of GMOs from indigenous seeds, including protecting the environment from pollen and effluent from GMO farms;
  • Explicit prohibition of the use of biotechnology in human genetic engineering; and
  • Penalties for non-compliance.

Protection of biodiversity

The over-arching question is whether Uganda has a regulatory environment capable of protecting the country’s biodiversity and commercial interests. A good illustration of the importance of sound internal control as a basis for major financial and development decisions is the rehabilitation and development programmes of the 1990s. Before agreeing to replace multiple independent and uncoordinated projects with direct budget support through the Treasury, stakeholders (lenders and grant-makers) insisted on audits of the control (regulatory) environment. When it was found to be weak, steps were taken to strengthen it. Those projects went ahead, the perceived urgency of many overriding due diligence. Looking back at the outcomes of the Universal Primary Education programme, or the District Health Scheme in delivering the National Minimum Healthcare Package, one can only conclude that a lot of resources, including time, were lost by introducing them into a weak environment. Commercial activities with an environmental impact, such as sand mining, have been as damaging as they have because of similar weaknesses in the regulatory environment.

As it is, the statutory National Seed Testing Laboratory (required under Section 11 of the Agricultural Seed and Plant Act, 1994) was unable to prevent the invasion of the armyworm in 2017. It is suspected to have been imported in American produce, yet the Auditor General reported in that year “lack of adequate laboratories for the [post-entry quarantine station] department exposes the whole agricultural sector to risks of inferior crop varieties being imported into the country including failure to control the new invading pests”.

The over-arching question is whether Uganda has a regulatory environment capable of protecting the country’s biodiversity and commercial interests.

Biodiversity is an asset that is vulnerable to commodification. Abandonment of or damage to biodiversity will lead to dependency on GMOs. Dependency on imported seeds that have to be bought every season with a currency that is weaker each year is not a viable solution to hunger.

As with the lake and river beds and wetlands nominally protected by the Constitution, the protection of biodiversity can be waived for a “license fee”. The destruction of many wetlands has been achieved under licence from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). Where unlicenced, it has happened under NEMA’s watch. The Wetland Management Department has neither demarcated nor gazetted the wetlands and only 0.3 per cent of the targeted restorations having been implemented. It is unlikely to achieve the target of restoring 12 per cent of those destroyed wetlands by 2020. Yet the same administration is expected to gazette and preserve indigenous plants in a gene bank (distributed across different locations).

In the case of GMOs, an audit trail based on labelling is expected to be maintained so that the origin of specific GMOs can be traced back to the developer/patent-holder, allowing them to be held to account for any undesirable outcomes. It is a beginning, but how capable is the control environment in September 2019?

A key requirement for maintaining an audit trail is labeling; of firms, individuals, seeds, other planting materials and chemicals. Just reviewing our recent performance in the agricultural sector we that find 50 per cent of hybrid maize on the market is fake. The Economic Policy Research Centre says counterfeits are putting livelihoods at risk. This is the environment in which GMO labels are going to be relied on.

Approved seeds must be registered in a national seed catalogue. Inclusion in the seed catalogue is the country’s only protection from seeds deemed undesirable for scientific or commercial reasons. Oversight of the registration function – just like oversight over preserving sovereignty immunity in loan negotiations, and oversight over licencing forests, lakes and rivers for commercial use – is not a function in the public domain. As a result, the regulatory environment depends almost exclusively on post-mortem reports by the Auditor General. Abuses cannot be interrupted as they occur. They can only be reported once the (irreversible) damage is done, as with the wetlands. For example, the Auditor General’s report of 2017 queries the unsystematic manner in which tax-waivers are distributed among investors, often to the detriment of the economy. Without public scrutiny, such abuses continue to be pervasive in every area of enterprise.

To avoid extinction by contamination, or what is called “co-mingling”, isolation measures will need to be devised and enforced; there must be distances between indigenous plants and nearby GMOs that could likely contaminate them. The stipulated distances may constitute the entire area available to the average smallholder farmer, the smallholder possibly being prohibited from growing his indigenous plants in the vicinity of his larger commercial GMO neighbour and thus edged out of the industry. If the commercial neighbour happens to be a foreign investor, it goes without saying who would win that turf war.

