Thursday January 23, 2020
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90 MPs, MCAs in US Trip, New Details Show

Kenyan delegates and leaders travelled to the US for the legislative conference

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Kenya's National Assembly speaker Justin Muturi
Kenya's National Assembly speaker Justin Muturi

By Geoffrey Isaya

Barely days after MPs united to dispute a report by local media concerning sending a huge delegation to the US to attend a conference, fresh details have emerged that the previous figure of 85 delegates was understated.

Five more leaders travelled to the US for the legislative conference, whose agenda included sampling country music and getting inspirational talks from songstress Dolly Parton, bringing the total number of MPs, senators, ward representatives and Parliament’s staff to 90.

Sources say the figure is actually higher, as some of those who travelled did not register for the conference.

We learnt that senators Agnes Zani (ODM, nominated), Fredrick Outa (Kisumu), Meru Speaker Joseph Kaberia and MCAs Ayub Bundi and Victor Karithi were listed as additional participants from Kenya by the organisers.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga was the first to castigate the wastage of taxpayers money, lambasting the legislators for perpetuating a “culture of waste and living large at the expense of taxpayers”.

OVERREPRESENTED

Speaking at the Media Council gala night last evening, Mr Odinga said that Kenya sent a delegation of 90 people to the US conference, adding that it was a shame to send such a huge delegation at the taxpayers’ cost.

He demanded that Parliament apologises to Kenyans for spending taxpayers’ money on such a trip, noting that the US was only represented by six delegates, Nigeria 20, Brazil 9 and Japan 6.

He revealed that he had his own sources at the conference who leaked to him the information on the Kenyan delegation.

Kenya provided the largest number of participants at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Nashville, Tennessee, at a time when President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration is proposing cuts on foreign travel as part of a wide range of austerity measures.

The only other country that sent a large delegation is Nigeria, which flew 20 legislators to the US before adding two more.

Many other countries sent one to six delegates. They include Indonesia (one), Portugal (two) and Japan (six).

Kenya's National Assembly speaker Justin Muturi
National Assembly speaker of Kenya Justin Muturi on the chair

FUNDS MISUSE

Neighbouring Uganda deployed three, Mr James Mukaga (principal clerk assistant), Ms Jane Rozse Semakula Ikiror (assistant director, Parliament) and Sitnah Cherotich (assistant director, Parliament).

Wealthy and world-super power, the US, which hosted the conference, had nine key representatives.

Reliable reports indicate the Kenyan representatives at the conference that officially started on Monday and ended on Thursday could be more than 100, as some hangers-on who accompanied the VIPs were not listed in the official conference list.

In spite of National Assembly Deputy Speaker Moses Cheboi promising to issue a communication on an apology, the MPs demanded the House breaks for recess on Thursday with no mention of the trip.

Questions were on Friday raised why Parliament had not provided its official list of representatives to the summit to collaborate that issued by the conference organisers and clear any grey areas.

The two Houses, the Senate and National Assembly, have also been on the spot to explain why they paid for some staff who virtually had no role at the conference, to attend at the expense of taxpayers.

DELEGATES’ LIST

Part of the House leadership informally met on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to deliberate on how to handle the matter that has exposed the greed and scandalous spending of our leaders.

While a few of the Kenyan delegates were invited to the conference from as early as April for being in the technical and steering committee, including senators Kihika Kimani and Mutula Kilonzo Jr, most of the members of the delegation were joyriders.

Apart from legislators from the bicameral Parliament, the others who flew to the US were clerks, staff and people whose duties were unclear as they were listed in non-existent posts like County Assembly of Kenya.

Observers say the list of the travellers could have been trimmed by the various offices, like that of the Speaker, clerk, senators and MPs, settling on one or two representatives.

National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi and his Senate counterpart Ken Lusaka, who led the Kenyan entourage, have remained mum on the issue.

On Thursday, the National Assembly went for a month recess without providing a list of the members and staff who travelled for the meeting.

