The Kenyan Middle Class

Brenda Wambui
8 May ,2018

The Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) recently announced that it would begin licensing cooking gas firms to operate piped gas systems in residential areas. This would mostly make business sense in gated communities and flats, where Kenya’s middle class tends to reside. This led me to think about our middle class.

The middle class is the class between the upper and lower classes, said to live by their wits rather than by their labour, which was easy to distinguish during the industrial revolution when the term came about. The people who did manual labour at factories were the working class. Those who did clerical work were the middle class, and those who owned these factories were the upper class, better known as the rich. As we have progressed, the markers of a middle class lifestyle have changed, and they vary across countries and cultures.

As we have moved to a knowledge based economy, where the focus has shifted to services, one’s role at work is not the only indicator of class. Today, a person working a low wage or low salary job may not have to perform manual labour, but that does not make them middle class. So we see other markers begin to arise. Chief of which is earnings. Or income. This income then dictates where you live, what you eat, what you wear, the places you go, what car you drive, if at all you do. Then it becomes apparent that there can’t just be one monolithic middle class. We have the upper middle class, for whom richness, or being a part of the upper class, is just around the corner. Then we have the lower middle class, many of whom are a disaster or two away from being working class. Perhaps there is a middle middle class?

According to the African Development Bank, Africa’s middle class is defined as such: Individuals or households that fall between the 20th and 80th percentile of the consumption distribution or between 0.75 and 1.25 times median per capita income, respectively. Or, Individuals who have a daily spend of between USD 2 – USD 20 per day (that is, between KES 200 – KES 2,000 at the current rate). That is 313 million people, or 34.3 per cent of the continent’s population. According to them, 44.9 percent of Kenya’s population is middle class.

On the other hand, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) says that a Kenyan middle class person spends between KES 23,670 and KES 199,999 each month. This seems more reasonable than a claim that 44.9% of Kenya’s population is middle class. According to KNBS, as at 2015, only 68,676, or 2.89 per cent, of formal sector employees in Kenya earn more than KES 100,000 per month. 64.5% earn between KES 20,000 and KES 40,000. The Institute of Economic Affairs found that there are about 272,569 middle class wage employees in Kenya, with another 74,337 wage employees taking home more than the middle class. On the other hand, 2.13 million employees take home less than KES 49,000. It’s fair to say that Kenya has a small middle class.

What is the function of the middle class in a country? In a growth economy like Kenya’s, much emphasis gets paced on the middle class. A growing middle class is a sign of a robust economy. It shows that upward mobility is possible in a country, and this upward mobility is an antidote to income inequality. Which is why “middle class” is such a catchphrase in Kenya. It is there, but it should be larger.

A lot of blame gets placed at the feet of the middle class, such as “the middle class doesn’t vote, they just tweet” or “the middle class finances its lifestyle through loans, it is fake.” There is no shortage of hot takes deriding the middle class. In Kenya, they are powerful and powerless at the same time, and instead of looking at how to expand the middle class from a systemic perspective, we instead place blame on this middle class for its stagnation, as if there is much it can do about this. To expand the middle class, we have to boost the productivity of our economy and encourage investment.

What boosts the productivity of an economy, and makes investors invest? There are multiple theories, but they can all be condensed into five factors (as described by Heather Boushey and Adam Hersch). One: The level of human capital and whether talent is encouraged to boost the economy’s productivity. Two: Cost of and access to financial capital, which allow firms and entrepreneurs to make real investments that create technological progress to use in the economy. Three: strong and stable demand, which creates the market for goods and services and allows investors to plan for the future. Four: The quality of political and economic institutions, including the quality of corporate governance as well as political institutions and a legal structure that enforces contracts. Five: Investment in public goods, education, health, and infrastructure, which lays the foundation for private-sector investment.

The middle class is important in each of these five factors. First, human capital. A strong middle class promotes the development of human capital through a well-educated population. Second, the cost of and access to financial capital becomes lower and more, respectively, in countries with a larger middle class because of reduced risk. Third, a strong middle class creates a stable source for demand because they have enough disposable income to spend on what matters to them.

Fourth, a strong middle class supports political and economic institutions, and has the power to rally behind them since gift politics that may appeal to the working class have no incentive for them, while the rich are the ones buying and influencing these institutions. Lastly, a strong middle class creates and fosters the next generation of entrepreneurs, since they have an adequate social and financial safety net to enable them to start businesses. It is clear that this group is very important to our economy, so it should worry us that it is so small yet we continue to claim that we are a growing economy.

Much of this growth is contributed to by the increasing wealth of the rich at the expense of the middle and working classes, hence the income inequality in this country. We have a Gini coefficient of 0.445 (for perspective, 0 represents complete equality and 1 complete inequality).

Yes, more of us should aspire to go to university, work in formal employment so that we can pay income tax. More of us should not have to take personal loans to get by, or to buy home basics. More of us should not have to buy second hand Japanese cars because public transport in Kenya is a sham. More of us should not have to take our children to private schools because public schools are in shambles. More of us should be able to own houses without selling our souls for a mortgage.

Yet here we are. Whose fault is it that we do not have access to affordable financial capital? Whose fault is it that so many businesses fail in Kenya? Whose fault is it that human capital, better known as talent, is underdeveloped and not as skilled as we need to be to become a developed country? Whose fault is it that we have runaway inflation, especially of food? Whose fault is it that people cannot afford basic goods? That our political and economic institutions are held hostage by an elite few? That we do not invest enough in public goods, education, health, and infrastructure? Definitely not the middle class.

Kenya’s Perpetual Drought

Brenda Wambui
10 April ,2018

We suffer from a range of disasters as a country: flooding, fire tragedies, terrorism, corruption, diseases and epidemics, and drought – these reduce our quality of life, destroy our infrastructure, disrupt our economy, and cause a diversion of resources intended for other things. They also ensure that we remain underdeveloped.

Our country is particularly drought prone. Only 20% of our country receives high and regular rainfall. The other 80% is classified as Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL), where annual rainfall is low, so drought is a regular thing. Currently, four counties (Isiolo, Garissa, Kajiado and Tana River) are classified in the alarm phase according to the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) in February 2018. Ten counties have moved into the alert drought phase up from six in December, with most counties reporting a worsening trend. Only four out of the 23 ASAL counties (which make up a majority of Kenya’s land mass) recorded a stable trend.

The Kenya Red Cross also said that about 3.4 million people concentrated in 10 ASAL counties are facing food insecurity, and possibly famine, as a result of prolonged drought and failed rainfall. As a result, they are seeking KES 1.044 billion to fund their 2018 drought response and recovery program which is projected to reach 1,373,294 people.

