Defining Food Waste in Kenya and Beyond: A Comparative Perspective
My generation grew up in a country where the government used to dump shiploads of grain into the ocean. But not finishing your broccoli, in contrast, invoked mealtime lectures about hungry children in less fortunate countries. Wasting food was a moral problem and not the outcome of global inequality and skewed access that we later learned were responsible for those starving children pictured in UNESCO funding appeals on television.
A version to wasting food is probably wired into our genes. Even so, competing with your friends to kill oranges by rolling them under the wheels of passing vehicles was not exactly a sin when you were surrounded by near-endless expanses of citrus groves, and where neighbours routinely left gift bags of oranges on the doorstep that only added to the surfeit accumulating inside.
This and other examples of excess and profligacy remained largely invisible to the public until research during the 1970s indicated that up to 40 per cent of the food produced worldwide was never consumed. The 1973 University of Arizona garbage study, for example, concluded that American households were wasting up to a fifth of the meat, produce, and grains they purchased. This cost the average family US$600 a year at a time when the annual median family income was US$12,500.
This waste was only part of a much larger problem. The industrialisation of agriculture had improved the efficiencies of production but exacerbated the problem of waste between the farm gate and the family table. We may have come of age feeling guilty about the growing mountains of garbage that had become too big to hide during the 1970s, but this was actually one aspect of a far more insidious syndrome encompassing massive waste and pollution, inhumane treatment of animals, poor conditions affecting the food chain work force, and negative impacts on consumer nutrition.
These and other related issues were brought home by Eric Schlosser in his seminal 2001 book, Fast Food Nation. We learnt that commoditisation and convenience had created a monster. This is why many of my peers and I became strict vegetarians. We avoided processed foods and sought out organic produce wherever it was available. Food was one of the sacraments of the counterculture movement, and we believed our elevated tastes and preferences made us holy. Subsisting on bean sprouts, carrot juice, and brown rice was our ticket to heaven.
An education in the anthropology of food
I eventually came to recognise that this culinary elitism was a luxury, an Aquarian age equivalent of a Roman bacchanal. The realisation contributed to my decision to travel abroad and experience life in the more organic environs of the developing world.
After nine months in Central America, I ended up in Kenya, which was still a slow food nation at the time. I arrived when the hunger crisis precipitated by the Great Sahel Famine was peaking, and my first venture beyond the relatively well-fed highlands saw me spend several weeks in Turkana. My real education in the anthropology of food began in November of 1974.
We left Kitale on the back of a lorry carrying sacks of famine relief flour, arriving in Lodwar under a full moon at 2.30 a.m. Our driver insisted I join him for libations in the local bar, where we sat next to a window besieged by a posse of naked boys. The driver teased them by pretending to press a coin into the skinny hands protruding through the windows. He allayed my apparent discomfort with a beaming smile, “Sijali, wako na njaa, lakini tumewabebea chakula.” Yes, these kids are hungry, but we are the ones bringing them food, he said.
We explored downtown Lodwar, which consisted of two streets lined with wooden storefronts. A door opened up briefly and a Somali man motioned us inside, where he served us black tea and dry bread and refused payment. My friend the lorry driver said he was going on to Kalokol, and invited us to join him. A crowd of stick people collected around us as we waited for the lorry to depart, withered arms extended. I watched an old man squatting to the side keel over.
Impelled by a mix of compassion and discomfort, we started cutting up our travel stash — a basket of fruit — distributing strips of papaya and mango as the engine roared into life. Then, as the lorry lurched into gear, the recipients of our largesse pelted us with the fruit.
It was three weeks before the next lorry left for down country. We traveled during the day this time. The lorry briefly stopped at a laaga, where several emaciated Karamoja men petitioned us for food. The upcountry people on the lorry tossed them some biscuit boxes, and then enjoyed a hearty laugh when the pastoralists found they were empty. “We work for our food,” they told me.
Making sense of my time in Turkana coalesced around two observations. The first was that how we define food is a culturally-bound concept. I will forever associate Kalokol with the pungent aroma of roasted doum palm nuts, which the Turkana spent their days converting into a course flour — on the shores of one of the world’s least exploited inland lakes.
As for the hungry Turkana who wasted our fruit, they had probably never seen a papaya or mango, much less tasted one. Several years later the same point was reinforced by my mother-in-law in Lamu, who demurred when I argued for reducing our young children’s starch-heavy diet: “hii mboga yako si chakula,” she objected.
The second observation notes that the universal practice of sharing food in Africa is subject to issues of identity and social relations: some people fall through the cracks. In any case, food losses, and not food waste, is the greater problem in Kenya. Food losses refer to any decrease in food mass across the edible food supply chain, which claims up to 30 per cent of the food produced across the world. Food rarely goes to waste in Kenya, but post-harvest grain losses range between 10 and 20 per cent of the harvest — an average of 13 per cent of Kenya’s maize harvest — and such figures would be much higher if they factored for food in the field and on the hoof that is lost to drought, disease, and other risk factors.
Where the losses increase closer to the consumer’s plate in the developed world, in Africa most of the losses occur close to the farm-end of the chain. Halving these losses in Africa alone would significantly impact food availability, affordability, and malnutrition among the poor.
By Paul Goldsmith
This article is part of the Food Series – a joint collaboration between the Route to Food Initiative and The Elephant.