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COVID-19 and the Future of Democracy in Zimbabwe

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The current COVID-19 pandemic has shown why pro-democracy movements in Zimbabwe should disentangle themselves from the fallacious promise of neoliberal democracy and the magic of the market. Democratic politics should be about delivering public goods and services, including quality healthcare, not about servicing markets.

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COVID-19 and the Future of Democracy in Zimbabwe
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The world has been teetering on the precipice ever since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan city in Hubei province, China. Since then, the disease has been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), leading to countries adopting drastic measures to combat it.

In a majority of countries, state security institutions have been activated and deployed to help enforce the lockdown, and the stay-at-home and social distancing policies. Inasmuch as these strategies are practical measures to combat COVID-19, they have inadvertently created opportunities for authoritarianism. Jared Rodriguez aptly surmises the situation: “The pandemic creates extraordinary circumstances for restricting civil liberties, free speech and human rights while intensifying the possibilities of an emerging authoritarianism.

In countries like Zimbabwe, which are rife with authoritarianism, it seems the pandemic has provided a perfect opportunity to checkmate the ever nagging opposition and civic movement. The strategies adopted so far by the government point only to one goal: achieving unimpeded imperial rule for the incumbent.

The responses of the pro-democracy movement have been largely premised on a neoliberal framework to politics and state-craft despite the existing material and social conditions pointing otherwise. The pro-democracy movement has mainly pursued constitutional reformism and electoralism in an economy that is predominantly agrarian, informal, and dominated by natural resource extraction and the service industry. This brings into question these strategies, and more importantly, the future of democratic politics in Zimbabwe.

Democracy under threat

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed democracy under one of its biggest threats. Authoritarian strategies have become the de facto norm adopted by governments. Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, makes an important observation on the three pillars that may make any country manage to respond effectively to Covid-19: “In fact, this is an acid test for every single country’s quality of healthcare, standard of governance and social capital. If any one of the pillars in the tripod is weak, it will be exposed, and exposed quite unmercifully by this epidemic.”

It is important to note that governance is one of the key pillars for the state’s capacity to respond effectively to COVID-19; a failure within that realm may mean disaster in the end. In this case, governance speaks to how public power and policy are deployed and used within the state. This poses questions on how public officials and institutions are operating and guiding their conduct in seeking to enforce laws meant to contain and suppress the spread of the virus. There have been widespread reports of heavy-handed approaches that have seen the rise of what Jared Rodriguez calls the “…support for pedagogical apparatuses of spectacularised violence, fear mongering and state terror…”, thus “creating fertile grounds for the cultivation and inclusion of authoritarian politics…”.

China instituted a total lockdown of the country that has been reported to have been accompanied by the erosion of people’s freedoms in the name of fighting the virus. Human Rights Watch has accused China of resorting to “automated tyranny”. Reason Foundation’s Shika Dalmia argues that beneath the veneer of China’s so-called impressive response to combat the virus, the Chinese authorities used a variety of tools to infringe on the privacy of people, including pharmacies to spy and collect data on customers, social platforms AllPay and WeChat to install tracking software on their users, and China Telecom colour-coded phones to screen people. It also paid close to 300,000 volunteers to spy on residents and report to the police, and rewarded neighbours to spy on each other. The police barged into homes to forcibly take away suspected COVID-19 patients.

China instituted a total lockdown of the country that has been reported to have been accompanied by the erosion of people’s freedoms in the name of fighting the virus. Human Rights Watch has accused China of resorting to “automated tyranny”.

These tactics mirror heavy surveillance of citizens in Nazi Germany. The reports of China building a hospital in 10 days whilst democracies such as the United States of America, United Kingdom and India dithered on responses inadvertently led to a discussion on which form of governance is better. The net effect has been lethal propaganda that created a fallacy of an efficient system, especially after reports of China building the hospital. Western media and scholars fell for this propaganda charm offensive that projected the Chinese system as efficient and superior while Western democracies were seen as slow and sloppy. For instance, Yale professor, Nicholas Christakis, ran a thread on Twitter praising China’s collectivist culture and authoritarian government as unprecedented and impressive.

Yet, the global media and leading scholars have been silent on how democracies like Taiwan, Iceland, South Korea and Germany have managed to successfully and effectively respond to combating COVID-19. In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa undertook widespread consultations with a wide variety of key stakeholders, and cobbled a national consensus with the opposition, civil society, churches and business leaders. In addition, the country adopted an open and transparent information management system and tapped into expert scientists for advice. By the 9th 0f April, South Africa was reported to have increased its testing capacity of 5,000/day by six-fold after adding 60 more mobile testing units to the existing 7, combined with 180 testing sites and 320 testing units across the country.

Similarly, according to Don Reisinger, “Germany has had remarkably few Covid-19 deaths, which experts attribute partly to its high number of hospital beds and ICU beds”. Despite having a high numbers of people infected by the coronavirus, Germany has managed to lower its fatality rate, which in March 22 stood at 0.3 per cent. The death rate as of 29 March 2020 was much lower than that of China, Italy and many other countries around the world. Germany is stated to have “8.1 hospital beds per 1,000 people and 6.1 ICU beds per 1 000 people”, something highly remarkable in comparison to “Italy has 3.2 hospital beds per 1 000 and 2.6 ICU beds per 1 000”. It is these positive stories from democracies that have not gained prominence in comparison to the ones from the Benevolent Brutal Dragon’s propaganda.

Africa’s emerging trend of authoritarianism

Images of security forces beating and torturing civilians to enforce COVID-19 lockdowns in Africa have been dominating social media. Trevor Nnabugu of Ventures Africa, an online news site, provides a chronicle of human rights abuses in Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. In these cases, security forces are accused of using indiscriminate and disproportionate force, including murder, rape, beatings and public humiliation, in a bid to enforce the lockdowns. The rising cases of police brutality in Africa, while not unique to the region, signify the tendency of our security apparatus to revert to the default logic of violence.

