Let Them Drink Coke – Cash or Food for the Hungry?

The Coke truck arrived just in time. After a long day in the sun watching an aid distribution I was in need of a cold lukewarm drink. But wait, these people in Kenya’s Kerio Valley were hungry. Many had not had a proper meal in weeks yet vendors seemed to come and go with chapatis, bananas and bottles of Coke.
This is the real face of hunger in Africa. More often than not food is available but people have no money to buy it. In the Kerio Valley people lost their cattle and goats during Kenya’s post-election violence leaving them with no income. It didn’t stop the mangoes ripening in the sun, but it means no-one has any money to buy them.
The food aid debate is long and fascinating. Aid agencies have frequently urged the UN’s World Food Programme to shift to dishing out cash in places like the Kerio Valley, rather than shipping in sacks of maize that undercut local farmers and destroy markets. Now the WFP is catching up. In the next week it will announce that it is shifting its emphasis to cash and vouchers where necessary, as I report in The Monitor. In some places, such as Darfur, sackloads of food will still be needed but where people are living close to markets then cash and vouchers will stop many people going hungry.
In the Kerio Valley, the Irish aid agency Concern is trialling the use of mobile phones to get the cash out via Safaricom’s mPesa system. It’s fast, easy and efficient compared with trying to get trucks in along the region’s rutted, dirt roads. And it’s good for the farmers, traders and, yes, Coke vendors.