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Boko Haram: The Psychology of a Murderous Sect

15 min read.

SANYA OSHA delves into the mindset of a sect that has embarked on a path of death and destruction in north-eastern Nigeria in the name of Islam.

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Boko Haram: The Psychology of a Murderous Sect
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Perhaps the most singular act of terror that thrust Boko Haram into the global spotlight was the 2014 mass abduction of 276 girls from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State. A global outcry ensued that Boko Haram, for the most part, ignored. Although some of the girls managed to escape (57 of the girls managed to flee in 2016) to freedom, all of them were most probably molested in various ways. including sexually. This brazen act gave rise to an international outcry under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

However, this unfortunate incident is not the first act of Boko Haram’s distressing trail of terror randomly targeting and slaughtering students. On July 6, 2013, 42 students at the Government Secondary School in Mamudo were killed. In the same year, on September 29, about 50 students were murdered during an attack on the College of Agriculture, Gubja. The Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, assumed the presidency based on widespread expectations that he would be able to curb the spiralling activities of Boko Haram.

The Boko Haram Reader: From Nigerian Preachers to the Islamic State (2018), edited by Abdulbasit Kassim and Michael Nwankpa, is a broad compendium of texts culled from video recordings, lectures, numerous rants and different interpretations of the Islamic faith based on the Holy Qu’ran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. These various texts provide a panorama through which to read the psychology of Boko Haram, the terrorist sect operating mainly in Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, and which has been pulverising the north-eastern parts of Nigeria for a decade.

The supposed mind of Boko Haram is terrifying to say the least because it contains its own self-exculpatory and complete justification regarding what it recognises as its manifest destiny, which upholds the mass slaughter of perceived infidels – in short, the waging of total war against all of those it considers to be enemies of Islam. In this self-contained and self-absorbed fundamentalist cocoon, the idea of toleration, compromise and alterity is deemed to be anathema and idolatrous, and therefore worthy of the wrath and vengeance of a jihad.

If Boko Haram views its enemies with utter disgust and contempt, it then becomes possible to follow a rigid mindset down an unforgiving path of death and destruction to all infidels. Jihad, all through and through, is deemed a supreme necessity.

Faith by dogma

Most of the teachings of Muhammed Yusuf, who was killed by Nigerian law enforcement authorities in 2009, and the current Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, are what form the key tenets of the sect. Boko Haram denounces the Nigerian state and its constitution, together with all its organs and agencies of governance. It also disapproves of Christianity, Judaism, Western education, and secularism, that is, anything that does not fall within an insufferably narrow radius of its definition of Islam. And through exhortations and inexorable doses of indoctrination, the sheer blindness of dogma becomes clearly evident.

There is also a powerful anti-Semitic streak in the numerous public pronouncements of the leaders of Boko Haram. Sometimes this antipathy is conflated with an equally virulent dislike for Europeans, who are dismissed in the following terms by Yusuf:

“It does not escape any Muslim, upon whom Allah has bestowed understanding, the severity of the Jews’ and Christians’ enmity towards the Muslims. They will never stop their onslaught on Islam and Muslims day and night. They have taken different measures and attempted to find every means to wreak havoc on the Muslims. They want to remove the Muslims from their religion of truth towards the abyss of misguidance. They fought Muslims with weapons for many years during the time of colonial rule. Then they came to teach the lessons of scepticism, in the minds of Muslims, scepticism about their religion, their Qu’ran and their Prophet Muhammed.” (p.17)

The quotation above reveals a chronic persecution complex to which the sect always resorts in justifying its mayhem and carnage and which it employs in describing what it perceives to be its unacceptable plight within the shores of Nigeria:

“Now, they have also killed children, burnt and roasted them. In the face of all these killings, they still claim that we do not have power to do anything. It is a condition. Is it until they finish their killings? There is nothing that will prevent these killings except jihad in Allah’s path, but they said they will not allow us. They made all efforts to perceive us by taking reports about us to the SSS [State Security Service]. They will inform the SSS to be careful about us.” (p.115)

Nothing best defines the modus operandi of Boko Haram than the constant infliction of faith by dogma. Once the power of dogma takes hold, it becomes impossible to view the world through an alternative lens, or at least, without the risk of death. At times, Boko Haram tries to portray itself as a victim tearing asunder swathes of north-eastern Nigeria and other countries in the region and it is apparent that its intention has never been to live in peace with its neighbours and those who subscribe to different belief systems. Its beliefs are couched in a sordid, monochrome hue that forbids the admission of alterity, non-conformity or dissent. It is as such against all that we have to come to historically define as civilisation and what we understand it to mean today.