In Zambia, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) took no time to suspend the licence of Prime TV on the 9th of April 2020 on the basis that it was unpatriotic and threatening public safety after the media outlet refused to air the government’s COVID-19 commercials for free. Before that, the government had banned its officials from conducting business with and appearing on Prime TV broadcasts. It also barred Prime TV’s journalists from attending official events. In addition, on 27th March 2020, Top Star Communication Limited Company, a partly state-owned television signal carrier, informed Prime TV that it would stop carrying its broadcast in a bid to blackout the television as punishment for its consistent criticism of the ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF). In all these acts, the hand of the state is quite visible in attempting to close an independent media that has always been critical of government.

Images of security forces beating and torturing civilians to enforce COVID-19 lockdowns in Africa have been dominating social media. Trevor Nnabugu of Ventures Africa, an online news site, provides a chronicle of human rights abuses in Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria.

A leading African Women’s Rights Activist, Nancy Kachingwe, quipped on Twitter: “Dear African leaders, a pandemic isn’t a war, it’s a public health crisis made worse by your failures to build strong public health systems you’ve not been attacked, you’ve been found wanting batons & beatings solve nothing…”

The tweet surmises the logic and attitude of African leaders, where every solution is perceived as a nail and that needs a hammer.

Dr David Ndii, in an interview with The Elephant, warned us extensively:

We have to guard, organise and push back against what I see as an opportunistic clawback of civil liberties in the days of disease emergencies, as well as human rights violations. And I have already talked about default police brutality, which is already the default of many of our states with a legacy of repressive regimes. So that is something which I think particularly organised civil society has to be very vigilant because you can see some of these people cynically even using this to suspend civil liberties. They have been trying to do it, even before coronavirus. So now they have this perfect excuse to do what they want.

Nowhere does this warning ring more true than in Africa, and more specifically in Zimbabwe. The beleaguered Harare regime has wasted no time to use the opportunity availed by COVID-19 to usurp legislative authority at the expense of promoting executive authority in a patently unconstitutional manner and to decimate the opposition and civil society.

Zimbabwe, the unrepentant child

On Friday, the 27th of March 2020, President Mnangagwa announced a 21-day national lockdown to be implemented starting from midnight of 30th March 2020. This move came after some dithering by the Harare authorities, which were heavily criticised for failing to prepare for an impending medical disaster.

The announcement of the lockdown was positively received and praised across the political divide, a rare moment in Zimbabwe’s political history. However, the positive vibe and bipartisan consensus, and the possibility of an elite cohesion towards cobbling a national response, was quickly lost. The Ministry of Information Secretary, Nick Mangwana, through his TL @nickmangwana forewarned what was to come: “The total lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 will start at midnight with the Government passionately calling on citizens to comply with the directive and instructions from security personnel deployed to enforce the law.”

Already the government was psyching itself into a combative mood. The Presidential Spokesperson, George Charamba, through his TL @jamwanda2, threatened the unleashing of the army in the low-income suburbs: “MaFACE angu ekumaGhetto, kindly note that pranks and drinking sprees in streets this evening will come to grief!!!! THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN!!!!!!! Loosely translated: My friends from the low income suburbs, kindly note that pranks and drinking in streets this evening will come to grief!!!! THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN!!!!!!!

Indeed, soldiers were deployed and immediately the cries of agony echoed all over the country, as videos of residents being either beaten or tortured by security forces started to circulate on social media.

The announcement of the lockdown was positively received and praised across the political divide, a rare moment in Zimbabwe’s political history. However, the positive vibe and bipartisan consensus, and the possibility of an elite cohesion towards cobbling a national response, was quickly lost.

In Karoi, Masvondo, a local resident, had to petition the court after some members of the Zimbabwe National Army allegedly barged into her homestead and assaulted everyone within her household under the guise of enforcing a lockdown. In Mutare, police burned agricultural produce headed for the markets, insisting that everyone should observe the stay-at-home instruction. Harare’s popular vegetable market, Mbare Musika had saddening stories of farmers and vegetable vendors, whose produce was getting rotten because of lack of access to the market.

The government had to recant some of its policy directives after there were huge outcries, even from its traditional support bases. The planning and implementation of the lockdown was not well thought-out, hence the disastrous results from the onset. As of 16th April, the Media Institute in Southern Africa-Zimbabwe (MISA-Zim) had recorded several cases of downstream vendors whose rights had been violated under the pretext of enforcing the lockdown.

Most journalists have been facing harassment over accreditation, despite the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) having acknowledged to have failed to approve the registration of journalists for the year 2020. Pursuant to that, the ZMC issued a communique that journalists’ 2019 accreditation had been automatically renewed and could be used for the year 2020. Despite this policy position of the authorities, the security services have been acting on the contrary and continue to harass journalists. Even the pro-government newspaper, the Herald, had to break with tradition and pen an editorial comment on the 13th of April 2020 rebuking and questioning the motives of the police. The Zimbabwean High Court also went further by barring the police’s heavy handedness.

The judiciary in Zimbabwe has also come under heavy criticism during the pandemic after issuing a judgment that has fundamentally reconfigured the opposition in Zimbabwe. Earlier on, the judiciary had issued a notice that it was suspending court processes and would only attend to urgent cases related to the implementation of lockdown measures. Bail hearings were suspended and even new cases were not going to be dealt with until after the end of the lockdown.

Interestingly, Dr. Thokozani Khupe, one of the claimants to the heir of the Movement for Democratic Change, tweeted on the 31st of March that the Supreme Court will deliver judgment on the long standing matter on the legitimate heir to the throne after the death of founding leader Morgan Tsvangirayi on the 14th of February 2018. What followed became an intriguing and choreographed series of events that cast further doubts on the independence of the judiciary.

