Columnists

We should stop wastage and save lives

cash

Incomes have been slashed, and support networks placed out of reach on suspended movement and transport. FILE PHOTO | NMG

jenny

Summary

  • Market places that used to function are not.
  • Production and consumption that were matching are no longer aligned.
  • Incomes have been slashed, and support networks placed out of reach on suspended movement and transport.

This week I saw a photo in a WhatsApp group of a small hill of dumped and rotting tomatoes, apparently, we were told, taken in Kangemi. Maybe they had been on offer at Kangemi market, which, after all, is one of Nairobi’s larger food markets. And perhaps those tomatoes were excess, just more than anybody needed or wanted.

For sure, the picture had prompted a discussion on Twitter on value addition: as in, with so many tomatoes not wanted, what could farmers do to add value to tomatoes to keep them off that rotting pile?

But in the same thread, not more than a few posts away, were three posts relating to food in Kibra and in the slums of the city, of which Kangemi is also one.

There was news of a stampede to get to a food handout and a photo of two women left wounded and apparently motionless on the ground from the scrum. There was a personal report of a call from a long-ago employee stuck inside Kibera saying food was coming in, but only reaching families ‘known’ to the youth charged with distributing it.

And there was a government announcement that no more private contributions of food should be delivered anywhere in Kenya during the coronavirus lockdown, as it was creating a health risk, so donations must instead be steered solely through the country’s emergency fund.

In sum, it looked like a mess.

For how can we be seeing piles of rotting fresh food just minutes away from zones where people are starving and assume that it is an excess to human needs?

In fact, a mixture of breakdowns are now under way, for many of the residents of our slums no longer have the money to buy food, with the day jobs and informal sector hustles that buy their food on any day now mostly ceased.

Thus, even where we can get food into the city, can we get it to people who can pay for it?

Maybe the answer, if we can’t, is to get farmers adding value – drying tomatoes, tinning them, processing them into puree, or jam, or flour – for sales later and another time. But while that could be a solution for the farmers, it won’t stop the starvation.

So, maybe, instead, we need to connect the donations and the emergency fund to the tomatoes. And that’s where moving all to a single fund bumps up against a dilemma that has been a core conflict across the globe for decades - as the gulf between command societies and market economies.

For there are flaws aplenty with free markets, but their delivery is extraordinary, as captured by one economist Tim Harford in his book The Undercover Economist as the miracle of cappuccino – where he expounds on how our world trading system is so all encompassing and detailed that it can bring together in one place from different sources, coffee, milk, high-precision machines, cups and saucers, to create a single cappuccino.

Organising the same as commands would be a complex and even gigantic project. And, indeed, the track record of command economies has been very poor.

They struggle to organise the flour production, the oil production, the bread making, the store delivery – the entire supply chain to keep millions fed with bread, or even ugali. By contrast, the market does it all in thousands of miniature transactions that create winners both sides.

But fighting off the coronavirus has suspended our market system.

Market places that used to function are not. Production and consumption that were matching are no longer aligned. Incomes have been slashed, and support networks placed out of reach on suspended movement and transport.

Asking just one fund to fix it all is a death sentence unless we put at the command of that fund our entire county government administrations, the army, literally huge resourcing. For don’t imagine a few dozen people, or even a few hundred, can replace our market infrastructure this April.

They cannot, and people will starve only a mile away from rotting food if we don’t ramp up now and immediately with an organised mission of vast proportions in replacing our economy.