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Food safety in Kenya: The interplay of private incentives and public regulation

Food safety in Kenya has significant implications for public health, economic development, and social welfare in the country. Despite this, the process of ensuring safe food for all citizens remains a challenge, with factors such as weak regulatory enforcement capacity and the prevalence of decentralised and informal markets hampering national efforts to improve.

In recent years, the private sector has played an increasingly important role in Kenya’s food industry, marked by the growth of formal sector food processors and the rising popularity of branded food products.

This article explores the interplay between private incentives and public regulation in shaping food safety outcomes in Kenya. It analyses the current state of food safety, identifies key hazards, reviews existing regulatory frameworks, and highlights effective interventions to mitigate foodborne diseases.

Food safety challenges in Kenya

Food safety is a key issue in Kenya, and one that the Kenyan government has gone to great lengths to address. Guided by the 2021 National Food Safety Policy, Kenya’s regulatory framework is based upon 19 Acts of Parliament that are significant to the food and agriculture sector in Kenya. Several key institutions play a crucial role in national food safety, including the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) and Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA). Standards from these government institutions are complemented by international guidelines such as those from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Despite a robust national effort, Kenya still faces significant challenges in ensuring food security. For example, limited resources, insufficient training, and inadequate infrastructure hinder the ability of government agencies to effectively oversee the vast network of food producers, processors, and retailers operating within the country.

Another challenge is the prevalence of decentralised and informal markets, which often operate outside the purview of formal regulations and oversight. These markets, which include small-scale farmers and informal traders in open-air markets, play a crucial role in providing affordable food to a large segment of the population. However, the lack of formal food safety controls in these settings can lead to increased risks of contamination and foodborne illnesses. The informal nature of these markets has given rise to numerous food safety hazards.

Microbiological hazards are among the most critical issues affecting food safety in Kenya. They primarily affect perishable foods like animal-sourced products, fruits, and vegetables. Numerous studies have shown widespread contamination with pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Escherichia coli, often originating from poor hygiene practices and the use of contaminated water in farming and processing​​. While these issues exist nationwide, notable examples can be found in even the largest open-air markets in the country, such as the Githurai and Gikomba markets, which have suffered frequently from contamination as a result of hygiene and sanitation issues.

Heavy metal contamination is another significant issue, with studies finding high levels of lead and cadmium in vegetables. These contaminants enter the food supply through polluted irrigation water and soil and pose severe health risks​​. In particular, irrigation water from rivers of high industrial significance like the Nairobi River and Athi River has caused widespread heavy metal contamination.

Aflatoxin is similarly concerning. It is a potent carcinogen produced by certain fungi that are found on agricultural crops such as maize, which is a staple food in Kenya. Outbreaks of aflatoxicosis have resulted in numerous fatalities, underscoring the need for more stringent control measures​​​​.

The rise of Kenya’s private sector food industry

The private sector has emerged as an increasingly important player in Kenya’s food industry, with the potential to greatly impact food safety outcomes. Recently, formal sector food processors, including large-scale millers, packagers, and retailers, have gained market share due to urbanisation, rising incomes, and changing consumer preferences.

These processors present both opportunities and challenges for food safety in Kenya. On one hand, companies are incentivised to invest in food safety measures to protect their brand reputation. While, on the other hand, a focus on profitability and cost-cutting may lead some to prioritise short-term gains over long-term food safety investments.

Although the overall impact is still uncertain, research suggests that these companies are less likely to disregard food safety concerns. Firstly, because many of them have directly invested in food safety measures, such as improved storage facilities, quality control systems, and testing procedures. Secondly, because food safety is likely correlated with other quality attributes, such as using higher-quality raw materials, adopting more stringent processing methods, and utilising better packaging that preserves product freshness and safety.

Therefore, it is likely that companies who have invested in food safety and built brand equity are likely to continue to prioritise food safety, especially considering that negative incidents and health concerns would severely damage their reputation and financial performance. Conversely, companies with weaker brand recognition may be more inclined to cut corners and risk food safety to lower prices or improve returns.

