MWAMISI: The immoral politics of food in Kenya

Perennial lack of food has often been an opportunity for politicians to make money.

In Summary
  • History shows that even when global food prices have fallen, local food prices in Kenya have continued to swell.
  • Drought is mainly blamed for this as it reduces the production of grains significantly.
Mwea residents offload bags containing relief food from a lorry in readiness for distribution.
FOOD SECURITY: Mwea residents offload bags containing relief food from a lorry in readiness for distribution.

Disputed elections have always done great damage to the country. 

There is also no doubt that peace is very important for the country right now, and that the current government must act to solve the rising cost of food and make it available to those most in need of it.

The current high cost of living is Kenya Kwanza’s soft underbelly and which buoys the opposition to keep threatening instability. However, it is crucial to examine how the lack of food has been an opportunity for politicians to make money, hence preventing a permanent solution top the crisis.

Kenya has experienced a cycle of droughts from 1965.

The violence of 2007-2008 which emanated from the disputed elections caused the massive displacement of people, particularly in the Rift Valley. It is estimated that maize losses rose to about 300,000 tonnes which was relatively 10 per cent of Kenya’s annual requirement.

This is according to an Institute of Development Studies working paper titled Food Riots and Food Rights: The Moral and Political Economy of Accountability for Hunger in Kenya.

Food prices were highly volatile in the period of 2007-2012 and this led to unusual levels of food-related popular mobilisation across the globe. There were disruptive political events like riots and even more organised action like the 'Right to Food’ movement in India. It started with a global food crisis in 2007-2008 which led to protests in more than 30 countries.

The study published in 2015 unearthed a lack of accountability for hunger in Kenya despite the Constitution of Kenya having introduced progressive and social rights, including the legal entitlement of its citizens "to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality".

Far from that important report, for more than three years now, food prices have been rising almost uncontrollably. It is a matter the Uhuru Kenyatta administration tried to deal with unsuccessfully, and which the current regime believes is better handled by a higher level of local production and incentives such as subsided fertilisers.

Maize has often been imported into the country, which as President William Ruto recently said, can only be a short-term measure.

Indeed, there is never guarantee that importation of maize significantly lowers the price of maize or flour as a 2008 fact check shows that, despite importing 135,000 metric tonnes from South Africa by December, the consumer price of maize did not come down.

There are dynamics that always emerge and which the government must be keen to deal with. The maize will be sold to companies who are not even players in the industry. The waivers and subsidies the government may make must be seen to have an impact because they cost taxpayers money.

The President will do well to ensure proper supervision of these processes so that mwananchi can benefit. Azimio and Kenya Kwanza legislators can do the country a favour if they can examine these intricate matters meticulously and determine a way forward for a permanent solution. 

History shows that even when global food prices have fallen, local food prices in Kenya have continued to swell. Drought is mainly blamed for this as it reduces the production of grains significantly.

The lack of rains also leads to a drop in the production of hydro-electric power which triggers the rise in the importation of oil, thus raising the cost of fuel, fertilisers and transport.

Kenya does not have a mechanism of responding to continued food shortages or the spike in food prices. Poor people, studies have established, spend a bigger proportion of their incomes on food, with many skipping meals to survive over hunger periods.

It is, therefore, sad that Azimio is pushing the government to immediately stem the food crisis yet they are not availing any solutions. Their agenda is to take advantage of the crisis to make the current regime unpopular and cause an uprising against it. There is no proof of coalition availing solutions to the last administration either.

There were efforts to package the recent demos as sporadic and as emanating from the people, yet we all know they were planned by Azimio simply to get some power.

It is well known that inadequacies in the national grain reserves and waivers of import duties are always meant to enable looting, and not to solve the food crisis. The failure to learn from the past has only been deliberate.

President Ruto can do the country well by ensuring that the ‘response unit’ in the Agriculture and Livestock ministry is run efficiently and with a high level accountability.

He must also create a laser-focused mechanism to manage this process without just the momentary political anxiety in mind. Millers, for one, can never be trusted to distribute the subsidies to farmers. Diversion of the imported maize to the black market also needs to be checked and averted.

The government has recently admitted its facing challenges paying  salaries to civil servants. It is definitely a difficult time for all, but the problem should not exploited for the goals of political opportunism or corruption. During Covid-19, some Kenyans in the last regime took advantage of the crisis which led to the loss of money. 

We live in a country of very few patriots versus many others who do not care for the millions of poor and vulnerable people, including children. Therefore, to address corruption, and more importantly the food crisis, President Ruto has to act decisively. 

If any important bills relating to bringing order in the food industry are required, then that should be the first matter that should dominate the expected bipartisan talks.

Political commentator

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