Also troubling is the fact that Boko Haram refuses to acknowledge the possibilities inherent in inter-religious and intercultural dialogue and instead is confined to a tunnel vision that perennially absolves it of responsibility and culpability for wrongdoing and violence committed in its name. If groups and communities outside its fold bear the brunt of its random violence, they in turn are responsible for it. In other words, apart from the impossibility of entering into a dialogue with it, it further turns logic upon its head by the unprecedented scale of its capacity for violence.

Most of the teachings of Muhammed Yusuf, who was killed by Nigerian law enforcement authorities in 2009, and the current Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, are what form the key tenets of the sect. Boko Haram denounces the Nigerian state and its constitution, together with all its organs and agencies of governance.

As mentioned earlier, another unlikely twist in this violent logic is Boko Haram’s constant ability to cast itself as victim – a victim of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and a victim of the mindless violence of the Nigerian army which kills, maims and rapes Boko Haram’s adherents. Boko Haram approaches the same Nigerian authorities it labels anti-Islam in a voice that appears conversant with the rules of reason as it recounts its woes, hoping to perhaps soften the infidel heart of the Nigerian state. So where it is possible that deceptive and cheap populism might work, then it is best to employ it. Here, it also becomes apparent that power is the ultimate goal of Boko Haram, a kind of power that defined the ethos established by the Taliban of Afghanistan.

Boko Haram adopts uncertain strategies of accommodation and half-hearted dialogue when it is obvious that it is losing momentum and it is somewhat vulnerable. But this ploy is exactly what it is, a ploy to deflect attention from its vulnerability in order to regain larger grounds and further entrench itself. But in between periods of ascendancy, redundancy and vulnerability, it never fails to shift its rhetoric from tones of accommodation to unbridled absolutism accordingly.

Muhammed Yusuf, who founded Boko Haram in 2002, is variously described as somewhat erudite, eloquent and analytical. Arguably, his extrajudicial murder by Nigerian law enforcement operatives was badly planned and misguided because it drove the Islamist movement underground where it was able to re-group, re-arm and radicalise itself and then embark on its own murderous rampage against the Nigerian state. The psychotic disposition of Abubakar Shekau, who came to prominence after Yusuf’s death, propelled Boko Haram into depths of maniacal depravity that entailed casualised beheadings, public humiliations and floggings of supposed wrongdoers, public executions, amputations, mass rape, kidnapping and human trafficking, slavery and the generalised infliction of pain and trauma on an unprecedented scale.

Under such unimaginably agonising conditions, it is often difficult to see the movement attracting a sizeable following as it roams about the wilds of multiple national jurisdictions on its killing sprees, fuelled, for the most part, by what appears to be maniacal glee aimed against non-believers. The traumatised lives and shattered dreams it leaves in its wake cannot be described by mere words. Even amid the involuntary acceptance that comes with deeply lodged trauma, those forlorn faces brazenly etched by Boko Haram’s wrath seem to ask how Allah could allow this to happen. What is the meaning of this hellish madness? When will this abominable nightmare end?

In leaving behind such a disconcerting trail of mayhem and trauma, Boko Haram has demonstrated that it isn’t a sect that builds or transforms society. It promises to establish a holy society of the faithful at the expense of the mass extermination of infidels; it also promises entry into paradise for its adherents who die in the pursuit of jihad. But eventually, people would have to figure out this spectre of gloom and despair. They would be led to ask: How many lives must be extinguished in order to create a society of supposed purity? Rather than attain allegorical purity, desolate landscapes are left littered with discarded limps, fragments of skull and flesh and abject, mangled bodies. This must be Shekau’s most piercing legacy.

Fanaticism and paranoia  

Wole Soyinka, in his book, The Climate of Fear, correctly notes that a major shift in Nigeria’s surge towards Islamic fundamentalism occurred after the May 2003 general elections when the northern state of Zamfara, shortly followed by nine other states, adopted the Sharia legal code, in effect, questioning the secular character of the Nigerian federation. Boko Haram can be regarded as being part of, as Soyinka writes, “the principal agents of the season of rhetorical hysteria that now seek to bind and blind the world within our climate of fear?” (p.67)

The not altogether unsurprising after-effect of mass scale terrorism is that it instigates excessive paranoia, which in turn leads to equally violent reprisals in the so-called free world as we have observed in the United States, which describes “othered” political and ideological adversaries as “The Evil Empire” or “The Axis of Evil”.

