The campaign season is once again upon us and the political class is charged with a renewed sense of purpose during this unusual time of COVID-19 uncertainty. As we are inundated with campaign headline after campaign headline, Kenyans are once more captivated by the “telenovela” quality of the shifting political alliances and sensational back-stabbings. We love it. Not only is scheduled gladiatorial combat a welcome reprieve from the tedium of life post-COVID, we will also not begrudge ourselves the pleasure of watching the political elite fight to the reputational death for their (allegedly) ill-gotten gains.
With government spending estimated at a quarter of total Gross Domestic Product in Kenya, the politician’s interest in the presidency is clear. These heavily invested candidates jostling to direct the state’s monopoly power, however, are forced to contend with a new normal in the rhythm and flow of this campaign election cycle. While previous cycles were characterized by mobilization around ethnic cleavages, there is a national fatigue, a marked reluctance to demonize the “other” tribe. Moreover, the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty caused by emerging variants has catalysed the calcification of the economy as the core electoral concern.
There is a shift in Kenya’s political taste-palette from the half-hearted ethno-cronyism that has dominated past elections to issue-based electoral competition. The 2022 elections provide the clearest opportunity yet to place the presidential candidate’s competence in governance at the centre of all political discourse. This intangible shift may seem like an inconsequential wave against the tsunami of 60 years of “tupatie mtu wetu” (ethno-cronystic) momentum, but the choices we make during these elections will have incalculable ramifications.
Disrupting the mechanics of mediocrity
As a wide-eyed, enthusiastic attaché in a heavily wood panelled, dusty government office, I had the pleasure to meet a newly employed crop of “Job Group J” civil servants (the J group). I was captivated by their energy and drawn into their excitement of being part of the select few. They represented what I wanted to become after graduation – they had big dreams, high energy and noble intent. I am still haunted by what I witnessed, but could not articulate, during my time with the J group. In hindsight, I now understand that as I watched, they became conditioned by a pervasive and insidious system with Pavlovian efficiency. With helpless horror, I observed as those who left their integrity at home, questioned nothing, signed where they were told, and did what they were asked, were rewarded with the opportunity to supplement their income, travel and move up the ranks. This is the unacknowledged reason why all civil servants you have engaged with have the same characteristics.
The 2022 election provides the clearest opportunity yet to place the presidential candidate’s competence in governance at the centre of all political discourse.
The exceptional, the visionaries, the agitators and change makers who could not successfully graduate from the behaviour modification programme were pushed out or left behind. I have seen this sequence of system self-selection and reinforcement replicated with soul-crushing consistency. This system of mediocre, sycophantic governance is what has been propagated, protected and encouraged when the product of each electoral cycle is a charismatic figurehead of the “right” ethnicity who still takes instruction on where to append his signature.
As the incentives we create at the ballot are what invariably play out across all configurations of government, changing the distorted incentives that create poor governance outcomes means being intentional about what we reward and what we punish. If economic outcomes form the bulk of our policy concerns, then the candidate that demonstrates an ability to secure positive socio-economic outcomes is the “right” candidate.
Manifesto shopping list essentials
At the ballot, the only way for presidential candidates to signal their technical competence, commitment to the public interest and understanding of the complexity of governance is the quality of their manifesto. Below are some of the bare-minimum indicators of manifesto quality to help you make sense of the relentless campaign rhetoric:
- Documented manifesto — The lack of a documented and widely available manifesto is a red flag. It signals a candidate who will promise anything and not be held to account. You know this person; he likely owes you money, should you vote for him/her?
- Points of accountability — Beware of candidates who are unwilling to burden Wanjiku with the details of their plans. To clarify, each campaign promise should be accompanied by the policies, policy instruments (laws and regulations) and indicators of progress. The thing to look for here is manifesto structural integrity.
- Scapegoat-free rhetoric — Learn to recognise the use of loaded language. A candidate that uses the passive voice to shift responsibility from themselves to a mysterious outside force is only out for their own best interests. If he/she has a singular person, group or circumstance to blame for the current state of affairs he/she is stoking emotions because they have no technical competence.
