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Journalism: The Essential Non-Essential?

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COVID-19 has forced news organisations to adapt to changing times; many are closing down or letting go of their employees. Can journalism be declared redundant at a time when it is needed the most?

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Journalism: The Essential Non-Essential?
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On April 22, Johannesburg-based Kenyan photographer, Cedric Nzaka, took to Twitter to share his latest conquest. He had shot the cover for South Africa’s Cosmopolitan magazine, featuring Miss Universe, Zozibini Tuni. It was a big deal. Much as Nzaka has worked with various luxury brands over the years, ranging from Vogue to Nike and Netflix, this was his first-ever magazine cover. As he received adulation, Nzaka’s feat quickly morphed from being the guy who shot the latest Cosmopolitan cover to being one who did the magazine’s last cover.

On April 30, Associated Media Publishing, South Africa’s franchise holder for Cosmopolitan, announced that after a four-decade run, the company was permanently closing its doors on May 1, and ceasing publication of all its magazines, including House & Leisure, Good Housekeeping and Women On Wheels, due to the financial crunch brought about by COVID-19. And so, just like that, several editors, writers, photographers, designers, stylists and other production support staff became jobless.

Ordinarily, Nzaka and those like him who are contracted by high-end clients on a need-to-basis may have the privilege of having potential clients lurking in the shadows, but not with COVID-19 in the picture. With event cancelations and a lull in advertising, there is not much work for commercial photographers. For writers and editors, it means going freelance, a not-so-easy ballgame for those accustomed to structured work regimes and timely paychecks. It means sending pitches with no guarantee of being commissioned, an exercise which requires thick skin due to the deluge of rejections accompanying this new reality. Presently, things look bleaker with numerous international publications deciding to no longer engage freelancers.

It wasn’t only glossy magazines that took a hit. The Mail and Guardian (M&G), one of Africa’s better known newspapers, found itself in a tight spot too. On March 27, the editor-in-chief, Khadija Patel, the deputy editor, Beauregard Tromp, and the Africa editor, Simon Allison, led the newsroom in appealing to readers on Twitter to subscribe to the paper. They weren’t sure they would afford to pay salaries in the coming months. Moving with speed to innovate, they launched The Continent, a digital newspaper reporting on Africa that is distributed through email and WhatsApp, a move aimed at growing regional readership and opening up future revenue streams. Then, on May 9, Patel and Tromp pulled a surprise move by resigning as editor and deputy editor, prompting speculation that their departure may be the outcome of the current financial ripples.

As Ferial Haffajee, former editor-in-chief of the M&G and later City Press writes in the Daily Maverick about her conversations with Patel, it wasn’t the first time the paper was in need of support from its readership. Thirty-two years ago, the M&G made an almost similar call to the public.

“Near her office is a 1988 poster of the first Weekly Mail (the M&G’s original name) when then editors Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim ran a campaign called Save the Wail,” Haffajee writes of her visit to Patel’s M&G office. “Then Minister of Home Affairs Stoffel Botha threatened to ban the title and on its cover, the paper ran the clarion call ‘DON’T LET US GO QUIETLY’, they asked readers. ‘Carry on reading us. Carry on subscribing. Make a fuss.’”

Patel’s Twitter call for subscriptions delivered an impressive 30 per cent increase in paying readers.

The news business isn’t doing so well in Kenya either. On April 2, Radio Africa Group chairman, Patrick Quarcoo, wrote to employees explaining that while job losses will remain an option of last resort, pay cuts were inevitable, considering that revenue streams were fast drying up. Effective April 1, Quarcoo announced, employees taking home a gross salary of over Sh100,000 will take a 30 per cent cut, while those earning below this amount will have their salaries reduced by 20 per cent. There was a promise that the move (termed interim) will be reviewed periodically.

On April 2, Radio Africa Group chairman, Patrick Quarcoo, wrote to employees explaining that while job losses will remain an option of last resort, pay cuts were inevitable, considering that revenue streams were fast drying up.

And even though it had already effected pay reductions, the Nation Media Group clarified on July 1 that salary cuts will last until December 2020 – this while breaking the news that starting July 3, a chunk of its workforce will be immediately relieved of its duties.

