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Skimmed milk and social media are not strange bedfellows

By XN Iraki | April 11th 2021
Milk on the way to the market. [XN Iraki]

Almost 60 years ago, Kenya’s white highlands changed hands with Union Jack (British flag) lowered and “God Save the Queen” replaced by “Ee Mungu Nguvu Yetu.”

After uhuru, my elder brother recalls picking skimmed milk from depots of departing mzungu as the rest of the milk was converted into high-value butter, ghee or cheese.

The latter did not need skimmed milk. The memories of skimmed milk were triggered by finding such milk on sale in supermarkets and restaurants in the city.

This time, not as low-end food but high-end. My brother picked skimmed milk because they had no whole milk.

Newly settled after uhuru in a new place, they had no cows to milk. I was born long after the Union Jack had been lowered.

Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) plant was far and it made sense to transport the most valuable part of milk only. This reduced milk spoilage from churning and heat. Roads were not the best.

Zipporah Kiruthu, a food scientist and don has her own memories of skimmed milk supplied by donors as a child. She recalls a white lady who brought them skimmed milk. They called her “cucu wa iria.” Was Nyayo milk skimmed or not? I took it but can’t recall the fat content.

How did what we thought as “low-end food” get promoted into high-end food? The same applies to ice tea, which was once associated with poverty but is now a high-end drink. It’s the power of marketing that changes our perceptions in unexpected ways.

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Remember, the generation that took skimmed milk is not the one taking skimmed milk today.

This change is often incremental, taking time to take root. A good example; foreign names have slowly taken root dislodging our traditional ones.

A 1963 list showing contributions towards uhuru celebration had no foreign name. Women were listed as w/o, for the wife of.

Today, kids are given two foreign names at birth, not in church. Within a generation, we have learnt to “hate” our names.

We can boldly say that the future of marketing and capitalism lies in changing our perception best espoused by the rise of behavioural economics and welcoming psychologists and neural scientists to marketing.

Social media is ahead of us from Facebook to Snapchat and Instagram, among others.

Online activities

By mining our data based on our online activities, the big firms from Facebook to Google and Amazon can define our needs and wants.

Economists, where are you? Noted how the online adverts are close to your interests? Noted how autocompletes while searching online are based on your interests? And we still have billboards?

The prospects of being manipulated unknowingly are real.

That extends to not just what we consume on our dinner tables, but what we read, how we relate, who we vote for and even how we perceive ourselves.

Noted that most profile photos on social media are “doctored”? The skimmed milk and ice tea are more than liquids, they represent a brave new world, to quote author Aldous Huxley. The digital natives weaned by social media are coming of age in Kenya. It will be interesting to watch their behaviour objectively. It seems we may have to redefine what it means to be human courtesy of new technology espoused by social media.

Doubting me? Watch Kenyans addiction to their phones in matatus, homes, streets, parties, classrooms, on dates and even in bed.

What will that mean to our lives? It seems while focused on Covid-19, the social media pandemic has been growing but albeit celebrated. Am I too alarmist?

Confirm with your screen time. It rivals the time you spend on your job. With Covid-19, screen time has gone up.

How often do you ignore everyone around, absorbed in your phone’s social media? This addiction is likely to get worse for children introduced to smartphones early as a sign of “coolness.”

I will not be surprised if rehabs for social media addiction are already making money.

Any cure or vaccine for this new pandemic? It is no wonder there is a backlash against big firms such as Facebook led by politicians.

And why not. It’s not just individuals like you and me losing our power and freedom to social media, politicians fear the same. Remember Cambridge Analytica?

Some suggest that with time, we shall return to the mean after social media has taken us to the extreme. Others think we need intervention to reclaim our “humanity.” The solution might be a combination of both interventions. 

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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