- No meaningless platitudes — Reject loose pronouncements of desirable outcomes such as “Increase youth employment” or “eradicate corruption”. These are the descriptive equivalent of “niko kwa jam nakam” (a Kenyan idiom that wastes your time and means nothing).
- Straightforward approach to corruption — Look out for avoidance or minimalization of the core electoral concern, corruption. Reframing discussions around corruption as “integrity” or “transparency” issues or challenges is a clear indication of a “corrupt status quo” beneficiary.
- No divide-and-rule rhetoric — The application of the “vote for me and I will give you, my voters, x” is a hangover from the colonial tactics of division. It is an indicator that the candidate is unwilling or unable to engage in the policy process. He/she is signalling their inability to produce an integrated development strategy for the whole country and must resort to taking the divisive shortcut of “in-group” favouritism.
- Coherence checks—Curate your consumption of candidates’ claims by subscribing to analysts who conduct a thorough issue-based investigation. Shun the rickety sensationalism of pundits, for clear evaluations of the effectiveness, efficiency and efficacy of policy and its instruments. Here, at The Elephant, we are committed to providing timely, informative and objective analysis and we will continue to do so during this campaign period.
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Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference
Before Nashulai, Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling off their rights to live and work on their land, becoming “conservation refugees”.
The Sekenani River underwent a mammoth cleanup in May 2020, undertaken by over 100 women living in the Nashulai Conservancy area. Ten of the 18 kilometres of fresh water were cleaned of plastic waste, clothing, organic material and other rubbish that presented a real threat to the health of this life source for the community and wildlife. The river forms part of the Mara Basin and goes on to flow into Lake Victoria, which in turn feeds the River Nile.
The initiative was spearheaded by the Nashulai Conservancy — the first community-owned conservancy in the Maasai Mara that was founded in 2015 — which also provided a daily stipend to all participants and introduced them to better waste management and regeneration practices. After the cleanup, bamboo trees were planted along the banks of the river to curb soil erosion.
You could call it a classic case of “nature healing” that only the forced stillness caused by a global pandemic could bring about. Livelihoods dependent on tourism and raising cattle had all but come to a standstill and people now had the time to ponder how unpredictable life can be.
“I worry that when tourism picks up again many people will forget about all the conservation efforts of the past year,” says project officer Evelyn Kamau. “That’s why we put a focus on working with the youth in the community on the various projects and education. They’ll be the key to continuation.”
Continuation in the broader sense is what Nashulai and several other community-focused projects in Kenya are working towards — a shift away from conservation practices that push indigenous people further and further out of their homelands for profit in the name of protecting and celebrating the very nature for which these communities have provided stewardship over generations.
Given the past year’s global and regional conversations about racial injustice, and the pandemic that has left tourism everywhere on its knees, ordinary people in countries like Kenya have had the chance to learn, to speak out and to act on changes.
Players in the tourism industry in the country that have in the past privileged foreign visitors over Kenyans have been challenged. In mid-2020, a poorly worded social media post stating that a bucket-list boutique hotel in Nairobi was “now open to Kenyans” set off a backlash from fed-up Kenyans online.
The post referred to the easing of COVID-19 regulations that allowed the hotel to re-open to anyone already in the country. Although the hotel tried to undertake damage control, the harm was already done and the wounds reopened. Kenyans recounted stories of discrimination experienced at this particular hotel including multiple instances of the booking office responding to enquiries from Kenyan guests that rooms were fully booked, only for their European or American companions to call minutes later and miraculously find there were in fact vacancies. Many observed how rare it was to see non-white faces in the marketing of certain establishments, except in service roles.
Another conversation that has gained traction is the question of who is really benefiting from the conservation business and why the beneficiaries are generally not the local communities.
