Kenyans for Kenya: When the shillings poured in

What you need to know:

  • Faced with starvation, Kenyans threw their lot together. Cynics said celebs and big business were capitalising on the hunger of fellow Kenyans to improve their image, but as Kenya Red Cross boss Abbas Gullet says, it was mainly about lending a helping hand

More than a dozen white transport trucks stood idling in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park on Saturday, each stamped with the bright-red emblem of the Red Cross.

On a nearby stage, Abbas Gullet, the secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), gestured towards the lush vegetation of the park as he addressed a gathering crowd.

“You just need to get a few hundred kilometres out of Nairobi,” he said, “and you face a different terrain.”

As the group turned toward the convoy of trucks, Mr Gullet waved the flag of Kenya high — and on his cue, the fleet revved their engines and began their journey south, with almost 400 metric tonnes of food stacked deep in their cargo holds.

Those food-laden trucks — off to rescue thousands of starving Kenyans — were making this journey thanks to the Kenyans for Kenya campaign.

The shillings poured into the campaign over the past four weeks — dropped into donation boxes at Nakumatt supermarket outlets, sent in through the various mobile money transfer services, and handed to cashiers for those ubiquitous black T-shirts proclaiming “Together we can make a difference!”

The campaign drew to a close on Saturday as hundreds of people flooded the sloping lawns of Uhuru Park for a concert and telethon.

The final fundraising numbers will not be available until late this week, but the initiative had already raised Sh683 million before the weekend’s festivities began — after breaking the initial goal of Sh500 million in the first 10 days of the campaign.

“The campaign was mainly an issue of food, especially for school children in the arid and semi-arid parts of northern Kenya,” says Mr Gullet, adding that they are also targeting vulnerable populations such as nursing and pregnant mothers, the sick, and the elderly.

“Now,” Mr Gullet says, “the real work actually begins.”

The KRCS is in charge of dispersing the funding, which will aid some of the estimated 3.5 million Kenyans at risk of starvation. According to the KRCS’s partnership coordinator, Ms Rosemary Mutunkei, their strategy is to fill bellies today and prevent a similar crisis from happening again tomorrow.

“This is a truly serious natural disaster,” says Challiss McDonough, a senior spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP) in East Africa. “I think it’s heartening to see the outpouring of support that Kenyans have had for their compatriots. I’ve seen T-shirts everywhere I turn with the Kenyans for Kenya logo.”

Almost as soon as the Kenyans for Kenya campaign got underway in July, the KRCS started using donations to buy supplies for the crisis areas.

“(We thought) We need to start right away; we can’t afford to wait until all the money comes in,’” says Ms Mutunkei.

With Saturday’s shipment, the KRCS has so far distributed 1,000 metric tonnes of Unimix — a high-nutrition porridge flour made of enriched maize and bean flour — at a cost of Sh101 million. The flour has been shipped to drought-affected areas in all parts of the country.

In total, Mr Gullet says, the shipments have reached 1,000 schools. In Turkana alone, the porridge flour was slated for delivery to 275 schools, reaching about 77,700 students.

The KRCS’s overall goal is to reach 400,000 school-going children — and on Saturday, Mr Gullet said they were half-way there. They are coordinating their activities with other actors in the region, says Ms Mutunkei, because other groups, such as the government and the WFP, are also targeting malnourished children.

In addition to food aid, the KRCS trucks supply water to crisis areas and provide emergency health services.

Overall, Mr Gullet says their projects are getting results. Children who could not stand up four weeks ago can now stay upright with assistance, he says.

“We’ve seen changes in kids’ lives, and we’ll have to probably do this for two to three more months to really bring them back to normality,” Mr Gullet says.

“[But] we have averted the initial crisis.”

September will be the most crucial period of the drought because it is the last stretch before the coming of the rains, which are expected in October, says Mr Gullet.

Ms Mutunkei says the KRCS was humbled by the response of the Kenyan people, who donated more than Sh185 million out of their own pockets even before Saturday’s event, some in amounts as small as Sh10.

But she was quick to state that the end of the campaign does not mean the end of the KRCS’s needs. She reminded Kenyans that they must continue to give when called upon, adding that the challenges facing the country are daunting, but the solution lies with the people themselves.

“When (Kenyans are) called upon, tribe doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m really pleased that I’m part of this. Because I do believe, strongly, that this will be a time that will go down in history — when people of Kenya took back their dignity.”

Long-term solutions

But the KRCS recognises that short-term emergency relief is only a part of the solution.