Soyinka argues that “fanaticism remains the greatest carrier of the spores of fear, and the rhetoric of religion, with the hysteria it so readily generates, is fast becoming the readiest killing device of contemporary times.” (p.76)

In addition, intolerable social and economic conditions can degenerate into a much deeper social malaise whereby the possibilities for toleration, dialogue and compromise become notoriously undermined and are replaced by escalating paranoia, unbridled violence, despair and despondency on all sides.

In such contexts, the fabric of civilised existence becomes frayed as brutal Hobbesian realities, or what Soyinka terms “the psychopathology of the zealot” (p.103), take hold. Of course, Soyinka reminds us that this inimical psychopathology bears no relation to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead the implacable credo of the fanatic ultimately leads to the chilling equation: “I am right, you are wrong, and therefore you are dead.”

If W.E.B. Dubois had argued that the question of race would be the central issue of the 20th century, Soyinka, on his part, argues that religion is the main socio-political conundrum of the 21st century. He concludes by stating that “the zealot is one that creates a Supreme Being, or Supreme Purpose, in his or her own image, then carries out the orders of that solipsistic device that commands from within, in lofty alienation from, and utter contempt of, society and community.” (p.118)

The leaders of Boko Haram do nothing to disguise the sect’s fanaticism. They denounce names of month, such as January and July, as the cognomens of idols. Furthermore, Western education must be rebuked as unbelief; the same goes for the national constitution. Polytheism is regarded as a sin that goes contrary to nature and the entire world itself. Nothing explains the dominance of polytheism in world affairs than the American defeat and occupation of Iraq. This development has meant that the United States seeks to dictate what happens in Iraq regarding matters of land, and foreign and domestic affairs, including having a hand in the appointment of those who run these various spheres. Unbelievers can thus not be allowed to manage the national affairs of those who remain faithful.

The intellectual arbiters of radical and extremist Islamic thought posit that there are three main categories of knowledge: knowledge that corroborates the strictures of the Qu’ran; knowledge that contradicts the teachings of the Qu’ran; and finally knowledge that neither confirms nor contradicts the dictates of the Qu’ran. This view lends the realm of knowledge a totalitarian cast; meaning everything is already known, discovered, and therefore nothing in relation to knowledge is exploratory or open-ended.

If W.E.B. Dubois had argued that the question of race would be the central issue of the 20th century, Soyinka, on his part, argues that religion is the main socio-political conundrum of the 21st century.

Inquiry and experimentation, which are fundamental aspects of the knowledge-making enterprise, then become unnecessary. Everything is known hence nothing is left to be discovered in the present physical world, not to mention the ever-contested domain of metaphysics. Indeed a universe so irreversibly compartmentalised, so absolute in its conceptual finality is akin to a nameless and infinite continuum of death; a form of death that needs to be constantly actualised through motions and mechanisms of ceaseless terror.

Freezing up of history

Boko Haram is undoubtedly against democracy and freedom of expression; many violent incidents and massacres have occurred on account of perceived insults to the Prophet Mohammed. Also, any form of collaboration with the Nigerian state is regarded as an act of infidelity to the “true” principles of Islam and must therefore not be condoned. Yusuf, the founder of sect, who even in death continues to serve as its guiding light, reasons thus:

“Why is it that whenever these events happen, they would say: “Sorry, you should exercise patience, wait for what the government will do or let us plead to the government to take measures.” Always that is what they say. Then Allah made me to understand that it is not like that. What will stop them from insulting the Prophet or killing the Muslims is jihad. But how are we going to carry out the jihad? With whom are we going to carry out the jihad? Allah made me to understand that first and foremost, we must embark upon the preaching towards Islamic reform. Then, we will have to be patient until we acquire power. This is the foundation of the preaching towards Islamic reform. It is founded for the sake of jihad and we did not hide this objective from anyone.” (p.94)

Boko Haram’s most distinctive hallmark is its complete discomfort with the modern world and the entire project of modernity itself. As Yusuf hinted in the excerpt above, it is against the nation, the idea of constitutionalism, an entire spectrum of modern institutions, the notion of democracy, polytheism, atheism, the modern conception of law and order, technological progress and even gender equality. Within this broad dragnet, the idea of human rights gets questioned, undermined and ultimately abandoned because in respect to the Sunni (practice), any form of deviation from the faith warrants utter repudiation, and in the final analysis, death.