Kenyan conservationist and author Dr Mordecai Ogada has been vocal about this issue, both in his work and on social media, frequently calling out institutions and individuals who perpetuate the profit-driven system that has proven to be detrimental to local communities. In The Big Conservation Lie, his searing 2016 book co-authored with conservation journalist John Mbaria, Ogada observes, “The importance of wildlife to Kenya and the communities here has been reduced to the dollar value that foreign tourists will pay to see it.” Ogada details the use of coercion tactics to push communities to divide up or vacate their lands and abandon their identities and lifestyles for little more than donor subsidies that are not always paid in full or within the agreed time.
A colonial hangover
It is important to note that these attitudes, organizations and by extension the structure of safari tourism, did not spring up out of nowhere. At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty and the odd American president or Hollywood actor.
Theodore Roosevelt’s year-long hunting expedition in 1909 resulted in over 500 animals being shot by his party in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, many of which were taken back to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute and in various other natural history museums across the US. Roosevelt later recounted his experiences in a book and a series of lectures, not without mentioning the “savage” native people he had encountered and expressing support for the European colonization project throughout Africa.
Much of this private entertaining was made possible through “gifts” of large parcels of Kenyan land by the colonial power to high-ranking military officials for their service in the other British colonies, without much regard as to the ancestral ownership of the confiscated lands.
At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty.
On the foundation of national parks in the country by the colonial government in the 1940s, Ogada points out the similarities with the Yellowstone National Park, “which was created by violence and disenfranchisement, but is still used as a template for fortress conservation over a century later.” In the case of Kenya, just add trophy hunting to the original model.
Today, when it isn’t the descendants of those settlers who own and run the many private nature reserves in the country, it is a party with much economic or political power tying local communities down with unfair leases and sectioning them off from their ancestral land, harsh penalties being applied when they graze their cattle on the confiscated land.
This history must be acknowledged and the facts recognised so that the real work of establishing a sustainable future for the affected communities can begin. A future that does not disenfranchise entire communities and exclude them or leave their economies dangerously dependent on tourism.
The work it will take to achieve this in both the conservation and the wider travel industry involves everyone, from the service providers to the media to the very people deciding where and how to spend their tourism money and their time.
Here’s who’s doing the work
There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation and to secure a future in which these communities are not excluded. Some, like Dr Ogada, spread the word about the holes in the model adopted by the global conservation industry. Others are training and educating tourism businesses in sustainable practices.
There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation.
The Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, or STTA, is a leading Kenyan-owned consultancy that works with tourism businesses and associations to provide training and strategies for sustainability in the sector in East Africa and beyond. Team leader Judy Kepher Gona expresses her optimism in the organization’s position as the local experts in the field, evidenced by the industry players’ uptake of the STTA’s training programmes and services to learn how best to manage their tourism businesses responsibly.
Gona notes, “Today there are almost 100 community-owned private conservancies in Kenya which has increased the inclusion of communities in conservation and in tourism” — which is a step in the right direction.
The community conservancy
Back to Nashulai, a strong example of a community-owned conservancy. Director and co-founder Nelson Ole Reiya who grew up in the area began to notice the rate at which Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling or leasing off their land and often their rights to live and work on it as they did before, becoming what he refers to as “conservation refugees”.
In 2016, Ole Reiya set out to bring together his community in an effort to eliminate poverty, regenerate the ecosystems and preserve the indigenous culture of the Maasai by employing a commons model on the 5,000 acres on which the conservancy sits. Families here could have sold their ancestral land and moved away, but they have instead come together and in a few short years have done away with the fencing separating their homesteads from the open savannah. They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route. Elephants have returned to an old elephant nursery site.
In contrast to many other nature reserves and conservancies that offer employment to the locals as hotel staff, safari guides or dancers and singers, Nashulai’s way of empowering the community goes further to diversify the economy by providing skills and education to the residents, as well as preserving the culture by passing on knowledge about environmental awareness. This can be seen in the bee-keeping project that is producing honey for sale, the kitchen gardens outside the family homes, a ranger training programme and even a storytelling project to record and preserve all the knowledge and history passed down by the elders.
They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route.