“Food aid will continue, given the scale of the problem,” says Ms Mutunkei, “but ordinary Kenyans are discussing what can be done. What are the long-term solutions?”

Even before the Kenyans for Kenya campaign got underway, the KRCS was taking a hard look at the future of food security in the region. Mr Gullet said his organisation is planning a number of projects that can improve the region’s resilience to drought in the hope of reducing its impact or even preventing a future crisis like the one facing East Africa today.

“It’s something that’s really, really important — a country’s ability to support itself during a crisis. It’s a very positive sign for reducing the need, in the future, for organisations like ours,” says McDonough, referring to the WFP in Kenya.

That sentiment was echoed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In a statement earlier this month, at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, she said, “There must be a concerted effort by governments and people to help themselves, and there is no question that Ethiopia and Kenya are moving in the right direction.”

This is also the aim of the corporate partners in the campaign. The CEO of Safaricom, Mr Bob Collymore, says, “It’s important that when Kenyans look back in later years they’ll be able to see what we did in 2011. We have to leave behind a legacy, instead of just saving lives today.”

Mr Gullet said the KRCS is considering programmes focusing on water conservation and catchment, boreholes, earth dams, water pumps, provision of farming materials, and alternatives to rain-fed agriculture (such as drip-irrigation and greenhouses).

They have already implemented a number of successful long-term projects in arid and semi-arid areas, which they hope to expand with funding from the Kenyans for Kenya campaign. Mr Gullet gave the example of the town of Madogo in Tana River. He said the nearby river had plenty of water, yet its residents had been on food aid for years.

About 18 months ago, the KRCS bought water pumps, seeds, and other farming equipment for the community. Today, 15,000 people who were on aid are now food-secure and are even selling surplus crops at a profit.

Greenhouse programmes have been another successful initiative, says Mr Gullet. The KRCS has built 130 greenhouses in schools around the country at a cost of Sh270,000 per structure.

The only requirement is that the school has access to water, but Mr Gullet says 600 litres per day is enough to irrigate a greenhouse that is 192 square metres. These greenhouses feed families, teach children about agriculture, and even provide an income from the sale of produce, says Ms Mutunkei.

“Kenya can no longer depend on rain-fed agriculture. We will have to go into alternative methods,” said Mr Gullet. “That’s the way to go in future.”

Short-term projects, long-term effects

School feeding programmes encourage parents to continue sending their children to school instead of withdrawing them to move around in search of water and pasture for cattle.

At Nyaunyau Primary School in East Pokot, for example, enrolment numbers dropped from 129 to 50 as the drought worsened, but with the provision of food and water, children have begun to return to the classroom.

Some people have raised concerns about whether the funds raised over the past four weeks will actually reach those who are in need, to which Mr Gullet reassured that leading audit firms — Deloitte, Ernst and Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers — have joined the initiative to make sure funds and materials are used correctly.

“They are going to follow up the whole process. So, when food is being purchased, they are there, looking at the documentation; when food is being loaded they are there auditing every bag that goes into the trucks,” says Mr Gullet. “Then, when the food goes to the field, they… ensure that it’s being distributed to the people who deserve it.”

Government input

Others have raised questions over whether the money for the long-term initiatives should be coming out of Kenyans’ pockets, arguing that long-lasting results cannot be achieved without greater government action.

The Unga Revolution, a group of Kenyans committed to fulfilling Article 43 of the new Constitution, which enshrines the right of all Kenyans to social welfare. They support the Kenyans for Kenya campaign, but say it is up to the government to solve the systemic problem of chronic hunger in Kenya by dismantling cartels and giving subsidies on basic commodities.

“We need to congratulate what Kenyans (for Kenya) are doing, but it’s the job of the government to provide for Kenyans, not the people themselves,” said Unga Revolution coordinator Francis Sakwa Makanda.

Africa for Africa?

The success of the Kenyans for Kenya campaign has left some wondering what it could mean for other crises on the continent. Mr Gullet was in Addis Ababa for the African Union summit last week and hinted that a new campaign could be on the horizon: Africans for Africa.

“Today there are indications that many other countries want to follow this example, whether it is in Ethiopia or Somalia,” Mr Gullet told the crowds in Uhuru Park on Saturday, as the cargo vans stood idling nearby. “African governments are now coming together for the first time in the history of this continent to raise resources from themselves, for their own continent. And I think we have shown the way forward in Kenya — we’ve been ahead of the pack.”


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