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Africa is the belle at a new international ball. Suitors from the East and West are in relentless pursuit, never mind her chequered past. Barely surviving European colonization and shortly thereafter tottering away from the destructive neo-liberal economic policies enforced through the IMF and the World Bank, Africa is no stranger to exploitative “partnerships”. Seemingly the eternal optimist, Africa’s latest expedition to the East has raised alarm bells. Those of us beholden to enormous Chinese loans wonder if she has jumped out of the frying pan into the debt fire.

In a departure from the rest of the region, Kenya’s incumbent government has violently swivelled its foreign policy back to the West. With the firm belief that “Kenya needs more friends”, President William Samoei Ruto is rapidly negotiating the US-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership (STIP) which will take the place of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).

The new trade pact reportedly aims to increase investment, promote sustainable and inclusive growth, benefit workers, consumers and businesses and support regional integration. The initial concept of the trade pact had a broad scope which included 11 pillars covering themes such as anti-corruption, good regulatory practices, protecting workers’ rights and supporting the participation of women and youth.

However, the second round of US-Kenya STIP negotiations held in April has whittled down the previous eleven pillars into five areas of “mutual interest”. The five new pillars are: economic prosperity, trade, and investment; defence cooperation; democracy, governance, and civilian security, multilateral and regional issues; and health. The noticeably slimmer STIP is perhaps a strategic nod towards the Chinese style of development investment, a departure from the usual conditional development assistance characteristic of the West. Fewer conditions on corruption, human rights, democracy and environmental protection, indicates a less normatively prescriptive approach to Africa going forward.

Evidencing as a kind of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) standards “race to the bottom”, the West is working to counter global Chinese influence, garnered through heavy-duty Chinese investment in infrastructure projects which are collectively known as the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Leaning on its strengths, the US counter-offer to China’s modern take on the old Silk Road has taken on the flavour of a corporate takeover.  The US, seemingly less troubled with the “democratic quality” of its new business partner, has taken on a more transactional approach to trade with Kenya, accelerating trade talks and expecting “rapid progress” in the silent observation that the Government of Kenya is ranked 123rd out of a possible 180 in global corruption indices.

There has been extensive discussion on Kenya’s geo-strategic value as an entry point for foreign interests and investment in the region, and the counterbalance of the nature and extent of Kenya’s state capture, an inability to decisively deal with corruption. In the grim reality of Kenya as a syndicate of special interests that benefits from the corruption status quo and decides what is the public interest in a region with an imbedded anti-public interest culture,  who is getting the short end of the trade-deal stick and what it will cost the Kenyan public is a festering concern.

Substantive concerns 

The frenzied enthusiasm of government officials tasked with negotiating the STIP hides the strangled cries of civil society organizations protesting the opaque nature of the substance of the trade negotiations surrounding agriculture, digital trade and regulatory practice provisions. The most controversial of these has been agriculture.

The US government has been clear and unwavering in its intent to infuse “provisions intended to eliminate or reduce non-tariff barriers that can hamper market access for US agricultural products”. In recognition of one of the darker aspects of globalization, the agricultural component of STIP has raised hackles and pitchforks in response to the lifting of a ban on GMO foods and seeds in Kenya.

First, there is concern that smallholder farmers, who account for 78% of total agricultural produce in Kenya, will be unable to compete with the US agricultural corporations who have vast economies and efficiencies of scale. Corn, a competitor to Kenya’s staple maize crop, is likely to have a devastating effect on the local smallholder markets. As a result, smallholder farmers are likely to suffer a fall in farmgate prices, possibly exacerbating poverty.

Secondly, separate from the concerns that the US-produced genetically modified food that is now available to Kenyan consumers may be harmful to human and animal life, the lack of clarity whether GMO seeds are included in the bundle of agricultural products offered by the US government is causing more apprehension in civil and public spaces. GMO seeds have increasingly been packaged as the answer to the perennial drought and famine issues. Climate-related weather events, aggravated further by the inflationary pressures of COVID-19 and the war in Europe have piled on the pressure on food systems.

However, the GMO quick-fix to a local food systems problem might be an example of when foreign solutions add to local problems. It is clear that the push towards GMOs does not take into account other issues that may be limiting food systems such as the grand corruption that has sabotaged many attempts at food security In Kenya, the consistent leak in the policy bucket that dooms most policies and initiatives in the crucial agricultural sector to failure. A historical survey indicates there is no guarantee that a change in food policy will bring any significant benefit to the mwananchi.

The GMO quick-fix to a local food systems problem might be an example of when foreign solutions add to local problems.

In addition, while GMOs are presented as the answer to the food security problem, there is little discussion of the failure of GMO seeds in other small-scale contexts. The effects of GMO seed adoption on secondary agricultural input markets such as patented seeds, costly fertilizers and pesticides (sourced also from US multinationals) is enough to question if Kenya’s slice of the trade cake will even be fractionally worth it. Finally, the erosion of traditional food culture through the adoption of GMOs, which has kept modern lifestyle diseases such as obesity relatively at bay, feels conspicuously like a kind of American cultural imperialism—a costly one.

Thirdly and perhaps most disquieting, is the potential loss of national sovereignty that might result from the STIP. In an increasingly tumultuous global economy, in addition to the residual impact of COVID-19, and sustained and escalating global conflict, it might be increasingly difficult for Kenya to protect its domestic food supplies after the implementation of the FTA.  If American corn, for example, floods the Kenyan maize market, there is a strong farmgate price incentive for Kenyan small-scale farmers to change to more profitable crops, effectively allowing the monopoly of American corn. Subsequently, if there are fluctuations in the dollar, and American corn becomes more expensive, then Kenyan consumers are exposed to inflationary pressures and possibly shortages. Simply, American supply disruptions become our stability-threatening problems.

Process concerns 

it is important to point out that the removal of the GMO ban in Kenya was the necessary pre-requisite for the agricultural component of the STIP to be realized. However, how the ban was lifted augurs poorly for the people of Kenya and their democratic processes. In a cabinet meeting chaired by President Ruto, the executive revoked the ten-year ban on the importation and cultivation of GMO products.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 requires that citizens be involved in decision-making processes at all levels of government as part of the conduct of public affairs, either directly or through freely chosen representatives. The executive decision to lift the GMO ban did not meet the constitutionally required threshold of meaningful public participation. If subordinate policies and their instruments must submit to the process of public participation, it is unclear why the decision to lift the GMO ban was exempt. Exhibiting a level of executive dominance that any champions of democracy should be uncomfortable with, the Ruto administration has shoved GMO Food down our collective throat without asking.

While GMOs are presented as the answer to the food security problem, there is little discussion of the failure of GMO seeds in other small-scale contexts.

I have previously discussed why the public interest in Kenya is often overrun by political and foreign interests and this is one manifestation of the same inherited pattern. Specifically, the biggest beneficiaries of the lifting of the ban are likely the corporations that are part of the American agricultural industrial complex. Those firms that produce GMO food products and seeds will now have a captive market through the STIP.

Known for their teleopathic pursuit of profit, is it wise to entrust our food supply to American multinational corporations? In the hyper-capitalist society that Is the United States where Big Pharma profits from medical emergencies, the military-industrial complex profits from war, I shudder to think how Big Agriculture will seek to maximize profits in Kenya and East Africa.

The ongoing FDI standards race to the bottom where Western countries re-define democratic values for the sake of trade access, the proliferating anti-public interest culture in Kenya and a distinctly totalitarian tilt to the Ruto administration are creating the perfect imperialist storm. The new scramble and partition of Africa is gaining momentum and food might be the final frontier.