Dr Alex Magaisa of Kent University in the United Kingdom gives a nuanced analysis of this drama in his Big Saturday Read blog. He summed it as compromised and selective. State security institutions have been heavily compromised and made partisan, and this has been very evident during their operations during COVID-19. Ever since the Supreme Court judgment, dramatic and bizarre events have followed, where the main opposition MDC Alliance has lost its elected representatives (Members of Parliament and Councillors) and party offices to a party that it contested against in the 2018 elections. A significant number of lawyers associated with the MDC Alliance have also been arrested and charged with spurious allegations. Three ladies from the youth assembly who dared to protest were abducted from police custody and sexually abused, and also later arrested for violating lockdown rules despite the government failing to come out clean on the abductors.

Blessed Mhlanga, one of Zimbabwe’s top journalists, through his TL @bbmhlanga on the 16th of April 2020, tweeted the case of Senator Tofa from the leading opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance who was barred by the police from donating humanitarian aid to the needy. In the same tweet, Mhlanga further claimed that the police went further to instruct millers not sell Honourable Tofa any mealie-meal. Earlier, on the 8th of April 2020, Honourable Caston Matewu of Marondera Central constituency claimed that the police in Marondera had refused his donation to fight COVID-19 on political grounds. Such stories are not surprising in Zimbabwe, where state security institutions have been compromised by the ruling party.

A close reading of these cases and many others show that the security services are using the logic of force to deal with purely civilian issues. A tweet by @matigary, a pro-government online troll, surmises the thinking in government: “SA military SANDF is kicking ass & bashing heads. I am inviting Dewa Mavhinga & his nywe nywe (talk too much) human rights crowd to test SANDF by defying the lockdown.”

This celebration of spectacularised violence within the security services’ response to public health issues, which are largely civilian, are very worrying and also indicate that Zimbabwe is still an unrepentant child, despite claims of a “New Dispensation” after the fall of Robert Mugabe.

An alert but limited pro-democracy movement

Zimbabwe has had an alert and very lively pro-democracy movement that has managed to successfully call out the government and ruling party whenever they fall out of line. This pro-democracy movement has been composed of the loose alliance of the main opposition, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and democracy and human rights advocacy NGOs.

For instance, during this COVID-19 lockdown, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) has been at the forefront of providing legal defence to human rights defenders, journalists and ordinary citizens who found themselves at the mercy of authorities. The ZLHR has also funded public interest litigation that has also seen the High Court directing the Ministry of Health to provide professional protective equipment (PPE) to health workers and roll out testing to the public. A significant number of NGOs and business and church leaders have also come to the fore, establishing charity platforms to mobilise humanitarian aid to support the vulnerable and refurbish medical centres and equip them with the necessary resources to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

A close reading of the responses of the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe clearly shows that it is very active and vibrant but always gets checkmated by its limited approach in dissecting national questions. Civil society in Zimbabwe has hardly questioned the role of the state, focusing more on legalism and litigation to discipline the errant state. This has seen the promotion of civil liberties at the expense of material and cultural rights.

It is abundantly clear that from the foregoing observations that the current architecture of the state has put into sharp relief the limitations of the neo-liberal state and markets. The question therefore, that beckons is: How do post-liberation movements deal with the question of material rights and redefine themselves? This is the elephant in the room that the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe has to tackle.

The responses to COVID-19 require to be put in a broader structural framework that is historical and not only driven by the moment. As Dr. Balakrishnan cautioned, “But let me tell you as a doctor, these are things you cannot just build up overnight. It takes years and years of investment in people, in systems, in capacity.

A close examination will reveal that the countries that have managed to effectively respond to the pandemic are those with strong investments in public health. This brings us back to the question of the role of the state.

Civil society in Zimbabwe has hardly questioned the role of the state, focusing more on legalism and litigation to discipline the errant state. This has seen the promotion of civil liberties at the expense of material and cultural rights.

Zimbabwe’s economy has been largely agrarian, natural resource dependant, dominated by the service industry and characterised by high levels of informality and precarity. The labour force survey of 2014 estimated that 94.5 per cent of Zimbabweans earned their living in the informal sector. In 2017, artisanal/small-scale miners accounted for more gold output than large-scale miners. In 2012, the Environmental Management Agency of 2012 estimated their number to be around 500 000, a figure that should have grown by now.

In the 2018-2019 season, tobacco farmers recorded an all-time high yield of 258 million kilogrammes. Estimates put the number of small-scale farmers to between 80,000 and 90,000. Professor Brian Raftopoulos in his 2013 article, “Zimbabwean politics in the post 2013 election”, asserts that the country’s political economy had been reconfigured, giving rise to a new social base and thus calling for new forms of organising. This new social base is characterised by high levels of de-industrialisation and informality. The coming of the COVID-19 pandemic further problematises the role of the state and politics of public goods, especially in highly informalised economies like Zimbabwe. It’s quite clear that the issue of public goods can no longer be reduced to either the magic of the market or benevolent philanthropy and celebrity activism.

Looking ahead

It is patently clear that the COVID-19 response in Zimbabwe has seen an absent state. The state has largely relied on benevolent philanthropy and celebrity activism whilst looting the public purse. The Ministry of Health and NatPharm (the national pharmaceutical company, a public enterprise) have been embroiled in one looting scandal after another. An investigation and expose by two online websites, ZimLive and The Zimbabwe Morning Post, implicate high profile government officials and the president’s children in fleecing the treasury through overpricing of medical supplies under the guise of dealing with COVID-19-related emergencies. These corruption scandals even gained the attention of Interpol, the international police agency, after a two-week-old company got paid US$2million by the Zimbabwe government.

A close examination will reveal that the countries that have managed to effectively respond to the pandemic are those with strong investments in public health. This brings us back to the question of the role of the state.

Meanwhile, the opposition has failed to make the government accountable as it is embroiled in internecine fights arising from the Supreme Court judgment of 31st of March 2020. At best, the main opposition has managed to issue a series of press statements without showing any clear direction on how to move forward.

