It may be dismissed by Kenya’s middle classes and elites as primitive, but farmer Leah Wambu, is convinced that bartering promises a new way of protecting rural food supplies as climate change takes hold.
Swapping one type of goods for another instead of for cash is an age-old practice. For a growing number of people like 69-year-old Wambui, from Nyeri, it is gaining new appeal as a way to combat increasing food scarcity in rural areas such as hers in central Kenya.
“If I need a chicken, I take a basketful of maize to the market and look for someone interested in my goods,” says the cheerful grandmother. “If we agree the goods meet each others’ worth, then I will trade my grain for the chicken.”
At the nearby Gakindu shopping center where Wambui stations herself, the market is abuzz with activity as traders cart in bags of farm produce, with flocks of goats and sheep, and herds of cattle and pigs in tow.
The chatter and haggling continues until around midday, when rural folk like Wambui head back home to see their fetch is enough to feed their families.
This is not how she has always operated. “I used to sell my grain to middlemen who would come to the village during the harvesting season,” recalls Wambui. “They would buy it at a throwaway price.”
Once her store of grain was empty, she would spend her meager earnings on food for her family, but it would not last to the next harvest. And harvests have become unreliable in recent years as rains fail or crops are destroyed in extreme downpours, worsening the cycle of want and hunger.
This changed for Wambui when she rediscovered bartering at a community meeting called by the village chief to discuss the drought of 2011, Kenya’s worst on record.
“I was relying on relief food but the supplies would take a month to arrive,” she recalls. “Sometimes corrupt officials would sell off a part of the supplies.”
Even so, villagers took some convincing that they would be better off bartering their farm produce than selling it to merchants who would trade it for a large profit in bigger markets.
“At first the people resisted the idea,” explains Mureithi Githinji, chairman of the village market.
But when a few, including Githinji, decided to try swapping commodities, they found they could make their food last to the next season. Soon more people joined the scheme, and the barter trade gained leverage.
Rising demand for food from growing urban populations and changing weather patterns have put increasing pressure on farmers, says Angela Kimani, subregional emergency officer for Eastern and Central Africa in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Many see little benefit from rising food prices in cities, with most of the profits of their production instead going to middlemen traders, who also profit when selling grain back to farmers during times of drought and crop failures.
A report by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) indicates that more than 10 million Kenyans suffer from food insecurity, with the majority of them relying on food relief.
Rural and urban households are also incurring huge food bills due to high prices, says the report, while staple food is in short supply.
KARI links food insecurity to frequent droughts, high input costs for domestic food production, and land tenure insecurity, which is displacing farmers in areas with the greatest potential for growing crops.
“The high global food prices and low purchasing power by a large proportion of the population, due to high levels of poverty, means there is need to have infrastructure that protects the rural food chain,” says Ephraim Mukisira, KARI’s director, referring to bartering networks.
Some experts see bartering as a way to enhance food security while ensuring that traditional staple foods remain within the rural food chain.
“There is nothing wrong with barter trade because people trade for commodities they desire,” agrees Ronald Sibanda, the World Food Programme’s representative and country director. “It is important to encourage consumption of traditional foods because they are nutritious.”
But the FAO’s Ms. Kimani calls for wider consumer education as well.
“There is a need to establish a balance between barter trade and the rural cash economy,” she says.
John Kabiro, a trader in Nairobi’s Gikomba market, one of the busiest in the city, argues that bartering does not help social development because it undermines cash-flow systems.
According to Mr. Kabiro, bartering would work better if the government subsidized rural Kenya with social services such as education and health, since these tend to drain households’ income stream.
“Barter trade is the last thing on my mind since it does not give me money,” Kabiro says. “I do not see it working since everyone is after wealth creation.”
In October, Africa observed Food and Nutrition Security Day. As governments ponder steps to reduce food insecurity, it remains to be seen whether Kabiro’s approach or Wambui’s will prove most helpful in ensuring enough affordable food is available.
• Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.
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