Some patented planting material may be tied to certain ancillary products like fertilizers. If failure to adhere to those conditions doesn’t exclude produce from the international market altogether, the price may be affected, meaning that the benefit of the larger harvest will be eroded by lower prices.

In 2017/2018 there was talk of a plant gene bank to preserve indigenous varieties. It is surprising that Parliament is attempting to push the legislation through a second time without educating and assuring the public of the existence of the gene bank. The gene bank, which may comprise of plant beds in situ, in vitro-specimens or cryogenically frozen material preserved in labs, remains elusive although there are claims that it exists. It is unclear whether the gene bank is complete and meets international standards. Whether it was possible in this country to create a plant gene bank in the eighteen months that have elapsed since it was first mooted is doubtful.

Enquiries from a scientist on social media produced the response that there are germplasm collection sites in Uganda in Kawanda and Mbarara as well as in selected farmer fields. One can only hope that Northern and Eastern produce, such as malakwang and moyaa (shea butter), will also be preserved.

A legal regime is proposed to make the patent-holder and importer of GMOs strictly liable for any harm caused by their use, thus putting the onus for their safe use on the patent-holder/importer and protecting farmers from potential negligent or reckless commercial activities. This is another potential internal control weakness – an opportunity for rent-seeking by public officials. As they do with regard to tax-holidays and free land and other incentives, investors may stipulate they will only “help” (investment is seen as aid in Uganda) if they are given indemnity from prosecution, in addition to the usual incentives. (Note that tax-holidays were abolished by the Ministry of Finance in the 1990s but have continued to exist.)

Food security, whose business is it?

Who is responsible for a nation’s food security? “Development partners” (DPs), the international community, philanthropists, World Economic Forum groupies, random anonymous foreigners on Twitter, or the State and its citizens? When food security is being discussed at the World Economic Forum why is Bill Gates there and not independent scientists and maybe smallholder farmers from food-insecure countries? Does it matter that some of those attending are investors in GMOs?

The impression created is that people other than Ugandans have a greater stake in their food security than Ugandans do. From the standpoint of the Ugandan in to whose territory GMOs are about to be introduced, the debate is about food and survival. Attempting to exclude sections of stakeholders on the basis that the industry and scientists know and care more about their well-being than ordinary Ugandans themselves is not a useful approach to promoting the technology. In Uganda, if the GERA becomes law, the official custodian of food security is likely to be the proposed National Genetic Engineering Council under the Office of the President.

Given our lack of effective irrigation (only 1 per cent of potentially irrigable arable land is under irrigation, according to BMAU Briefing Paper, 6/18 May 2018) and the increasing incidence of drought owing to global warming, it is to be expected that the main rationale adopted for the “urgent” need to legalise GMO use is to ensure food security, to end hunger, and to bring prosperity (Note: There were only three serious droughts in the 60 years between 1910 and 1970 but eight between the 40 years between 1970 and 2010.)

Undernourishment rose by an average one percentage point a year between 2006 and 2011 and accelerated to an average two percentage points plus every year from 2011 to 2017, according to the World Bank.. Statistics from the GMO industry show that harvests can be tripled for some crops; pests can be resisted and droughts can be survived by GMO seeds. Coupled with statistics relating to the country’s population growth of 3.3 per cent per year and the 42 million mouths to feed, it is easy to make the case for legalisation as soon as possible. Add the promise that the law will recognise citizens as proprietors of the country’s biodiversity and ensure that they are guaranteed a share in biotechnology developed from it and you have a totally seductive package.

Attempting to exclude sections of stakeholders on the basis that the industry and scientists know and care more about their well-being than ordinary Ugandans themselves is not a useful approach to promoting the technology.