In many ASAL areas, the October-November-December 2017 seasonal rainfall started late, had poor temporal and spatial distribution, was below average in total amount and stopped earlier than usual. This has affected the major harvest that was expected as a result of these rains in February 2018. In almost all counties, the vegetation situation was worse in January than it was in December. This may mean that most people, including subsistence farmers, will be relying on markets for their food. This scarcity and high demand will lead to much higher food prices.

Considering that the drought hits pastoral areas the hardest, their livestock will be malnourished, given the unavailability of water and forage. They won’t be able to fetch their usual prices. This means that pastoralists, too, will need food aid. It also means higher meat prices, because much of the livestock will die, as we have already began to see.

Drought is a weather condition. An extended period of dryness. We cannot prevent it, though we can predict it and prepare. There are three kinds of drought. Meteorological drought, which is when rainfall falls below a certain level that would lead scientists to consider it a drought. This could be seasonal. There is hydrological drought, which is often caused by meteorological drought. This is when water body levels fall below a certain amount. Finally, there is agricultural drought, which is when there is a significant reduction in crop yield, such that it may fall to a certain level considered to be a drought. This is also usually caused by the first two types of droughts. Kenya experiences all three types.

Famine on the other hand, is an economic condition. It is man made, because it is caused by a failure to plan. A failure to manage food supplies. For famine to occur, there has to be unavailability of food. Which does not necessarily need to happen when a drought occurs, because it is not like drought comes out of nowhere. It is not a surprise. Famine leads to hunger and starvation. A drought need not lead to famine, but in Kenya, it always does. We have a long history of famine and drought.

In 1997, we had a drought that affected the lives of 2 million people. In 2000, Kenya had its worst drought in 37 years. It affected 4 million people, who all needed food aid. In 2004, the long rains (normally expected between March and June) failed, leaving 2.3 million people in the need of aid. In 2005, famine was declared a national catastrophe, affecting 2.5 million people in Northern Kenya. In 2010 and 2011, we had our worst drought in 60 years. Across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, 13.3 million people were affected. In 2014, we had a drought that affected 1.6 million people. In 2015, approximately 1.1 million people needed food aid because of rainfall shortages.

In 2017, over 2.7 million people were in need of food aid according to the NDMA. This number represents around 20% of the population in pastoral areas, and 18% in marginal agricultural areas. Maize yields fell by 50%, beans by 40 to 50%, and sorghum by 30% as compared to 2015. Some places experienced as much as a 70% drop in crop yields, and livestock was selling for as much as 25% less than 2015 prices. Because the February 2018 estimate is that more people will need food aid (at least 700,000 more people), we can project that the situation may be even worse this year.

Drought is one of the reasons we are unable to achieve the sustainable development goals – such as the ones related to attainment of food security, poverty eradication, and promotion of environmental sustainability. It makes no sense that we continue to rely on rainfall in our agricultural sector, knowing that our country is mostly arid and semi-arid. Whenever our rains fail, we have drought, followed by famine, which causes hunger and starvation. This continues to happen yet agriculture is a key driver for our social and economic development. This continues to happen even when we have an early warning system, and a drought management authority.

This is baffling. Most water for human consumption and other uses is derived from rivers whose recharge depends on rainfall. Our grid is also largely powered by hydroelectricity, so drought also leads to power shortages. In the year 2000, Kenya Power lost USD 20 million, and the national GDP contracted by 0.3%, because of drought. Drought also accelerates the process of desertification and biodiversity loss. People lose their jobs when industries shut down as resources get depleted, children drop out of school because their parents can’t afford to pay their fees because of the economic impact of drought, as well as the suspension of school feeding programmes when there is a famine.

The funds the Red Cross is seeking will go to nutrition, cash transfers, food vouchers, rehabilitation of watering points and animal slaughter. Which is odd, because this is the sort of thing a country with a government should be able to do for itself. While we cannot let people starve, if we continue to fundraise from our already overtaxed pockets to cover things we already pay taxes for, aren’t we encouraging our government to continue with its corruption?

Drought is an all-round disaster, and it is sad that we continue to take it lightly. Or government, and not the Red Cross, should be able to have enough food relief for affected people with special food formulas for the most affected, such as children, the elderly and mothers. They should have in place resources for human disease control and treatment, as well as animal feed and supplements. They should have enough water reserves for both humans and livestock, and allocate cash for all this because drought is not a surprise. They should plan for livestock disease control, shelter for these animals, debt relief for their owners, destocking, restocking, distribution of seed, the list is long.

We also need to have the government championing practices that will help the average Kenyan in such times. For example, promotion of water harvesting and storage (which is illegal in Nairobi), training water user associations, planning for new water sources, deepening wells, removing silt from water pans, and planning future interventions. They also need to promote animal production and drought resistant crops, improve extension services, and develop our cereal banks. They need to ensure we have enough pasture & water for livestock, building up, strengthen networks between herders, develop livestock markets, conserve and protect pasture.

They also need to establish a common approach to disease control for livestock, vaccinate, deworm, and maintain cattle dips. The crops they promote should be drought resistant, early maturing crops and indigenous plants that require little water. They also need to promote agro-forestry for fruits, fuel, fodder and medicine, and have proper pest and disease control in place. This is their responsibility.

They may claim that many things “begin with us” as citizens, but famine definitely begins with them.

The Elephant in Kenya’s Room

Brenda Wambui
20 February ,2018

We, the people of Kenya, claim to recognize the aspirations of all Kenyans for a government based on the essential values of human rights, equality, freedom, democracy, social justice and the rule of law. We also claim to promote the values that underlie an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality, equity and freedom; and state categorically that our state shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth. We lie.

In February 2018, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) launched the Women and Men in Kenya booklet, contrasting the status of women and men in Kenya when it comes to population, health, education, employment, governance, domestic violence, decision-making, and Persons with Disabilities (PWDs). As at 2016, Kenya had an estimated 22,498,000 women and 21,870,000 men (making the total population 44,368,000). According to this estimate, women form 50.71% of Kenya’s population.

