Driving down to Busia town with an African American friend Koshin; brought into focus a basic view of measuring poverty. From Funyula - Busia, most of the school children walking home for lunch were barefooted. 'I also used to go to school barefooted until when I joined high school,' I commented. No parent in his right mind will invest in buying shoes for his children when he barely has enough food to feed them. By early evening, we were driving in Eldoret-Rift Valley, where most of the school children walking home, had shoes on, evidence of different levels of income among the two farming groups.
It occurred to me that the persistent questioning on the barefoot issue led to our measuring different levels of poverty using shoes! But don't give up just yet, back on the road through Mumias, I had pointed out to him how poor Western Kenya is. Last year, a World Bank funded report on 'Geographical Dimensions of Well Being in Kenya' indicated that rural Western Kenya has an average poverty level of 60%. "What? With all this cultivated fields, what do you mean this people are very poor, do they own the land?" asked Koshin. I explained how difficult it is for majority of people in Western Kenya to afford medicine, a balanced diet, high agricultural production and educate their children beyond primary school despite the fact that they own title to their land. Not convinced, Koshin argued, "I think the Western Kenya people have a cash flow problem and the best economics minds must figure out how people with such good land, and good climate do not have money flowing in their hands."
Last year I took business friends from Switzerland for a tour of Ukambani. Very dry and looking desolate, it was obvious to me that the great business friends would quickly agree with the popularly held notion that drought is the single most known enemy that an African cannot battle. We went to Ikaalasa village, an area that receives erratic rainfall and toured fields of wilting maize due to drought. My guest asked one farmer, Why do you have to plough the whole field? To kill weeds, was the ready reply. Again it emerged that in sound agricultural practice, one ought to ensure that they take steps against water loss. One suggestion, was of course, avoiding to plough the whole field, preparing individual seed holes, and taking care of the weeds by simply slowing them down instead of uprooting them!
The scenario is a common feature all over Africa. The African food insecurity crisis is expanding at an alarming rate. Many countries in Sub - Sahara Africa are faced with famine. It is the old bad story of Africans loosing lives due to poor leadership and overzealous donor organizations that are not keen on long term solutions. Take Ukambani for instance; if one were to drill a borehole to supply water to the small holder farmers, he will be met with several obstacles. Apart from a borehole permit, he might be required to purchase an electrical step-down transformer from the Kenya Power and Lighting Company. He will then have to pay for the poles, connection and finally a monthly electricity bill. Note that the 'purchased' transformer will not belong to the buyer; it will belong to Kenya Power and Lighting Company which will then use it to connect to any other customer. Now you know why Kenyans in rural areas cannot get electricity and why potential borehole businesspeople in Ukambani cannot move an inch.
Who is to blame? Why should an electricity company that is a commercial entity hamper the supply of its goods to potential customers through restrictive laws? The famine deaths may not be directly linked to lack of electricity but same as in Western Kenya, it curtails other enterprises that may increase cash flow and make poverty history. Through bad laws that promote state enterprises monopolizing service delivery, many people die poor. Before the telephone sector was liberalized, people in rural areas could only see a phone booth in urban areas, as a result many people died because they could not call their sons and daughters in time to take them to hospital. Presently, the poor road network scares away any venture investor that mind want to move in areas prone to famine.
Famine stories in Kenya took center stage in December last year at a time when the government was literally seeking ways to save face from a humiliating defeat at the plebiscite. But the headlines didn't survive for long, a well choreographed expose on corruption followed early this year. When I talked to one of the donor agents that participated in a forum hosted by the Kenya Food Security Steering group a couple of weeks ago, he was dismayed at the lack of specific data on the government side on famine areas. 'We cannot just drive to villages without a map on the needs of the people' he lamented.
Without sufficient cash flow, Africa experiences post harvest losses of 30%, and we waste 10-15% of the harvested cereals because we cannot store our products safely. Faced with a 27% African population that is undernourished and a low purchasing power because food prices increased by 6%; African thinkers must surely work at increasing 'cash flow' among the poor. It is also estimated that AIDS related death of a family 'breadwinner' reduces each household's agricultural output by 61% while AIDS patients loose between 29% and 43% of their labor every year. With cash flow, HIV-AIDS victims will access antiretroviral drugs and cut down on manpower losses.
The African Union lists some of the causes of poverty to be overdependence on subsistence farming, limited access to gainful off farm employment, and income generating activities. High poverty incidences make it difficult for most families to purchase food. According to a recent report by the African Union on status of food security in Africa, African governments are faced with tough challenges which include high poverty rates, conflicts (farmers constitute a large proportion of conscripted soldiers in war zones in Africa) and poor infrastructure, HIV/AIDS, Malaria, high external debts, soil degradation, increased water scarcity, desertification and climate change.
'If I counted village people, and decided to put up a generator to supply electricity and make real money targeting rural populations, will the government allow this?" asked Koshin. A businessman based in the outskirts of Mumias, quickly pointed out why Mumias Sugar Company's electricity is not covering the whole town, 'You have again to face the obstacle of the monopoly rules of supplying power in Kenya." Kenyans and Africans must put their governments to task for the loss of each individual life over famine. Famine is an artificial problem in Africa.
By James Shikwati
Mr. Shikwati is the Director of Inter Region Economic Network
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