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February 22, 2018

[VIDEO] Plastic bags ban leaves Kenya's kadogo economy in limbo

Mombasa businesswoman Mishi Aisha gives a client fried potatoes wrapped in a polythene bag, August 27, 2017. /BRIAN OTIENO
Mombasa businesswoman Mishi Aisha gives a client fried potatoes wrapped in a polythene bag, August 27, 2017. /BRIAN OTIENO

Plastic waste litters major highways, clogs drainage systems, kills livestock, contributes to pollution through open burning and is a source of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. 

It is therefore no wonder that Kenya became the latest African country to ban the use of plastic shopping bags from August 28.

The National Environment Management Authority and the Environment ministry decided to ban the bags in an attempt to address the environmental disaster the country is facing.

Plastic bags have gained the country the ignominy of being considered the national flower.

The High Court upheld the ban on August 25, Judge Bernard Eboso saying a suspension would have gravely undermined environmental conservation. 

Most people want the plastic bags menace to end but are concerned about what this means to their day to day lives. A good example is those whose livelihoods are dependent on the kadogo economy— the low income traders/consumers who buy and sell goods in quantities smaller than those packaged by the manufacturers. They earn a living by selling quick-moving items such as milk, sugar and paraffin.

People who thrive in this economy - from the densely-populated informal settlements to the rural areas - have depended on plastic bags to pack the commodities. For some products, alternative packaging will do but for others, the ban presents a challenge that will require a notable adjustment period and extra costs.

A heap of discarded plastic bags on a street of Nakuru town, August 28, 2017. /AMOS KERICH


In Migori, milk vender Nancy Akinyi says the ban will affect the business negatively as most customers do not carry containers. Akinyi says she has a two-weeks’ supply of the bags so she has no choice but to use them. NEMA gave businesses six months to clear their stock and noted on Monday that it had not yet taken measures against people still using plastic bags.

“Businesses may be forced to pass the cost of packaging on to customers which will see our sales dip greatly."

On average, you pay Sh50 for plastic bottles used at milk ATMs.

Akinyi adds it will be difficult for customers to walk around with containers such as jugs, milk cans and even bulky shopping bags.

NEMA’s Migori county director Parnwell Simitu said they started the ban with supermarkets in the hope that small traders such as greengrocers and retail shops will get on board and find alternatives for daily use.

Asked what he will do with all the small quantities of items hanging on the meshed window of his kiosk in Nairobi’s South C estate, ‘Maasai’ says: “I will have to remove all these. I don’t have a choice. I can’t pay the fine.”


In Mombasa, small scale business people say they are not ready to cease the use of plastic bags. Those in Bamburi say they would rather pay fines than lose business.

Mishi Aisha, who fries and sells potatoes in Kadzandani, tells The Star her clients never have containers for the bhajias and mahamris she sells.

"Most of my clients are passers-by from work or other places. They have no time to go for containers. That is why I use the plastic bags to package their fried potatoes and ukwaju (tamarind sauce). How am l supposed to package my home-made ukwaju? I cannot use paper,” says the mother of two.

She adds many of her customers have opted not to buy her potato snacks as they do not want to go through the hassle of carrying containers.

“This is my only source of income. I feed and take care of my children through this business."

Peter Nyagah, who has sold vegetables in Lake View estate for more than 10 years, notes that one of the value addition he has been offering his clients is to chop and package the vegetables they buy. Nyagah is not alone as many of the mama mbogas who eke out a living selling vegetables have been offering this value addition to add to their income.

Nyagah fears the uptake will take time and money as they search for alternatives.

"If the government can provide an alternative for us, then I will be happy. But for the moment, what do they want us to do?" he asked. "My fear is my clients will opt for supermarkets. They will probably get better wrappers there, not at my small kiosk.”


Traders at the main market in Eldoret display the alternative bags they are now using following the ban on plastic bags, August 28, 2017. /MATHEWS NDANYI

Alice Mokua, a vegetable vendor in Nyamira town, says: "I am still confused about how my business will run because I use these bags day in and out".

Mokua says the government should have ensured the manufacture and supply of alternatives.

Fred Magate, who sells the bags in bulk, says there will be much to lose but that they will wait for updates on the ban.

Mokua, Magate and others say they should be allowed to keep using the plastic bags until other kinds of packaging are well within their reach.

In Uasin Gishu, most traders in Eldoret, Kitale, Iten and Kapsabet welcomed the ban but said what they now have to use is slightly expensive. James Maina, chairman of small scale traders in Eldoret says they acted quickly to ensure compliance.

“As traders, we are in support of the ban because we know the plastic material which comes with clogged drainages and filth even within the markets.”