The conservancy only hires people from within the community for its various projects, and all plans must be submitted to a community liaison officer for discussion and a vote before any work can begin.
Tourism activities within the conservancy such as stays at Oldarpoi (the conservancy’s first tented camp; more are planned), game drives and day visits to the conservation and community projects are still an important part of the story. The revenue generated by tourists and the awareness created regarding this model of conservation are key in securing Nashulai’s future. Volunteer travellers are even welcomed to participate in the less technical projects such as tree planting and river clean-ups.
Expressing his hopes for a paradigm shift in the tourism industry, Ole Reiya stresses, “I would encourage visitors to go beyond the superficial and experience the nuances of a people beyond being seen as artefacts and naked children to be photographed, [but] rather as communities whose connection to the land and wildlife has been key to their survival over time.”
Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo
In the context of the climate emergency and the need for renewable energy sources, competition over the supply of cobalt is growing. This competition is most intense in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nick Bernards argues that the scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overthrowing capitalism on a global scale.
With growing attention to climate breakdown and the need for expanded use of renewable energy sources, the mineral resources needed to make batteries are emerging as a key site of conflict. In this context, cobalt – traditionally mined as a by-product of copper and nickel – has become a subject of major interest in its own right.
Competition over supplies of cobalt is intensifying. Some reports suggest that demand for cobalt is likely to exceed known reserves if projected shifts to renewable energy sources are realized. Much of this competition is playing out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The south-eastern regions of the DRC hold about half of proven global cobalt reserves, and account for an even higher proportion of global cobalt production (roughly 70 percent) because known reserves in the DRC are relatively shallow and easier to extract.
Recent high profile articles in outlets including the New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted a growing ‘battery arms race’ supposedly playing out between the West (mostly the US) and China over battery metals, especially cobalt.
These pieces suggest, with some alarm, that China is ‘winning’ this race. They highlight how Chinese dominance in battery supply chains might inhibit energy transitions in the West. They also link growing Chinese mining operations to a range of labour and environmental abuses in the DRC, where the vast majority of the world’s available cobalt reserves are located.
Both articles are right that the hazards and costs of the cobalt boom have been disproportionately borne by Congolese people and landscapes, while few of the benefits have reached them. But by subsuming these problems into narratives of geopolitical competition between the US and China and zooming in on the supposedly pernicious effects of Chinese-owned operations in particular, the ‘arms race’ narrative ultimately obscures more than it reveals.
There is unquestionably a scramble for cobalt going on. It is centered in the DRC but spans much of the globe, working through tangled transnational networks of production and finance that link mines in the South-Eastern DRC to refiners and battery manufacturers scattered across China’s industrializing cities, to financiers in London, Toronto, and Hong Kong, to vast transnational corporations ranging from mineral rentiers (Glencore), to automotive companies (Volkswagen, Ford), to electronics and tech firms (Apple). This loose network is governed primarily through an increasingly amorphous and uneven patchwork of public and private ‘sustainability’ standards. And, it plays out against the backdrop of both long-running depredations of imperialism and the more recent devastation of structural adjustment.
In a word, the scramble for cobalt is a thoroughly capitalist scramble.
Chinese firms do unquestionably play a major role in global battery production in general and in cobalt extraction and refining in particular. Roughly 50 percent of global cobalt refining now takes place in China. The considerable majority of DRC cobalt exports do go to China, and Chinese firms have expanded interests in mining and trading ventures in the DRC.
However, although the Chinese state has certainly fostered the development of cobalt and other battery minerals, there is as much a scramble for control over cobalt going on within China as between China and the ‘west’. There has, notably, been a wave of concentration and consolidation among Chinese cobalt refiners since about 2010. The Chinese firms operating in the DRC are capitalist firms competing with each other in important ways. They often have radically different business models. Jinchuan Group Co. Ltd and China Molybdenum, for instance, are Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed firms with ownership shares in scattered global refining and mining operations. Jinchuan’s major mine holdings in the DRC were acquired from South African miner Metorex in 2012; China Molybdenum recently acquired the DRC mines owned by US-based Freeport-McMoRan (as the New York Times article linked above notes with concern). A significant portion of both Jinchuan Group and China Molybdenum’s revenues, though, come from speculative metals trading rather than from production. Yantai Cash, on the other hand, is a specialized refiner which does not own mining operations. Yantai is likely the destination for a good deal of ‘artisanal’ mined cobalt via an elaborate network of traders and brokers.
