Last month, Beatrice Waruguru’s body arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from Saudi Arabia, almost a year after she was reported dead. Like many other young Kenyans seeking job opportunities in the Middle East, many of them women, her family says Waruguru left Kenya for Saudi Arabia in February 2021, and died under suspicious circumstances in December that year. The family maintains she was tortured. Waruguru worked as a househelp.
In 2010, Rose Adhiambo went to Beirut in search of a job at the age of 24, only to return home in a coffin six months later after being subjected to a catalogue of abuse by employers. Jane Njeri Kamau, 36, died under similarly harrowing circumstances in November 2014, also in Lebanon, where she had been employed as a househelp. Njeri fell ill while in police custody together with her friend, 22-year-old Margaret Nyakeru. Both had been detained after fleeing from their respective employers because of “ill-treatment”. They had been arrested in May of that year and held for five months. Nyakeru lived to tell the story.
The above cases suggest that the ill-treatment and abuse of Kenyan workers in the Gulf is not new. The problem does, however, appear to be have worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis.
While the US remains the largest source of overseas remittances into Kenya, accounting for 63.2 per cent, the Middle East has emerged as an important rival in recent times. According to Kenyan Wall Street, remittances from Asia in the twelve-month period leading up to February 2022 amounted to US$42.5 million, with Saudi Arabia being the largest source (US$19.2 million), followed by Qatar (US$7.1 million) and the United Arab Emirates (US$4.6 Million).
Speaking to the media, Sharon Kinyanjui, WorldRemit Director for Europe, Middle East, and Africa Receive Markets, explained that this development is a consequence of growing rates of migration from Kenya to the Middle East, itself a reflection of increasing rates of unemployment, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, back home. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Economic Survey 2021, total employment outside small-scale agriculture and pastoral activities stood at 17.4 million in 2020, down from the 18.1 million recorded in 2019. In the same period, the survey finds, wage employment in the private sector declined by 10 per cent from 2.1 million jobs in 2019 to 1.9 million jobs in 2020, and “informal sector employment is estimated to have contracted to 14.5 million jobs”.
In July 2021, Labour Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui said that since January 2019, the ministry had facilitated the employment of over 87,784 Kenyans in the Middle East, the majority of them working in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain. But these young Kenyans are taking risks because states such as Saudi Arabia have an extremely poor record with regard to the labour rights and working conditions of domestic workers. Reports of Kenyan domestic workers in Saudi Arabia suffering physical and sexual abuse, or dying under controversial circumstances have continued to appear in the press.
Stella Nafula Wekesa left Kenya in August 2021 to work as a househelp on a two-year contract. She died on 10 February 2022. A medical report from Saketa Hospital in Saudi Arabia indicates that Stella succumbed to cardiopulmonary arrest, but her family has said she died after her employer refused to take her to hospital, and alleges that she had suffered mistreatment under previous employers.
Appearing before the Labour and Social Welfare Committee in July 2021, Labour Cabinet Secretary Chelugui told members of parliament that 93 Kenyans have been killed while working in the Middle East in the last three years. Most were in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. The Departmental Committee on Labour and Social Welfare also noted that 1,908 distress calls were reported between 2019 and 2021, with 883 being reported in 2019-2020 and 1,025 in 2020-21.
But these young Kenyans are taking risks because states such as Saudi Arabia have an extremely poor record with regard to the labour rights and working conditions of domestic workers.
Chelugui had been summoned to explain the circumstances that led to the death of Melvin Kang’ereha in Saudi Arabia in 2020. Kang’ereha was also domestic worker, a job she obtained through United Manpower Services, a recruitment agency. She was reportedly abused and mistreated by her employer and did not return home alive.
In its 2021 report Amnesty International said migrant workers continued to be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation under Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship system, with tens of thousands arbitrarily detained and subsequently deported. The situation is no better in Qatar, which has faced criticism of its human rights record in the build up to the 2022 World Cup. “In the decade since Qatar was awarded the right to host the World Cup, exploitation and abuse of these workers has been rampant, with workers exposed to forced labour, unpaid wages and excessive working hours,” reports Amnesty.
Lebanon, which is grappling with a deep economic crisis and growing poverty, is emerging as another problematic destination for Kenyan migrant domestic workers. The Middle East Eye and Al Jazeera, among other leading international media, have highlighted numerous cases that point to poor working conditions and abuse. As in the Gulf countries, many of the affected persons appear to be female domestic workers, underlining the gendered nature of the threats faced by Kenyan and other workers in the region: A report by the International Labour Office finds that when it comes to “women’s paid employment and treatment of migrants, the region is falling behind others”.
Why is labour migration to these countries so distinctly marked by exploitation, abuse and life-threatening conditions?
At the core of the problem is the notorious Kafala system, which the Council on Foreign Relations describes as a mode of sponsorship that gives private citizens and companies almost total control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status. Institutionalized in most Arab Gulf countries and some neighbouring states like Lebanon, the Kafala system renders migrants vulnerable to the whims of employers who retain control over their legal residency and right to work. The consequences for women are particularly harsh. Those who manage to escape abusive work conditions do so without their passports, which remain in the custody of their tormentors. It becomes complicated for employment agencies to intervene as they would be in breach of contract.
Despite the structural nature of such victimization, a good deal more could be done by the sending countries to protect the growing number of migrants opting to work in the Middle East. It is revealing that working conditions and levels of harassment appear to vary considerably depending on the country of origin of the workers. According to the aforementioned ILO report, workers from the Philippines, for instance, receive higher pay. If on the one hand, such discrepancies are evidence of a racially segmented hierarchy of discrimination, they also reflect the extent to which individual governments are willing and/or able to guarantee the protection of their citizens abroad.