Mr Cheboi (Kuresoi North MP) failed to provide a list of the MPs and the staff who had travelled to the US, despite promising to do so.

ALLOWANCES

On Wednesday, Mr Cheboi, acting on Dagoretti North MP Simba Arati’s request, promised to deliver the statement clarifying the matter after MPs complained, saying only about five legislators had travelled.

Speaker Muturi, who arrived in the US for the conference last Sunday, three days after most of the Kenyan participants had arrived despite the conference starting on Monday, was expected back in the country Friday.

My efforts to get a comment from Mr Muturi were however futile as his phone went unanswered. An aide who received his call said that the Speaker was still in the US.

Parliament has been hard-pressed to explain why it is spending tens of millions of shillings this week to pay for the flights and accommodation of the delegation.

we could not establish the exact cost of the trip, but there were indications it could cost taxpayers more than Sh100 million.

The Commission on Revenue Allocation stipulates that the Speakers of Parliament are paid about Sh75,000 as a daily subsistence allowance for travel to the US, MPs pocket Sh65,000, and MCAs Sh42,600.

TICKET COST

A round-trip business class ticket on the national carrier Kenya Airways costs about Sh587,000 from Nairobi to Nashville International Airport, and about Sh355,000 for economy class.

Kenya Airways started direct flights to New York last year and the delegation has to connect from there to Nashville.

An average hotel room in Nashville goes for between Sh15,000 and Sh30,000.

Most of the members of the Kenyan delegation are to return from the US this weekend.

Mr Odinga said the US trip was evidence that “these institutions have money they do not know what to do with, or they simply don’t care about the burden taxpayers are bearing”.

Although the Tennessee conference targets State legislators, legislative staff, government officials, business representatives, educators and others interested in public policy, the Kenyan delegation also included a number of personal assistants of the legislators.

Among the speakers at the conference was American singer-songwriter Parton, presidential biographer, Pulitzer Prize winner and one of America’s most prominent historians Jon Meacham, author Wes Moore – celebrated filmmaker Evan Shapiro and CNN political contributor Vin Jones.

WAGE BILL

The conference targeted about 5,000 delegates from across the world.

It coincided with a visit by President Kenyatta to Jamaica. Another training targeting government officials from 21 Kenyan border counties has been going on in Arizona and Washington, DC.

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A report by the Auditor-General’s office indicates that MCAs spent Sh162 million on foreign travel in the 2016/17 financial year. The county executive spent a staggering Sh267 million in the same period.

While expressing concern about the huge public wage bill last year, the Controller of Budget said demands for increased salaries and allowances by public officers and civil servants must be addressed, warning that the wage bill may not be sustainable in the long run if not contained.

Next Story

What are Tea Producers in Kenya Doing to Cope up With the Price Rise? Find it Out Here

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Kenya Agriculture
Tea is a staple drink in Kenya, though, unlike other major producing countries, it consumes far less than it exports. Pixabay

In a humming factory in Kenya’s highlands, tea is hand-plucked from the fields, cured and shredded into the fine leaves that have sated drinkers from London to Lahore for generations.

But Kenya’s prized black tea isn’t fetching the prices it once did, forcing the top supplier of the world’s most popular drink to try something new.

In the bucolic hills around Nyeri, factory workers are experimenting with a range of boutique teas, deviating from decades of tradition in the quest for new customers and a buffer against unstable prices.

Like the bulk of Kenya’s producers, they’ve been manufacturing one way for decades – the crush, tear and curl (CTC) method, turning out ultra-fine leaves well suited for teabags the world over.

Now however, between conveyor belts whizzing tons of Kenya’s mainstay CTC into heaving sacks, huge rollers also gently and slowly massage green leaves under the watchful eye of workers, all freshly trained in the art of what is known as orthodox tea production.

