Kenyans fight for cheaper food prices

As famine continues to ravage parts of Kenya, a non-governmental organisation is urging authorities to reduce the cost of basic food stuffs, particularly maize flour — the staple food.

A survey by the group, Bunge la Mwananchi, has indicated that while food is for sale in affected areas, it is too expensive for the people living there.

”This clearly shows that people are not starving because of a lack of food. It is a question of people not being able to afford the food. The ordinary citizens in these areas confirmed to us that indeed, food prices were beyond their reach,” Wangui Mbatia told IPS on behalf of Bunge la Mwananchi (Kiswahili for ”Citizens’ Parliament”).

The organisation says the price of a 2kg packet of maize flour — referred to locally as unga — should be reduced to about 40c from its current price of 70c. Symbolised by a white ribbon, the group’s initiative has been named the ”Unga for Ksh 30 Campaign”.

According to Bunge la Mwananchi, this could be achieved through lessening or removing taxes on edible goods, principally maize flour.

”The government raises prices of commodities by compound taxation. All it needs to do is to lower or remove unnecessary taxes on basic food items. This will make the items cheaper,” noted Mbatia.

”If the government was able to remove taxes on sanitary towels, why can’t it do the same for unga and other basic commodities?”

During last year’s budget, finance officials removed value-added tax (VAT) on sanitary towels in order to make them more widely available, this after pressure from women parliamentarians.

Authorities declared the drought-induced famine a national disaster last December, with President Mwai Kibaki making an international appeal for food aid to help more than three million people avoid starvation. North-east Kenya is said to be worst affected by the crisis.

Earlier this month, however, the executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), James Morris, warned the agency was running out of supplies to feed Kenyans.

”So far the human death toll is fairly limited … but we fear that any break in food supply to the most vulnerable people will lead to suffering and death on a much larger scale,” he was quoted as saying in a March 5 press release from the agency. Rations for about 230 000 Somali and Sudanese refugees in north-east Kenya have since been cut.

But, Mbatia insisted that emergency aid was only a partial solution to the problem.

”The drought and starvation in Kenya cannot be dealt with using food relief alone. We want the government to address the matter in a more [holistic] way, and that is reduction of food prices,” she said.

With branches across the country, Bunge la Mwananchi is holding civic education programmes to build public support for a reduction in the price of food. The organisation also intends holding peaceful protests to make authorities heed its calls.

Consumer-rights advocate John Kinuthia has come out in support of the ”Unga for Ksh 30 Campaign”.

”It is unholy for a government to tax basic products that can save the lives of its citizens. Rather, it can decide to find revenues from non-basic products,” he said. It has been suggested that taxes on non-essential goods such as cigarettes and beer be increased to make up the shortfall of funds lost through removing taxation on basic commodities.

But will this alone do the trick? Fredrick Muthengi of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a Nairobi-based civic group, has his doubts.

”Even if taxes on basic food items are reduced or removed altogether, it is important to have a body that regulates and puts a price limit on goods across the country. The body must put a ceiling beyond which goods must not be charged,” he said.

Muthengi also highlights the need for more consumer activism.

”What the country needs is a strong consumer organisation which stands up to protest against hiking of prices. We saw this work more than ten years ago,” he noted, citing a successful challenge to the steep increase in postage-stamp prices by the then Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation in 1996.

In addition to doing away with VAT on basic commodities, says Kinuthia, government might also subsidise food production for local consumption, in order to lower prices and ensure food security.

Currently, goods such as seed, fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides are not subsidised — leading to high production costs that have been passed on to the consumer.

Kenya is not the only East African country suffering from food shortages. According to the WFP, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia are also facing a crisis: across the Horn of Africa, over six million people require emergency aid. — IPS

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