These large Chinese firms also are thoroughly plugged in to global networks of battery production ultimately destined, in many cases, for widely known consumer brands. They are also able to take advantage of links to global marketing and financing operations. The four largest Chinese refiners, for instance, are all listed brands on the London Metal Exchange (LME).
In the midst of increased concentration at the refining stage and concerns over supplies, several major end users including Apple, Volkswagen, and BMW have sought to establish long-term contracts directly with mining operations since early 2018. Tesla signed a major agreement with Glencore to supply cobalt for its new battery ‘gigafactories’ in 2020. Not unrelatedly, they have also developed integrated supply chain tracing systems, often dressed up in the language of ‘sustainability’ and transparency. One notable example is the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Initiative (RSBI). This initiative between the blockchain division of tech giant IBM, supply chain audit firm RCS Global, and several mining houses, mineral traders, and automotive end users of battery materials including Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen Group, and Fiat-Chrysler Automotive Group was announced in 2019. RSBI conducted a pilot test tracing 1.5 tons of Congolese cobalt across three different continents over five months of refinement.
Major end users including automotive and electronics brands have, in short, developed increasingly direct contacts extending across the whole battery production network.
There are also a range of financial actors trying to get in on the scramble (though, as both Jinchuan and China Molybdenum demonstrate, the line between ‘productive’ and ‘financial’ capital here can be blurry). Since 2010, benchmark cobalt prices are set through speculative trading on the LME. A number of specialized trading funds have been established in the last five years, seeking to profit from volatile prices for cobalt. One of the largest global stockpiles of cobalt in 2017, for instance, was held by Cobalt 27, a Canadian firm established expressly to buy and hold physical cobalt stocks. Cobalt 27 raised CAD 200 million through a public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange in June of 2017, and subsequently purchased 2160.9 metric tons of cobalt held in LME warehouses. There are also a growing number of exchange traded funds (ETF) targeting cobalt. Most of these ETFs seek ‘exposure’ to cobalt and battery components more generally, for instance, through holding shares in mining houses or what are called ‘royalty bearing interests’ in specific mining operations rather than trading in physical cobalt or futures. Indeed, by mid-2019, Cobalt-27 was forced to sell off its cobalt stockpile at a loss. It was subsequently bought out by its largest shareholder (a Swiss-registered investment firm) and restructured into ‘Conic’, an investment fund holding a portfolio of royalty-bearing interests in battery metals operations rather than physical metals.
Or, to put it another way, there is as much competition going on within ‘China’ and the ‘West’ between different firms to establish control over limited supplies of cobalt, and to capture a share of the profits, as between China and the ‘West’ as unitary entities.
Thus far, workers and communities in the Congolese Copperbelt have suffered the consequences of this scramble. They have seen few of the benefits. Indeed, this is reflective of much longer-run processes, documented in ROAPE, wherein local capital formation and local development in Congolese mining have been systematically repressed on behalf of transnational capital for decades.
The current boom takes place against the backdrop of the collapse, and subsequent privatization, of the copper mining industry in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1988, state-owned copper mining firm Gécamines produced roughly 450 000 tons of copper, and employed 30 000 people, by 2003, production had fallen to 8 000 tons and workers were owed up to 36 months of back pay. As part of the restructuring and privatization of the company, more than 10 000 workers were offered severance payments financed by the World Bank, the company was privatized, and mining rights were increasingly marketized. By most measures, mining communities in the Congolese Copperbelt are marked by widespread poverty. A 2017 survey found mean and median monthly household incomes of $USD 34.50 and $USD 14, respectively, in the region.
