COVID-18 Relief food in Kampala, the Kites, sharks, and Lessons

Thursday, April 30, 2020

When President Yoweri Museveni announced countrywide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 fight, not many people apparently immediately knew the full extent of the social and economic distress that would ensue particularly to the urban underprivileged. Consequently, the decision to give relief food items in Kampala metropolitan was grossly underestimated, and understandably slowing down supply and distribution to the most vulnerable beneficiaries. Of the one million five hundred, targeted to receive food, only half have been served by mid this week.

Government agencies responsible for data collection and analysis necessary for effective decision-making and implementation, including areas and actual people affected have been found inadequate, incompetent, disoganised, and perhaps deliberately inefficient, and facilitating conspiracy, fraud and corruption so that individuals can benefit through underhand methods.

The arrest of the six senior officials in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), among them, Permanent Secretary Christine Guwatudde Kintu, Accounting Officer Joel Wanjala and Commissioner Relief Martin Owori, further slowed implementation as new duty bearers had to appointed and approved. The arrest exposed the entrenched racketeering between government officials and private business people who have been managing relief especially among refugees, and communities displaced by natural disasters like landslides in the Elgon region. 

Apparently, because of the political and social pressures involved when disasters happen, no one actually bothers to know in detail how many people are affected, extent of damage and support required to deal with emergencies. Under those circumstances, officials have for long been left to design the responses consequently inflating the numbers of affected persons and resources needed. Only a few officials actually know the system. It also highlights how defective, the UN system that has engaged the big suppliers on refugees and displaced persons is.

During this COVID-19 lockdown, OPM relief department officials told government that one million five hundred people in Kampala metropolitan would each need relief food support of six kilograms of posho and three of beans in addition to 500grams of salt for the initial two weeks. It turns out the number was inaccurate and even getting adequate supplies of these items into the government stores was as easy.

It was when the items started getting delivered at the household doorsteps, that discoveries were made that many of the underprivileged in Kampala don’t even have houses, let alone doors. Many in Kampala’s slums dwell in shacks, verandahs, taxis, sewerage tunnels, disused vehicles, under trees or abandoned structures, and reaching them by the men in uniform has been very tedious. It is well that the powder-kegs of Kasokoso, Bwaise, Kazo-Angola, Kinawataka, Giza-Giza, Mutungo, Bina, Luzira, Kisenyi and Kamwonkya among others have been given food.

It was found out that many of the ‘big’ private business companies that have been supplying OPM and the UN system are cartels that work through conspiracies and don’t adhere to transparent business practices including on pricing, verifiable quantities and qualities of items delivered into the stores. As cartels, they are often in the habit of spreading false business information against each other or potential new competitors as a way of getting selected to supply government and the UN agencies.

They know how to beat their way into the system oiling palms, but delivering substandard goods at high prices, and ensuring that all the gate-keeping measures are relaxed for them to dump their goods into the stores. The cartels long used to conspire and blackmailing OPM officials who handle large food supplies to refugees and displaced persons are not accustomed to multiple levels of rigorous checks.

Also, quality supplies of food especially posho and beans is being compromised as a result of aflatoxin, soil, sandy particles and other physical impurities in food because of poor crop methods in the gardens and post-harvest handling at drying, sorting, storage, processing and packaging. In this COVID-19 food distribution, President Museveni has insisted that all food being distributed must inspected and approved by the UNBS, a process that has knocked out or scared away potential supplies. Many dealers don’t want to bring their supplies to government stores fearing they will be confiscated once found unfit for human consumption yet the same supplies can be sold in the local open market where no one bothers to test the for standards. During this period, when ministers were deployed in Kampala and given access to the stores, they have intercepted food items already rejected by the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) again finding their way back into the government stores in Nakawa. The UNBS which is rarely present in food markets like Owino or Nakawa, has for the first time found its voice, sometimes with unreasonable standards.

Some of the ‘big’ suppliers have had the audacity to demand that substandard food items already confiscated by UNBS be returned to them so that they can supply it ‘to other people’ which is against the law because those should be destroyed by UNBS and NEMA. The experience from COVID-19 supplies, provides a good opportunity to break the back of the ‘Big’ and introduce small suppliers with good business into the government procurement system.