However, according to the booklet, women provide 80% of Kenya’s farm labor and manage 40% of the country’s smallholder farms, yet they own only roughly 1% of agricultural land and receive just 10% of available credit. Despite bearing the burden of pregnancy and child rearing, fewer women than men across all age groups have access to family planning messages through radio, television and newspapers regardless of their level of education. Despite this, women bear the burden of contraceptive use, with uptake of the male condom at a measly 0% in North Eastern region, 2% in the Coast, Eastern, Central and Rift Valley regions and 3% in Nairobi, Western and Nyanza regions, while that of injectables (mainly Depo Provera which has been proven to have several health risks for women, such as increasing the chance that they will contract HIV by 49%) for example being 19% at the Coast, 2% in North Eastern, 38% in Eastern, 22% in Central, 27% in Rift Valley, 28% in Western, 29% in Nyanza, and 24% in Nairobi.

362 out of every 100,000 women who give birth die as a result of complications of pregnancy and child bearing. An overwhelming 37% of childbirths are at home, coming second only to deliveries in public hospitals at 46%. The conditions at public hospitals are dismal, and childbirth at home is dangerous. Women who give birth at home rarely have access to a skilled healthcare worker. The reason Rwanda was able to reduce maternal mortality by 77% between 2000 and 2013 is because of the increase in skilled providers (especially midwives) during childbirth. In 2010, 69% of the child deliveries in Rwanda were by a skilled healthcare provider.

It bears repeating that we have yet to pass the Reproductive Health Bill since it was tabled in 2014, yet it aims to provide for the recognition of reproductive rights, set the standards of reproductive health, and provide for the right to make decisions regarding reproduction free from discrimination, coercion and violence. The Bill aims to promote women’s health and safe motherhood, rapidly and substantially reduce maternal and child mortality rates in Kenya, as well as ensure access to quality and comprehensive provision of health care services to women and children. So much for our commitment to SDG 3, which aims for the achievement of good health and well-being (one of the ways is through reducing maternal mortality) and SDG 5, which aims for the achievement of gender equality.

When it comes to diseases, more women than men have been diagnosed with non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Women across all age groups and levels of education also have lower comprehensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS (which is a communicable disease) than men.

Men have higher levels of enrollment in all levels of education overall than women. This gap begins in secondary school, where it is slightly under 5%, and grows significantly in university where it is around 20% in public universities. The booklet does not state the cause, but possible reasons include early marriage and teen pregnancy.

Fewer women than men (up to 10% fewer) also apply for and receive loans for education in public universities. There is a 20% gap between men and women when it comes to enrollment in technical institutions, and a 10% gap when it comes to enrollment in TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) Institutions.

The situation is even starker in employment: Men are employed at almost double the rate of women in modern sector employment, where workers are 66% male and 34% female. In wage sector employment, men are employed at over double the rate of women in agriculture (the workforce is 67% male and 33% female), manufacturing (the workforce is 84% male and 16% female), and wholesaling (the workforce is 77% male and 23% female). In public administration wage employment, the workforce is 64% male and 36% female. The only wage employment sectors where there is almost parity are the education sector (the workforce is 53% male and 47% female) and service activities (the workforce is 48% male and 52% female).

Despite the existence of the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act (2015), women continue to experience high rates of abuse, mostly at the hands of current partners (57% of women who have been abused were abused by their current partners) and former partners (24% of women who have been abused). Almost 40% of women aged 15 – 49 have experienced physical violence (for men, it is under 10%), almost 15% of them have experienced sexual violence (for men, it is under 5%), and almost 35% of them have experienced emotional violence (for men, it is just over 20%).

Our Constitution states that women and men have the right to equal treatment, including the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural and social spheres. It also states that not more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender. This has yet to happen, and legislation enforcing this constitutional requirement has yet to be passed despite the Jubilee party having a parliamentary majority and constantly claiming it is committed to the empowerment of women. Across most public and elective posts (such as MCA, governor, deputy governor, senator, member of national assembly, cabinet secretaries, diplomatic corps, Supreme Court judges, and Court of Appeal judges) women are fewer than 33.33%.

The situation is even worse in the private sector. Over 80% of the members of boards of private sector companies, chairpersons of these boards; directors in the registered companies listed at the Nairobi Securities Exchange and the chairpersons of the boards of these listed companies are men.

Women experience high levels of crimes against morality at the hands of men. Men commit up to 80% of the reported crimes against morality (women commit slightly over 20%), and are the key perpetrators of rape (over 80% of all reported rapes, including that of children, are committed by men). Men also commit 80% of all homicides, robberies, theft, offences related to drugs and other criminal offences. Because of this, men account for slightly over 80% of the prison population.

So much for the boy-child being left behind.

These figures paint a stark picture. They explain why Kenya’s Gender Equality Index is 38%. We still have light-years to go before we can live up to the ideals embodied in our Constitution. We have to close the gender gap across all areas: in employment, in healthcare, in education, and in payment for their work (women in Kenya earn 38% less than men on average). We have to strive to end violence against women, and we have to guarantee the representation of women in public and private institutions. Until then, when we claim to promote the values that underlie an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality, equity and freedom in our Constitution, we lie.

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Brenda Wambui
26 December ,2017

As the year ends, I am reminded of the highs and lows we have been through as Kenyans – two presidential elections (one which happened during the 2017 general election), an election annulment, an election boycott. a doctors’ strike, a nurses’ strike, the election of Kenya’s first women governors, the refusal of parliament to pass the two-thirds gender bill, the collapse of Nakumatt, the ban on plastic bags, extrajudicial killings by the police, to name a few.

As Charles Dickens would say, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. These are the pieces that stood out to us in 2017 [click on the title to read the full piece.]

Our Unlawful Lawmakers: Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Gender Principle

by Marilyn Kamuru

“Whether from ignorance, ineptitude or misogyny, the silence and complicity of these groups means that they lack the moral credibility to offer non-partisan leadership to Kenyans. The current administration’s de facto policy of violating the Gender Principle, and the acquiescent brand of leadership practised by the business and religious community, are largely to blame for our current situation.”

No One Will Save You: Remembering Kenya’s Karl Marx

by Isaac Otidi Amuke

“Karl Marx’s last public engagement was on the evening of Thursday, 5 March 2009. A group of University of Nairobi students witnessed the execution of two men riding in a white Mercedes Benz. The students had chanced on the killings on State House Road while walking back to their hostels. One of the students, assuming that the two, shot at point blank range, were dangerous criminals, asked the shooters, already in flight, why they weren’t taking the men’s bodies off the scene. The usual police ritual is to throw the bodies into a truck and dump them at Nairobi’s public morgue. The shooters, dressed in identical suits, looked like members of an elite death squad. One of them replied that “others” would do the cleaning up.”

