Across the Global South, governments, scientists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are making major progress in tackling food security. The US Department of Agriculture predicts that globally, the number of food insecure people – those who don’t have a reliable supply of nutritious food – will fall to nearly 50 percent over the next decade, and governments from South Sudan to Guatemala are pushing initiatives to achieve this. Yet, as the current crisis in Kenya, where opposition leaders are calling for a nationwide boycott on sugar over poisoned supplies rumbles on, it provides a stark reminder that the food security is just as much about safety as it is about availability.
The row erupted in late June after Kenyan authorities announced the seizure of 2,000 bags of illegally imported sugar from Eastleigh, a district of Nairobi described as Kenya’s counterfeiting capital. Kenyan Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i initially claimed the sugar contained dangerous levels of copper and mercury, and Charles Ongwae, former managing director of the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), has since confirmed the discovery of copper and lead. The story has become a national scandal and prompted condemnation from Greenpeace, which said it is “shocking that food meant for human consumption contains these metals.”
Much of the scrutiny centers on KEBS, which has been accused of harboring a criminal syndicate. Investigators discovered a full printing set-up at Eastleigh, complete with weighing and sewing machines, and it is alleged that KEBS officials collaborated with the agency’s partner, Madras Security Printers Private Limited, to produce fake stickers that are then acquired by unscrupulous traders to sell a range of tainted produce. Ongwae was arrested over the contraband sugar and has since been charged with attempted murder over a supply of illegal fertilizer, as investigators look beyond the sugar scandal and focus on KEBS’s wider activity.
A Toxic Cocktail of Factors
The root causes of the sugar scandal are perfectly clear: Widespread corruption among regulators helps black market profiteers dodge tax duties, but it has also produced food safety failings so serious that they endanger the health and well-being of average Kenyans. In addition to KEBS, investigators believe officials at Kenya’s Revenue Authority and the government’s Agriculture and Food Authority may be complicit in allowing smuggled sugar into the country. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of coordination between government departments – evinced by the ugly recent squabbling between ministers as they pass the blame for the crisis onto each other – and insufficient resources to build effective regulation. The trigger was provided by last year’s droughts, which created a severe shortage and forced President Uhuru Kenyatta to allow hundreds of firms to import sugar duty-free.
Kenya is no isolated case. A similar cocktail of factors is being witnessed across Africa, with low standards and weak regulations creating a vacuum easily exploited by venal officials and ruthless retailers. By attempting to stimulate agriculture through subsidies without effective regulation, Africa’s leaders are solving one of their key agricultural challenges while exacerbating others – most especially the deluge of poor-quality produce unfit for human consumption.
In Nigeria, factory inspectors have reported the discovery of maggots and cockroaches in counterfeit food production plants. Adulterated fertilizer, in which the original product is mixed with other substances, regularly kills the country’s crops. Nigeria’s government has pushed subsidies to encourage local growers, but with experts claiming less than 20 percent of the food available in the country is safe for consumption, it’s hard to say the policy is bearing (edible) fruit.
Elsewhere in Africa, companies routinely employ chemicals such as formaldehyde – which is normally used to store human remains and has been classified as carcinogenic by several health authorities – to preserve meat and fish. Aflatoxin, which is caused by mold and can lead to liver cancer, remains endemic in crops across the continent. Now, at least, certain products are being developed to curb its spread.
Deadly Outbreaks Do Happen
Yet the most glaring example of Africa’s food quality deficit has come in South Africa, the second-biggest economy on the continent. The country has been gripped by an outbreak of listeriosis, a deadly disease that has spread to Europe and Australia and has claimed hundreds of lives since it erupted 18 months ago. In March, the source was traced to a processed meat factory in the northern city of Polokwane. And yet, four months on, there is still no official word on the cause of the initial outbreak. The inability to address major public health threats helps explain why analysts condemn South Africa for its outdated food safety legislation and chronic shortage of inspectors.
The problems in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya collectively demonstrate the harsh reality that achieving food security requires far more than producing adequate supply. Countries need to provide good governance while using all of the means at their disposal to eradicate corruption. Among other factors, that requires making sure that regulatory agencies have sufficient manpower to tackle illicit trade and establishing more effective ways to test food products. Africans have the same right to clean, safe food that those in the Global North have the luxury of taking for granted.