In the context of widespread dispossession, the DRC’s relatively shallow cobalt deposits have been an important source of livelihood activities. Estimates based on survey research suggest that roughly 60 percent of households in the region derived some income from mining, of which 90 percent worked in some form of artisanal mining. Recent research has linked the rise of industrial mining installations owned by multinational conglomerates to deepening inequality, driven in no small part by those firms’ preference for expatriate workers in higher paid roles. Where Congolese workers are employed, this is often through abusive systems of outsourcing through labour brokers.
Cobalt mining has also been linked to substantial forms of social and ecological degradation in surrounding areas, including significant health risks from breathing dust (not only to miners but also to local communities), ecological disruption and pollution from acid, dust, and tailings, and violent displacement of local communities.
The limited benefits and high costs of the cobalt boom for local people in the Congolese copperbelt, in short, are linked to conditions of widespread dispossession predating the arrival of Chinese firms and are certainly not limited to Chinese firms.
To be clear, none of this is to deny that Chinese firms have been implicated in abuses of labour rights and ecologically destructive practices in the DRC, nor that the Chinese state has clearly made strategic priorities of cobalt mining, refining, and battery manufacturing. It does not excuse the very real abuses linked to Chinese firms that European-owned ones have done many of the same things. Nor does the fact that those Chinese firms are often ultimately vendors to major US and European auto and electronic brands.
However, all of this does suggest that any diagnosis of the developmental ills, violence, ecological damage and labour abuses surrounding cobalt in the DRC that focuses specifically on the character of Chinese firms or on inter-state competition is limited at best. It gets Glencore, Apple, Tesla, and myriad financial speculators, to say nothing of capitalist relations of production generally, off the hook.
If we want to get to grips with the unfolding scramble for cobalt and its consequences for the people in the south-east DRC, we need to keep in view how the present-day scramble reflects wider patterns of uneven development under capitalist relations of production.
We should note that such narratives of a ‘new scramble for Africa’ prompted by a rapacious Chinese appetite for natural resources are not new. As Alison Ayers argued nearly a decade ago of narratives about the role of China in a ‘new scramble for Africa’, a focus on Chinese abuses means that ‘the West’s relations with Africa are construed as essentially beneficent, in contrast to the putatively opportunistic, exploitative and deleterious role of the emerging powers, thereby obfuscating the West’s ongoing neocolonial relationship with Africa’. Likewise, such accounts neglect ‘profound changes in the global political economy within which the “new scramble for Africa” is to be more adequately located’. These interventions are profoundly political, providing important forms of ideological cover for both neoliberal capitalism and for longer-run structures of imperialism.
In short, the barrier to a just transition to sustainable energy sources is not a unitary ‘China’ bent on the domination of emerging industries as a means to global hegemony. It is capitalism. Or, more precisely, it is the fact that responses to the climate crisis have thus far worked through and exacerbated the contradictions of existing imperialism and capitalist relations of production. The scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and one of many signs that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overturning capitalism and imperialism on a global scale.
This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
Kenya’s Battle with COVID-19: The Highs and Lows
The country has faced a myriad challenges in combating the pandemic and has not attained its target of fully inoculating 10 million people by the end of December 2021.
On the 12th of March 2020, the Ministry of Health (MoH) announced that a deadly, silent enemy had shown up at Kenya’s door. This would be the country’s first COVID-19 case since the beginning of the outbreak in China in December 2019.
With little information about exactly what the country was going to be up against, Health Cabinet Secretary (CS) Mutahi Kagwe addressed the nation flanked by top government officials.
“The case is a Kenyan citizen who travelled back to Nairobi returning from the United States of America via London, United Kingdom on the 5th March 2020. She was confirmed positive by the National Influenza Centre Laboratory at the National Public Health Laboratories of the Ministry of Health. The patient is clinically stable, and is being managed at the Infectious Diseases Unit at the Kenyatta National Hospital. The lady is now stable and behaving quite normally,” CS Kagwe confidently stated in his official address.