My Child, We Thought You Were Home

by April Zhu

“That particular sunset marked the end of that day’s heavy demonstrations throughout Nyanza. And cruelly ironic in its magnificence, it marked the end of another life taken by police brutality. This time, his name was Michael Okoth. At approximately 2pm, the eighteen-year-old died near Kondele in Kisumu City with a gunshot to his neck. At the mortuary, his grandmother wept and wailed, speaking to him over his body. ‘We thought you were home. My child, we thought you were home. We didn’t know you had gone out to see the protests.'”

Beyond “this is Kenya”

by K’eguro Macharia

“In many cases, “this is Kenya” is uttered at a scene of violation and exhaustion: after a demand for a bribe, after being told a file is missing from a government office, after being insulted by a state agent, after attempting to use legal channels and being frustrated, after being sexually assaulted and attempting to seek help from friends and family, after witnessing police brutality, while paying more for food, while struggling to afford private healthcare because the public system is broken, while trying to afford school fees for private schools because public education is broken, while reading yet another report about theft of public land, while reading yet another report about theft of public money, while trying to navigate Kenya’s rape culture, while trying to navigate Kenya’s heteronormative culture, while trying to navigate Kenya’s misogynist culture, while trying to navigate Kenya’s ethno-nationalist culture.”

Why did Kenya’s Supreme Court annul the elections?

by Nanjala Nyabola

“But beyond establishing high democratic standards for elections in Kenya, this ruling was also about reaffirming judicial independence. It put Chief Justice David Maraga in history books as the first African chief justice to oversee the annulment of election results. Less than a year into his term, there were already strong indications during a testy pre-election period that judicial independence was of utmost importance to the Maraga-led court. At least three times in under 12 months, the chief justice and the judicial service commission issued statements defending the independence of the judiciary after attacks from the president and the National Assembly majority leader.”

Forty Billionaires and Forty Million Beggars

by Matt Carotenuto

“In a country where political elites are known by the fancy cars they own (wabenzi­ — those who drive Mercedes Benzes) and roughly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Kenyans recognize that, while they don’t all have a common language or religion, they share a landscape of growing inequality. “Super highways” in Nairobi cut right through informal settlements that lack running water. Colonial-era country clubs sit against sprawling slums, where golf balls routinely ping off the roofs of makeshift tin shacks. The same elites strolling the nearby fairways often collect rent on the properties behind the concrete barriers.”

Woman, Kenyan and on the campaign trail

by Ivy NyaYieka

“Nairobi was liberated from British colonialism by female prostitutes who procured ammunition for Maumau fighters. However, it has been reluctant since independence to let women into public spaces— let alone political office. The Truth Justice & Reconciliation Commission report developed after Kenya’s 2007/08 post election violence to examine historical injustices puts it eloquently: “Women are over-represented in the poorest social segments of society and underrepresented in decision-making bodies.” Every morning, Nairobi rises on the backs of bent women, opens its eyes hesitantly, yawns, stretches and stands up, looking taller than it is because it has low-income women below its feet. These elections will be a test of whether Nairobi will recognize these women’s contributions.”

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And these were your favourite pieces from Brainstorm this year:

Kenya and Its Maize Scandals

by Brenda Wambui

“What is it about maize that makes it so susceptible to such scandals? It’s our consumption. Our average maize consumption per person is 60 kg a year, according to our Bureau of Statistics. Maize accounts for a quarter of our food consumption in terms of calorific intake, 56 per cent of our cereal calories and 47 per cent of our starchy food calories. Maize is also the best value for money starch that is widely available. It’s also easy to dispose of as it is a staple food not just in Kenya, but in other African countries as well. As a thief, you can sell it quickly and have your stolen money.”

The Master’s House

by Brenda Wambui

“These sentiments are, to put it simply, elitist. And many people are elitist. It is what motivates most of us in our work. We want to move as far away from poverty and as close to richness as we can. As we do, we develop a disdain (both subconscious and conscious) for poverty. As a result, we do not want reminders of poverty in the nice, clean spaces we believe we have worked so hard for. What are these reminders? Kiosks, matatus and second hand clothes, of course. We forget that most Kenyans continue to have them as hallmarks in their lives, though. Where do the rich expect their workers to buy their supplies, for example? When someone works from eight to six at your home, where do you expect them to shop? Do you feed your workers? If not, where do you expect them to eat? Do you provide private transport for them to and from your home? If not, how do you expect them to get there and go back to their homes?”

The F-word: The Place of Feminism In Contemporary Kenya

by Brenda Wambui

“Our feminism, first and foremost, must target the end of rape culture and violence against women. Why? Because it is intended to limit the extent to which women can participate in society. It is intended to keep women small, and in their place. They can only go as far as men will let them. Venture any further and what happens? Violence. Which is why women politicians are permanently being threatened with rape, stripping and other forms of violence. Why they have to have more security. Why their entourages are heckled and even stoned. It is also why men harass women on the streets, and why the go-to threat for many men towards women is ‘we will rape you.'”

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As usual, this list is not exhaustive – so much has been written about Kenya or in Kenya in 2017. Any other pieces that we should have included? Share in the comments. Thank you for coming along on this journey in 2017. We look forward to an even better 2018. Happy new year!

The Citizen vs The Taxpayer

Brenda Wambui
28 November ,2017

Every election year, a sentiment arises that goes something like this: “Kenyans don’t know what’s good for them. They always vote for bad “leaders” who then proceed to loot and plunder our country. This is because many Kenyans don’t really have a stake in our economy because they don’t pay tax. They are not well educated, they don’t have jobs, they don’t pay income tax, and as a result, they don’t feel the pinch. If I had it my way, I’d make it such that only people who pay tax can vote.”

That this sentiment persists surprises me. First, it does not take into account the fact that Kenya’s formal sector only employs about 2.3 million people out of the over 43 million people in our population. 77.9% of our jobs are in the informal sector, which is the largest informal sector in Africa. Informal sectors are notoriously difficult to tax, which makes it difficult for them to contribute income taxes. The burden of solving this falls squarely on the shoulders of the state (not the non-payers of income tax), which should encourage and incentivize formalization. However, our state is far keener on oppressing its people and looting/plundering the country.

Second, it fails to acknowledge that income tax (both individual and corporate) is not the holy grail of taxes. Kenyans pay over 20 taxes, such as customs duty, excise duty, fuel levy, value added tax (VAT), withholding tax, advance tax among others. Most, if not all, people in the informal sector pay at least one of these taxes, so it is disingenuous to accuse them of “not paying tax” and “not having a stake” in the country.