Yet in many ways, food security is the least convincing argument for GMOs, especially when it comes in intemperate interventions by foreigners with undisclosed interests. Logically, if there were genuine concerns about ending hunger, by now development partners would have adopted simpler solutions, such as irrigation and fairer Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with Europe. Non-tariff trade barriers would have been dismantled. However, that has not happened; Ugandan and other African farmers continue to be unable to meet technical requirements for exports designed to limit their market penetration.

Value-addition to commodities remains a distant dream under the EPAs. Although they are said to be geared to the mutual benefit of the parties and to “contribute, through trade and investment, to sustainable development and poverty reduction” and to transform African, Caribbean and Pacific countries from commodities exporters to exporters of services and goods with added value, trade with Europe follows the colonial pattern and is mainly in unprocessed commodities.

It is only because of the Brexit crisis that the truth about EPAs was officially acknowledged in a debate in the British Parliament aimed at finding post-Brexit markets.

“Apparently, EPA deals had been struck behind closed doors by professional and highly skilled negotiators from the EU, which the best efforts of their African counterparts just could not match. There was little or no input from the Parliaments they were dealing with, and no public debate. Apparently, the conditions imposed in the EPAs were not scrutinised, and there was no analysis of the long-term impact that their restrictions would have on the economies of the countries they were dealing with.” (Chidgey, November 2017)

Logically, if there were genuine concerns about ending hunger, by now development partners would have adopted simpler solutions, such as irrigation and fairer EPAs with Europe.

If that is the current case with EPAs, how much more or less prepared is Uganda to negotiate GMO agreements?

President Museveni’s letter points out that the introduction of GMOs has implications for Uganda’s sovereignty. Yet his own government has ensured loss of sovereignty through bilateral loan treaties for infrastructure development under which the State’s immunity from prosecution by commercial interests was waived and arbitration will take place under lender-country laws by arbitrators appointed by the lender (Auditor General, 2018). In the health sector, all the risks related to the investment in Lubowa Hospital are borne by the government, which provided 100 per cent of the financing and all of the land, and yet the contractor was able to bar a parliamentary committee from carrying out a spot inspection when the project went awry.

EPAs and trade barriers will remain tools at the disposal of both genuine and predatory investors in GMOs. For example, GMO planting material will come with strict usage instructions. Failure – through ignorance or poverty – to employ the approved regimen, such as fertilizers, could reduce or nullify their export value. In that way, farmers could be locked into patented seed and ancillary products.

Furthermore, any liability for harm to humans or damage to the environment could be side-stepped simply by stating that incorrect methods were used. Yet it is clear from the start that very few farmers will be able to implement the isolation requirements, for example. Just going on the experience of the tea industry regeneration scheme (in which only 20 per cent of seedlings were planted in the correct topography) or rice production (which fell by 72 per cent under the scheme), or coffee (which has only a 42% germination rate) – all failing due to lack of effective extension support – it is folly to assume that introducing GMOs is a matter of reading the instructions on the tin (assuming you can understand the language and are able to read 9-point text on a grey background).

Extension support is essential for the successful introduction of any crop, but there is an almost total absence of government agricultural extension services since the early 1990s when they were retrenched. (The military deployed under Operation Wealth Creation is not an effective substitute.) It was expected that the private sector would fill the gap but the Kenyan experience is instructive. Organic farmers in Machakos reported that seed sellers deploy salesmen under the guise of extension workers – hardly impartial advice. In Zambia some years ago, GMO salesmen were suspected to have co-opted public officials, stymying the GM debate in that country.

Furthermore, any liability for harm to humans or damage to the environment could be side-stepped simply by stating that incorrect methods were used. Yet it is clear from the start that very few farmers will be able to implement the isolation requirements, for example.

Still on the domestic front, African governments failed to tackle transaction costs and post-harvest losses which, it is argued, if mitigated, Africa could feed itself. These possibilities were not exhausted before the radical solution of GMOs was proposed.