Explaining that COVID-19 had been declared a global pandemic, the government announced precautionary measures that included directives on hygiene and social distancing. Normal life was turned topsy-turvy as Kenya suspended all public gatherings, meetings, religious crusades, games events, etc. Normal church services could go on provided sanitizing and hand-washing facilities were provided to the congregation. Schools remained open but inter-school events were suspended. Public transport providers were to avail hand sanitizers to their passengers. Prison visits were temporarily suspended. Kenyans were to desist from abusing social media platforms or indulging in spreading misinformation that could cause fear and panic. Travel outside the country was restricted.
Fifteen days before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the country, on 28 February, President Uhuru Kenyatta had issued Executive Order No. 2 of 2020 establishing the National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus (NERCC) to coordinate the country’s response to the pandemic.
Kenyans were to desist from abusing social media platforms or indulging in spreading misinformation that could cause fear and panic. Travel outside the country was restricted.
A month later CS Kagwe gave a briefing on recoveries from COVID-19, saying, “In the last 24 hours, an additional eight COVID-19 patients have been discharged from hospital, bringing the total number of recoveries to 114,” he said. “In this same period, however, we have confirmed 8 new cases of coronavirus in the country bringing to total 363. Four of these are from Mombasa and three from Nairobi, and one from Kwale,” he said.
Kenya’s new normal would now include daily COVID-19 briefings to update on the death toll, recoveries, positivity rates and precautionary measures.
The war room
Meanwhile, for a group of computer scientists at Qhala, a Nairobi-based tech company that had been developing a digital contact tracing tool to help the government to respond to the rising cases of cholera in the country, the coronavirus pandemic would come to be the defining moment.
With the arrival of COVID-19 in the country, Dr Shikoh Gitau (a University of Cape Town Computer Science graduate who was born and bred in Mathare Slums) and her team turned their research and development to the pandemic. Their research culminated in the opening of the Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (CEMA), a national data centre to support the control, elimination, and eradication of infectious diseases in Eastern and Central Africa.
Dr Gitau believes in the democratization of access to data and explains that, “If data is just in the hands of a few people, they can use it to tell us what they want or feel like. But if everyone is looking at the same data set, we will have more enriching interpretations of that particular set. The way a data scientist will look at the set is not the same way a journalist, economist or epidemiologist will look at the same set and this is why even in our own team we countercheck our biases by ensuring that many sets of eyes look at the same data.”
The NERCC is using the tool developed by Dr Gitau and her team as the basis of the COVID-19 briefs Kenya receives on a daily basis.
The country also embarked on the hunt for a vaccine. “Kenya has joined the global efforts in search of an effective vaccine for COVID-19 with the start of a trial evaluating the ChAdOx1 nCoV-2019 Oxford coronavirus vaccine,” Oxford University announced in an official statement. Specifically, the country had joined the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil in running trials to evaluate the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine.
The trials were run by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) at the Kilifi-based KEMRI-Welcome Trust Research Programme under which, following approvals from regulators, Kenyans volunteered for AstraZeneca vaccine trials.
“We’re excited to see our colleagues in Kenya today joining those around the world in helping us to evaluate the ChAdOx1 nCov-2019 Oxford coronavirus vaccine, as it is important to evaluate the vaccine in as many different populations as possible,” said Professor Andy Pollard, the Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and Chief Investigator of the Oxford Vaccine Trial.
The trials involved 40 frontline workers in Kilifi County, with a further 360 volunteers recruited once the safety of the vaccine was confirmed. The volunteers were monitored over a period of 12 months after immunization to assess their health, the vaccine side effects and how their bodies were developing immunity in response to the vaccine.
However, once the vaccines came into production, Kenya was sidelined and reduced to a “beggar”; the country is now depending on donations from the same UK government with which it had partnered to run the trials.
To steer Kenya through the global vaccine supply and administration mess, President Kenyatta appointed his advisor on malaria, Dr Willis Akhwale, to lead the COVID-19 Vaccine Taskforce and make recommendations to the government. “As you know we actually sit every Wednesday; the CS and President Kenyatta have taken personal interest on this matter,” Dr Akhwale explained in an interview.