Critics of the Kenyan government point to its failure to offer meaningful consular assistance to victims of abuse. Consulates often do not arrange for flights back home and workers are often told to fundraise for the cost of their repatriation.
Mary Vimto, who went to Lebanon in 2014 through a broker who had no office, is now in her eighth year under the same employer. Mary’s experience has been good, but while she herself has not experienced harsh treatment, Mary tells me, “Kenyans are suffering in Lebanon”.
And does the consulate help?
“To say the truth, the consul told us he doesn’t have any connection with the Kenyan government, so he cannot help Kenyans easily,” says Mary, who uses social media to raise awareness about the difficulties faced by Kenyan women working in Lebanon. She goes on: “Because I do YouTube videos, I [learn about] problems from different ladies as the majority don’t get help from the consulate unless you pay some money. Assume you don’t have the money?” she asks.
Critics of the Kenyan government point to its failure to offer meaningful consular assistance to victims of abuse.
In a 14 January 2022 report, the Middle East Eye said that some 20 Kenyan women had camped for a week outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut seeking repatriation. Most of the women were domestic workers some of whom had suffered physical and sexual abuse that had worsened with the economic crisis in Lebanon and the COVID-19 outbreak. The situation of these domestic workers is complicated because Kenya does not have an embassy in Beirut. But even if it did, there is little reason to believe that the situation would be any better than in Saudi Arabia where the Kenyan mission has been of little help to Kenyan domestic workers in that country, at least according to Kenyans working or who have worked there.
Asked whether the Kenyan consulate offered her any help, Vera, another Kenyan victim of abuse by employers in Lebanon, told the Elephant that it didn’t, and that at one point, the officer she spoke to told her she had to stay put. Vera called her mother and informed her about her situation but neither the agency in Nairobi nor the Ministry of Labour offered any help when Vera’s mother visited their offices.
The other key weakness of government policy is the lack of regulation to control the activities of brokers—individuals and groups operating recruitment agencies (some of which are unregistered) that profit from enlisting domestic workers on terms that amount to modern-day slavery. For instance, one of the women who camped outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut told the Middle East Eye that she travelled to Lebanon in November 2021, having been promised a salary of US$300 by her agents. Upon arrival, her employers offered her half the amount agreed—US$150. She couldn’t accept the work as the money wasn’t enough to cater for her family back in Kenya, and became desperate to return home.
Rose Adhiambo, whose death in 2010 is mentioned above, had been connected to an employer by Interlead Limited, which describes itself as a trusted and accredited agent, “a pioneering Human Capital Management (HCM) Solutions Company that provides manpower sourcing services for organizations locally and across the globe. . .” Adhiambo’s employer subjected her to conditions akin to slavery. Her body was found on the first-floor balcony of a building in Beirut’s Sahel Alma neighbourhood. “She is said to have fallen to her death from the sixth floor of a building in a bungled bid to escape from a house where she worked as househelp,” The Standard reported in September 2010. Before attempting to flee, Adhiambo had called her family and informed them of her situation and her intention to escape.
The case of Vera, a returnee from the Gulf who was interviewed by The Elephant, is also illustrative. Vera went to Lebanon in August 2014 on a two-year contract, having deferred her education at Moi University in the first semester of her second year because she couldn’t afford to pay the fees. While at her home in Nairobi, she was approached by a woman who told her about opportunities to teach English in Lebanon. Abela Agencies, whose offices were at the time in Uganda House, Nairobi, arranged for Vera to travel to Lebanon. She was offered US$750; the contract was in Arabic.
Upon Vera’s arrival in Lebanon, she learnt she would instead be a domestic worker on a US$200 salary. “I was connected to a lady employer. The house was on the 16th floor in the Middle of Beirut. They have these big windows and flowers on the outside. I was okay with watering the flowers but my problem was cleaning windows from the outside. I couldn’t do that as it was risky,” the beginning of problems with her employer which culminated in her employer taking her back to the agency in Beirut. “I had not settled; I was not experienced as a housemaid. I couldn’t function well because what I got on the ground was not what I anticipated. I was also not well briefed,” Vera says.
Before attempting to flee, Adhiambo had called her family and informed them of her situation and her intention to escape.
Vera was employed by a second family for whom she worked for five months. She says that although they were not physically abusive, there were restrictions on what she could touch or eat, and she was only allowed to call home once or twice a month. When one of the sons in the family moved out, she was asked to work for his young family and the situation escalated; the wife would leave her locked up in the house and she was not allowed to operate the TV. “They would go eat out and leave me without food. They would then tell me there is milk powder and sugar and I can make tea for myself. She would bring bread on Monday and make me have it until the next week,” Vera says.
When the going got extremely tough, she demanded to return home. The response was harsh: “I paid a lot of money, I bought you and you have to work for at least seven months for me to recover my money,” Vera recalls. When Vera fell ill due to the cold, she was not taken to hospital.
In November 2021, Francis Atwoli, the Secretary General of the Central Organization of Trade Unions, termed the working conditions in the Middle East as slavery and called for the closure of agencies enlisting Kenyans to work in the Gulf. “As a government, we should take care of our people. We are tired of watching our children coming back in coffins,” Atwoli said. However, Atwoli’s seriousness on the matter has been questioned given his preoccupation with succession politics rather than with the welfare of workers.
The government has rejected calls to ban the export of labour, with CS Chelugui arguing, “It is only a small percentage of Kenyans who are suffering, while more than 100,000 Kenyans were under favourable conditions.” Given the growing macro-economic importance of remittances from countries such as Saudi Arabia, it seems unlikely that calls for a ban will be heeded anytime soon, a fact which underscores the importance of addressing the need for better protections at the policy level.