Earlier on, on March 12, the Standard Group’s Orlando Lyomu sent an internal memo on the impending laying off of 170 employees, a purge staggered over a few months.

However, it was the reduction in earnings by between 20 per cent and 50 per cent at the Mediamax Network that caused a frenzy, leading to resignations and court action. There was temporary relief until the morning of June 22, when over 100 staffers woke up to text messages declaring their roles redundant.

The “infodemic”

With the advent of COVID-19, there was a warning by the World Health Organization (WHO)’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, that as the pandemic rears its ugly head, it has a notorious twin in an ongoing “infodemic” – a flood of misinformation. It was, therefore, upon journalists to take the lead in educating the public in a bid to “flatten the curve”.

This announcement resulted in a deluge of infographics, explainers, think pieces and interviews with epidemiologists and other public health practitioners. As governments articulated their responses in war-time lexicon, it was journalists who stepped in and cut out the militarism by being on message about the sorts of individual and communal mitigation measures that were needed to curb the virus. It was journalists who covered newsworthy occurrences that could have been overshadowed by COVID-19, including police violence on the pretext of containing the virus.

It was therefore expected that when the dusk-to-dawn curfew took effect in Kenya, journalists were listed as essential service providers, and were permitted to move around past 7 p.m. and to travel in and out of areas where cessation of movement was enforced.

However, the recent expulsion of journalists from newsrooms makes one wonder whether they are still considered essential service providers. A major concern has been the disconnect between media top dogs and their juniors, with bosses proving that all they need is a flimsy excuse for them to throw their colleagues under the bus.

As governments articulated their responses in war-time lexicon, it was journalists who stepped in and cut out the militarism by being on message about the sorts of individual and communal mitigation measures that were needed to curb the virus.

In his piece, “Newsrooms are in revolt, the bosses are in their country homes”, New York Times columnist Ben Smith juxtaposes the realities of the lives of journalists against those of their bosses, where after COVID-19 hit, top media executives retreated to their out-of-town residences with swimming pools and access to golf courses, while reporters who do the donkey work, were left in limbo. Those lucky not to have lost their jobs suffered a massive pay reduction or were furloughed. They remained stuck in the city, unsure of whether their paycheck-to-paycheck existence would sustain them during and after the pandemic.

Smith should know a thing or two about income and other disparities within newsrooms, having himself been the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed. By shining a light on the opulent lifestyle of those who occupy the higher echelons of journalism (which he himself enjoys, courtesy of his position and income), he is by extension self-indicting in what seems to be the new era of accountability in media and other industries.

“Churnalism”

In their defence, media bosses always play the redundancy card whenever they need to deploy the axe. One may wonder: how does a newsroom become redundant?

In “The slow death of modern journalism” published in The Tribune, an anonymous reporter recounts the travails of working in modern-day newsrooms, where productivity has now been reduced to how many shallow clickbait articles one is required to produce per day for the benefit of advertisers.

“This was the state of journalism before the coronavirus upended our lives, and it is still the state of the journalist in a time of global crisis,” anonymous reporter wrote. “A handful of reporters, probably those you follow on social media, have the time and luxury to produce work in the public interest while many of us, not for want of ambition or ideas, spend our time pumping out rubbish in the knowledge that we can be spiked at a moment’s notice.”

In his 2008 book, Flat Earth News, the investigative journalist Nick Davies called this practice “churnalism” – a reference to the quantity and quality of work reporters are expected to produce. According to anonymous reporter, churnalism means rehashing content from other platforms that broke the story earlier so that reporters don’t need to leave their desks to produce five pieces a day.

When they see their staff as agents of churnalism as opposed to journalists doing intellectual heavy-lifting, media bosses find it easy to declare them redundant when the opportunity arises. The irony is, it is the same bosses who devise visions for churnalism. With productivity reduced to the bare minimum, staffers become redundant by design from the word go; their being on the payroll appears like an act of benevolence.

