A bit of honesty, foresight and efficiency can reduce suffering

Thursday February 22 2018


Emmanuel Kimugon ploughs his farm at Kaptuli, Uasin Gishu County, on February 19, 2018, ahead of the planting season. It’s not raining like it used to. The planet has changed and is changing faster than we probably expected. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

More by this Author

You go to bed with the country almost all flooded, you wake up in the morning and boom!

Headlines scream that 3.4 million people in 10 counties are starving and need urgent food aid. Two things are wrong with this picture.

Wrong number one, you would have expected a build-up, a trickle of news and photos, perhaps a couple of headlines and some noise from the disaster coordination folks in the government.

One would imagine that there is some guy somewhere paid to run a famine dashboard, tracking the scale of the disaster and keeping the information flowing.

You would not expect a surprise. People’s lives are in danger, after all!

Wrong, number two is the regularity with which Kenya – and its friends in the Horn, Ethiopia and Somalia – stagger from famine to famine.

It happens so predictably that you could almost set your watch by it.

And rarely are adequate measures taken to mitigate its impact.

Instead, the government throws huge sums of taxpayers’ money at an already ripe emergency: Maize is imported in an opaque process sometimes involving ships roaming the seas near Mombasa.

A select group of traders are allowed to import maize, powder milk and sugar duty free, which maize is sent to the regions, where it is mainly stolen by chiefs.


Because of the shortage of maize last year, duty was suspended for key commodities and the window for duty-free importation closed in December.

Two months later, the government is going to be under a lot of pressure to suspend taxes yet again.

It’s not raining like it used to. The planet has changed and is changing faster than we probably expected.

Thirty years ago, the rhythm of the seasons was precise.

Famine was cyclical, with the rains failing at predictable intervals.

Now the rains no longer come on time. Sometimes it rains too much, but most times does not rain enough.

Yet, the patterns of life of our people – and the governments that rule over them – is as if we are living 30 years ago when the weather made better sense.

Pastoralist communities, which live on the edge at the best of times because their lands can barely support them, are the first to feel the heat.

Often, they have nothing but their livestock. If you lose your animals to drought, it is difficult to see how you and your family will live through the season.

And even if you do, how will you survive the next?

To complicate the situation further are the high levels of organised cattle rustling going on.

Cattle rustling existed in the past among nearly all the communities amongst whom livestock was valued.

It was a way for a young man to gain wealth for his father, who, in turn, paid bride price for him to acquire wives.

But that kind of cattle rustling took place under conditions tightly controlled by traditions intended to minimise deaths, destruction of property and to ensure that those whose stock was stolen would recover.

Today, cattle rustling is a vicious crime that involves the wanton shooting of herders and their complete economic decimation.

It is a means of enriching a few thugs with guns and security connections at the expense of whole communities.

The government has no real understanding of it and the folks deployed to contain it are more interested in eating the operations money than protecting the affected communities.

Farming communities are a bit more resilient because they can store some of their food for emergencies.

But the high cost of food is hard on the poor both in the rural areas and in the towns, where the poor are very poor, indeed.

A lot of suffering would be avoided and money saved by common sense measures.

First, it is critical to have accurate and timely weather forecasts.


Once you know you are going to have a drought, then you can swing into action well in advance.

Secondly, the old stores and food distribution systems need to be revived so that during the harvest some can be stored nearer to the people.

Thirdly, the government must always procure its requirements in advance.

This allows the identification of quality and cost effective supplies rather than a mad, blind rush to buy anything in sight.


But even more important there should be a thorough policy review of agriculture so that the corrupt practice of using crops to buy political support can be jettisoned and investment made to make the country more food secure.

County governments can help communities acquire standby supplies for use during famine.

As a matter of fact, in some well-run counties, famine is no longer an issue.

They should take the lead in helping catalyse the evolution of more sustainable economic systems.

The counties can also mobilise communities to work with the security forces to fight cattle rustling.

With a bit of honesty, efficiency and foresight, a lot of cost and suffering can be avoided.