Perhaps the most odious thing about this sentiment is the way it dehumanizes most Kenyans and seeks to deny them their right as citizens.

According to our constitution, every Kenyan citizen (whether by birth or registration) has the right to free, fair and regular elections based on universal suffrage and the free expression of the will of the electors for any elective public body or office established under this Constitution; or any office of any political party of which the citizen is a member. Every adult citizen also has the right, without unreasonable restrictions, to be registered as a voter; to vote by secret ballot in any election or referendum; and to be a candidate for public office, or office within a political party of which the citizen is a member and, if elected, to hold office. Seeking to deny people the right to vote based on their income tax status would be unconstitutional.

It is also dehumanizing because it basically translates to “poor people shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” After all, most people in the informal sector make barely enough to survive. In a country where youth unemployment stands at 67%, this assumes that people are poor because they want to be poor, not because they have been failed by the state and its institutions. This sentiment finds great company in its eugenicist counterpart: “poor people shouldn’t be allowed to have children.” It presumes that it is up to someone else to “allow” or grant poor people their rights, yet they are guaranteed by our constitution by virtue of one being Kenyan.

Which makes me wonder, how do we want to define citizenship in Kenya? Do we want to criminalize poverty and assume that wealthy people are automatically more reasonable and well intentioned than poor people? The evidence says otherwise – the reason Kenya is in a mess is because of its crony capitalist state in which businesspersons and politicians collude. We are here because of rich people – how does denying poor people their rights fix the situation? Do we want to build an exclusive state, in which anything (especially poverty, which people don’t chose for themselves) could be the basis of your rights being denied, or do we want to build an inclusive state in which all our lives matter?

Isn’t it hypocritical to complain about how we are divided along ethnic and class lines while wishing we had a unified national identity, and in the next breath, say poor people/people who don’t “pay tax” shouldn’t be allowed to vote?

The Election Boycott Of 2017

Brenda Wambui
31 October ,2017

On October 10th 2017, Raila Odinga stated that he was withdrawing from the presidential election redo set for October 26th. He cited fears that it would be marred by the same irregularities and illegalities that got the August 8th election result annulled. In doing so, he seemed to grant Uhuru Kenyatta’s wish from the day before for him to step aside if he was not ready or willing to participate. “Kenyans are tired and want to move forward. If you do not want elections, step aside so that the country can move forward,” said Uhuru Kenyatta.

Raila Odinga later called for a boycott of the election by his supporters, as an act of resistance and civil disobedience. He asked Kenyans who value democracy and justice to hold vigil and prayers away from polling stations, or just stay at home. The chairperson of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Wafula Chebukati, had earlier made a statement that seemed to suggest he could not guarantee a credible election under prevailing conditions and with a divided commission. Days before, IEBC Commissioner Dr. Roselyn Akombe had resigned from the commission and fled Kenya for the USA (where she is also a citizen) citing fear for her life, as well as an inability to conduct a free, fair and credible election on the IEBC’s part.

Faced with the very real possibility of disruption and violence, a petition was filed before the Supreme Court to postpone the election until the IEBC could guarantee a credible election, only for the case to be adjourned, with apologies from Chief Justice David Maraga, because of a lack of quorum (the bench needs at least five judges to meet quorum). Only two out of seven judges were present when the court convened. Justice Isaac Lenaola was also present. However, Deputy Chief Justice Philomen Mwilu was unable to attend because her driver/bodyguard was shot shortly after dropping her off at home, in what appeared to be a warning shot to her from unknown persons. Justice Njoki Ndung’u was unable to find a flight back to Nairobi (she was out of town), Justice Mohamed Ibrahim was abroad seeking medical treatment, and Justices Smokin Wanjala and Jackton Ojwang simply said they were unable to make it.

As a result, the October 26th election proceeded as planned. With one hitch – most registered voters failed to show up to vote. Official voter turnout was placed at 38.84% by the IEBC, though others claimed it was less than 35% when the total number of registered voters (19,611,423) is used. On August 8th, turnout was 79.51%, meaning that more than half of those who voted saw it fit to boycott this election. Perhaps it was due to Raila Odinga’s call. Perhaps it was due to fatigue and the desire to “move on” to other things. Perhaps it was because it was clear that their votes would not count based on the events described above. Perhaps it was because of fear of police violence.

Whatever the case, Uhuru Kenyatta won 98.27% of the votes (he garnered 7,483,895 out of 7,616,217 valid votes), even though 25 out of 290 constituencies did not participate in the repeat election “because conditions were not conducive to elections” mostly due to protests and violence. As if their voices and votes do not matter, the IEBC decided that it would not hold elections in those constituencies because doing so would not result in a material change to the outcome, which is a second Uhuru Kenyatta presidential term (regardless of its lack of legitimacy).

Which brings us where we are today – with Uhuru Kenyatta’s supposed popularity coming second only to Paul Kagame’s in East Africa (who won Rwanda’s presidency with 98.6% in the 2017 election), followed closely by Hailemariam Desalegn, who became Ethiopia’s prime minister with 94.9% of the vote. It should concern us that we are headed in the direction of East Africa’s more authoritarian regimes.

Both Rwanda and Ethiopia are de facto one party states where political repression is the norm. Both countries persecute journalists for doing their jobs and have experienced a year-on-year reduction of freedom of the press. They are intolerant to any opposition, be it from citizens or opposition political parties. Extrajudicial killings are routine (they have been on the rise in Kenya too), and civil society/NGOs are constantly under attack for “undermining government.” Their work on human/women’s/children’s rights, governance and peace building is interfered with both directly and indirectly, until they are unable to act meaningfully.

They invade their “unstable” neighbours (Rwanda has invaded the DRC, Ethiopia and Kenya have invaded Somalia), because this empowers them in two ways: it allows them to shut down internal opposition by rallying around external enemies, which then provides them with “threats” through which they attempt to legitimize their autocracy both locally and internationally (which is why Paul Kagame/Rwanda is a darling of the people both in Africa and the west, and why Uhuru Kenyatta is poised to join him). Because such leaders tend to come to power through farcical elections that are religiously held despite prevailing circumstances, they appear to be democratic and in line with global institutions and norms. This delicate balance of “democracy” and repression also enables their supporters locally to defend them, yet they do not follow the spirit of their laws/constitution, and occasionally fail to follow its letter. However, unlike Rwanda and Ethiopia, our economy is suffering, our people are getting poorer, and we are on course to kill our public institutions (such as schools and hospitals) because of greed and corruption.

