The paradox of mama mbogaâ€™s kind smile and rocketing grocery prices in Kenya
The wage inflation hasn’t kept up with the prices of agricultural produce, but is about at par with the increase in the price of bread, which has doubled from about Sh23 for a 400g loaf, to Sh48 in that 10-year period. ]It has also kept pace with the prices of eggs, milk, maize flour and sugar, whose price inflation has been below that of income, implying that on these relative measures alone, an average worker can continue to afford them. Why have the prices of fresh produce risen so rapidly in the past 10 years? Partly, it has to do with the fact that commodities such as petrol, diesel and kerosene are subject to the regulation of the ERC, and so are somewhat insulated from the pressures of hard market forces.
The prices of maize flour is also externally influenced by the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), which sets a price floor for maize purchases; the same goes for milk, which is impacted by the dynamics of the Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) and other local and private dairy cooperatives. Fresh produce has no such ‘cushion’; we don’t have a comparable National Tomatoes Board that dictates minimum prices. But there’s something else at play here. Kenya is urbanising quickly – it is estimated that 27 per cent of the country’s population is urban, which is expected to cross the 50 per cent mark by 2050 according to data from the World Bank. Contrary to what you might expect, city dwellers eat more fruits, vegetables, meat and fish that those living in the rural areas, and less cereals and pulses. It is a factor of the dynamics of rural poverty. Ninety per cent of Kenyans in the bottom 40 per cent of the income distribution live in rural areas. Though the rural poor may have the land and the harvest, they need money much more than they need the produce. It results in an ironic situation where farmers actually eat less fresh produce, proportionally, than those in the cities. The price inflation of agricultural commodities could therefore be a factor of increased demand as people move into the cities, and have more disposable income to spend fruits, vegetables and meat. In many African cities, the domestic food market is becoming more attractive for farmers than traditional export cash crops, says data from the African Development Bank. The non-agricultural post-harvest activities of the food economy, such as processing, logistics and retail, are also developing quickly. No wonder, then, that some of the fastest growing media products are magazines and pull-outs on agribusiness, as a younger demographic of farmers break agriculture free from the stereotype of rural drudgery, and try to commercialise it into something cool. But there’s another little appreciated trend that has shaped urban growth in Africa, and is acting as a brake on cities’ reaping the benefits of growth, and driving the prices of basic commodities, especially fresh produce, upwards. It is urban sprawl. In several African cities – Nairobi and other Kenyan towns included – the rate of physical expansion (going by land area) has been faster than that of population growth. In other words, city growth has been fragmented and sparse. Despite rapid population growth, the rate of expansion of built-up areas is even faster. This means that many African cities are actually becoming less, not more dense, sustained and intensified by an unlikely factor: the presence of the motorcycle taxi or bodaboda. The landlord business Typically residential areas used to be built in areas with some level of accessibility – near a road, a railway, or a walking distance from a bus stop. But now, you don’t even need a road to build a housing complex – all you need is a path that a boda boda can pass over and you are in the landlord business. This kind of urban sprawl, if not well managed, decreases the benefits of connectivity within urban areas. Cities are typically engines of a country’s economic growth, because labour productivity is higher in towns than in the rural areas.
But a sprawling city means that distances between neighbourhoods are long and transport costs are high. A resident of Nairobi, on average, can reach no more than 8 per cent of all jobs available in the city within 45 minutes, shows data from AfDB. By contrast, in greater London in 2013, this figure was 21.6 per cent. Around Nairobi and other big towns, you will notice that fresh produce is often transported either by handcart or by motorcycle. Though on the surface they seem cheap, they are hugely inefficient from a technological perspective, particularly if you are transporting perishable goods like fruit and vegetables. In other words, food prices are a reflection of the cost of getting it around much more than the cost of producing it. The result is a ‘mkokoteni-bodaboda vicious cycle’ – cities continue spreading out because the boda boda makes it convenient to do so, but in the process they are unable to build the critical mass to make mass transport economically viable. In other words, one could argue that tomatoes and carrots are the early warning signals that tell us something is fundamentally wrong with the way we are structuring our cities. —Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist and executive editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Africapedia.com. Email: [email protected]
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