The end result – a whole leaf, slow-processed variety, savored for its complex tones and appearance – is still being perfected at Gitugi, a factory in the foothills of the Aberdare Range that has been trialing these teas since June.

It has been costly shifting into orthodox, and a cultural change for workers and farmers, said Antony Naftali, operations manager at Gitugi, in Nyeri some 85 kilometers (52 miles) north of Nairobi.

But the risk was necessary: prices for stalwart CTC at auction nosedived 21 percent in 2018-2019 compared to the prior financial year, underscoring the urgency to diversify and extract more from every tea bush.

KENYA AGRICULTURE-TEA
A farm worker harvests tea leaves using shears at a plantation in Kenya’s Kericho highlands, Kericho county, in Kenya. VOA

“We have relied for so many years on traditional CTC. But the price has dropped. We want to reduce the pressure… but also, to explore this new market,” Naftali told AFP.

Market turmoil

Even since prices have recovered somewhat, any fluctuations are still keenly felt in Kenya, the world’s biggest exporter of CTC.

Tea is a staple drink in Kenya, though, unlike other major producing countries, it consumes far less than it exports.

The humble cuppa is a pillar of the economy: one in 10 Kenyans depends on the tea industry, according to the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), which represents 650,000 smallholder farmers by selling and marketing their tea.

The poor returns this year sparked angry protests on estates, and tea companies registered losses.

Part of the problem is oversupply.

Higher prices in recent years spurred investment in tea planting, resulting in Kenya’s best-ever haul in 2018 – at 493 million kilos (1,086 pounds).

But Kenya also has long relied on too few buyers, shipping 70 percent of its tea to just four markets.

Its top three customers – Pakistan, Egypt and Britain – have all seen a weakening of their currencies in recent times, making tea imports pricey.

Other big buyers – Iran, Sudan and Yemen, chief among them – have struggled to make payments.

“Our key markets are in turmoil,” Lerionka Tiampati, KTDA chief executive, told AFP.

“When you cannot control the price, then there’s not very much you can do. But what we are doing is we are trying to diversify the product.”

Reading the leaves

Orthodox production opens doors to markets where whole leaf, bespoke teas and custom infusions are rewarded with higher prices, says Grace Mogambi, KTDA’s manager of specialty products, who has travelled the globe to learn what drinkers want.

Kenya Tea
The prized black tea in Kenya isn’t fetching the prices it once did, forcing the top supplier of the world’s most popular drink to try something new. (Representational Image). Pixabay

Studying samples in Gitugi’s cupping room, Mogambi reels off the qualities desired by discerning tea drinkers: Russians like whole leaves, Germans prize tips, Saudis demand jet black and Sri Lankans dislike stalks.

“Consumer taste preferences are changing. Drinkers are becoming more aware of the type of tea they prefer,” said Mogambi, clad in a white laboratory coat, before swirling a mouthful of tea and ejecting it into a spittoon.

“If I’m spending more money on a cup of tea, I prefer given characteristics to be present.”

But orthodox and specialty lines represent only a tiny fraction of Kenya’s exports, and critics say the KTDA – which accounts for 60 percent of the country’s tea production — has been slow to adapt.

The board decided in 2000 to launch an orthodox range but, by the end of 2019, just 11 of its 69 factories were expected to be producing teas other than CTC.

Some like Kangaita, a factory at the southern flank of Mount Kenya, have been cultivating purple teas – a rare specialty unique to the region.

Other craft varieties include white premium, a loose leaf packaged in deluxe pyramidal teabags.

These appeal also to younger tea drinkers, a growing market demanding something other than run-of-the-mill black tea.

“Youthful tea drinkers are definitely looking for wellness, and other health benefits in tea,” said Gideon Mugo, chairman of the East African Tea Trade Association.

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Major brands outside the KTDA have been targeting the youth segment.

Kericho Gold produces a line of “attitude teas” packaged in bright boxes, including one for “love” and another marketed as a hangover cure. (VOA)