Looking ahead, Zimbabwe’s pro-democracy movement may need to learn from Professor Issa Shivji’s wise words extensively quoted below:

The contemporary neo-liberal discourse has one fundamental blind spot. It treats the present as if the present has had no history. The discourse on democracy in Africa suffers from the same blindness. The struggle for democracy did not begin with the postcold war introduction of multi-party system. The independence and liberation struggles for self‐determination, beginning in the postworld war period, were eminently a struggle for democracy. Neither formal independence nor the victory of armed liberation movements marked the end of democratic struggles. They continued, albeit in different forms…the great democratic struggles of the African people expressed in their independence and national liberation movements remain incomplete. The so-called democracy constructed on ahistorical and asocial paradigms of neo-liberalism are an expression of renewed imperial onslaught, which is profoundly anti‐democratic…

This would mean a return to a political economy for the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe, which should begin to articulate the democratic struggle within the lived realities of the cross-border trader, the vegetable and fruit vendor, the small-scale farmer, the artisanal miner, the slum dweller in Hopley, the informal taxi operator, the menial worker and all the subalterns within Zimbabwe’s informalised economy. Doing so means bringing in class analysis and social and economic justice-based solutions to the core of public policy.

The current COVID-19-induced response of the state has shown why the pro-democracy movement should disentangle itself from the fallacious promise of neoliberal democracy and the magic of the market. Only when and until the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe realises that democracy needs to shift from just fighting for civil liberties to articulating how public goods and services can be rescued from the profit motive to bring about a better quality of life to humanity can it checkmate the reigning authoritarianism. This is the same way that the liberation movement was able to checkmate the Rhodesian Gulag State, despite its last leader, Ian Smith, proclaiming that “never in a thousand years”, will there ever be black rule.

Professor Shivji’s wisdom is instructive here:

The struggle for democracy is primarily a political struggle on the form of governance, thus involving the reconstitution of the state. No one claims that democracy means and aims at social emancipation. Rather it is located on the terrain of political liberalism so, at best, creating conditions for the emancipatory project. This is important to emphasize in light of the hegemony of neoliberal discourse, which tends to emasculate democracy of its social and historical dimensions and present it as an ultimate nirvana.

The question is: What would state reconstitution look like? Is it a return to socialism, the democratic developmental state or the social democratic state? The answer lies in any path that straddles through any of those types of state or their combination.

However, it is clear from the foregoing that the neoliberal state is not the solution. To respond to the rising authoritarianism, the pro-democracy movements need to return democratic politics to the core of delivering public goods and services and not servicing profits and the market. Doing so may mean designing critical intellectual projects meant to push back nationalist authoritarianism, increasing public ligation on the enforcement of the expanded bill of rights in the 2013 Constitution, building people’s movements anchored in collective action and solidarity around public goods rather than electoralism, and shying away from oligarchic tendencies.

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The author is PhD fellow at the university of Johannesburg, South Africa

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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Politics

Food Protectionism and Nationalism in the Age of COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the global farm-to-plate conveyor belt, including related value chain and support industries. This has led to the overhaul of certain sectors and the expansion of others. On the upside, the disruption has also encouraged citizens to audit the resilience of their local food systems and their capacity to feed people over the long haul.

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Food Protectionism and Nationalism in the Age of COVID-19
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In June 2018, Kenya’s food and beverage import bill crossed the psychological 100 billion mark, underscoring the country’s overreliance on food imports for sustenance. This isn’t news to those in the agriculture sector who recently witnessed our diplomatic kerfuffle with Tanzania degenerate into a blockade that dented food imports and spiked the price of produce in the local market. Kenya imports onions and oranges from Tanzania; eggs, tomatoes, and pineapples from Uganda; poultry products from the United States; as well as fish and garlic from China.

This kind of skewed dependency on imports strains an already dysfunctional agricultural supply chain that has atrophied and shrunk over the decades, thanks to mismanagement, theft and a lax policy environment. The agriculture sector, despite its potential, has been the victim of legislative failures, beginning with the decimation of parastatals in the Ministry of Agriculture in the 1990s, and the consolidation of state functions in ways that were incongruent with the needs of the respective agriculture sub-sectors.

The litany of social and economic ills that result from this laxity stretches long – from local farmers to reduced earnings in state coffers, disadvantaged agro-processors, heightened pressure on the shilling and import shock risks.

Kenya’s agriculture sector employs more than 50 per cent of the labour force, accounts for 34.1 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and yet only contributes Sh23.3 billion to state coffers. The growing of crops and animal production combined account for 31.8 per cent of GDP, while support activities account for 0.5 per cent.

However, a weak regulatory environment, lax enforcement, brazen importers who gang up with state operatives to bring in cheap agro-imports, and depressed prices that have precipitated a significant decline in acreage under farming have negatively impacted the sector. The resulting drop in local supply, coupled with low yields and erratic rain models, have since produced critical shortages such as the ones that hit maize supplies in 2018.

Hence, while competing countries have been regulating their agro-industries, modernising their agro-supply chains, firming up the value chain, and managing the market to control prices, Kenya’s unofficial policy has been one of irascible cartelism, fueled by a few powerful industry players both on the regulatory and market side, who seek to cash in on their connections to state powers.

It also hasn’t also been helpful that in recent years, cash crop farming has monopolised acreage at the expense of other crops. Additionally, the top foods consumed in Kenya constitute milk, maize, wheat, vegetables, potatoes and bananas, which are easier to produce under mechanised farms controlled by a few oligopolies. The end result is loss of agency by the consumer and a patent inability to determine what ends up on a typical Kenyan dinner table.

Kenya’s agriculture sector employs more than 50 per cent of the labour force, accounts for 34.1 per cent of GDP and yet only contributes Sh23.3 billion to state coffers. The growing of crops and animal production combined account for 31.8 per cent of GDP, while support activities account for 0.5 per cent.

