Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Great Potato War

When my KCSE results arrived, and the shock of having passed had receded, my parents and I arrived at a decision that would have profound consequences on my future. Because of my less-than-reliable views on hard work, it was decided that the deep end of adulthood was what I needed and I was, by mutual agreement, despatched to the Indian subcontinent to read law. That is where I encountered the US multinationals that got me hooked on junk: Macdonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). The Maharajah Mac, dear brothers and sisters, is the heroin of burgers. But this is not the story of my Maharajah Mac pining.

This past week, Kenyans on Twitter, the redoubtable #KOT, waged a war to end all wars against the Kenyan franchisee of KFC over the refusal by the franchisee to source its potatoes from Kenya on the laughable grounds that Kenyans couldn't meet the KFC standard. I am not here to relitigate the finer details of the war, save for one of the issues that cropped up: industrial policy.

I have been privileged to witness the making, unmaking and remaking of various policies. It is far from a pretty sight. Policy-making requires the kind of patient administrative work that the current regime lacks in its senior-most ranks. There are senior government officials who labour mightily under the illusion that all they need to do is snap their fingers, and shillings rain down like manna from heaven - and they consider this the epitome of policy-making. It is how someone can rouse themselves from the comfort of their beds and declare that Kenyans will not access public services unless they are fully vaccinated. And it is this kind of policy-making ignorance that invites the demands that were made last week to "ban the import of frozen potatoes from Egypt".

Policy, generally, is not overly complicated. Industrial policy, as with agricultural policy, on the other hand, can lead one to tear their hair out. There are so many moving parts that coherence is often sacrificed at the altar of political expediency, corruption and bureaucratic laziness. Anyone who has watched as Kenya's sugar industry cratered and billions were wasted on "sugar reforms" will surely admit this to be true. The potato industry seems to be a victim of the same malaise that afflicts sugar, maize, bean and coffee. The current nabobs of the agriculture sector, led by the indefatigable minister, are no longer interested in a coherent agricultural policy and their counterparts in the industrialisation ministry seem powerless to rein in bad policy ideas.

Nothing epitomises the policy incoherence more than the utter failure to scale up market facilities at the local level. If you have had the privilege of passing through Wakulima Market at four in the morning, then you must surely wonder how lorry loads of tomatoes and other agricultural produce end up dumped outside the market because the market does not have bulk cold storage facilities, sixty years after it was established. The same is true nationwide., Indeed, even in the case of NCPB's silos, modernisation seems to have been abandoned and the national silo infrastructure is no longer fit for use.

The continued lack of a coherent and comprehensive policy, one that is founded on the objectives of Kenya Vision 2030, is one more indictment of the current regime that has obsessively built infrastructure whose short-term and long-term economic efficacy is doubtful at best. The billions squandered on floating bridges and last-mile connectivity could have established a robust agriculture infrastructure programme that would have considerably reduced post-harvest agricultural losses and facilitated the development of a vibrant domestic commodities market. The Great Potato War is merely the latest proof of the utter failure of the agriculture sector nawabs.

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