Millions stare at starvation in case of a lockdown

Without food reserves, it is a race against time for the government to stock up in readiness to provide relief to vulnerable groups.

It is a grim reality at a time when pressure is piling on the government, in case of a total lockdown, to feed its most vulnerable people placed at 14 million in official statistics.

A disclosure by the country’s Strategic Food Reserve (SFR) that the country has no maize stocks could partly explain the reluctance to impose a total lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus given nearly a third of Kenyans could be dependent on emergency relief.

The admission by SFR chairman Noah Wekesa brings home the reality of data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) that shows at least 14 million Kenyans are food insecure.

And in a text message, Agriculture CS Peter Munya said: “Yes, the SFR is empty.”

This means they will be unable to stock up on food should they be locked down in their homes.

The number could be even higher considering the latest report has a total population of 45 million, while last year’s census shows there are now 47.6 million Kenyans.

“As we speak, we do not have maize in our stores.  As far as we are concerned, we think that most of the maize held by farmers has been bought. I doubt if we have any maize held by small-scale farmers. There is a possibility that large-scale farmers could be having some,” Dr Wekesa said.

Without food reserves, it is a race against time for the government to stock up in readiness to provide relief to vulnerable groups.  

“What I understand is that millers bought all the maize from farmers. If we had a complete lockdown, the government will need to provide food to disadvantaged communities,” Wekesa said.  

KNBS figures show that the country’s four largest urban areas (Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru) are among those that will be most affected by a total lockdown.

They have a  combined number of 1.7 million ‘food poor’ people, which means that ordinarily, they cannot afford food and often struggle to put a meal on the table.  

Other counties with large populations of food poor’ people are Turkana (717,000), Kakamega (624,000), Kisii (599,000) and Kilifi (678,000). 

Means of movement

According to Wekesa, however, the agency has Sh10 billion that can immediately be deployed to purchase food stocks.

However, in the face of a devastating epidemic that calls for swift decisions, the money may not offer much comfort to Kenyans who could find themselves hungry, with no source of food or means of movement.

These include the most vulnerable, such as the elderly, children, those with disabilities, the homeless and single parents.

To contain the spread of Covid-19 that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide, President Uhuru Kenyatta has instituted stiff measures, including a 21-day containment of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale – counties considered to be the country’s coronavirus hotspots.

If these measures do not reverse the trend, then a total lockdown is a real possibility. The president said he would go to all lengths to protect the lives of Kenyans.

“… if it (coronavius) spreads to large numbers, it can lead to unprecedented pressure on our medical facilities, which will lead to unprecedented loss of life. I will, therefore, go to any lawful length to respond to the pandemic,” he said on Monday.

Maize millers yesterday said they are yet to take stock of how much grain they have in their stores, which means nobody knows how much food the country has presently.

Take advantage

“We will engage all millers to find out how much stock we have,” said National Millers Association Chairman Mohammed Aslam.

The vice chair of the National Assembly Agriculture Committee, Emmanuel Wangwe, muddied the waters further, warning of people he said wanted to take advantage of the situation to import maize at the expense of small-scale farmers.

“People should not take advantage of the situation to enrich big maize players. Let SFR tell us where all the maize that was harvested by farmers went to,” Mr Wangwe said.

The government had earlier said it would allow importation of four million bags of maize to cushion the country against food shortages as it battles coronavirus.

Mr Munya said a gazette notice would be issued soon to allow for this importation.

Of the four million bags, he said, two million would be white maize and the rest yellow maize. While white maize is meant for human consumption, yellow is used to process animal feeds.

Mr Munya said the white maize will be subjected to 14 per cent duty, while yellow maize will attract 10 per cent.

“This is to ensure that the maize being imported is not cheaper than what is available locally. All these are measures are to ensure the availability of food and animal feeds as the country faces this disease,” Munya said.

However, these bags would last less than a month, which still leaves the country with a deficit in case of an emergency.

Munya did not respond to our queries yesterday. An official of the National Cereals and Produce Board said only the ministry or SFR can respond to questions on food stocks as the board was only an agent.

Responding to questions on a possible food crisis in the face of the pandemic, a senior official at the Agriculture ministry told The Standard there would be importation of maize in a month’s time.

“There’s a continuous regime for the importation of rice and wheat, but maize is a political foodstuff, but its importation is likely be announced in May to bridge the deficit,” said the official.

Countries that are already distributing food to their citizens in the battle against Covid-19 include Rwanda and Uganda.