This reads like a reenactment of Daniel Arap Moi’s 24 year presidency. If it sounds worrisome, that’s because it is. We must resist authoritarianism.

Kenya’s Ban On Plastic Bags

Brenda Wambui
5 September ,2017

After three previous unsuccessful attempts to ban the use, sale, manufacture and import of plastic bags in 2005, 2007 and 2011, we finally managed to do it on 28th August 2017 when the ban came into effect. It was gazetted by the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Professor Judy Wakhungu, on 28th February 2017 and Kenyans were given a six month grace period to prepare themselves for lives free of plastic bags.

The ban is with good reason: plastic bags take between 500 to 1,000 years to break down, and are a major contributor to the 8 million tonnes of plastic dumped in the sea every year. At current rates, it is estimated that by 2050 we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish. About 100 million plastic bags were handed out to Kenyan shoppers (before the ban) each year according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and many of these bags found their way into our food chain through cows, goats, fish and other animals. Professor Wakhungu stated that plastic bags constitute the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya.

Indeed, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) cites the inability of plastic bags to decompose (which affects soil quality), the littering plastic bags in various parts of the country, the blockage of sewerage and water drainage infrastructure (causing floods during the raining season), damage of ecosystems and biodiversity, death of animals after consuming plastic material, endangering human health when used for packaging food (in particular hot food), producing poisonous gases (for example, when used as fuel to light charcoal) and air pollution when disposed by burning in open air. All these are solid reasons.

Kenya becomes one of more than 40 other countries to take a tough stance on plastic bags, though our ban is by far the harshest. The only plastic bags exempt from the ban are garbage bin liners, plastic bags for disposing medical waste and chemicals, as well as plastic bags used for industrial packaging of products. If found contravening this law, one is “liable to a fine of not less than two million Kenya Shillings, and not more than four million Kenya Shillings, or imprisonment of a term of not less than one year but not more than four years, or to both such fine and imprisonment.”

If this sounds Draconian, it’s because it is. Plastic bags are such everyday things in Kenya that many people can’t imagine their lives without them. We are accustomed to buying fruits, vegetables and other household goods and having them packed in plastic bags. When we buy fruits, roast maize or even roast meat on the roadside, the vendor will most times have their hands covered in a clear polythene bag so as not to directly touch/possibly contaminate our food. This is because it is difficult to maintain good hygiene given the limited access to tap water in many places. We have even had cholera outbreaks for this reason. In informal settlements, due to the lack of a proper sewage/waste management system and sanitation facilities, flying toilets (where people relieve themselves and throw the plastic bag out) have been the norm.

Because of the central role plastic bags play in Kenyans’ lives, many understandably panicked when they realized that this time the country was actually going through with the ban. Questions were asked (and continue to be asked) about the extent of the ban – it was these questions that led to garbage bin liners to be excluded from it. Even more questions need to be asked.

For example, why is it that government agencies chose to be antagonistic about the ban’s implementation? Many Kenyans reported being stopped on the streets for random police searches without warrants, and when found with plastic bags, being extorted for a bribe in order to be released. This led to scaremongering online until NEMA clarified that it had not sanctioned these searches, and that their initial target with regards to compliance was manufacturers and suppliers. Why was this not communicated beforehand to avoid the seemingly unavoidable victimization of Kenyan citizens by state organs? Why is it that we keep paying for state laxity?

Something else that stands to me was that there seemed to be little concern over the jobs that would be lost – the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) estimated that over 60,000 jobs would be lost and 176 manufacturers closed. This is not to say that the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags should continue, but to ask why we care so little about the incomes of average Kenyans. Are there any efforts to ensure that they are able to find other jobs? If their skills are highly specialized, are we thinking of how they could be retrained for other opportunities? Or does that not matter in Kenya?

The ban is also a continuation of the Kenyan policy mindset that prefers punishment to reinforcement. Why? As opposed to long jail terms and Draconian fines intended to decrease the manufacture, import, sale and use of plastic bags, why not treat Kenyans as allies, as opposed to enemies? This would involve educating Kenyans on why we are banning plastics, and taking them along on a journey – from conceptualization to actualization – until we reduce and afterwards end the use of plastic bags. What are the viable alternatives for plastic bags in all the scenarios they are used in Kenya? What do people do with the stash of plastic bags they have at home?

We need to understand why plastic bags are such a key feature of Kenyan life. Perhaps, however, we do already understand. It is the work of our national and county governments to guarantee our health and safety – something at which they have failed consistently in the recent past. When people use flying toilets, it is because of government failure. When people are unable to have accessible/reliable water supply and have to wrap their hands in plastic bags, it is because of government failure. When people pay private garbage collection services, it is because of government failure. It could be that the state is well aware of this, and as opposed to fixing the situation, it is committed to band aid solutions that fight the symptoms but not the disease.

I am fully behind global and local efforts to end the use of plastic bags (and plastic in general) in favour of eco-friendly alternatives. However, these efforts need to centre the people they affect. We need to ask ourselves what failures got us here as a world, and as a country, and how we can solve them with the majority’s buy in, while providing viable solutions. The reason plastic bag use is so prevalent in Kenya is because of system failures. Until we fix these failures, the use of plastic bags will continue to be a problem.

Why Do You Pay Tax?

Brenda Wambui
4 July ,2017

The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) deadline for filing individual tax returns came and went on the 30th of June 2017, and with it came much whingeing and wringing of hands by Kenyans, both online and on mainstream media. It was understandable, because this time, the penalty for non-compliance was KES 20,000, twenty times what it was in 2016.

There were ads everywhere reminding us that kulipa ushuru ni kujitegemea (paying tax makes us self-sustaining), and this time, the KRA went a step further and decided to shame us into filing returns on time. One particular image stood out for me. It featured a former radio presenter, Caroline Mutoko, saying that “Kenya is NOT your sponsor, so pay your taxes and file your returns.” I could taste the disdain and disregard.

Taxes are taken for granted both in public finance, and in public discourse. Yet, as Joseph Schumpeter said in 1918, “the fiscal history of a people is above all an essential part of its general history. An enormous influence on the fate of nations emanates from the economic bleeding which the needs of the state necessitates, and from the use to which the results are put.” It is important to understand why we pay tax, the relationship between tax and “development”, and what actually drives development.

We have a social contract with the state. We give up some freedoms to it, and in return we receive security, healthcare, education, infrastructure and other services that enable us to become a functional and prosperous society. To invest in these social programs and in public property, which enables our goal, the government needs steady/sustainable financing from taxes. Taxes are also used to re-distribute money that is concentrated in the upper classes to the middle and lower classes. Our taxes not only pay for goods and services, they are also a key part of the social contract between Kenyans and the state. They help us run an effective government, which is why it matters how much money is collected, how it is collected, and how it is used.

