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Unga urge knows no ethnic, political boundaries

Mutemi wa Kiama

Fifty four years after independence, Kenya is supposedly a “food secure” nation, producing enough to feed each of its estimated 46 million citizens. The most baffling dilemma though is that, while the economy has steadily been on the rise, its ability to feed its people has been on the decline.

Resolving this dilemma has been a challenge for every government since independence. According to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (2008), more than half of the country’s population eats less food than required on a daily basis.

One in every four Kenyans is critically food poor meaning that even if they spent all their income on food, they still wouldn’t be able to meet minimum dietary requirements. The hunger I am talking about is not just the occasional sensation of an empty stomach. I am talking about the continuous inability of many to meet basic nutritional needs.

This deprives a significant portion of the population the ability to realise their full potential as productive citizens. One of the most basic requirements of any state is the ability to feed its people.

A healthy population is a productive population. Kenyans should not be hungry or getting insufficient nutrition in a country whose economy largely depends on agriculture and livestock production.

Different attempts by successive governments to resolve the situation have been biased towards technical solutions that are aimed at increasing food supply such as large-scale irrigation projects (Galana-Kulalu comes to mind) and input subsidies on seeds and fertilisers.

During crises, price subsidies on processed food — particularly maize flour — have been implemented as is the case currently. Unfortunately, even after billions of shillings have been invested in irrigation schemes, there is little to show for it. The money ends up in the pockets of a few well-connected politicians and corrupt entrepreneurs.

According to Deputy President William Ruto, the country harvested a record 42.5 million bags of maize in 2015, yet a year later people were dying of hunger and in 2017 the government had to introduce maize flour subsidies.

Experts argue that our food shortages are artificial. Corrupt politicians and civil servants collude with business cartels to create artificial shortages and distribution bottlenecks which result in price hikes. They are then licensed to import maize duty free and make a killing selling it to the government.

Our food security challenge is also linked to poverty. The Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey of 2005-2006 indicated that most people spend between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of their income on food. This clearly demonstrates that food is too expensive and that the majority have low incomes.

Essentially, we work to eat. Could one then be allowed to argue that our poverty is deliberately induced to keep us dependent in order to line the pockets of a few thieves?

Food security interventions should be cognizant of this context and should attempt to ease the burden of the most vulnerable even as broader poverty eradication efforts are pursued. Time-capped subsidies on maize flour do little to alleviate chronic food insecurity.

The time has come to explore alternative approaches such as direct cash transfers to the most needy or even monthly basic income disbursements to significant portions of the population. These would, at the very least, grant recipients the dignity of making their own dietary choices.

Not everybody wants porridge for breakfast and ugali for supper. In an election year, it is telling that an officially declared crisis is receiving cursory attention from the political leadership.

Clearly, citizen demands and expectations have not made the ongoing hunger politically costly, especially for the party in power. Our political organisation remains rudimentary, coalescing around individuals whose claim to leadership is the ability to mobilise ethnic passions.

History has proved it is hard to organise on anything else other than ethnicity. But, hunger knows no tribe. There is no kiosk or special food market with lower or higher prices to benefit or punish certain ethnic groups or political affiliations. We all suffer the same.

There are examples of unity amongst citizens that we can learn from. The labour movement has shown us how citizens or organisations can transcend ethnic barriers when their interests are threatened.

During the doctors’ strike earlier in the year, attempts to divide them along ethnic lines failed. The Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) has also staged industrial action against different regimes with members united behind the cause irrespective of the ethnic background of the union’s leaders or that of the nation’s leaders.

Only a similar unity of purpose in demanding that our constitutional right to food be respected could move our political leadership to act to ensure no Kenyan struggles for food in the 21st century.

The poor must stand together and demand their interests be addressed. We must start organizing on the basis of our interests, such as adequate food and nutrition, good health, security etc, as opposed to ethnicity.

It’s time to build horizontal solidarity on the Right to Food as opposed to vertical solidarity with our ethnic kingpins based on their manufactured grievances as opposed to our real interests. —The writer is a social justice and human rights advocate— @MutemiWaKiama @WanjikuRevolution

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