This marks the genesis of the cycle that has ensured that Kenyans are vulnerable to the certain kind of food protectionism and nationalism, such as the recent border shutdown by Uganda to truckers and Tanzanians due to a diplomatic tussle that saw food prices spike in the country. While Kenyans made fun of Mexican maize imports, Ugandan ginger, and tomato shortages, underneath that satire lay the profound vulnerability of Kenya’s 50 million tummies to the whims and impulses of random policy makers in countries hundreds of miles from our borders.

If the current food protectionism has taught us anything, it is that food has to become a national security issue and should be accorded the respective policy and structural and supply chain securitisation needed to forestall potential starvation.

The global picture

In March 2020, Vietnam and China stopped rice exports. Russia and Kazakhstan followed suit and briefly banned wheat exports. Around the world, two dozen nations took the cue and started hoarding their primary food exports in false anticipation of global shortages amidst the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic. In total, seventeen major food supply nations placed some form of constraint on agricultural exports in the early weeks of the pandemic. Luckily, speculative behavior in agricultural commodity markets and imposing unnecessary trade restrictions, didn’t trigger food price spikes similar to those in 2007-8. The respective states almost immediately rescinded on the move amidst piling pressure and global economy concerns since the protectionism didn’t bode well for global supply chains and consumers around the world.

In recent years, we’ve increasingly gotten accustomed to the geography and ethnicity of food: that tea is British, coffee is Kenyan; tomatoes and onions are Tanzanian; ginger and bananas are Ugandan; strawberries are South African and Egyptian; fish and garlic are Chinese, poultry is from the United States; maize is from Mexico; and butter comes from South Africa. While this may portend well for global culinary multiculturalism, in times of pandemics such as this, the nationalistic fervour and export disruption exposes us to the vagaries of shortages on the shelves, potential hoarding, and hiked prices.

In recent years, the international food system has been built around the capacity of certain countries to specialise in the production of some foods to feed demand in other countries, while importing food items that could not be efficiently produced locally. This has produced a complex cog of farmers, transporters, financiers, and distributors spread across all corners of the globe. In this system, the world has become highly dependent on a globalised production chain in which dozens of countries straddle the middle of this chain, each adding a new component to the final agro-product. Take the US for example, whose imports account for half of the fresh fruits, a third of the vegetables, and 90 per cent of the seafood consumed in the country.

Food nationalism sometimes gets politicised around origins, such as whether falafel originated in the Mediterranean or in the Middle East, or whether rice from Vietnam is better than rice from Pakistan. In some jurisdictions, this has taken the form of policy protectionism, such as the European Union (EU)’s Protected Geographical Status framework that limits the production of certain potato, tequila, vinegar and cheese varieties to certain regions under specified conditions.

In recent years, the international food system has been built around the capacity of certain countries to specialise in the production of some foods to feed demand in other countries, while importing food items that could not be efficiently produced locally. This has produced a complex cog of farmers, transporters, financiers, and distributors spread across all corners of the globe.

Luckily it isn’t only the exoticism of certain foods that drive food nationalisms; even the working classes in recent years have expressed their concerns through political dissent driven by food: Sudan’s 2018 Bread Revolution, Kenya’s 2011 Unga Revolution, Egypt’s 2017 Wheat Revolution, the French Milk Farmers’ Revolution, among a host of other displeasures with the volatility of the national food basket.

Food sub-nationalism

Within gastro-nationalism there exists local nuance that drives certain protectionisms too. Nyandarua produces 35 per cent of our national potato output. Cashewnuts come from Kilifi. Mwea and Ahero produce rice. Flowers are grown in Naivasha. Vegetables come from the Kisii highlands. Maize is from Kitale. Freshwater fish is from Kisumu. Sisal is from Taveta. Milk comes from Githunguri. Tea comes from the Nandi region.

The March 26th shutdown of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties disrupted huge markets that are the purveyors and outlets for these agriproducts. Because of claims of corruption at police barriers along these counties’ borders, rural farmers effectively reduced their supply of farm products, sending the prices of food sky high in urban neighbourhoods.

Barriers erected to contain in-country COVID infection rates have, in turn, created logistical bottlenecks that reduce the supply of basic food commodities, creating an overcapacity in the producing counties while precipitating shortages in urban agricultural markets, such as Kondele and Kibuye in Kisumu, Mwembe Tayari and Kongowea in Mombasa, Soko Mjinga in Kitale, Marikiti in Nairobi, Daraja Mbili in Kisii county, Kagio in Kirinyaga and similar large food markets spread across Kenyan urban centres.

This chokes a critical cog of an already disadvantaged food infrastructure, given that there is an annual demand for 4.5 million tonnes of maize, 2 million tonnes of wheat, 1.3 million tonnes of sugar and 0.7 million tonnes of rice, which is barely met by local production. This deficit is often filled by the import of 1.3 million tonnes of maize, 1.8 million tonnes of wheat and 625,000 tonnes of rice. The overall outlay of Kenya’s food system, therefore, is a combination of disempowered (mostly urban) eaters, powerful agro-cartels who chase higher margins through unregulated food imports, and traders who, as a result of overreliance on imports, have reoriented their supply chains.

Food capitalism

Ironically, hoarding and food nationalism hit amidst a global sufficiency and oversupply mainly driven by China’s and India’s massive investment in grain production, and investments in agriculture in Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Overall, less than 25 countries in the world are global net exporters though many in South America, Eastern Europe and South East Asia range between food sufficient and stable exporters.

The world’s poor are bearing the brunt of this, thanks to their poor storage capacities as well as the fact that they often merely make up the unskilled labour needed within the global food supply systems. Britain, a key importer and exporter, had to rely on the importation of labour as a deficit of 90,000 workers had left fruit farms unattended, thus heightening the possibility of farm losses. Britain was forced to seek nearly 10,000 workers from EU and non-EU countries, which remained closed during the height of the pandemic.

