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Let's stop our dependence on imports, reinvest in production

Health Opinion


 Some of the indigenous foodstuffs on display at a farmers' forum organised by the Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) network. [Phares Mutembei, Standard]

We can finally answer the question that was once posed by the COTU Secretary General Francis Atwoli in a prime time interview; “In whose hands are we safe?’’

Classical of our politics, I know we are tempted to answer this question by focusing on personalities. But it would be a misadventure for we would all miss the point by a mile. 

All mortal men, particularly those called to high office, have always had to grapple with a few personal contradictions but if you look past that, you get to see how powerfully a society can change for the better when the ingenuity of the people is matched by faith in their leaders. Like Booker T Washington told African Americans during his now famous Atlanta Compromise speech, “lower your buckets where you are’’. 

We must not succumb to whining for that may stop us from realising that we finally have a chance to grab lost opportunities. Let me be more clear. Kenya has for so long been hailed as the economic powerhouse of Eastern and Southern Africa. We bragged that we have industries that are second to none in the region. It’s to us that the vast segments of the continent turned to for inspiration on how to build and run a stable country. It’s us who sent peacekeepers to the troubled spots in the continent.

We got complacent midstream and dropped the ball. As we were in the throes of slumber assured of our dominance, our neighbors were getting their acts together. Before we knew it, the honeymoon of benefitting from other people’s misfortunes was over.

Tanzania and Uganda, for example, aggressively embarked on rebuilding their industries that had previously collapsed due to ujamaa policies and successive coups respectively. We then signed up for membership into common markets like COMESA and EAC without sufficiently investing in the productive capacity of our people. So, while they have access to our market, we cannot say that we enjoy any competitive advantage.

Without much to export over and above our traditional coffee and tea, we found ourselves importing everything, including contaminated sugar. During Jubilee’s time in office, we had our Commander in Chief having milk featured in a presidential visit to one of our trading partners in the region yet his vast business empire has a milk portfolio. It was indeed the very acme of the conflation of government policy and private profiteering. We continued to conduct ourselves with the mindset of the preferential trade area while we were actively attending summits for common markets.

So while our market was open for sugar from COMESA and elsewhere, our farmers’ plight was addressed through lip service. With diminished production, we became largely dependent on exports, including fish from China. This then increasingly saw the dollar nosedive against the shilling as we were all importing with very little to attract the dollar in terms of export. Our response to stabilise it was nothing to be proud of. It’s for this reason that I think we need to rally behind the government’s focus on production as a critical first step out of the hole that we dug ourselves into, in part due to small politics and the shortsightedness of our policymakers.

Being able to cushion our people from hunger is something that no sane leader should politicize. Let the images of starving children, women and men that flashed across our screens remind us that for so long our politics has let the people down and its time to recalibrate.

But this government has been in office for one year. What do they have to show for it? The short answer is that governance is sometimes very much like watching sausage getting made. The unpleasant and more practical bits of the process can be a lot less appealing as the government has to first make very difficult decisions.

Mr Mwaga is Convenor, Inter Parties Youth Forum. [email protected]

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