The public speeches of its key leaders are usually apocalyptic, often bearing secretive and intense messages meant only for the faithful. Boko Haram’s credo contains a total repudiation of the idea of historical progress or movement; in other words, everything lies frozen in time, untouched by technological innovation or, as mentioned earlier, the accoutrements of modernity and so on. This is the kind of blind faith that consummates itself through the fatal consumption of the non-believer.

Conceptually, Boko Haram promotes a freezing up of history and social movement. Therefore, the idea of progress, which is integral to human evolution, science and technology, is completely anathema. Once this is well understood, the necessity to kill, maim and plunder on a mass scale and at a global level becomes perhaps slightly less difficult to digest even though it doesn’t make it any more palatable.

Boko Haram’s violent onslaughts against the Nigerian state, and by extension, nation, stems from the fact that it views the Nigerian constitution as being an infringement on the law of Allah. Allah is the sole provider and arbiter of the law and any other laws that do not bear His seal of approval are considered instances of apostasy inviting the retribution of a jihad, which in this case, is a multi-faceted form of cleansing (religious, social, cultural, political and psychological) until the law and the reign of Allah are imposed.

This conception of Islam is, to put it rather harshly, totalitarian since it offers strict injunctions on all aspects of human life, with the laws of Allah, the Qu’ran and the Sunni (practice) of the Prophet, in conjunction, being the guide and unchangeable framework through which life must be lived. Shekau describes the constitution as “a collection of man-made laws”, and therefore the product of the minds of unbelievers.

Boko Haram considers it its supreme duty to launch an all-out war on those considered to be idolaters or even “moderate” adherents of Islam. Yet it considers it an act of grave injustice for state authorities to attempt to curb its violence by employing violent means.

If Boko (Western education) is Haram (forbidden), then the possibilities for conservation become highly constrained. In the absence of dialogue, violence and death become the norm and this is a reality and an outcome that the sect accepts wholeheartedly. Consequently, this is what makes the sect not only a formidable threat to the Nigerian nation but to all nations as they currently exist everywhere. Its version of Islam then replaces the nation as it seeks to expand its power and borders until it attains a borderless state.

In accomplishing the complete Islamisation of Nigeria and also of countries surrounding its north-eastern border, Boko Haram has run into a strategic impasse regarding how it intends to treat Muslims who are sceptical or half-heartedly committed to its uncompromising version of Islam. This impasse has created different factions within its ranks that have obviously impeded its overall organisational momentum and may possibly make it more difficult for Nigerian authorities to deal with the splintering that results in various often opposing sub-sects.

One of the central strengths of The Boko Haram Reader lies in presenting Boko Haram through its own words with lucid translations (by David Cook and Abdulbasit Kassim) of Hausa, Kanuri and Arabic texts of its leaders. In this manner, we wind our way through the unfiltered mind of Boko Haram, as it seemingly unself-consciousnessly spews its rigid interpretation of Islam, the Nigerian political landscape and also the combustible civilisational fissures that define contemporary global politics. Its view of the world might be warped but for its adherents and sympathisers, it has managed to assemble a consistent hodgepodge of beliefs, opinions and Islamic and educational texts by which it is able to convince itself of its piety.

Unfortunately, there is hardly any instance of Boko Haram entertaining the possibilities of accommodation in relation to the Nigerian state. As noted earlier, in moments of vulnerability or periods of retreat, it might soften its rhetoric or modify its hardline stance. But these must be regarded as momentary withdrawals, tactical feints until it can regain its momentum in the gory march towards the Islamisation of Nigeria.

However, this mission extends beyond Nigerian Muslims in order to forge strategic alliances with Islamic brethren and shaykhs in the Maghrib, the warriors in the Islamic state of Mali, the jihadis based in the embattled territories of Somalia, the equally beleaguered brethren in Libya, the shaykhs in the splintered nation of Afghanistan, brothers and shaykhs in the maimed nation of Iraq and the Levant, fellow jihadis in Yemen, brothers in the sundered state of Palestine and all the other places where Allah’s children endure oppression.