How taxes are collected and spent directly affects the credibility and legitimacy of a government, and of a state. It is important that they think of what to tax, as well as how much to tax. In Kenya, we have at least 20 taxes, including Value Added Tax (VAT), Income tax (both pay as you earn, which is individual, and corporate tax), excise duty, customs duty, among others. When taxes are high, many people, and businesses, opt out of the formal sector.

This affects investment and growth in a state. Taxing the informal sector is notoriously difficult because many of the enterprises therein are not registered anywhere. Maintaining reasonable tax rates encourages the formalization of businesses and widens the tax base. If Kenya were to ensure its citizens thought taxes were reasonable and well spent, more businesses would apply for licenses at county level, more businesses and companies would get registered at the State Law Office, and more of them would register with KRA. This formalization would contribute to job creation and subsequently, economic growth. Yet, in a country like Kenya, this is not the case. We have a growing informal sector, and we rely on foreign aid and loans to plug our budget deficits.

A growing informal sector comes with its challenges. The incomes of people in the informal sector are difficult to measure, and taxing them is largely impossible because many do not keep good records. Ultimately, formality is important to economic growth and true development. The informal sector should shrink as a country grows. This can be encouraged encouraged by having a functioning legal environment – if businesses want the benefits of the legal system, they need to formalize. Informal sector businesses are not able to take advantage of economies of scale, many of which come entangled with the legal system, to grow. It is up to the state to make the trade-off worth it for them. In Kenya, it is not worth it.

Another reason why Kenya has difficulty expanding its tax base is foreign aid, which reduces the incentive for the state to take tax collection and spending seriously. Key areas that should be funded by taxes, such as healthcare and education, tend to be donor funded in Kenya. Infrastructure, on the other hand, is mostly built through loans. This leaves public officials predisposed to the theft of Kenyans’ hard earned money due to a low accountability threshold,. It also reinforces donor dependency and increases the debt burden on our country, which leads to lower government spending on essential elements of our social contract because more is spent on recurrent expenditure (such as repaying the principal and interest on loans) as opposed to development expenditure.

This makes us apathetic, because unless you are in the formal sector where your taxes are already withheld and filing returns is just an exercise in assisting the government to reconcile your accounts, you may not see the need to pay taxes. Why pay when you receive poor quality public goods? When public schools and public hospitals are in shambles, and the teachers, doctors and nurses who man them are regularly on strike demanding their dues and asking for better treatment? When there is a high rate of unemployment? When you barely have water and electricity supply even when you are ready and willing to pay for them? When the roads near your home and workplace are in poor condition, with potholes that are a safety hazard? When you have to pay for private garbage collection and security outside your gate? When there is not much you get in return?

Perhaps what KRA and Caroline Mutoko should have is some humility, and acknowledge that while KRA is not Kenya’s sponsor, we are definitely its. Tax reform and justice is necessary in Kenya before we start blaming maltreated citizens for “not doing their part” in building a prosperous nation.

What We Learn From Building Collapses in Kenya

Brenda Wambui
20 June ,2017

On the night of Monday, 12th June 2017, a seven storey building collapsed in Kware Pipeline in Embakasi. This building had been condemned by the National Construction Authority (NCA), and marked with an X on the outside to indicate this. The tenants in the building had been warned of its collapse, and most of them had evacuated it. They did so after cracks opened up in its walls and it was visible that the building would not survive much longer. However, they said “two to ten or more people were missing” having refused to leave the building when they were warned.

By Tuesday morning, St. John Ambulance established that 15 people were missing. The owner could not be traced. They only knew him by one name – Karanja. A Nairobi Lands executive said that Kware area was unplanned, and that no developments were allowed there. However, most of the developers there “were brought” by politicians. In the rubble, one could see many personal belongings, such as jerricans. Residents of Kware, angry about the slow pace at which government operators were carrying out the rescue mission, threw stones. In turn, the police fired tear gas at them, slowing down the whole operation. This is not the first time that buildings have collapsed in Kenya, killing people in the process.

On the night of 29th April 2016, during the heavy rains season, at least 12 people were killed when a six storey building in Huruma collapsed, and over 130 people were injured. Rescue teams were late to the scene of the collapse, no doubt leading to more people dying, because of traffic jams on the roads due to flooding. The day before that, a wall collapsed on Lenana Road, killing four people. In 2015 alone, eight buildings collapsed killing 15 people. This led to Uhuru Kenyatta ordering a buildings audit, which covered most parts of Eastlands, Dagoretti, Kasarani, Zimmerman, Roysambu, Githurai 44 and 45, Garden Estate, Thome, and Kilimani. This audit, carried out by the NCA, found that 58% of the buildings in Nairobi were unfit for habitation. In early 2015, it was also found that about 60% of buildings under construction in Nyeri, Muranga, Kirinyaga, Laikipia, Embu and Nyandarua counties risked being demolished because they did not comply with the National Construction Authority Act 2014.

The fact that it continues to be possible to put up multi-storey death traps is something we need to question. To begin with, most of these buildings have inadequate foundations vis a vis their size. The owners/developers of these buildings cut costs by not having solid/deep enough foundations, because they are generally costly. In many cases, they also do not consider the solidity of the soil in the area in which they are building. Buildings end up being built in swampy areas, and collapse as a result.

Then, the materials used in construction simply can’t bear the load of some of these buildings. Counterfeit materials are used, and sometimes scrap metal is even substituted for steel. Even when steel is used, it is weaker than what is required to carry the load of the building. The concrete in many of these buildings also tends to be substandard. Even when the right materials are available, sometimes the workers make mistakes, many of which can be attributed to poor training and lack of skills. Badly mixed concrete, for example, even when it is of the correct quality, may still be unable to carry the load of the building. The reason these workers are hired in the first place yet they lack the skill is because building owners/developers want to cut costs.

This is the same reason why many of these buildings tend not to have involved an architect or engineer when being constructed. As a result, we get buildings that are structurally weak, and that will eventually collapse. The strength of these buildings also isn’t tested, yet this is supposed to happen according to the law. This happens for the same reasons that these buildings are able to be constructed in the first place – at every stage of construction, there are many building owners/developers looking to cut corners and save money, and willing bribe takers that are part of the system supposed to enforce our regulations who enable them by looking the other way. The people who die when these buildings collapse are victims of greed and corruption.