There have been attempts by parliament to address the Middle East problem. In November 2021, the Senate Labour and Social Welfare Committee presented a report to parliament in which it accused recruitment agencies of riding on the absence of formal agreements or memorandums of understanding between Kenya and other countries to manipulate desperate jobless Kenyans.
“And where they exist, the agreement falls short of taking care of the interests of the workers,” the report by the Senate Labour and Social Welfare Services committee reads in part. The committee also reported that recruitment agencies and employers were taking advantage of the lack of policy and a legal framework on labour migration to exploit Kenyans working in the Middle East.
“It is only a small percentage of Kenyans who are suffering, while more than 100,000 Kenyans were under favourable conditions”.
It further reported that Kenyans working as domestic workers do not receive consular assistance to protect their rights. “With the growing numbers of migrants to the Middle East, there is need to streamline key prerequisite processes for effective governance,” the report says. It recommended the immediate suspension of all labour migration of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia, where abuse and employment conditions akin to slavery are particularly rife.
When I asked him whether the government is doing enough to protect Kenyans in the Middle East, Senator Sakaja, chair of the Labour and Social Welfare Committee, told me it doesn’t and that, in fact, the government is squarely to blame for the problem. “First, the reason they go there is because there are no jobs here. There are more than 18,000 Kenyans in Saudi Arabia, the majority are domestic workers. But some have been successful,” he said.
Sakaja noted that most of those who have gone there through the Musaned system are okay. “In that system, you can check the house she is working in, the contacts and where the passport is,” he explained.
However, Sakaja spoke of the presence of rogue agents who run the business as human trafficking. “Because for every girl you send out, you are given almost US$1,500, it is as if they are putting potatoes in sacks. They don’t care. You should have insurance, their return ticket and be recognized by that [Musaned] system so that there is proper reporting,” he said, adding that all the agencies should be vetted afresh.
Sakaja argued that the Philippines has over 300,000 workers in Saudi Arabia but they don’t have cases of their people being killed or harassed because their government has set up a system to liaise with the government of Saudi Arabia. He also decried the shortage of personnel to handle consular issues. “We only have one labour officer called Juma. From Riyadh to Jeddah are thousands of kilometres. So, we said we must have more labour attachés and officers in Jeddah and Riyadh and safe houses in case of anything,” he said during the interview.
Sakaja also said that there are Kenyans languishing in deportation centres, and others who have been buried in cemeteries in Saudi Arabia. (Sakaja’s remarks in parliament are reported in the Hansard from page 23.)
Before resigning to join active politics, former Foreign Affairs Chief Administrative Secretary Ababu Namwamba said he was leading a review of the Diaspora Policy and, together with CS Chelugui, reviewing the bilateral legal instruments with all the Middle East countries “that are causing Kenyans a lot of trouble”.
A Labour Migration Management Bill was to be passed and a Migrant Workers Welfare Fund established following a government directive at the Cabinet level. The bill is still stuck in the National Assembly, while the fund is yet to be operationalized.
What is so difficult about establishing bilateral agreements, vetting agents and putting in place a system that works?
Interest groups are active in pretty much every sector in Kenya—individuals working in government or have influence in government who use their power for financial gain. If Haki Africa is to be believed, the migrant labour sector is no different. In a report published by the Daily Nation, the Mombassa-based national human rights organisation claimed one government official owned 10 labour recruitment agencies.
“I paid a lot of money, I bought you and you have to work for at least seven months for me to recover my money,”
So powerful are some recruitment agencies that they have reportedly bribed members of parliament to go slow on a clampdown, a claim corroborated by Senator Sakaja who went on to allege that some members of parliament and officials from the Ministry of Labour own the recruitment agencies. Cotu’s Atwoli is on record saying, “most of the recruitment agencies in the country are owned by senior people in government and operate with impunity”.
Needless to say, confirming such allegations is far from straightforward. It would nonetheless explain why, despite Sakaja’s report and former Nominated Senator Emma Mbura’s April 2015 petition in the Senate seeking better policies for Kenyan migrants in the Middle East, not much has been achieved.
Mbura, a human rights activist, had proposed that the government develop a framework that spells out the minimum entry-level salary, weekly and daily rest periods and signs a special employment contract with Saudi Arabia to protect Kenyan workers. The framework, she said, would also provide Kenyans with paid leave, non-withholding of passports and work permits, free communication and humane treatment.
Whatever the obstacles to reform, one thing is clear: a complete overhaul of the entire labour export industry is necessary because unless substantive reforms are undertaken, Kenyan migrant workers, particularly women, will continue to return to their families abused and mistreated. Unless we listen to those who live to share their tales, others will continue to arrive in body bags—a state of affairs no amount of foreign currency can justify.
This article is the first in a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya
The quantities of recycled plastic in Kenya remain insignificant, but the long-term ecological cost of disposing plastic waste in the environment will be immeasurable.
One aspect of modern Kenyan urban living that takes getting used to are the regular, well-timed garbage collection days. Miss your day and you will have to keep the trash a week longer awaiting the next collection date when the beaten-up lorries full of garbage labour through city estates in mid-morning collecting the waste produced by city dwellers.
Should you find yourself in the central business district at around midnight, you may run into these rickety trucks collecting food waste from city restaurants, discarded cartons from offices, and empty drink cans from the city’s clubs that they ferry to the few landfills scattered around the city.
The barely roadworthy trucks are part of the more than 205 lorries working at the city’s many collection points in a hectic bid to keep Nairobi County hygienic. So profitable is the waste collection business that private contractors and cartels have infiltrated the trade.
In Nairobi alone, the county’s garbage collection service is complemented by nearly 150 private sector waste operators who also serve this city of over 4 million residents. Private investments have done a lot but not nearly enough to address the garbage crisis that plagues Kenya’s towns and cities.
