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Ways to protect food system amid Covid-19 pandemic

Friday March 27 2020
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Gikomba Market in Nairobi is fumigated on March 21, 2020 to prevent the spread of coronavirus. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By GRANT BROOKE

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received a number of questions on Kenyan food systems in the wake of Covid-19, including how government could respond, and what the outlook is for mSMEs (micro-small and medium-sized enterprises).

Therefore, I want to pull together some thoughts, albeit not exhaustive, on how food systems could be managed in Kenya and similar economies during these times.

I’m not an infectious disease expert at all, but I have a fair amount of experience in food markets – with mama mbogas, dukas, farmers and traders – as a researcher and then leading Twiga.

And while I think the leadership of the government has been 100 per cent on-point the past few weeks, I’m conscious that a phase of “community spread” is around the corner.

In this period, the community around food provision will be one of the most vital groups to support, protect and intervene with to quickly “bend the curve” among the public.

Tracking the coronavirus

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This community, probably second to healthcare workers, will also be one of the most exposed.

Food security crisis

If mishandled, we could easily see this health crisis turn into a food security crisis, and put at risk far more lives than the disease itself.

While the vast majority of Kenyans will experience little or no symptoms, hunger compromises the immune system, so food access challenges will only weaken the ability of many to fight off this disease.

Goals here should be to craft a policy that doesn’t handicap food access, that enables social-distancing, minimises handling of cash or product, provides certainty and buy-in to vendors, and structures incentives in the community to limit the spread of Covid-19.

The good news is that we have history to learn from. The 2007–2008 food crisis on the continent offers a number of macro lessons, and how markets were managed through the Ebola crisis in West Africa offers a number of micro lessons.

Flash-in-the-pan disease

There’s a fair amount of literature here. And, unlike Ebola, Covid-19 seems to be more of a flash-in-the-pan disease.

While horrid, it does spread quickly and won’t linger on for years, meaning interventions are temporary.

Mama mbogas, dukas, kiosks owners, and food workers are going to be on the frontline of this pandemic, and need to be enlisted in stopping the spread.

Where Covid-19 has been prevalent thus far in the world, the population has been able to turn to formal grocers and eCommerce, which simply won’t be possible in Kenya.

Some 96 per cent of retail in Kenya is “informal”, through SMEs that trade under about $150 (Sh15,000) a day.

In the US and Europe, grocers are being treated as heroes, mama mbogas are no less brave in the Kenyan context.

My experience through several cholera outbreaks is that no mama mboga wants to get her clients sick.

They’re a community of willing partners, who are very health-conscious, and who self-police when it comes to public health.

The following are a number of suggestions on how to support this community to prevent the spread of Covid-19:

Shutting down markets/retailers is a public health hazard

Some counties have tried to do this, and City Park has been closed for fumigation (which is fine), but broadly speaking, we need these markets to remain open.

In the US, China and Europe, grocery stores remain open. Markets are Kenya’s grocery stores.

Frankly, closing them will cause panic or riots. So setting that impulse aside, the question becomes: “How do we make markets safe?”

Stocking-up isn’t possible for most

Most Kenyan families have less than a week’s worth of cash, no refrigeration, and often no storage.

The idea that many people can stock up on food and shelter to last weeks isn’t realistic. Rather, we need food shopping to continue in a more controlled, socially distant and food-safe manner.

Expand market infrastructure

Many of the urban markets in Kenya are way over-capacity, yet it’s impossible to maintain a “social distance”.

Take advantage of the rest of the economy grinding to a halt by letting the traders out onto the streets, into sports fields, and so on, in a controlled fashion with two metres of space between each outlet.

Put up wash stands

This is already happening in many markets. Let’s make sure it continues and the needed materials are restocked daily.

Move in KDF/police to check temperature at entry

Entry/exit points need to be controlled for temperature, as well as washing-up.

The county askari system isn’t reliable enough to execute this across the country, so public safety officials are going to be the best option.

If this means there are lines to get in, make sure those lines are spaced six feet apart. It is essential that the vendors in each market embrace and partner with these officials.

This means no harassment. It’s important that policymakers acknowledge that any harassment means losing a partner in fighting Covid-19, risking spread.

Create vendor buy-in to prevent spread

In every market, a socially spaced out town hall with vendors and authorities (health and security) should be held to ask collectively: “How are we going to manage?”

When vendors are treated as partners, and not as punitively driven subjects, they will do the right things and be far smarter about the local needs than is often possible from a bird’s eye view.

There are not actually that many markets in Kenya, a few hundred, so a markets team should be able to implement this in a week or so.

Vendors outside the designated markets (the corner duka/mama mboga) should be treated as one and the same; authorities should have a daily visit to each within estates.

Once again, even if these vendors aren’t “legal” in licensing or location, they should be included for the time being.

Form a market task force

Unfortunately, this system will be poorly executed and abused by some local authorities (hopefully a small fraction).