Yet media bosses don’t act on their own; behind them are media owners, the majority of whom care about nothing but the bottom line. These ownership intricacies and the cloud of terror hovering over newsrooms, courtesy of profit-by-all-means proprietors, is possibly best captured by Savannah Jacobson, a Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) Delacorte Magazine Fellow. In a piece on the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital’s takeover of nearly 200 newspapers and resultant cuts, Jacobson terms the fund “the most feared owner in American journalism”. The article exposes how investors’ lives are “punctuated by summer trips to Luxembourg and the French Riviera”, while “pens and notebooks disappear from newsrooms” due to low budgets.

When they see their staff as agents of churnalism as opposed to journalists doing intellectual heavy-lifting, media bosses find it easy to declare them redundant when the opportunity arises.

Using the example of the East Bay Times, which won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting, Jacobson illustrates how regardless of how many journalistic highs a newsroom attains, hedge funders, who are not interested in journalism and only care about how much money they can squeeze out of the industry, go ahead to purge newspapers – as if achievement should be rewarded with punishment. Over a two-year period, more than half the employees were sent packing as the hedge fund works even harder to acquire stakes in more newspapers.

“Winning a Pulitzer Prize doesn’t change the economics of the company,” said the East Bay Times’s executive editor, Neil Chase, “so why would it change the attitude of the owners?”

A “media extinction event”

As COVID-19 unraveled, there was an increase in think pieces on the financial and other dangers faced by newsrooms in Africa and elsewhere. Writing in The Guardian, journalist Kaamil Ahmed references the feasibility study for the establishment of an International Fund for Public Interest Media (IFPIM) conducted by media philanthropy Luminate, which warns that COVID-19 could be a “media extinction event”. Even before the pandemic, Luminate was pushing for the creation of the IFPIM so that media independence and sustainability is guaranteed, especially during turbulent times such as these, without profit-making being the sole consideration.

“The news media needs to be reclaimed as a public good,” Ahmed quotes former M&G editor-in-chief Khadija Patel, who also serves as vice chairperson of the International Press Institute. “It should not be seen as the playground of a few billionaires. The saddest sign would be for us to emerge from this pandemic with a handful of billionaires controlling all of our news.”

Revisiting his tenures as editor of the Cape Angus and the Cape Times, South African journalist Gasant Abarder opines that COVID-19 is the final straw that broke the newspaper industry’s already breaking back. Abarder, who says that he has watched print media slowly go to the dogs over a 17-year period, lays the blame on non-responsive editors and owners who did not pay attention and did not move speedily to innovate with the arrival of online classified sites such as OLX, followed by the exponential growth of social media. Abrader laments the edging out of older, more seasoned hands in exchange for a younger lot who may be talented but who “are paid less to do far more. They must tweet, shoot videos and come back to the office to write a few stories”. He believes that news organisations still need a few grey heads with institutional memory on their payrolls.

“But the newspapers that grew their circulation were owned by the people who knew this was a long play and that investment in quality journalism brought rewards,’’ he writes. “Look at The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Evening Standard. They invested in quality journalism and are now seeing the rewards after just a few years. The Evening Standard became a free paper to commuters on the London Underground. With guaranteed eyeballs, 650,000 copies were put in the hands of the commuters and advertising yields went through the roof.”

Apart from adapting to the changing times, Abrader makes a strong case for good storytelling. He gives examples of specific interventions he resorted to in trying to salvage what was already a dwindling newspaper when he was recalled as editor to do the firefighting. Not keen on selling the previous day’s events as news, he made a deliberate attempt to introduce powerful reporting, including covering the homelessness crisis in Cape Town extensively, going as far as letting a street dweller write the cover story, and allowing students to edit the paper during the #FeesMustFall protests. He admits that this and other efforts came too little too late. By the time he was leaving in 2016, the Cape Angus had only 10 employees, including Abrader himself, down from 57 staffers in 2009 when he first worked at the paper.

