Another drought, more famine. One of the early and formative conversations I had shortly after arriving to work in Kenya was with a judge who encouraged me to take note of the living conditions of the people that he saw in the pastoralist regions when he traveled to remote courts: “it is hard to believe that they are Kenyans” and yet lived in such difficult circumstances.
During the last drought in 2008-09 we had the infamous Maize Scandal, the first big new scandal for the Grand Coalition, and as yet unresolved. How will the Government of Kenya respond this time, or is this just an issue between the outside humanitarians and the locals and not worth notice in Nairobi?
Kenya can best mitigate the devastating effects of recurrent drought by strengthening the livestock sector so that it becomes a viable money-based economy, and improving pastoral food and water security, say aid officials.
“Responding to drought has largely remained a reactive mechanism over the years,” Enrico Eminae, Action Aid Kenya’s Northeast Regional Coordinator, told IRIN. “There is also a lack of a coordinated approach by CSOs [civil society organizations] and government in addressing drought-related issues at all levels.”
According to the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) Secretary-General, Abbas Gullet, drought mitigation should focus on addressing vulnerability factors through activities such as dam construction and investments in irrigated farming in marginal areas.
. . . .
“The story of drought and famine is almost becoming a cliché in Kenya,” noted Damaris Mateche, environmental security analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. “Despite the existing drought early warning systems in the country, drought disaster response mechanisms and coping strategies remain miserably wanting. More often, drought and famine situations degenerate into dire humanitarian crises before the government takes substantial action.” (emphasis added)
The banner “theme” photograph for this blog and the inset above were taken on a James Finlay Co. tea plantation outside Kericho, Kenya only a few weeks before post-election violence swept the area at the end of December 2007. I have other pictures from the area on Flickr. This is an old story–mechanization versus manual labor. Efficiency for the firm against social costs. Foreign or multinational firms, local workers. Ethnic and class issues among owners, managers and “pickers”. (I write from Mississippi, where cotton was once king . . . )
Kenya is the world’s leading exporter of black tea. This is an important part of the overall GNP. Much tea is grown on small estates–much is also on plantations, some owned by multinational businesses such as Finlay, some owned by politicians, most notably former president Moi. Like horticulture, it provides a large number of low wage jobs with associated rural housing. Surely no one’s ideal for long term development (unless you happen to own a large farm yourself) but a lot better than nothing (and very photogenic). Over time presumably the pickers lose the basic argument to the owners of the land suitable for tea production on the inexorable logic of the firm–lower cost production.
To first-time visitors in Kericho and adjoining highlands of Nandi, Nyamira and Kisii, the well-trimmed tea bushes, dotted with pickers with extended baskets, is a sight to behold.
The visions of tea-pickers have been revised somewhat; the baskets have been replaced with gadgets that are pulled by two pickers hauling select leaves into its storage space.
But this calm view of the tea plantations is deceptive; the low hum of the tea-picking machines has been replaced by angry shouts that hit a crescendo Monday, as workers protested unemployment accelerated by machine use.
Workers at James Finlays Tea Estate operate a tea plucking machine, which has been blamed for job losses, triggering a workers’ strike. [PHOTO: VITALIS KIMUTAI/STANDARD]
Some 50,000 tea pluckers in the tea estates spread across Kericho, Bomet, Nandi, Nyamira and Kisii counties protesting the mechanisation of picking green leaf were expected to participate in the labour protest, although its success appeared partial.
The strike was called by Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) yesterday, and whose members work in tea estates under the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA).
The affected companies are James Finlays Tea Kenya, Unilever Tea Kenya, George Williamsons, Sotik Tea and Eastern Produce, among others.
In 2006, when Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) first called tea pickers’ strike to protest mechanisation, the area under mechanical plucking consisted of 694 hectares or 2.3 per cent of the total area under tea in the association’s 42 members estates, which has 30,000 hectares.
Then, James Finlay had 600 hectares under mechanised production, Unilever had 54 hectares while Sotik Tea had 32 hectares.
“We have tried to reason with the multinational tea companies over the issue but they have refused to listen. The only way out for us is to let workers down their tools,” said Issa Wafula, KPAWU assistant secretary general.
. . . .
Tom Okinda, a worker at a multinational tea company in Kericho County said favouritism, tribalism and nepotism were rife in employment tea plucking machine operators.
“Those retained are relatives, friends or neighbours of senior managers who have the final say in employment matters, while those who do not have any connection with the management are laid off,” he claimed.
Hellen Tangi, a businesswoman, said there were days when it was prestigious for one to work for a multinational tea firm as some of the unskilled jobs offered a good pay.
But not anymore.
“Despite raking in millions from the fertile farms, these foreigners do not care about locals working for them,” she lamented. Francis Atwoli, the Cotu Secretary General said mechanisation in the tea industry should be discouraged, as it was not good for the economy of developing countries like Kenya.
“The direct and multiplier effect of mechanisation of tea plucking and pruning in the country outweighs the implied cost-savings that employers are claiming,” Atwoli said.
Atwoli further claimed introduction of machines compromised the quality of tea thus affecting the overall auction prices. “Quality of tea is bound to drop with use of the machines since selective plucking of two leaves and a bud will not be adhered to as should be the case,” Atwoli said.
Democratic governance–one man, one vote, rather than one acre or one shilling–can support opportunities for policies that account for needs and interests of displaced workers, such as support for alternative development over time, education and training and such. Another theory of course would be that this isn’t a governance question at all and the government should have as little to do with any of this as possible other than to, say, keep the Ugandans out.
You might think that Higher Education, Science and Technology would be pretty important for Kenya’s future–and you would be right. But, the Nation is good enough to explain that Agriculture is the plum post because it controls 30 parastatals, whereas Higher Ed, Science and Technology only controls three.