A call-in centre to anonymously report abuses should be set-up to quickly intervene on any reports.

I can’t stress enough, the vendors want to be on the side of disease prevention, and will partner with government if they’re respected.

They’re just as scared, if not more so, than everyone else. The markets task force should be responsible for: a) educating vendors; b) making calls (rather than local government) on exceptional interventions, that is closing markets; c) overseeing the security personnel to make markets health secure; d) executing the vendor compensation plan.

Compensate sick retailers

With these public spaces being managed, police stations should be tasked with confirming retailer identities.

Many retailers live hand-to-mouth. Many are single moms. My biggest fear is a retailer choosing between feeding her family and spreading disease.

Frankly, a lot of these retailers are tough as nails and may just shrug off a fever that would cripple the rest of us for a week.

If a confirmed retailer has a diagnosed case of Covid-19, they should get Sh5,000 a week, so that none are tempted to open shop.

Even if 5,000 retailers come down with it, that’s only Sh50 million for each to receive two weeks of payout, far less than the costs of potential spread.

This seems like a small intervention, but will mean a lot to public health.

Rapid training for retailers

Retailers need to be trained on a number of measures including: 1) not letting clients touch product in their stalls; 2) placing product in bags clients bring; 3) cleaning their hands after every interaction; 4) ideally moving to a back-display system so clients don’t interact with food.

Twiga has drafted these materials for their 5,000 daily clients; they should be updated and disseminated nationwide.

Retailers will be very willing. Establishing trust, and buy-in, with the community around food is essential in prevent panic, home remedies, and maintaining wise interventions.

Make water free

Bottled water, food safe bleach, and soap, should be given to retailers liberally.

While this costs the government money, it will cost the government less than potential spread due to lack of cleaning.

Kenya Defence Forces should implement this immediately. Once again I’m not a disease expert, but there’s a lot of literature that shows dehydration compromises immune systems.

The health of this community is of upmost importance in preventing spread. Plus they need to wash their produce to forestall cholera outbreaks.

Make retailer masks a priority

Healthcare workers are of course first on obtaining masks, then immune system compromised persons, but getting free masks to retailers is going to be important.

Ideally in a shelter-in-place scenario, retailers and food transporters are the few members of the general public having a broad number of daily interactions.

Eliminate fees that drive the shadow economy

It’s important now more than ever that people use the properly designated markets, road easements, and brick-and-mortar shops, to sell food.

Many today exist in the shadows to avoid cess, city council fees, KRA turn-over tax, et cetera. All these fees should be suspended.

I don’t think the policing capacity exists to shutdown the shadow economy, so the incentives for it to exist need to be removed.

We’ve all seen the lovely public markets structures traders refuse to enter because of fees; this stand-off can no longer fly.

Mandate changes in wholesale/distribution

Distributors like Twiga, SokoWatch, and others are already implementing wise policies to quickly act on spread among their distributors.

From milk to water and to unga, these businesses are vital in keeping the country fed.

However, they need to do a number of things to reduce the risk of them distributing disease: 1) casual labour needs to go on permanent contracts; 2) social distancing and health training needs to be demonstrated by each; 3) non-distribution related employees should work from home; 4) Twiga (and probably others) are already enacting daily temperature checks for employees.

Practise social-distancing in wholesale markets

Often in wholesale markets, goods are bought by vendors directly off a truck, which is helpful because it doesn’t require in-person contact.

However, as trucks arrive produce should be sprayed down with safe bleach, also as it leaves the wholesale market in a mkokoteni, vehicle, or is walked over to a retail point.

Sacks, boxes, et cetera, are their own economy in these markets. It’s important these be cleaned between transactions as well.

Pay attention to food manufacturer/distributor liquidity

Ideally right now, low-to-no interest loans would be provided to millers and other key wholesalers in the food chain, particularly because maize in Kenya has a May out-of-stock date (thankfully prices are low right now).

Yet it’s hard to say what will happen in world economies. Often in recession people look for safe harbours, and commodity prices rise.

So large stock-holds should be encouraged at the moment. Further, up-chain liquidity should significantly reduce the risk of food shortages in the coming months, as it reduces retail out-of-stocks.

This is a nearly free policy government should implement through local commercial banks, and banks should execute these notes without a profit due to the public emergency.

While not a crisis now, this would be the first sign of a nationwide food shortage.

With a shelter-in-place order seemingly inevitable, markets are going to be one of the last touch-points of cross-community human interaction.

Kenya is going to have a number of unique challenges in handling Covid-19: informal settlements, shortage of ICU beds, et cetera.

But markets and food supply can be managed, without costing billions. Covid-19 is already a bad enough crisis, let’s not let food security challenges make it exponentially worse.

Grant Brooke is former researcher in Kenya markets, founder of Twiga and former CEO, current helper on a several projects in agriculture and micro-SME space

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