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September 26, 2018

Paying VAT on milk will make us all short, fat and stupid

About 75 per cent of Kenyans are Christians. Given the intertwining of colonial economics and the church, you would imagine that Kenyans drink a lot of tea and you would be right. In 2012 according to the Tea Board, Kenyans consumed 22.4 million kilograms of tea. Considering that a tea bag weighs 2-3 grams you can work out that these are very many cups of tea. But Kenyans do not prefer strong tea as a matter of choice, they like it brewed with the milk mixed in. Yet the country only produces an average of 13 litres per person per year, meaning that if everyone took tea with milk in it, then each person can only take an average of three and a half cups of tea per day. Clearly one cannot linger too long in gatherings before consuming their quota.

The desire for milk in tea by adults is an interesting one. Adults especially Africans are generally intolerant to lactose, a type of sugar found in milk. Babies have plenty of lactase, the enzyme that is needed to digest lactose. Milk we should all know is a complete and nutritious meal. So infants demand and we encourage mothers to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life. However as children grow, the levels of lactase drop so that by the time they are adults the level of lactase can be quite low, leading most adults except those of Scandinavian origin, to have some degree of lactose intolerance. Having or not having lactase enzyme as an adult is not a disease, but merely an expression of genetics, much like the way some people are terribly handsome and others not so. Most adults will have some lactase and so will not suffer too much the symptoms of those with severe lactase deficiency such as; abdominal bloating and cramps, flatulence, borborygmi (rumbling noisy stomach), and diarrhoea and vomitingafter consuming significant amounts of lactose. So why would adults want to take milk? The answer lies partly in our experience as babies, some clever observations thousands of years ago and more recent studies.

Studies of pre-pubertal children show that those children who avoid milk tend to have short stature and high levels of adipose tissue. Milk intake and parents’ height have been shown to contribute to adolescent height especially in females. So encouraging your 9-12 year old daughter to take milk can add an extra 2.5 cm in height over that period.  The whole explanation why is not known but we do know that calcium and other minerals found in milk are important for bone health and we have very tall Scandinavians as some evidence of the effect of milk consumption in the population. Thailand has started a campaign asking all citizens to consume at least one glass of cow’s milk a day, the goal being to increase the average height of an 18 year old by 8 cm within a decade.

In Kenya, such a policy of fresh milk consumption would not work. In our tropical climate, fresh milk goes bad within hours of leaving the cow. Milk in the morning and by lunchtime you have some kind of yoghurt unless you process the milk in someway. The interesting thing about processing milk is that it removes the lactose and so makes milk digestible for adults. So processed milk and milk products like cheese and yoghurt are an easy way for anyone to access the nutrition available in cow’s milk. Given our high poverty levels, one third of children stunted and malnourished, it would make common sense to encourage the entire population, but especially children to take in more milk and milk products. There are many policy solutions that would encourage people to take in more milk.

Yet in the execution of our national development plan the focus is almost exclusively on economic development and making life easier for government officials to hire ineffective bodyguards. A few people benefit. Taxing the value addition to milk as if it was any other commodity damages the health of the nation especially the most vulnerable, children and the poor. No country in the world has had sustained development economically without address inequity in society. Having a third of children malnourished and stunted is shame. Discouraging them from accessing an easy and nutritious source of food by taxing its preparation is simply astonishing. But perhaps the intention is to encourage parents to give their children soda, which is after all cheaper, has easily digestible sugar, the tax derived easy to collect. Adults can drink, a little milk, no sugar though, because by the time we all grow up, we will be thick upstairs, short, fat and suffering from diabetes.

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