OK, so now we investigate the Maize Scandal, anyone, please . . .
Of course, Hon. Kimunya now gets to bring his standards to Transportation, since no accountability has yet to attach to the Grand Regency Hotel sale scandal. Kibaki cronies have key interests in common carriers in Nairobi.
The power struggle started with Cabinet and other government appointments, was amplified by the fierce opposition to the PM’s drive to clear the Mau forest of illegal encroachment and has seemingly come to a head with the two taking divergent positions on the new constitution.
But for Mr Odinga, taking Mr Ruto down a peg because of the issues they have differed on might be secondary to the longer-term goal of shaping his political forces ahead of 2012 elections.
The ash cloud over Europe stopped most flights out of Kenya last Wednesday night. Now the horticulture industry is losing about $2m a day from the disruption and thousands of casual labourers – some of whom make a few dollars a day – have been laid off.
Some farmers hope the worst may be over. Two cargo flights left Kenya early on Monday after a number of airports in southern Europe opened up, and a KLM cargo flight left in the afternoon.
“I don’t think that four days is going to bankrupt the Kenyan flower industry,” said Peter Szapary, owner of Wildfire Flowers in Naivasha. “But if it goes on for two weeks then it will be a problem for us.”
Oserian managed to fly 40 tonnes of flowers to Spain on Sunday morning. tTrucks were making the 30-hour trip to the UK and the Netherlands to deliver them to supermarkets and the Dutch flower auction.
The company is paying 60%-70% more in freight charges and does not yet know how much it has lost from the disruption. What it does know is that 3m flowers so far have been disposed of.
Naivasha is in some ways emblematic of the larger problems facing Kenya. A handful of whites live in gorgeous houses along the shore of Lake Naivasha. Next to them are the flower farms that contribute so much to the economy but also pay their workers very poorly and suck huge amounts of water from the lake. And behind are the dusty slums where hundreds of thousands of people live in terrible poverty. The lake is gorgeous, and so are the flowers that grow next to it, but sometimes it seems that such beauty comes at too high a human cost.
[2nd Update]-“British skies to reopen as EU strikes ash deal”, TimesOnline
If farmers in Africa’s Great Rift Valley ever doubted that they were intricately tied into the global economy, they know now that they are. Because of a volcanic eruption more than 5,000 miles away, Kenyan horticulture, which as the top foreign exchange earner is a critical piece of the national economy, is losing $3 million a day and shedding jobs.
The pickers are not picking. The washers are not washing. Temporary workers have been told to go home because refrigerated warehouses at the airport are stuffed with ripening fruit, vegetables and flowers, and there is no room for more until planes can take away the produce. Already, millions of roses, lilies and carnations have wilted.
“Volcano, volcano, volcano,” grumbled Ronald Osotsi, whose $90-a-month job scrubbing baby courgettes, which are zucchinis, and French beans is now endangered. “That’s all anyone is talking about.” He sat on a log outside a vegetable processing plant in Nairobi, next to other glum-faced workers eating a cheap lunch of fried bread and beans.
Election-driven riots, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and stunningly bad harvests have all left their mark on Kenya’s agriculture industry, which is based in the Rift Valley, Kenya’s breadbasket and the cradle of mankind.
But industry insiders say they have never suffered like this.
“It’s a terrible nightmare,” said Stephen Mbithi, the chief executive officer of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya. He rattled off some figures: Two million pounds of fresh produce is normally shipped out of Kenya every night. Eighty-two percent of that goes to Europe, and more than a third goes solely to Britain, whose airports have been among those shut down by the volcano’s eruption. Five thousand Kenyan field hands have been laid off in the past few days, and others may be jobless soon. The only way to alleviate this would be to restore the air bridge to Europe, which would necessitate the equivalent of 10 Boeing 747s of cargo space — per night.
“There is no diversionary market,” Mr. Mbithi said. “Flowers and courgettes are not something the average Kenyan buys.”
Monday’s Standard reports that Kenya is only consuming 5% of its own coffee production, terming this a risk to the success of the sector.
The Kenyan government’s lack of appreciation for the value of the cachet of Kenyan coffee was brought home to me quite quickly upon my arrival in Nairobi as director for the International Republican Institute. Calling on the Minister of Trade and Industry, we were served the usual choice of tea or instant Nescafe, as in the various other offices of high government officials and politicians. When the Trade Minister of a country with a reputation for growing some of the world’s finest coffee is serving Nescafe to his visitors, there is an obvious disconnect somewhere.
A local coffee house in New Orleans sells what it calls a Kenyan Press for brewing coffee. It appears to be quite the same as what the rest of us would call a “French Press”–basically a simple glass cylinder with a lid with a plunger with a screen to filter the brewed grounds and hold them at the bottom when the coffee is poured. Obviously the label “Kenyan” has market value to coffee drinkers. From my experience, it was in fact very hard (and unduly expensive) to actually buy a French Press in Nairobi.
It would be great to see Kenyans taking pride in the reputation of the quality of their coffee production and to see the government paying attention to promoting the market (rather, than, perhaps, being too distracted by worrying about who is going to win the next election).
Addendum: Turns out I have a picture of the coffee maker in New Orleans, a Bodum “Kenya Coffee Maker” that is also labeled in smaller print “French Press”:
“Years of cronyism, official blind eye to looting of farmers’ assets and a veil of monopoly that sneered at every rule in the book are responsible for plunging the State-owned Pyrethrum Board of Kenya (PBK) into oblivion, records show.
A forensic audit adopted by Parliament in February this year, internal audit records and communication between the board’s management and top government officials also suggest that the prosecuting arm of the government may have delayed corruption cases, tacitly abetting a decade-long plunder of the corporation’s resources. . . .”