Cross-border supply chains and the free movement of consumer goods have increasingly been subjected to unfair trade subsidies, consumer protectionism, and border logistical bottlenecks that reduce the flow of consumer foodstuffs. Surprisingly the hoarding happens just when, unlike previous periods of rampant food inflation, global inventories of staple crops like corn, wheat, soybeans and rice are plentiful.

Food nationalism feeds a strain of food capitalism that sees approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of food wasted globally even as the COVID pandemic impacts food production and supply and guts distribution. Meanwhile, 2020 estimates are that due to the pandemic, a billion people face starvation globally and suffer from some form of hunger brought about by war, climate change, or simply a lack of means, especially in the Global South, while 300 million are at a crisis point.

It’s a testament to the global architecture of hunger that the majority of those in need are in the Global South, partly due to conflicts and climate disasters, but also predominantly due to economic instability that hampers both physical and economic access to food. Resource-rich nations in Africa, Latin America and Asia get stunted by unfair global practices, disastrous political systems propped up by and from the West, and predatory firms from both the East and the West who loot these countries through tax havens and illicit financial flows.

Hence, the food systems across the Global South are impoverished through laxity and political interference, while critical capital that could boost agri-production gets siphoned to the Global North. The resultant losses and deficit are what precipitate the vulnerability and susceptibility to shocks, such as that which has been wrought by the current pandemic.

Culinary identities

While food nationalism entrenches a protectionist model that compromises the legal and political rules of global trade espoused by many treaties and pacts, culinary nationalism simply raises the pride in a country’s culinary history. Large swathes of societies are having to rediscover their comparative advantages as the imports from farmers halfway around the world grind to a halt.

The coronavirus strain and its disruption of supply and value chains has simply fed into a hand- wringing method of protectionism quietly accepted and sometimes loudly proclaimed by belligerents like Donald Trump. This localisation inadvertently provides a perfect cover for those who have long embraced the idea of nationalism.

Food nationalism feeds a strain of food capitalism that sees approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of food wasted globally even as the COVID pandemic impacts food production and supply and guts distribution. Meanwhile, 2020 estimates are that due to the pandemic, a billion people face starvation globally and suffer from some form of hunger…

Even so, the pandemic has also necessitated the closure of some plants, resulted in bankruptcy among some agro-producers, and slowed down processing plants in India, in parts of China, in the United States and Canada, across Brazil, and in Western Europe. On the upside, this has helped citizens to audit the resilience of their local food systems and their capacity to feed people over the long haul.

Grounding of flights and border restrictions have limited the flow of migrant workers to farms that rely on hired labour during the growing and harvest seasons. Meanwhile, wars have decimated grain research centres in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, while coercive legislation is being pushed in certain African countries even as there is criticism of the “NGO-isation” of agriculture in Africa and the push for legislated monopoly on seeds in countries like Kenya and India.

The global food infrastructure in the entire farm-to-plate conveyor belt and the related value chain industries and their support industries are staring at a significant disruption that will overhaul certain sectors, expand others, neuter many, and rejig the wider global reserves, primary producers and suppliers.

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Politics

Market Shutdowns, Policy Failures and the Mishandling of Food Logistics

COVID-19 has had a huge and immediate negative economic impact on low-income households, especially in urban areas. The Kenyan government’s mediocre response to this economic shock has not only increased people’s vulnerability, but has also laid bare the government’s inability to provide basic services.

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Market Shutdowns, Policy Failures and the Mishandling of Food Logistics
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Way before Kenya officially reported its first case of COVID 19, it was an open secret that the country was woefully unprepared to deal with the pandemic. The public health system was deplorable and ill-equipped to handle the country’s ongoing health concerns even without the added strain of managing the pandemic. Lack of piped water in informal settlements in urban areas presented an infrastructural headache, which was compounded by the high population densities in these areas. About sixty per cent of Nairobi’s population, Kenya’s capital, is said to be living in informal settlements, which occupy just 5 per cent of the city’s land.

Between the crowded living arrangements, lack of running water to guarantee constant and proper handwashing and a poorly managed health system;, the lack of preparedness made for a grim situation. By the time the first case of COVID 19 was officially reported on Friday, the 13th of March 2020 (the more superstitious amongst us were quick to connect the date with the event), there were concerns that low-income urban households, due to the nature of their design (or lack thereof), were more prone to infections. Experts also warned of the economic effects of the pandemic mainly taking the form of reduction or loss of income and reduced supply and access to basic utilities.

On 25 March, with a total number of 28 positive cases nationally and over 400,000 cases globally, the President of Kenya announced a raft of measures to contain the pandemic. Movement in and out of the country was heavily curtailed as borders with neighbouring countries were closed, passenger flights were suspended, schools were closed, large gatherings were banned and a countrywide dusk-to-dawn curfew was announced. Many have argued that the move to put in place a curfew rather than a total lockdown was seen as a compromise, a political economy calculation that took into consideration the socio-economic structure of Nairobi whilst endeavouring to reduce the spread of infection.

Nairobi is a city where the majority of the labour force comprises casual workers and informal petty traders who survive on daily earned wages and income. A total lockdown would have denied these citizens access to money for food, rent and basic utilities, which could potentially pose a political threat of social unrest. Others have speculated that the night curfew was intended to forestall criminal activities to supplement lost incomes.

On 6th April 2020, the president announced further containment measures, including a 21-day ban on all movement in and out of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale and Kilifi counties except for movement of food supplies and other cargo. By this time, 158 infections and 4 fatalities had been reported.

