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Urban food security after Covid-19

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Nairobi population subsist on day wages that are no more. FILE PHOTO | NMG

There are still things I hope for in 2020, and one of them is that Kenya heads off the famine following this plague. There are signs of hope. Yet our greatest weaknesses are still moving us towards acute national, and particularly urban, food insecurity.

As it is, there are multiple forces now driving disruption in our local food supply: resulting in food being ploughed back into our fields or left to rot in harvested piles.

The single biggest shock was the contraction in air cargo that slashed our fresh produce exports. The flower market we serve, in Europe, has imploded. But the fruit and vegetable markets have not: Europeans are still eating food.

The first wave of the pandemic shifted how foreign consumers were buying food as restaurants closed and food processing was suspended. But European supermarkets started selling more, as people replaced those meals with home cooking.

Now, that kind of shift of market channel will always leave some producers stranded - their sale gone and no replacement sale found – and especially when the shift happens at huge speed, as it did.

But given just a short time, the buying from Kenya has recovered from the first meltdown, and my first signs of hope are all the resuming flights enabling us to make those sales.

Yet with the sales orders coming back up and the cargo capacity too, there remains an issue that is far more thorny: the tripled cargo costs.

Only when the newly inflated cargo charges return to normal will that part of our food market be restored. And will they?

Without that, we have a secondary problem, for the dropping foreign sales left us with huge oversupply locally. Indeed, the excess only added to our own shock of changed channels, as schools and restaurants closed, and contracts and established buyers tumbled out of sight.

We suffered an extra blow, too, as large parts of our Nairobi population subsist on day wages that are no more, so they cannot even buy food now. Food has gone instead into our own foodbank fund and maybe it is more or less than all the people it is feeding would have spent on food.

But we ended up with reduced sales overseas, and reduced urban sales through restaurants, and reduced hospitality industry and institutional sales: it was a mess of farmers suddenly reaching back into street markets all at the same time. It made rural food prices tumble.

But urban prices rose, because of our horrible local transport conundrum. Passes were needed, but no one was clear how to get them.

Some PSVs simply started heading into Nairobi with food and paying bribes at every police block. Others travelled legitimately, but still got stopped.

Our transport costs on urban food soared. But when the food got through at way higher prices, it was arriving at food markets that were selling only a fraction of previous volumes, to far fewer customers, who were much more broke.

So our double transport inflations are hurting us everywhere in adjusting.

But we have another weakness too, in our limited sight beyond our own shores. For, unnoticed, it seems, in Kenya, was Russia’s ban on wheat exports from April 26th. Yet it matters, for every third slice of bread you eat is made from imported Russian wheat, now stopped.

Ukraine, which supplies another 12 percent of our wheat, is about to ban its wheat exports too.

And wheat, mostly as bread, accounts for almost a third of the energy we get from staple foods. Maize accounts for half. And rice accounts most of the rest, and rice won’t be coming this year either. We import 93 percent of it.

Pakistan has suspended rice export contracts, India has banned them, and others. All our foreign rice supplies are compromised. So that’s half of our staple food that won’t be coming. Ergo, we sort our transport issues now, and start an immediate, high-octane programme of growing extra staple foods. Or we starve.

And that’s despite every pile of tomatoes that has just rotted, and all the milk we poured into fields. So please, let’s not starve. We could still solve this: just.