Looking back at 2020 from Mama Mboga’s eyes: The Pandemic as Natural Disaster

I am moved today by my work to look back at this agonizingly long year of separations and losses and delays for peoples around the world. Uncertainty and complexity have both increased, and economic volatility has become the order of the day, regardless of the development status of the region or location. More people in more countries around the world are in more precarious socio-economic situations than most decision makers realize.

Ugali and sukuma wiki only (poor man’s meal) Data source from 2016

Yet, and ironically, the natural resilience of human communities is more visible at the erstwhile ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ – the original, and long suffering (in all senses of the phrase) precariat – than among those whose economic ecosystems were long predicated on conditions of stability, certainty, and a certain amount of control. That is, this year has shown me that the formal economy of the industrialized world is more fragile to the impact of acute and intense systemic shocks such as that wrought by the global pandemic on the world’s socio-economic ecosystem than the informal economic ecosystem of the kind that supplies slums in African cities with green leafy vegetables to add to their porridge.

The mama mbogas of Nairobi’s informal settlements, such as Korogocho where this photograph was taken by Tazama Media during the Rapid Resilience and Recovery Project for Humanity Kenya, have never faltered in maintaining the food supply into the city’s slums, no matter the risk. Imagine navigating the uncertainty of roadblocks and delays as curfews and lockdowns put a clamp on the flow of fresh produce such as sukumawiki (often called kales), or tomatoes, knowing that the entire last mile of the farm to fork value chain had no cold chain infrastructure to rely on. Spoilage, wastage, lower quality produce at higher prices, all of these unpredictable factors notwithstanding. And, they were doing this with no social security or state support.

I have just finished analysing data capturing the change in their inventory amount and frequency from “Before Covid” to “During Covid” for 48 participants from four perishable commodity ecosystems – kales, tomatoes, bananas, and onions (which are a bit more shelf stable). Two groups were formed – the primarily B2B wholesaler retailers, and the B2C vegetable vendors who staked out spots they’ve been in for more than a year for all and as long as 29 years for our most experienced Mama Mboga.

These were ladies who trade professionally, although you wouldn’t think of them in that way. Beth (not her real name) sources bananas by the truckload from a friend she made in Meru’s banana market, a farmer who will load a mutually known trucker’s vehicle for her, while she directly supplies her customer base of Mama mbogas (like the lady’s little bunch in the cart above) 20% to 40% cheaper than the major wholesale market of Marikiti. Beth herself is based in the informal settlement where her customers also operate their veg stands and thought to experiment with direct imports from upcountry instead of sourcing from the wholesalers and brokers at Marikiti.

Customers became nervous about the additional service – free of cost – that mama mbogas offer their customers – that of finely slicing cabbage or sukumakwiki prepped and ready for cooking. Unemployment in the informal settlements like Mathare and Korogosho became rife as the industrial area’s jua kali workshops shut down and the entire service sector and hospitality industry hibernated. Harassment and theft increased and the ladies took to going to the wholesale market in groups – the curfew had shortened their business hours and they could not reach the wholesale market for the best produce from the early morning farm trucks. The kales business took a big hit in terms of supplies and many women switched from buying from the farmer directly in rather large quantities to picking up a few bundles from intermediary suppliers every so often.

Their entire community’s purchasing power declined by at least 70% given the changes in inventory purchase quantity and frequency between preCovid containment measures imposed in March 2020, and when my local team met them in August 2020. They talked about losing morale but getting up at dawn anyway to trudge to market to buy the produce in the hopes that they would sell. 90% of them had reduced their investments in fresh supply by at least 60%, and simultaneously decreased frequency of purchase. They work 7 days a week and were buying fresh vegetables from wholesalers every single day at dawn. Now, 2 or 3 days gap was more common than not, and the composition of their product range changed in significantly visible ways.

But, and this was the biggest lesson from this project, none of them thought of giving up their chosen profession.  They endured stoically what can only be called a natural disaster, and continued striving to put food on people’s plates, both at home, and for their customers, walking miles with bundles on their heads to save the cost of transport. If they could do it, I thought to myself when I first began hearing their stories, then I could too.

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