Distributional consequences of private sector-driven food safety

While private sector incentives can drive improvements in food safety for themselves, they may also have unintended distributional consequences. As higher-end markets and branded products improve compliance with food safety standards, there is a risk that unsafe food may become increasingly concentrated in lower-priced market segments serving poorer consumers.

This phenomenon can exacerbate existing inequalities in access to safe and nutritious food. Poorer households, who are more likely to rely on informal markets and lower-priced products, may face greater exposure to food safety hazards such as aflatoxin contamination. This can have serious implications for public health, particularly among vulnerable populations such as young children and pregnant women.

Moreover, as food safety becomes a differentiating factor in the market, with safer products commanding higher prices, there is a risk that safe food may become a luxury good, inaccessible to those with limited purchasing power. This raises concerns about the social and ethical dimensions of food safety and the need for strategies that ensure safe food is affordable and available to all.

The need for coordinated strategies

Addressing food safety challenges in Kenya requires a coordinated approach that recognises the limitations of relying solely on private sector voluntary compliance. While private incentives can drive progress, they are unlikely to be sufficient in ensuring safe food across all market segments, particularly in the absence of effective public regulation and enforcement.

Regulation and enforcement

Public regulation will be critical in setting and upholding food safety standards, creating a level playing field for businesses, and protecting public health. In the Kenyan context, strengthening the capacity and resources of regulatory agencies is essential for effective monitoring, inspection, and enforcement of food safety regulations.

To complement these efforts, adopting a progressive regulatory approach that combines coregulatory frameworks (where businesses take on routine monitoring responsibilities with oversight from regulators) with training, voluntary certification, and consumer education can improve compliance in the informal sector.

However, public regulation alone is not enough. Engaging and collaborating with the private sector is also key to fostering a culture of food safety. Public-private partnerships, such as joint training programs, information sharing platforms, and collaborative research initiatives, can help to build trust, alignment, and shared responsibility for food safety.

Capacity building and technical assistance

Providing capacity building and technical assistance for Kenyan farmers and food businesses (particularly small and medium-sized enterprises) is likely to be effective. Many SMEs lack the knowledge, skills, and resources to implement effective food safety measures. Providing targeted supports – such as training food handlers and farmers on good agricultural and manufacturing practices – can significantly improve food safety outcomes and help these businesses to improve their food safety performance and compete in higher-value markets.

Market incentives

Introducing market incentives can play a significant role in encouraging the adoption of food safety practices and technologies. For example, providing tax incentives or grants for businesses investing in food safety infrastructure, such as improved storage facilities can motivate farmers and processors to adopt better practices. Similarly rewarding farmers for meeting safety standards can incentivise higher quality produce overall.

Public infrastructure

Finally, investing in public water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure at critical points in the food supply chain, such as markets and abattoirs, can make a considerable impact in reducing contamination risks and enhancing the overall quality and safety of food products. Providing access to clean water, toilets, and handwashing facilities, particularly in local markets, can significantly improve hygiene standards​​ and reduce the risk of environmental contamination.

Improving food safety in Kenya

Improving food safety in Kenya requires a coordinated and comprehensive approach. While private sector incentives are important, relying solely on market forces is inadequate due to weak regulation and informal markets. A successful strategy involves integrating these incentives with public regulations and fostering collaboration among businesses, government, civil society, and consumers to enhance food safety systems.

At Farrelly Mitchell, we are committed to the ongoing development of the food and agribusiness industry in Kenya and beyond. Our agrifood consultants offer a wide range of services that deliver sustainable growth and value to developing industries. We offer guidance and strategies to tackle crucial industry challenges such as food safety, food security, institutional development, capacity building, rural development, gender equality and much more. To leverage our insights and build more robust, sustainable, and productive food systems, contact us today.

Author

Nathan Davies

Regional Director (East & Southern Africa)
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