It would seem that much of the available housing that is unfit for habitation is in low income urban areas. Buildings in middle and high income areas are mostly safe. It becomes apparent that we do not care about poor people in this country. This is why people in the slums do not have running water; why the hygiene in their neighbourhoods is poor, and sanitation facilities scanty. Why we don’t care that they can’t afford cleaner forms of fuel and have to use charcoal to cook. Why we are only concerned once something disastrous happens. Like flooding, or a fire. Or a building collapse.

The collapse of the building in Kware, and the many others before it, is a direct consequence of the corruption and greed that we allow to run our country. It is proof that corruption kills. It is an indictment of our systems and institutions, and until we change them, Kenyans (disproportionately the poor) will continue to die.

Kenya and Its Maize Scandals

Brenda Wambui
23 May ,2017

Kenya may be in the middle of yet another maize scandal. How did we get here?

We are still experiencing food inflation, and part of the reason for this is the drought we’ve had since 2016. We have a scarcity of sugar, and a 2kg packet is currently retailing for KES 400, up from KES 250 in late 2016. More importantly, up until May 17th 2017, a 2 kg packet of maize meal was retailing for KES 150 to 200, up from around KES 90 in late 2016.

The price of maize meal has been blamed on two factors. One is the poor harvest from last year. Maize production dropped to 37.1 million bags in 2016 from 42.5 million bags in 2015 because of decreased rainfall, high cost of farm inputs, and diseases and pests that affected the maize. The second factor that has been blamed is hoarding by farmers and middle men as they wait for prices to go up. Kenyans, however, are slow to believe the second factor because we have had maize hoarding in the past and it has mostly been by the elite, who cause these scandals.

To ease this inflation (which for a while meant that chapattis, thought to be a luxury in many homes, were cheaper than ugali since wheat flour was retailing for KES 110 – 150), KRA (Kenya Revenue Authority) lifted an import ban on both white and yellow maize, and opened a window for their import duty free. On May 4th 2017, KRA published a notice setting rules for the importation of duty-free yellow and white maize meant to counteract the deficit. The only fee or tax these importers are required to pay is the Import Declaration Fund, charged at 2.25% of the total cost of the imported goods, as well as the 1.5% Railway Development Levy. The window was initially open until July 31st for white maize and August 31st for yellow maize, but it was extended to early October 2017.

However, on May 10th 2017, a cargo ship said to be from Mexico docked at the port of Mombasa carrying 335,000 bags of maize. This maize was to be distributed to millers, increase supply and thereby cause a drop in maize meal prices. How did it get here so fast? It is not possible to sail from Mexico to Kenya in 3 days. This would take between two to three months. The Mexican government also came out and denied directly selling maize to the Kenyan government. Instead, it said it had been selling high quality non GMO white maize to private businessmen, who initiated the deal.

On the 15th of May 2017, Transport PS Paul Mwangi went on record to clarify that the maize had been imported to South Africa from Mexico in 2016, enabling the quick turnaround. The maize was from surplus old stock that South Africa had from when it experienced a food shortage in 2016. It was sold to Kenya by Inter Africa Gains PTY, and three milling firms – Kitui Flour Mills, Pembe Flour Mills and Hydrey Limited – were the importers of the consignment. The ship carrying this consignment of duty free maize, MV IVS Pinehurst, left South Africa on May 4th 2017, the same day that KRA opened the window for duty-free maize imports, leading to suspicions of a scandal in the offing.

Initially, the price of maize meal did not ease given that in April 2017, the government opened a window for the release of one million 90kg bags of white maize at KES 3,000 per bag with the aim of bringing the cost of a 2kg packet down to 115 bob. The price instead remained at KES 150 – 200. However, with this recent haul, the government assured Kenyans that KES 90 per 2kg packet would be the price from May 17th 2017, once the subsidies took full effect. This has not been the case in many areas.

All this is curious because we are in an election year – incumbent governments in countries like ours go to great lengths to retain their power, and that includes state capture. Many Kenyans are rightfully suspicious that this may be a scandal to put money in the hands of our elites, presumably for election campaigns. While these remain suspicions, this would not be Kenya’s first maize scandal. Our first major post-independence scandal was a maize scandal, which got Paul Ngei suspended from his post as Minister for Cooperatives and Marketing.

He was accused of manipulating the Maize Marketing Board (the predecessor to the National Cereals and Produce Board) as well as smuggling and exporting surplus maize, which led to the shortages we experienced in 1964 and 1965. He was able to do this because he was also chair of the board. The commission of inquiry found that he coerced the board into allocating maize to companies run by his wife Emma Ngei – namely Emma Stores and Uhuru Millers. However, as you would expect in Kenya, he was absolved of these charges, and came back to Jomo Kenyatta’s cabinet. He also served in Daniel arap Moi’s cabinet.

In 2009, another maize scandal happened, this time hitting the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB). According to a World Bank report, the Kenyan people lost an estimated KES 23.4 billion in subsidies and taxes. In 2008, the NCPB was meant to sell maize directly to millers at below market prices, yet again because of a shortage. Ideally, what happens is that the NCPB will buy maize on behalf of the government in times when there is a surplus harvest, store it, and then when the harvest is low, sell this maize. This is meant to ensure that the price of maize doesn’t fluctuate wildly, and that Kenyans have steady access to their staple food. However, in 2008, the NCPB sold maize to brokers, who then sold the maize to millers at a profit, defeating the whole purpose of this intervention. These brokers were known politicians and businessmen.

This scandal pushed the price of maize to double what it was internationally. Here, maize was KES 30 per kg. Internationally it was KES 15. Some of this maize even found its way to South Sudan, where it was being sold for KES 6,000 per 90 kg bag, that is, KES 67 a kg. Many parallels can be drawn between the situations in 1965 and 2009 and the one we have now.

What is it about maize that makes it so susceptible to such scandals? It’s our consumption. Our average maize consumption per person is 60 kg a year, according to our Bureau of Statistics. Maize accounts for a quarter of our food consumption in terms of calorific intake, 56 per cent of our cereal calories and 47 per cent of our starchy food calories. Maize is also the best value for money starch that is widely available. It’s also easy to dispose of as it is a staple food not just in Kenya, but in other African countries as well. As a thief, you can sell it quickly and have your stolen money.

We continue to see the ways in which our lives are disposable in Kenya: our elites have no problem stealing money for healthcare, and stealing our food. It is almost as if they want us to die, but in silence. Once we have voted. Watch. Listen. Read. Resist.