Kenya’s urban households produce the bulk of the country’s solid waste, including a major share of the estimated 24 million plastic bags that are used and discarded every month. A significant portion of the plastic waste ends up in dumpsites alongside scrap metal, paper materials, glassware, and medical and toxic waste. Plastic waste constitutes a significant portion of this trash, and poses the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 73 per cent of all plastic waste generated in Kenya goes uncollected. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) reports that between 2 and 8 per cent of the plastic waste is recycled while the rest is disposed of at dumpsites such as Dandora and Ruai in Nairobi, Kachok in Kisumu, and Kibarani at the coast. In Mombasa alone, some 3.7 kilogrammes of per capita plastic waste end up in the ocean, contributing to the 1,300 billion pieces of plastic that find their way into the Indian Ocean every year. Experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish species in all the oceans globally by 2025.
Kenya banned plastic carrier bags in 2017, at the same time that the United Nations Environment Programme was launching the Clean Seas campaign to reduce marine litter. From June 2020, visitors entering game reserves, forests, beaches, protected areas and conservancies are no longer allowed to carry plastic water bottles, cups, cutlery, plates, drinking straws, and packaging within the protected areas.
On the production end, there are industry-led plastics initiatives such as the Kenya Plastic Action Plan and the creation of the Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organization (KEPRO), whose mandate is to ensure that plastics are mapped, ferried, sorted, and where possible, put back into circulation. Given the low garbage collection rates, and the even lower sorting rates, recycling has been misleadingly touted as the key to managing plastic waste.
For context, the cumulative global plastic waste produced since 1950 is estimated at 8.3 billion tonnes — half of which was produced in the last 13 years alone — at an average of 300 million tonnes annually.
In Kenya recycling doesn’t work
Recycling has its limitations. Despite being cited as a major solution to the problem of plastic waste, a solution that has been taken up by 34 of the 54 African states, numerous reports have proven that it costs more to recycle than to dispose of the waste. That of course begs the question: costlier for whom?
While disposing plastic is cheaper than recycling, the long-term ecological cost to Kenyans living close to landfills and downstream is provably much higher. Kenyan plastic manufacturers are in the business for profit and, for the most part, recycling does not offer them value for money.
According to Kenya’s PET plastic industry’s joint self-regulation effort, once plastic waste enters the recycling conveyer, it is assembled and packed into bales that are sold as industrial goods and sent to the dozens of recycling plants around the country to be sorted by quality, industrial variety, texture and colour. The waste is then shredded, sanitized, melted down, and moulded into smaller, smoother plastic pellets.
These pellets, known as nurdles, are bought and once again melted down and fashioned into other plastic products, ready for re-use by industries. This form of recycling is the optimal pathway for plastic waste, but it rarely is feasible. Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.
To put it in context, less than 45 per cent of Nairobi’s overall waste is recycled, most of it undergoing what is referred to as down-cycling, open recycling, or cascaded recycling.
Cascaded recycling refers to the process of using recycled plastic waste to make an item of a lower quality than the original product. These items typically have reduced recycling potential, which destines them for the landfill after use. Models of cascaded recycling in Kenya’s informal settlements therefore turn the triangular recycling loop into a one-way direction to an incinerator or landfill.
Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.
Global research led by plastics expert Dr Roland Geyer claims that only 9 per cent of all the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Kenya’s cascaded recycling rates are harder to quantify but an authoritative plastics report states that only 14 per cent of global plastic packaging waste was collected for recycling in 2013. Only 8 per cent of that amount was down-cycled, of which 4 per cent atrophied during the process while only 2 per cent was recycled into a product of equal or higher value.
Even locally, recycling plastic is a costly process and sorting it, many experts assert, is unfeasible, which means that there is no way out when dealing with plastic waste other than banning the production and use of plastics.
Kenya and the global dumping of plastic waste
The non-feasibility of recycling plastic waste has been an open secret among plastics industry insiders since as far back as the 1970s. As early as 1973, senior executives of plastics multinationals had already ruled out plastic waste recycling on a large scale. Instead, these multinationals paid for misleading big-budget advertisements extolling the virtues of plastic products, and lying about the ease with which plastics could be recycled for other uses, while also placing the responsibility of recycling or disposing plastic waste on the end-user. However, the mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.
Old industry memos and library archives show that as far back as the mid-1980s Kenyan scholars like Kamau Hezron Mwangi had begun to call for a serious look into the efficacy of recycling while, in the mid-1990s, researcher Dr J.N. Muthotho and his team demanded for greater research across specific plastic products supply chains. The growing concerns linked to plastic products, their quality, disposability and the economics of the industry paint an image of an industry that has always been well aware of the problems caused by plastic waste but has lacked the motivation to address the issue. In an increasingly consumerist society, plastic has continued to be affordable, readily available, cheap, convenient, and yet very difficult to dispose of.
Ending Kenya’s relationship with plastic
A radical behavioural shift by producers, packaging firms and end-users is required in order to rid the Kenyan environment of plastic pollution. The ban on plastic carrier bags has had an estimated 80 per cent efficacy rate. Industry insiders including manufacturers and distributors now say that the ban should be extended to disposable tableware, plastic straws, plates and cutlery.
The mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.
This, the stakeholders say, will reduce the amount of single-use plastic in landfills, reduce waste, minimize animal deaths, improve human safety, and save our water systems. However, a concerted effort is needed to ban single-use plastic bottles, plastic straws, and plastic packaging and replace them with organic, biodegradable plastic (BDP) alternatives.
Most BDP products in the Kenyan market are made of thermoplastic starch that uses a polyester similar in material strength to plastic. Currently there is only one manufacturer in the country. However, researchers are coming closer to finding organic alternatives to plastics.
