Kenya: Drought is good for business | Africa | DW | 19.10.2017
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Why Africa goes hungry

Kenya: Drought is good for business

Africa's drought crisis has hit Kenya and numerous schools have had to stop providing free food to their pupils. This is not only due to crop failures but also greedy profiteers.

As the queue in front of the canteen kitchen gets longer, the children holding colorful plastic bowls become nervous. It's just after 6 p.m. - dinner time at the Kwa Watoto school in Soweto, a slum in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. Many of the pupils are former street children. Here, they not only get an education but also a warm meal and a place to sleep.

Corn is becoming a luxury commodity

The door to the canteen kitchen finally opens. But word soon spreads that the only food is the leftovers from lunch, as has often been the case recently.

Nehemiah Ndeta, the school's director, explains that nothing else is available. He founded the school about 20 years ago with the aim of educating disadvantaged children. But things have rarely been as difficult as they are now.

Kenia Nairobi Kwa Watoto Schule (DW/J. Scholz)

Children from the Kwa Watoto school queue up for leftovers

For the last three years, there has been no rainy season in Kenya, resulting in massive crop failures. The prices of staple foods have skyrocketed throughout the country. In particular, cornmeal, the main ingredient in Ugali porridge, has at times increased in price by half. Ndeta says that these days he goes almost daily to local grain mills and begs them for flour.

"But even if you tell them that you have to feed 1,000 children, they tell you that it's not their problem," complains the headmaster. "What can you do if the door is slammed in your face?"

Read more: Kenya drought: Various form of aid provide relief

Grain left to rot in silos

The silos belonging to Kenya's National Cereals and Produce Board are almost within sight of the school. Before the start of the drought, the government promised Kenyans that the silos would be filled to capacity — with over two million bags of corn. In the event of a crisis, emergency reserves for "at least five months" would be available, Agriculture Minister Willy Bett had announced. But what angers Ndeta even more than the mill operator's behavior is that when stocks were actually released earlier this year because of the drought, the silos were almost empty after just a few weeks.

The government silos look imposing in front of some shacks in a slum

The Kenyan government's silos

Kenyans are still waiting for an official explanation about what happened to the rest of the corn reserves. Rumors abound, with some claiming politicians plundered and resold part of the stores while others say the promised emergency reserves never even existed. Whether either of these theories has a grain of truth remains to be seen. 

Headmaster Ndeta has his own theory. He believes the food supplies simply rotted in the silos because they were poorly stored. "It's very sad," he says. "People are starving to death while corn rots in silos next door."

Read more: Kenya's hunger crisis fueled by history of rural neglect

Insiders benefit from the crisis

Since the drought crisis began, the Kenyan government has committed so many mistakes that some experts no longer believe negligence and mismanagement are to blame. Measures to counteract food shortages and price increases have been introduced far too late — such as lifting import duties, releasing emergency reserves or subsidizing basic foodstuffs.

"There were enough warnings about the crisis at a very early stage," says financial expert Aly-Khan Satchu. But most of them were ignored. For Satchu, this suggests that insiders — even in the government — are benefiting from the situation.

Most observers believe that the major importers of corn and other cereals could well be involved in the lack of adequate governmental response. This is because the importers are the main beneficiaries of the inflated cereal prices and their closeness to Kenyan political circles is an open secret.

"If you dig a little deeper, you realize that these businessmen have very powerful political patrons," explains James Shikwati of the Interregional Economic Network. He agrees with Satchu, "It is a business based on a simple principle of giving and taking. Politicians issue the coveted import licenses, importers make dream profits — and a part of the profit then flows discreetly back into the political system."

Authorities have reacted angrily to the accusations. James Oduor, head of the National Drought Management Authority, says: "Yes, there were some problems compensating the drought-related crop failures in the beginning." But he maintains that the situation has stabilized and through joint efforts, Kenyans will finally be able to put the crisis behind them.

"Those who are not interested should simply keep their mouths shut and not spread stupid stories," Oduor says.

Shortly before the elections in August, Agriculture Minister Willy Bett also went on the offensive, saying that more than five million sacks of corn had been imported. He said the government would subsidize prices and "within a month the scarcity would be overcome."

Kenyan headmaster Nehemiah Ndeta stands near a school bus

Headmaster Nehemiah Ndeta helps educate and care for impoverished children

The UN is running out of money

School principal Ndeta is not interested in such promises. He just wants enough food for his students. His last hope was the official school meal program run by the United Nations and the Kenyan government. His school falls within the target group because of its high proportion of slum children. But all he was offered was a place on the waiting list.

Unfortunately, there are "delays" at the moment due to high food prices, officials from the World Food Program told Deutsche Welle. As well, donations to combat the current drought crisis are lower than ever before. According to the UN, less than 20 percent of the budget needed for humanitarian work is currently available.

Ndeta says that he doesn't blame people for not wanting to donate money to help combat the crisis with all the stories of mismanagement and personal enrichment. But it is the innocent who are forced to suffer, especially his pupils, he says. "They are just hungry."

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