COVID-19 has undoubtedly affected Kenya’s economy greatly; before the pandemic, estimates determined that nearly half (36.1%) of Kenya’s 50 million citizens were below the poverty line. Now, most of Kenya’s economy is struggling to make ends meet, as estimates have stated that Kenya’s yearly GDP growth could drop from 5%. However, a cultural and economic cornerstone holds fast: the women of Kenya produce vendors known endearingly as “mama mbogas” (literally “mother of vegetables” in Swahili). This article will shed light on how mama mbogas are paving the way for Kenya’s COVID-19 recovery and how these women, who play an exceptionally vital role in Kenya’s economy, could be a beacon of hope in otherwise dire straits.
A Single Thread
The social and economic context of mama mbogas varies and involves some complexities. Notwithstanding a global crisis like COVID-19, mama mbogas already play a vital role in Kenya’s food supply chain, acting almost as sole intermediaries between farmers and consumers. Mama mbogas ensure that limited food supplies have good distribution, that farmers receive fair pay for their produce, that whole-sellers are timely and that their families and communities eat. Now, in the midst of the economic fallout due to COVID-19, mama mbogas are more important than ever. Bitange Ndemo, an Associate Professor at Nairobi’s School of Business, remarked in 2014 that “[Mama Mboga were] the buffer between sanity and crime in their homes” – and that sentiment may perhaps ring true for all of Nairobi’s largest and poorest slum, Kibera. About 30% of low-income wage workers have lost work in recent months, and 90% of all Kenyan’s saw a decrease in household income. The lifeline, here, are the mama mbogas, who, despite their income being at a fraction of what it typically is, are working double-time to ensure food gets where it needs to go without a hint of abandoning the trade.
The World Food Program (WFP)
The degree to which these women provide for their community is staggering, but the effort may not be sustainable for much longer, especially with the extenuating economic circumstances of COVID-19. Recently, thinktanks abroad and domestic (to Kenya) have been brainstorming solutions to some of the challenges mama mbogas face – like pay security, growing e-commerce, health care, and, of course, COVID-19.
The World Food Program (WFP), with funding from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), has been working closely alongside vulnerable mama mbogas and their communities to ensure that supply chains remain healthy. Access to freshwater, newer infrastructure, proximal plots of land for produce and financial/educational resources are the key elements the WFP has invested in during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The IKEA Foundation
The IKEA Foundation has partnered with Enviu to empower (and invest in) small business owners, like mama mbogas, to stabilize their businesses and ensure recovery during, and after, COVID-19. Locally, Kenya’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund Board has pledged Sh500 million (about $4.6 million USD) through M-Pesa (Kenya’s largest mobile phone-based money service) to vulnerable Individuals and communities in Nairobi, many of whom are mama mboga or have great support from them. One will have to wait to see the effect of these investments, but Obi Anyadike, a Senior Editor for The New Humanitarian, speculates that the growth and success of the mama mboga across Nairobi will be substantial in the time to come.
The challenges mama mbogas face daily are staggering, especially in the midst of a global pandemic – but an undying resolve and commitment to their families, communities and their trade has proven invaluable in a time of decreased food security. Investments in their businesses and communities have, in effect, kept thousands fed and will continue to do so for the near future. But more work is always necessary, and Kenya and its benefactors are working to the best of their ability to sustain these indispensable women leading the way in the COVID-19 crisis.
– Henry Comes-Pritchett