Glyphosate and other hazardous chemicals

The introduction of GMOs has been accompanied by super weeds – giant weeds resistant to ordinary weed-killers that require more toxic chemicals to control. The GERA will, if the President’s stipulations are followed, also govern (he says prohibit) the use of glyphosate, the ubiquitous herbicide owned by the largest purveyor of GMO seeds and under justified suspicion of causing cancer, and other potentially harmful chemicals until our own scientists have evaluated them. Twenty-nine other jurisdictions in Europe, South America and Asia have banned or intend to ban glyphosate. Germany has just announced a ban by 2022. Unless specifically addressed, it could end up being dumped in Uganda (along with DDT) in an aid package as part of a requirement for use with their GMOs.

Phased-in introduction

It is argued that a case-by-case introduction of GMO plants may be feasible. Nothing could be more legally hazardous. A sound regulatory environment is a prerequisite for the legally safe adoption of GMOs. If, for example, a GMO investor sets up shop in Uganda and later the proposed Genetic Engineering Council develops regulations based on later research curtailing some of the investor’s activities or banning dangerous ones, the Government of Uganda could – would – be liable for the investor’s financial losses under the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system. Under the ISDS, investors are able to challenge public welfare legislation in countries in which they invest. Regardless of outcomes (which are often unfavourable to the target State) the arbitration procedure is very costly. For the investor it would not be a bad deal; s/he would simply calculate how much s/he expected to profit and be compensated for that without even having done the work.

Unscrupulous investors have taken advantage of this legality in other countries where they invest in controversial areas and simply file a suit once the domestic government eventually curtails their activities by law.

Ugandan scientists’ freedom to operate

But there are other interests, such as domestic scientists who desire and need freedom to operate. In his letter to Parliament, President Museveni highlights the need for domestic research. Domestic developers also have a GMO product. It is unfortunate that some Ugandan scientists receive warnings about GMOs as indictments of their ability to deliver domestically developed GMOs. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is appreciated that it would be a massive career opportunity to be able to roll out products that may have been under development for years. It is an opportunity for Uganda to invest in scientific research.

It is argued that a case-by-case introduction of GMO plants may be feasible. Nothing could be more legally hazardous. A sound regulatory environment is a prerequisite for the legally safe adoption of GMOs.

If GMO solutions implemented were home-grown and the fruits of Uganda-funded research, there might be less suspicion and resistance. If the GERA provided any certainty that Ugandan GMOs would be protected and put into use ahead of imports (in the same way that the USA and Europe protect their own industries), the discussion would be different. It will be necessary to fight for the rights of domestic scientists and to ensure their research is actually theirs and not commissioned by the GMO lobby.

Foreign players are the most vocal and aggressive in this matter because they stand to gain the most by dominating the market. They can also afford to pay for propaganda and, let’s face it, bribes. A GMO film, Food Evolution, commissioned by the Institute for Food Technologists, was shot partly in Uganda. Food industry scientist Marion Nestle appeared in it for 10 seconds saying there was no evidence of harm in eating GMO produce. In her review of the film titled “Food Politics”, she states she has tried to have the clip deleted because, according to her, her comments were edited out of context. She refers to an article in the New York Times in which it is claimed leaked email evidence shows the GMO lobby pays researchers to front for it. Not surprising.

To quote Nestlé, “Food Evolution focuses exclusively on the safety of GMOs; it dismisses environmental issues out of hand. It extols the benefits of the virus-resistant Hawaiian papaya and African banana but says next to nothing about corn and soybean monoculture and the resulting weed resistance, and it denies the increase in use of toxic herbicides now needed to deal with resistant weeds. It says nothing about how this industry spends fortunes on lobbying and infighting labeling transparency.” (Labelling transparency is one of the conditions Museveni has laid down for his assent to the Act.)

Nestlé adds that GMO lobbyists promote the view that anyone less than enthusiastic about them is “anti-science, ignorant, and stupid”.

 

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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

Politics

What Ails the Cashew Nut Sector in Kenya?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwindling fortunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New players  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cashew nut woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sector’s revival

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

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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Politics

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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