This ability to imagine and uphold a transnational vision of Islam, this interrogation of the possibilities for the establishment of a globalised Islam, is what makes Boko Haram so menacing. Its leaders are no parochial ignoramuses merely intent on a return to medieval savagery and anti-intellectualism. True, its intellectual traditions, or better still, preferences, may be highly selective but part of its vision and mission is the unfettered unfurling of an Islamised world organised through the law of Allah, the injunctions of the Qu’ran and the Sunni (practice) of the Prophet Mohammed. Undoubtedly, this would make it seem hermetic in its structure and constitution but it is also able to provide everything a true believer requires to navigate the temptations and obstacles of the unIslamised world while it struggles to impose its own version of the world. Boko Haram’s world would obviously also include brothers and shaykhs in Chechnya, Kashmir, the Arabian Peninsula, Algeria and Azerbaijan.

In accomplishing the complete Islamisation of Nigeria and also of countries surrounding its north-eastern border, Boko Haram has run into a strategic impasse regarding how it intends to treat Muslims who are sceptical or half-heartedly committed to its uncompromising version of Islam.

Micheal Nwankpa, one of the editors of the volume writes, that “a military approach to Boko Haram (armed combat) would not be suitable; rather, a criminal justice and law enforcement approach in addition to limited political concessions would represent the right counter-response” (p.285). It is difficult to fathom how this constitutes the most appropriate remedy for an organisation that construes the Nigerian nation as one led by unbelievers, an idolatrous constitution and an infidel army. Nwankpa himself admits that Boko Haram has spurned numerous entreaties for dialogue with the Nigerian government.

Due to its uncompromising stance, it is hard to see it aligning itself with the traditional leadership structures of northern Nigeria together with modern political elites in the region. Boko Haram repudiates the northern political elites because of their affiliation to a secularist state and hence at this juncture, it is quite impossible to see any alliance, or more appropriately, agreement being forged.

Shekau increasingly became a murderous, remorseless and heartless figure extolling kidnapping and hostage-taking, child soldiers and female sexual enslavement in the name of his psychopathic faith. He is crude, anti-intellectual and the opposite of the more suave and eloquent Yusuf. The multiple employment of twelve-year-old girls as suicide bombers, the awful event of the Chibok school girls’ kidnapping that outraged the world, the merciless and odious decapitation of adversaries and perceived non-believers, the instigations of widespread social chaos, violence and death across different national boundaries, the utter lack of civility in the conduct of war and the absolute disregard for human life already offers up an extremely vivid picture of hell on earth. But if this is the price to be paid to breach paradise, then nothing can assuage the memory or protracted agonies wrought by this relentlessly bleak and violent dystopia.

Nwankpa mentions a number of counterterrorist measures to check the advances of Boko Haram, which has been described as the West African Islamic state. The sect has evolved into a transnational succubus with various resources and networks available to it in enforcing its reign of death. So perhaps when it is in recession in north-eastern Nigeria, for instance, it could suddenly assume resurgence in say, Cameroon or Chad or Niger, which are all countries where it has adherents and has also managed to wreak a trail of death and destruction in its wake.

Nonetheless, Nwankpa explains why Boko Haram has not captured global consciousness in the way ISIS or al Queda have done. Boko Haram largely pursues a local(ist) agenda without having done significant and direct harm to global political and economic interests. In this sense, it is seen as pursuing the jihadist path trodden by Usman dan Fodio, who established the first great West African Islamic kingdom in 1804.

Boko Haram, at the zenith of its political and territorial powers between 2014 and 2015, never managed to create a viable Islamic state on the captured territories of north-eastern Nigeria. In addition, in political terms, rather than attract new adherents amongst die-hard Muslims, it has only succeeded in repelling them because apart from what appears to be its unalloyed nihilism and insufferable taste for violence and vengeance, it had very little else to offer.

In spite of these significant shortcomings, it is apparent that neither the Nigerian nor the Cameroonian government has the capacity to extinguish the murderous rage fuelling Boko Haram to ever more shocking depths of terror.

In view of such a dire prognosis, two approaches immediately come to mind: newer ways of living and coping with international terror would have to be found; and secondly, government authorities need to devise more integrated as well as multi-pronged approaches in deciding what forms of terror are likely to have global impact on a scale of priorities, and on that basis, initiate plans of action.

In an age when the whole of humanity trembles under constant threat, and basic humanism is sorely tested, post-traumatic stress disorder a widespread reality. Every effort ought to made without recourse to the textbook terrorism of professional terrorists (and that’s the hard part) to re-establish and retain what makes us simply and truly human.

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Sanya Osha is a philosopher, novelist and poet living in Pretoria, South Africa. His most recent publications include the novels, An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012), and On a Sad Weather-Beaten Couch, the volume of poetry, A Troubadour’s Thread (2013), and the work of scholarship, Dani Dabudere’s Afrikology (2018).

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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