Reimagining a post-plastic country
In Kenya, the stakeholders have to begin to reimagine new models of ridding the country of plastic waste in the everyday life and habits of Kenyan citizens. Nairobi and its environs alone is estimated to produce between 2,400 and 3,000 tonnes of general waste every single day, an estimated 20 per cent of which is plastic waste.
“People don’t want to stop using plastic. It is cheap and easy to use so I understand why people like [it]”, says Kinuthia, an unlicensed collector in Uthiru.
A consumer culture that creates an ever-increasing demand and use of plastic products ought to be overhauled, reimagined, and refashioned.
Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon. As far back as the late 1980s, the World Bank President Barber Conable recognised that the ecological cost of economic production has to be accounted for. “Current calculations ignore the degradation of the natural-resource base and view the sales of nonrenewable resources entirely as income . . . A better way must be found.” he wrote.
Kenya’s plastic producers and importers have to begin to consider how to shift the society away from plastic products and integrate the alternatives in the marketplace. Kenyans have the opportunity to have a national conversation around local plastic producers and importers, if we are to work effectively towards phasing out all plastic products sold in the market.
With imports valued at an estimated US$883 million, Kenya’s plastics sector has a critical duty to phase out plastic products so as to, at the very least, ensure that the end-user does not have to choose between affordability, disposability, and sustainability of the packaging when making a purchasing decision.
The plastic waste crisis calls for Kenyans to design products with their life cycle and their end in mind at the outset. Therefore, designing products with their utility and disposal in mind is critical. For example, utilizing snap-together parts in appliances minimizes the use of screws, making the end product easier to disassemble, recover, and recycle at the end. This evolution in design proactively shapes the journey of a product in order to ensure that as much material as possible is recycled back into the production conveyer.
Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon.
On 24 March 2021, Kenya’s Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJD) held a consultative forum with 24 grassroots Civil Society Organisations in the waste management sector with support from Break Free From Plastic. The members used the existing legislative framework that bans single-use plastic carrier bags in the country to launch the CSOs for Zero Plastics in Kenya network that integrates the input of stakeholders in the affected sectors. Still, this push by CSOs towards a wider ban seems to have created a policy tension between the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and multi-nationals that rely on plastic products for packaging.
In 2018, NEMA tried to extend the ban on plastic carrier bags to single-use plastic containers such as bottles made of PET. However, the companies involved in the production of PET products instead proposed a self-regulated, industry-led solution under PETCO.
Despite NEMA’s pledge in 2018 to make PETCO membership mandatory for all plastic industry players, its membership remains voluntary. This lapse has slowed the acceptance of membership by stakeholders and by industry players and minimized compliance. Kenya currently has eight PET converters, but only one of them is a PETCO member. Moreover, an estimated 900 bottling plants use PET containers but only eight (1 per cent) are members of PETCO.
The future of a post-plastic Kenya requires consolidation of existing industry efforts, ramping up scientific research on alternatives, a shift in consumer behaviour and robust incremental policies in enforcing the bans and restrictions. Only then can Kenya secure its ecology, manage the diverse interests of the stakeholders involved and still manage its ecological health with posterity in mind.
Microplastics: the Destruction of Marine Life and the Blue Economy
Even as Kenya’s land-based resources continue to shrink because of a rapidly growing population, microplastic pollution of Kenya’s Indian Ocean is putting in jeopardy the country’s maritime resources.
Five scientists, Joyce Kerubo, John M. Onyari and Agnes Muthumbi from the University of Nairobi, Deborah Robertson-Andersson from the University of Kwa Zulu Natal, and Edward Ndirui Kimani from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), undertook a research study last year that returned a harsh verdict of a high presence of microplastics (MPs) in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.
MPs are plastic pellets, fragments, and fibres that enter the environment and are less than 5mm in dimension. The primary sources of MPs are vehicle tyres, synthetic textiles, paints, personal care products, and plastic products that have disintegrated into tiny particles because of environmental turbulence.
The study by the five scientists, Microplastic Polymers in Surface Waters and Sediments in the Creeks along the Kenya Coast, Western Indian Ocean (WIO), identified four polymer types in Kenya’s Indian Ocean. High-density polythene is the most abundant at 38.3 per cent, followed by polypropylene (34.6 per cent), low-density polythene (27.1 per cent), and medium density polythene (17.1 per cent). The research findings were published in the European Journal of Sustainable Development Research on 18 October 2021.
The concentration of MPs in the surface waters along the Kenyan coastline was higher compared to other parts of the world, the study warned. The findings of the study also confirmed those of previous studies on the presence of MPs in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.
The scientists also cautioned that the documented information on the specific polymeric composition of these particles in seawater and in the sediments along the Kenyan coast was insufficient. The findings, the study offered, demonstrated the extent of exposure to MPs in Kenya’s ocean ecosystems, therefore justifying policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste, and the protection of the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.
It drew testing samples from three creeks: Tudor and Port Reitz in Mombasa County and Mida in Kilifi County. Tudor Creek covers an area of approximately 20 square kilometres and is fed by two seasonal rivers—Kombeni and Tsalu—that originate around Mariakani, about 32 kilometres northwest of Mombasa. The two seasonal rivers collect runoff containing plastic and other waste from the mainland and discharge it into the creek.
Surrounding Tudor creek are several densely populated informal settlements that include Mishomoroni and Mikindani that may add MPs to the ocean. According to the study findings, the majority of the MPs were fibrous materials from textiles and ropes, probably from wastewater from washing clothes and from fishing activities.
Other key facilities that could contribute to the pollution include shipping activities at the Port of Mombasa, meat processing at Kenya Meat Commission (KMC), Coast General Hospital, Container Freight Stations (CFSs) and Kipevu Power Station. Before it was rehabilitated, Mombasa County Government dumped a lot of waste at Kibarani, near the two creeks and just next to the ocean.