The trials involved 40 frontline workers in Kilifi County, with a further 360 volunteers recruited once the safety of the vaccine was confirmed.
The taskforce developed the country’s vaccine roadmap regarding vaccine hesitancy, county engagements, vaccine depots, cold chain storage and logistics, digital vaccine and immunisation records as well donor interests, among other issues surrounding Kenya’s COVID-19 vaccine preparedness.
A COVID-19 vaccine deployment plan was released in December 2020. The deployment plan was put in place after Kenya ordered 13 million Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines through the African Union (AU). However, due to manufacturing constraints, only about one million doses have been delivered
Data from Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) shows that there is a huge interest in vaccines among Africans. “Vaccine hesitancy in Africa is not an issue. There’s 75 per cent acceptance in Africa, apart from Burkina Faso, compared with the US where acceptance is 60 per cent,” Africa CDC Director, Dr John Nkengasong has said.
In total, AU member states, of which Kenya is a part, have ordered 56.9 million Johnson & Johnson (J&J) doses over and above the 220 million doses they had planned for under the advance purchase agreement (APA) with J&J.
The total number of vaccines committed to AU member states by manufacturers is 205.4 million doses, worth about US$130 million. CS Kagwe has confirmed that Kenya will begin to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines by April 2022 to mitigate against supply hitches that are frustrating efforts to vaccinate the entire adult population.
“As of December 13th 2021, a total of 8,223,238 vaccines had so far been administered across the country out of the 23,279,820 doses Kenya has received. Of these, 4,947,002 were partially vaccinated while those fully vaccinated were 3,276,236. The uptake of the second dose among those who received their first dose was at 57.2%. Proportion of adults fully vaccinated was 12.0%. The Government is working towards vaccinating a targeted population of 27,246,033” the MoH announced.
Kenya has faced a myriad of challenges as it navigates the pandemic, including a major corruption scandal at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA).
In September 2020, investigators recommended the prosecution of at least 15 top government officials and business people over the alleged misuse of millions of dollars meant for the purchase of COVID-19 medical supplies but to date nothing has been done, with a number of the suspects employed by KEMSA still on half pay.
Earlier investigations found misuse of US$7.8 million meant for the purchase of emergency personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers and hospitals across the country. Health workers in many of the counties continue to complain about the shortage of PPE and poor or delayed pay.
With the emergence of the Omicron variant, there is a shortage of testing kits across the country. The mechanism for testing at points of entry and for those in quarantine is flawed. The cost of COVID-19 treatment and the lack of availability of medical oxygen and drugs is also a major issue, with insurance companies jumping ship on coronavirus.
The country still has other major gaps that need to be addressed. These include public access to COVID-19 information, especially concerning vaccines, as low vaccine uptake is a major problem.
Kenya has faced a myriad of challenges as it navigates the pandemic, including a major corruption scandal at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority.
According to Dr Richard Mihigo, the Immunization and Vaccines Development Programme Coordinator at WHO Africa Region, compared to other African countries like Morocco, Seychelles, Mauritius, Tunisia, Cape Verde and Botswana that have reached the global target of vaccinating 40 per cent of their population, Kenya has not attained its target of fully inoculating 10 million people by the end of December 2021 and has so far only managed to administer COVID-19 vaccines to 3.3 million people.
Medical facilities are overwhelmed and there is a lack of medical equipment and mismanagement in most public hospitals. Vaccine wastage by some of the people conducting the rollout is rife in the country. According to WHO, vaccine wastage is the sum of vaccines discarded, lost, damaged or destroyed. Since vaccines account for a significant portion of immunization programme costs, ensuring that wastage is minimized without jeopardizing vaccination coverage is key.
There is a lot of laxity in the delivery of health services to Kenyans who live in rural areas, especially in the country’s northern region. The communities in this region have difficulties accessing health facilities and many are not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine because of the hundreds of kilometres they have to travel to be vaccinated.
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