Traders at the main market in Eldoret display the alternative bags they are now using following the ban on plastic bags, August 28, 2017. /MATHEWS NDANYI

Maina adds that suppliers of alternative packaging also quickly supplied manila and gunny bags. Most shoppers have opted to abandon the plastic bags and find alternatives on their own.

A fresh vegetable vendor, Jane Waithera, who is based at Eldoret’s main market, says the price of paper bags has also gone up since the ban. From as little as Sh5 per bag but now they have to part with at least Sh10.

“We have been forced to look into ways of recovering these costs. I used to give my customers an extra two or three onions but now I have reduced that to one onion so that l can recover the cost of the bag.”

Paul Waswa, who used to sell plastic bags along the streets of Eldoret, says he may be rendered jobless because he does not have enough money to buy the new type of bags in bulk. But he and other business people noted the new bags are durable.

Deputy Governor Daniel Chemno said the county will work with NEMA to ensure that the ban is fully effected.

“Plastics have been a menace. We will also make effort to sensitise the public on the ban and the alternative material they can use.”

A man who used to sell paper bags at the main market in Eldoret asks for help from the government following the plastic bags ban that left him jobless, August 28, 2017. /MATHEWS NDANYI


In Nakuru, hawkers in informal settlements want cheap alternatives that will eliminate the need for polythene bags. Mercy Jelagat and Silas Amutavi fault the government for setting the deadline without preparing adequately and failing to educate the public.

"We depend on plastic bags to package vegetables and fruits. Much as we support the ban, we feel the government failed to engage the general public on how to approach the issue,” Amutavi says in Nakuru town on Monday.

The small scale traders add that Kenya should avoid rushing to implement tough measures on grand issues in the name of steering transformation. Jane Kerubo, a business owner in Kaptembwa, notesgovernments are to serve the people, not oppress them.

A heap of discarded plastic bags on a street of Nakuru town, August 28, 2017. /AMOS KERICH

Kerubo asks President Uhuru Kenyatta to extend the deadline on the use of plastic bags until cheaper alternatives are found. "We know of developed countries that still use plastic bags. If this was necessary, the country should have ensured alternatives were available well before deadline.”

In Nakuru, meat sellers are concerned about hygiene as they now have to use brown bags for wrapping. They say the bags may present health risks if they come into direct contact with meat. 

The traders further said the papers might be a health hazard to members of the public when they come into direct contact with the meat.

We call upon public health department to offer guidelines on the quality of papers to be used for wrapping meat," butchery owner Peter Kamau says, adding plastic bags were better as they are not porous.

An employee is pictured at a slaughterhouse near Nairobi, Kenya August 25, 2017. /REUTERS

A spot check in supermarkets and other stores finds Nakuru business people have embraced the ban.

They tell the Star the bags were an eyesore and that they block waterways and sewers as they are not discarded properly.

But others say the regulation will render many jobless.


This is the third attempt to ban plastic bags in Kenya. In 2007, the country made a less ambitious attempt to curb the use of the bags.

It sought to ban manufacture and importation of bags up to 0.03 millimeters in thickness and imposed a universal 120 per cent tax on their use.

Kenya has in the past opposed proposals in the East African Legislative Assembly to curb the manufacture, sale, importation and use of polythene materials, citing concerns that a ban would result in “massive job losses".

When England effected regulations against increasing use of plastic bags in October 2015, chaos was the expectation as reported by The Conversation.

To increase uptake, the news agency reported, some stores reward customers who go shopping with their own carries.

But a Washington DC study compared taxation versus rewards in the quest to reduce the use of plastic bags and the author found: "While eight per cent of customers used disposable bags prior to the tax, this fraction declined to 40 per cent after the tax was implemented."

In Kenya, NEMA warned of fines of between Sh2 million and Sh4 million or two years in jail. What remains to be seen is whether NEMA and the Environment ministry are committed to ensuring the ban stays. In the meantime, the public—particularly those dependent on the kadogo economy have to deal with the crisis the ban’s implementation has caused to their livelihoods. The ban should also signal to manufacturers to rethink their packaging once again to accommodate this sector of the economy.

Kenya's plastic bags ban is the toughest in the world and what to remains to be seen is whether such restrictions will be taken for the other types of waste that are also eyesores.

Disposable diapers take 550 years to break down, plastic bottles 450 years and aluminun cans 300 to 500 years. Below is a break down analysis by Goumbook.

Story by Brian Otieno @Yobramos4, Amos Kerich @amoskerich, Manuel Odeny, @ManuelOdeny, Alvin Ratemo @RatemoAlvin and Rita Damary, 

Additional reporting by Mathews Ndanyi @MathewsNdanyi and Jill Namatsi, @jay_waterson,

Illustration by Wandia Karige, @wandiakarige.


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