On 22nd April, Mandera County was added to the list of counties with restricted movement. On April 25th, the nationwide curfew and the cessation of movement in the four counties was extended for another 21 days until May 16th. Another extension was announced for 21 days until 6th June. On 6th June, the cessation of movement in and out of Kwale and Kilifi counties and Eastleigh (Nairobi County) and Old Town (Mombasa County) neighbourhoods was lifted, and the nationwide curfew hours reduced to 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Movement in and out of Nairobi, Mombasa and Mandera counties remained restricted until 6th July 2020. (At the time this article was being written, the restrictions in and out of all counties had been lifted and there was a scheduled roadmap to allow for intra-country travel and the resumption of domestic and international flights. Places of worship had been reopened on condition of adherence to social distancing precautions along with a limit to 100 faithful and gatherings not lasting more than an hour. It was announced that schools would reopen in January 2021.

Taking cues on precautionary measures from the national government, county governments also put in place containment measures that mainly targeted market places. In March 2020, Kwale, Kiambu and Kajiado county governments ordered all their open-air markets closed. Kisumu County closed the famous Kibuye market and Nyandarua County closed all Sunday markets. In June 2020, Machakos County closed 8 markets in Kangundo and Mwala sub-counties, where it was reported 3 people who had tested positive for COVID-19 had interacted with local residents.

The economic impact of COVID-19

As earlier speculated, the economy has taken a beating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the Central Bank of Kenya revised its 2020 economic growth forecast from the original 6.2 per cent to 3.4 per cent.

More ominously, in late May, the Central Bank indicated that up to 75 per cent of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) were at risk of collapsing by the end of June 2020 due to the hostile COVID-19 business environment. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forecast a 0.3 per cent economic contraction, the result of disrupting livelihoods across the country.

Findings from household surveys on the effect on COVID-19 seem to reflect this gloomy macroeconomic prognosis. They all indicate loss of jobs, decline in incomes, rising cost of living and hunger as key concerns for those interviewed. A survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics released in mid-May 2020 revealed that 30 per cent of households sampled were unable to pay rent. In addition, 21.5 per cent of households that met their rent obligations on time were unable to do so and had to renegotiate with their landlords on repayment. This goes to show the extent to which the COVID-19 economic shock has affected households’ ability to pay recurrent bills.

On 30th June 2020, TIFA Research, a market research company, released a report focusing on the impact of the global pandemic on low-income neighbourhoods in Nairobi. The study, which sampled respondents from Huruma, Kibera, Mathare, Korogocho, Mukuru kwa Njenga, and Kawangware, had several key findings. Over 90 per cent of those interviewed said the COVID- 19 pandemic had had a huge and immediate impact on their lives, with 54 per cent of the respondents reporting having lost their jobs and attributing this to COVID-19. Ninety-four per cent of the respondents reported having to cut down expenditure on food and drinks.

More worrying was the 42 per cent whose immediate concern was hunger. The seriousness of this is reflected in the subsequent finding that only 6 per cent of those interviewed had been able to save during the pandemic, which exposed the economic vulnerability of most households. Most of those interviewed had supplemented lost income by selling off assets and cutting down on their expenditure on food and drink.

Over 90 per cent of those interviewed said the COVID- 19 pandemic had had a huge and immediate impact on their lives, with 54 per cent of the respondents reporting having lost their jobs and attributing this to COVID-19. Ninety-four per cent of the respondents reported having to cut down expenditure on food and drinks.

Another survey conducted between 28 May and 2 June this year by Infotrak Research Consultancy had similar findings. The survey showed that more than 80 per cent of those interviewed struggled to feed their families. More than 60 per cent of Kenyans were unable to pay rent in full, with an almost similar proportion who were struggling to pay rent on time. In urban areas, almost 4 out of 5 of those interviewed who used to send remittances to rural homes were unable to do so.

The government containment measures, whilst reducing the spread of infections, have also had a domino effect on other parts of social and economic systems, particularly in urban areas where the effect of these restrictions has been felt the most. They have had direct and indirect effects on food security in urban centres and on their linkages with food production areas and distribution networks.

Hybrid food systems and systems of care

Most African urban centres tend to have complex hybrid food systems characterised by a delicately balanced co-existence of informal and formal food systems. Nairobi, Mombasa and other big towns in Kenya are no exception. The restrictions on movement and closure of markets have had three immediate effects on informal food systems in the areas the markets are located. First, the income of the traders operating in these markets is lost. Depending on their business size, traders could be wholesalers getting produce from outside counties to retailers selling their wares to customers. Second, informal retail traders, such as hawkers, who normally source their food supplies from these markets are unable to do so. Closure of markets means there is a reduced supply of food produce in urban areas, leading to an increase in food prices. Third, the curfew was already eating into the operating hours of informal traders to get supplies from the markets in the morning and the hours they would have used to sell their wares in the evening. These hawkers have to work within reduced hours and still ensure they sell enough wares to make ends meet. They face another challenge in their potential customers having less money to spend, thus reducing the hawkers’ returns.

Most African urban centres tend to have complex hybrid food systems characterised by a delicately balanced co-existence of informal and formal food systems. Nairobi, Mombasa and other big towns in Kenya are no exception.

Another secondary effect on the food supply chain is the transport of food produce from the source county to the destination county. While the government announced that food supplies were essential services and movement would not be curtailed by the imposed restrictions, implementing that is not a clear-cut intervention. Whereas formally registered transport businesses can get the documentation and clearance to supply food without restriction, smallholder farmers use other forms of transport to get their produce to markets, such as passenger vehicles or motorcycles. Since these have been restricted from moving during the curfew hours, a key element of the food supply chain has been disrupted.

Most urban Kenyan households have ties to their rural homes and get care packages of food supplies from relatives in rural areas to supplement their urban food sources. These systems of care – what some would categorise as informal social protection – also offer a sanctuary to urban families, a space they can retreat to and reconfigure their livelihoods when urban life is too expensive. A recent article in the Daily Nation revealed an increase in these care package to families in urban areas in the last three months as urban households struggle to get food. Food sent includes cereals, bananas, Irish and sweet potatoes, dried fish, among others. So lucrative is this business that previous passenger shuttle businesses are repurposing their vehicles and obtaining permits to transport food to urban centres.