Tudor Creek recorded the highest pollution, also as a result of rain runoff from Kongowea market and Muoroto slums, and Mikindani sewage effluent. Moreover, according to the study, which could, however, not determine the proportions, many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.
Mida Creek was used as a control in the study as it does not have river inflows. In addition, the creek is in a marine reserve that forms part of the Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve. However, MPs from different polymers were found in sediment and surface water samples from all the sites—including Mida Creek which is within Watamu National Marine Reserve—which the researchers had thought to be safe from pollution by industrial effluent, sewage disposal, and fishing activities.
Many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.
The study attributed the pollution at Mida Creek to high tourism activities, boat and dhow fishing activities, densely populated villages such as Dabaso, Ngala, and Kirepwe and the mangrove vegetation cover of tall trees that binds soil particles thus favouring the accumulation of MPs.
According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report released in March 2019, plastic—which makes up a sizable proportion of marine pollution—can now be found in all the world’s oceans, but concentrations are thought to be highest in coastal areas and reef environments where the vast majority of this litter originates from land-based sources.
In Kenya, daily plastic consumption is estimated at 0.3 Kilograms per person. In 2018, Kenya imported between 45,000 and 57,000 metric tonnes of plastic.
Earlier in 2020, KMFRI had carried out its own study—Microplastics Pollution in Coastal Nearshore Surface Waters in Vanga, Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, Kenya—that painted an even gloomier picture of MP pollution.
The four sampling locations represented the South coast, Mombasa and the North coast of Kenya’s coastal nearshore waters, and looked into considering fishing, recreation, and industrial activities, as well as the municipal effluent that finds its way into these target areas.
The objective of the study was to assess the abundance MPs and their composition in Kenya’s coastal near-shore waters during the two rainy seasons at the Kenyan coast: the north-east monsoon which runs between November and March, and the south-east monsoon which runs from April to October.
The results showed a widely varied distribution of MPs between the two seasons, with the overall highest concentrations occurring during the south-east monsoon when surface runoff from rainwater and from effluent from the major towns is high.
As confirmed in other research studies, the concentrations recorded by KMFRI, were quite high compared to other parts of the world. This provided baseline data for MPs, showing that population, anthropogenic activities and seasonal variations a play key role in influencing pollution by MPs.
Total MP concentrations in all the study areas during the north-east and the south-east monsoon seasons ranged between 83 MPs/m³ and 8266 MPs/m³ and between 126 MPs/m³ and 12,256 MPs/m³ respectively, with a mean of 3228 MPs/m³. The highest microplastic levels were found in Mombasa at 12,256 MPs/m³ during the south-east monsoon season, where runoff and effluent due to heavy rains are thought to be the primary source. The next highest levels were found in Malindi, occurring during the south-east monsoon season, because of inflows from River Sabaki.
Boat activities and tourism during the north-east monsoon season and runoff from the town during the south-east monsoon season mostly affected Lamu, while fishing activities, as well and runoff from the town, could be responsible for the abundance of MPs recorded in Vanga.
Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population. Although most of the solid waste generated in the county is organic—largely from households, hotels, restaurants and agricultural produce markets, the largest being Kongowea and Marikiti—plastic takes up a significant share.
In its County Sessional Paper No 01 of 2019, Mombasa County estimated daily waste production at 2,200 tons, 68 per cent of which is organic. Approximately 18 per cent of this waste is plastics, cardboard, paper and metals.
Other inorganic waste such as e-waste, construction waste and junk makes up an estimated 14 per cent of the waste generated. Public and private health facilities generate an estimated 2 to 3 tonnes of biomedical waste daily.
Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population.
Most of the solid waste generated is disposed in undesignated open grounds—in VOK, Kwa Karama, Kadongo, Junda, Saratoga, and Mcheleni. It is disposed in the same form as it is generated without being recycled or reused. Disposal of solid waste in the open has continuously had a negative environmental health impact through the contamination of water sources.
Moreover, with the limited investment in solid waste recycling and recovery systems, disposal methods in the county have been a contributor to public nuisance.
There are two designated dumpsites, namely Mwakirunge in Kisauni and Shonda in Likoni. However, these dumpsites are poorly managed and do not respect the prescribed environmental health standards while Mombasa County government’s budgetary allocation for solid waste management is not sufficient to meet the desired results.
MPs are harmful to human health, experts say. The ingestion of MPs by species at the base of the food web causes human food safety concerns, as little is known about their effects on the food that finally lands on our menu.
The minuscule size of MPs renders them invisible to filter-feeding fauna, leading to unintentional ingestion. In a study published in December 2020 in the Africa Journal of Marine Science, W. Awuor, Agnes Muthumbi and Deborah Robertson-Andersson confirmed the presence of MPs in marine life. The study investigated MPs in oysters and in three species of brachyuran crabs.
They did sampling in eight stations distributed between three sites—Tudor, Port Reitz and Mida Creek—in January and February 2018, during low spring tide. The sample comprised 206 crabs and 70 oysters.
The study identified MP fibres of different colours—red, yellow, black, pink, orange, purple, green, blue—as well as colourless ones. Colourless fibres were the most prevalent, comprising at least 60 per cent of the total MPs. The mean lengths of the MP fibres were between 0.1 and 4.2 mm.
The study exposes MP pollution along the Kenyan coast and its uptake by marine fauna, and thus strengthens the case for better control of plastic waste in the ocean. “Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change,” said the head of UN Environment’s coral reef unit, Jerker Tamelander, in 2019.
“Waste continues to leak from land, and coral reefs are on the receiving end. They also trap a lot of fishing gear and plastic lost from aquaculture. With the effects of climate change on coral reef ecosystems already significant, the additional threat of plastics must be taken seriously.”
According to UNEP, there remains a significant lack of knowledge on the true impact of plastics on the reef environment, including the level of concentrations of MPs across coral reef eco-regions in order to understand the scale of the issue in a standardised manner.
“Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change.”
Concerns about ocean pollution have been raised at a time when the country is looking at the Blue Economy as the country’s next economic growth frontier. In effect, Kenya’s land-based resources have been shrinking because of a rapidly growing population and it is therefore prudent for the government to shift the focus to the country’s ocean resources spread over an area of 245,000 km², or 42 per cent of the country’s total land mass.
Kenya has from the outset not been keen on growing the maritime sector. Even Kenya’s first independence economic blueprint, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, published in 1965, failed to anchor the Blue Economy in the country’s economic growth agenda, despite its significant role in transporting 95 per cent of the country’s global transactions.
The Western Indian Ocean has resources worth more than KSh2.2 trillion in annual outputs, with Kenya’s share standing at about 20 per cent of this figure. The marine fishing sub-sector alone had an annual fish potential of 350,000 metric tonnes worth KSh90 billion in 2013. However, the region only yielded a paltry 9,134 metric tonnes worth KSh2.3 billion during that year.
In 2018, the then Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Mwangi Kiunjuri, said that by failing to fully exploit the Blue Economy, Kenya was losing over Sh440 billion annually. But if the opportunities offered by the Blue Economy are to be exploited, a policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste is urgently required to protect the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.
Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony
Meriem Naïli writes about the continuing struggle for the independence of Western Sahara. Occupied by Morocco since the 1970s, in contravention of the International Court of Justice and the UN. The internationally recognised liberation movement, POLISARIO, has fought and campaigned for independence since the early 1970s. Naïli explains what is going on, and the legal efforts to secure the country’s freedom.
The conflict over Western Sahara can be described as a conflict over self-determination that has been frozen in the past three decades. Western Sahara is a territory in North-West Africa, bordered by Morocco in the north, Algeria and Mauritania in the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. A former Spanish colony, it has been listed by the UN since 1963 as one of the 17 remaining non-self-governing territories, but the only such territory without a registered administrating power.
Since becoming independent from France in 1956, Morocco has claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara and has since the late 1970s formally annexed around 80% of its territory, over which it exercises de facto control in contravention of the conclusions reached by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its advisory opinion of October 15, 1975, on this matter. The court indeed did not find any “legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory” (Western Sahara (1975), Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1975, p.12).
On 14 November 1975, the Madrid Accords – formally the Declaration of Principles on Western Sahara – were signed between Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania setting the conditions under which Spain would withdraw from the territory and divide its administration between the two African states. Its paragraph two reads that “Spain shall immediately proceed to establish a temporary administration in the territory, in which Morocco and Mauritania shall participate in collaboration with the Jemâa [a tribal assembly established by Spain in May 1967 to serve as a local consultative link with the colonial administration], and to which the responsibilities and powers referred to in the preceding paragraph shall be transferred.”
Although it was never published on the Boletin Oficial del Estado [the official State journal where decrees and orders are published on a weekly basis], the accord was executed, and Mauritania and Morocco subsequently partitioned the territory in April 1976. Protocols to the Madrid Accords also allowed for the transfer of the Bou Craa phosphate mine and its infrastructure and for Spain to continue its involvement in the coastal fisheries.
Yet in Paragraph 6 of his 2002 advisory opinion, UN Deputy Secretary General Hans Corell, reaffirmed that the 1975 Madrid Agreement between Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania “did not transfer sovereignty over the Territory, nor did it confer upon any of the signatories the status of an administering Power, a status which Spain alone could not have unilaterally transferred.”
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) is the internationally recognised national liberation movement representing the indigenous people of Western Sahara. Through the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), it has been campaigning since its creation in May 1973 in favour of independence from Spain through a referendum on self-determination to be supervised by the UN. A war broke out shortly after Morocco and Mauritania’s invasion in November 1975. Spain officially withdrew from the territory on 26 February 1976 and the Sahrawi leadership proclaimed the establishment of the SADR the following day.
In 1984, the SADR was admitted as a full member of the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union), resulting in Morocco’s decision to withdraw the same year in protest. Morocco would only (re)join the African Union (AU) in 2017. The admission of the SADR to the OAU consolidated the movement in favour of its recognition internationally, with 84 UN member states officially recognising the SADR.
In the meantime, to strengthen its colonization of the territory, Morocco had begun building what it later called “le mur de défense” (the defence wall). In August 1980, following the withdrawal of Mauritanian troops the previous year, Morocco sought to “secure” a part of the territory that Mauritania had occupied. Construction of the wall – or “berm” – was completed in 1987 with an eventual overall length of just under 2,500km.
A “coordination mission” was established in 1985 by the UN and the OAU with representatives dispatched to find a solution to the conflict between the two parties. After consultations, the joint OAU-UN mission drew up a proposal for settlement accepted by the two parties on 30 August 1988 and would later be detailed in the United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG) report of 18 June 1990 and the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution establishing United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
Since 1979 and the surrender of Mauritania, around 80% of the territory has remained under Morocco’s military and administrative occupation.
Deployment of MINURSO
The Settlement Plan agreed to in principle between Morocco and POLISARIO in August 1988 was submitted to the UNSC on 12 July 1989 and approved in 1990. On 29 April 1991, the UNSC established MINURSO in resolution 690, the terms of reference for it being set out in the UNSG’s report of 19 April 1991. The plan provided for a cease-fire, followed by the organisation of a referendum of self-determination for which the people of Western Sahara had to choose between two options: integration with Morocco or plain and simple independence.
In this regard, it provided for the creation of an Identification Commission to resolve the issue of the eligibility ofSahrawi voters for the referendum, an issue which has since generated a great deal of tension between the two parties. A Technical Commission was created by mid-1989 to implement the Plan, with a schedule based on several phases and a deployment of UN observers following the proclamation of a ceasefire.