Why we do what we do

Accepting his position as acting editor-in-chief for the Mail and Guardian following Khadija Patel’s exit, investigative environment reporter, Sipho Kings, wrote about the cost of producing impactful journalism, coverage which isn’t always considered sexy at the time of writing and publishing. Paying tribute to those he says are willing to fund journalism as a public good, Kings referenced the M&G’s own history, where in the early days, reporters mortgaged their homes to fund the operation. That was before The Guardian stepped in, after which the non-profit Media Development Investment Fund bolstered things, with employees owning 10 per cent of the company.

“There are few newsrooms that take this kind of reporting seriously,” Kings wrote regarding his coverage of climate change, and how unfashionable it was at the beginning. “The M&G is one of them. It costs money to send skilled reporters and photographers to remote areas. It takes bravery to put those stories on the front cover of the newspaper — I am frequently reminded that one of the worst-ever selling editions of the M&G had a climate change story on the cover.”

Yet, much as it is desirable, journalism isn’t strictly about whether the work results in the sale of thousands of newspaper every morning or having stories trending on Twitter, which ties to the fact that it also isn’t about blind profiteering. In exercising oversight, journalism will from time to time be the bearer of unpopular opinions, or find itself alone in championing news causes such as climate change, which take a long time to become popular. In these lonely and sometimes dark streets of pioneering coverage, journalists remain true to their vocation, sometimes paying the ultimate price with their lives and livelihoods. It therefore beats logic that these individuals should be the first to be sacrificed at the altar of capitalism.

In light of the foregoing chaos and confusion, two media initiatives at the Columbia Journalism School – the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism – have come together to set up The Journalism Crisis Project, in an effort to make sense of things. Their statement reads:

Today, CJR and Tow are launching The Journalism Crisis Project, to add to the existing research. Since the economic effects of the coronavirus became clear in March, we’ve been compiling and updating a database on losses throughout journalism – tallying layoffs, furloughs, salary cuts, closings and other effects of the journalism downturn. So far, we’ve tracked more than 700 entries of reported changes at hundreds of publications. Our hope is that these efforts, in tandem with our colleagues outside of Columbia, will provide all of us with a baseline of reliable data. From that, we can then begin to understand where we go next…Such work will inevitably raise difficult questions. Are print newspapers worth saving? Is public rescue money a good idea? What should be the limits of philanthropy? How do we rebuild a diverse industry that finally looks like the country? As tough as such questions will be, they are the first steps towards finally addressing our growing problem – which, as with so many others right now, might finally put our old, damaged status quo to rest.

As fear and apprehension whirls around newsrooms, driving journalists to question whether they and their work matter, I have found reassurance in the reflections of the journalist April Zhu, who recently wrote me a note on why we do what we do, which I partially relay below.

In Chinese, the word for journalist is (jì zhe). The zhe just means “person.” Jì means a lot of different things, but among them: remember, record (the verb), record (the noun), even to jot down. I think the word ‘journalist’ is ruined in so many people’s minds; I think the kind of journalism that I do is different to yours, and what we do is almost a totally different profession than what TV broadcasters and pundits do. But there is something about this simple word that reduces our work to its most basic unit: to remember. To record. To take notes. You could say (though a Chinese person would laugh at this) that a jizhe is a ‘remember-man.’

“I was talking to one of my friends (also a journo) last week about the new surge of interest around police brutality, and he was expressing, quite honestly, that it frustrates him that people are only paying attention now, and that journalists covering it now are getting assignments – when he’s been covering this for a long time, and no one paid attention. This is a core tension of our work, kind of like surfing: do you have control over the wave, or are you simply struggling to stay upright, subject to its whims? I sense that you ask yourself this a lot.’’

“What you cover is never ‘hot’, or at least by the time your careful, studied analyses come out, it is no longer ‘hot.’ But you tell the story, and you tell it beautifully. And, once you have told it, it is record. It is part of the archive, forever. Us journalists have a complicated relationship with time and the public, which often leaves us feeling unvalued. But the archive is eternal, the archive is a time machine. Never mind those small feedback loops, whether or not a piece goes viral. The essence of our work is to remember, and that is a long process. That is a process that cannot take place without the archive, because the archive is what people across space and time will return to, almost timelessly. That is the magic of remembering.”

Reporting supported by a micro-grant from Baraza Media Lab.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

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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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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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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