Rural-urban support systems also allow parents to send their children upcountry to stay with relatives over school holidays. During these dire circumstances, families can relocate to the countryside where the cost of living is much lower than in urban centres. The restriction of movement in and out of the major urban centres in Kenya has disrupted these systems of care as families are unable to exercise the option of easing the economic burden of their urban households by moving to their rural homes. In a past Infotrak survey, up to 40 per cent of Nairobi residents were willing to move to rural areas the moment the government lifted the movement restrictions.

Food security during this pandemic is also compromised by challenges faced by counties that grow food. Where production is going on as normal, restriction in movement has seen source counties facing a glut in food. This has led to reduced prices of food and increased wastage as food producers lack the storage capacity for their supplies.

So, depending on which county one looks at, there are rural food-producing households that have a lot of food, no market and reduced income from food sales. Meanwhile, low-income food-consuming households in urban areas are experiencing a scarcity of food, high food prices and reduced household income.

The restriction of movement during the pandemic also affects access to farm inputs at two levels. One, import supply chains have been disrupted and slowed down, hence it may be more difficult and expensive to buy imported inputs, such as fertilizer and pesticides, which are crucial to maximising yields. Two, where these inputs find their way into the country, they are typically found in urban areas and require to be transported to rural areas. Restrictions in the transport of good and services will affect the transport of these inputs to rural areas. Furthermore, the financial costs of importation as well as urban–rural transport are likely to be passed onto the farmer in the form of increased prices, thus disincentivising the farmer from accessing the inputs.

So, depending on which county one looks at, there are rural food-producing households that have a lot of food, no market and reduced income from food sales. Meanwhile, low-income food-consuming households in urban areas are experiencing a scarcity of food, high food prices and reduced household income.

The locust invasion across the Horn of Africa has compounded Kenya’s food insecurity. The country experienced the first wave of locust attacks from late 2019 to early 2020, with swarms moving through the country from arid and semi-arid areas hosting pastoralist communities to the food-producing counties. The Food and Agricultural organisation (FAO) issued a warning in late June 2020 about the second wave of locusts, with some estimating it to be 400 times bigger than the first wave. According to FAO, Turkana and Marsabit counties’ crops and pastures are likely to be affected in this wave as the swarms of locusts migrate northwards into South Sudan and Ethiopia. This would reduce the amount of pasture available for livestock in these areas, resulting in loss of incomes and increased health concerns, such as hunger, particularly childhood malnutrition. The food security outlook is grim to say the least, with forecasts of a food shortage in East Africa caused by the locust invasion, low food reserves and the disrupted supply chain of food and inputs.

Mediocre mitigation measures

Pandemic mitigation responses by the government have mostly favoured corporates and individuals in formal employment. The government offered VAT and corporate tax reprieves, financial support for businesses and creatives, and wage tax subsidies for those in formal employment. None of these measures directly targeted the majority low-income earners in urban areas whose employment situation has been worsened by COVID-19.

The Treasury has been criticised for the recommendations it made in the 2020/2021 budget, which included proposals for the removal of zero-rated status on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as well as flour whilst fully aware of the economic impact of COVID-19, especially on urban low- income communities. Members of the National Assembly vetoed these proposals when they were discussing the Finance Bill.

The government reduced its budgetary allocation to agriculture by 18 per cent, from Sh59.6 billion in FY 2019/2020 to Sh48.7 billion in FY 2020-21. The agriculture sector in Kenya plays a significant role in employment, job creation and food supply. Its importance during this pandemic cannot be overstated as it covers issues of production, supply and even access of food, linking producers and consumers.

Government mitigation measures targeting the urban poor have been lacklustre at best. Even as the government moves to reopen the economy, there are no mass testing measures in place, hence there is no credible way of ascertaining the spread of the pandemic within communities. The distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) has been minimal and uncoordinated, putting many residents at risk as the move around in their communities.

Questions have also been raised about the targeting of potential beneficiaries for relief support measures, such as cash transfers and food package distribution. There are claims of government agencies misappropriating funds intended to contain the negative impact of the pandemic at the community level.

Pandemic mitigation responses by the government have mostly favoured corporates and individuals in formal employment. The government offered VAT and corporate tax reprieves, financial support for businesses and creatives, and wage tax subsidies for those in formal employment. None of these measures directly targeted the majority low-income earners in urban areas whose employment situation has been worsened by COVID-19.

As a society we have been forced to reckon with the consequences of long-term underinvestment by the government in public services. Informal settlements, where the majority of urban residents live, still do not have piped running water and residents have to buy their water at exorbitantly high prices from water vendors. The lack of piped water and the high cost of purchasing water in a time of reduced incomes reduces handwashing campaigns into a classist privileged initiative that only a few residents can comply with. According to Nahashon Muguna, the Acting Head of the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company, the daily demand for water in Nairobi is 810,000 cubic metres whereas the company, at its most efficient, is only able to supply 526,000 cubic metres.

Poor investment in housing and health offer little consolation to those who become infected with the virus. The hospitals are not equipped to handle the pandemic, and with the current state of housing in informal settlements, it is impossible to implement the self-isolation homecare guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health. Moreover, it is one thing to tell people to stay at home and avoid going outdoors. Assuming that they can afford to stay indoors, one has to ask what kind of dwelling spaces do they reside in.

COVID-19 has laid bare the inability of the government to provide basic services to the country’s people, services that are enshrined in our constitution under the Bill of Rights. It ultimately boils down to a breakdown of trust and a weakening of the social contract between the government and people it is mandated to serve.

This yawning disconnect between leaders and citizens has to be bridged. It is not enough to guarantee life; the government, in its dealings with citizens, should make sure that people lead a good life, a life of dignity, productivity and happiness. It is time for the Government of Kenya to ask itself what it has done for its citizens and what it should do for them going forward.

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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