Talks quickly began to draw up a voters list amid great differences between the parties. POLISARIO maintained that the Spanish census of 1974 was the only valid basis, with 66,925 eligible adult electors, while Morocco demanded inclusion of all the inhabitants who, as settlers, continued to populate the occupied part of the territory as well as people from southern Morocco. It was decided that the 1974 Spanish census would serve as a basis, and the parties were to propose voters for inclusion on the grounds that they were omitted from the 1974 census.
In 1991, the first list was published with around 86,000 voters. However, the process of identifying voters would be obstructed in later years, mainly by Morocco which attempted to include as many Moroccan settlers as possible. The criteria for eligibility had sometimes been modified to accommodate Morocco’s demands and concerns. Up to 180,000 applications had been filed on the part of the Kingdom, the majority of which had been rejected by the UN Commission as they did not satisfy the criteria for eligibility.
Consequently, the proclamation of “D-Day”, to mark the beginning of a twelve-week transition period following the cease-fire leading to the referendum on self-determination, kept being postponed and eventually was never declared.
Following the rejection by Morocco of the Peace Plan for Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara (known as Baker Plan II) and the complete suspension of UN referendum preparation activities in 2003, Morocco’s proposal for autonomy of the territory under its sovereignty in 2007 crystallised the stalemate [the Peace Plan is contained in Annex II of UNSG report S/2003/565, and available here].
The Baker Plan II had envisioned a four or five-year transitional power-sharing period between an autonomous Western Sahara Authority and the Moroccan state before the organisation of a self-determination referendum during which the entire population of the territory could vote for the status of the territory – including an option for independence. It was ‘supported’ by the UNSC in resolution S/RES/1495 and reluctantly accepted by POLISARIO but rejected by Morocco.
The absence of human rights monitoring prerogatives for MINURSO has emerged as an issue for the people of Western Sahara as a result of the stalemate in the referendum process in the last two decades. MINURSO is the only post-Cold War peacekeeping operation to be deprived of such prerogatives.
Amongst the four operations currently deployed that are totally deprived of human rights monitoring components (UNFICYP in Northern Cyprus, UNIFIL in Lebanon, UNDOF in the Israeli-Syrian sector and MINURSO), MINURSO stands out as not having attained its purpose through the organisation of a referendum. In addition, among the missions that did organise referendums (namely UNTAG in Namibia and UNAMET in East Timor), all had some sort of human rights oversight mechanism stemming from their mandates.
On 8 November 2010, a protest camp established by Sahrawis near Laayoune (capital of Western Sahara) was dismantled by the Moroccan police. The camp had been set up a month earlier in protest at the ongoing discrimination, poverty, and human rights abuses against Sahrawis. When dismantling the camp, gross human rights violations were reported – see reports by Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme (2011) and Amnesty International (2010).
This episode revived the international community’s interest in Western Sahara and therefore strengthened the demand by Sahrawi activists to “extend the mandate of MINURSO to monitor human rights” (see Irene Fernández-Molina, “Protests under Occupation: The Spring inside Western Sahara” in Mediterranean Politics, 20:2 (2015): 235–254).
Such an extension was close to being achieved in April 2013, when an UNSC resolution draft penned by the US unprecedentedly incorporated this element, although it was eventually taken out. This failed venture remains to date the most serious attempt to add human rights monitoring mechanisms to MINURSO. Supporters of this amendment to the mandate are facing the opposition by Moroccan officials who hold that it is not the raison d’être of the mission, and it could jeopardize the negotiation process.
What’s going on now?
At the time of writing, the people of Western Sahara are yet to express the country’s right to self-determination through popular consultation or any other means agreed between the parties. The conflict therefore remains unresolved since the ceasefire and has mostly been described as “frozen” by observers.
On the ground, resistance from Sahrawi activists remain very much active. Despite the risks of arbitrary arrest, repression or even torture, the Sahrawi people living under occupation have organised themselves to ensure their voices are heard and violations are reported. Freedom House in 2021 have, yet again, in its yearly report, rated Western Sahara as one of the worst countries in the world with regards to political rights and civil liberties.
Despite a clear deterioration of the peace process over the decades, several factors have signalled a renewed interest in this protracted conflict among key actors and observers from the international community. A Special Envoy of the AU Council Chairperson for Western Sahara (Joaquim Alberto Chissano from Mozambique) was appointed by the Peace and Security Council in June 2014. This was followed by Morocco becoming a member of the AU in January 2017.
More recently, major events have begun to de-crystalise the status quo. The war resumed on 13 November 2020 following almost 30 years of ceasefire. Additionally, for the first time, a UN member state – the US – recognised Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. Former US President Trump’s declaration on 10 December 2020 to that effect was made less than a month after the resumption of armed conflict. It has not, however, been renounced by the current Biden administration. As this recognition secured Morocco’s support for Israel as per the Abrahamic Accords, reversing Donald Trump’s decision would have wider geopolitical repercussions.
In September 2021, the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) issued decisions invalidating fisheries and trade agreements between Morocco and the EU insofar as they extended to Western Sahara, rejecting Morocco’s sovereignty. This decision is the latest episode of a legal battle taking place before the European courts.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), had previously reaffirmed the legal status of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory, set by the UN in 1963 following the last report transmitted by Spain – as Administering Power – on Spanish Sahara under Article 73 of the UN Charter. The Court rejected in December 2016 any claims of sovereignty by Morocco by restating the distinct statuses of both territories.
The last colony in Africa remains largely under occupation and the UN mission in place is still deprived of any kind of human rights monitoring. In the meantime, the Kingdom of Morocco has been trading away peace in the form of military accords and trade partnerships. This situation must end – with freedom, and sovereignty finally won by Western Sahara.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
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