There has been a constant debate and interrogation of the food bank concept proposed by President Hage Geingob as part of the comprehensive fight against chronic poverty. The concept is relatively new to Namibians, but globally it has taken root in many countries, including western ones with fairly better poverty levels. The idea was first mooted three years ago – whilst the President was the Prime Minister – conceptualising food banks that were going to be run by youth committees and benefiting the most helpless in society. At the time, urban poverty had reached epic levels and our compatriots were found fending for themselves from the Kupferberg dumpsite on the outskirts of the Capital City. Pictures of families and other vulnerable citizens scraping the rubbish to salvage anything edible adorned our newspapers. My former colleague – Marbeline /Goagoses and others, spearheaded a citizen-led initiative called the Friends Against Poverty. They marshalled, and Namibians responded by donating foodstuff and clothing items to fill the gap. Not to be outdone, in 2013 government announced that the then Deputy Prime Minister, Marco Hausiku, was heading a special committee to find lasting solutions to Namibians faced by urban poverty. His committee registered more than a hundred Namibians who lived off the dumped food at Kupferberg. Amongst a raft of proposed initiatives was to expand the drought relief programme to urban areas, introduce the food-for-work programme and lastly establish a food bank. During the course of 2014, Hausiku said N$ 160 000 was allocated to purchase equipment for the food banks to be established in Prosperita under the Disaster Management Department. The food bank, Hausiku said, was going to be decentralised to all regions and major municipalities. Government officials were send to South Africa to gain ‘exposure’ and learn how best to manage such a project. A needs assessment of the most vulnerable was completed. Fast-forward to 2016, the food bank has not seen the light of day. We can blame this state of affairs on a number of factors including the realignment of Ministries and staff. But one cannot rule out the lethargy and inertia that has become commonplace in our institutions – a factor in the delay of so many great ideas that are gathering dust. We now understand that construction will take place in Katutura – supervised by the new Ministry of Poverty Eradication and the modalities of how the food bank will be operated have been approved in the blue-print on eliminating poverty by 2025. When exactly the food bank will take off – is anybody’s guess. What appears to be the case is that there is a willingness from stakeholders who were recently consulted by the President to kick-start the initiative. Moreover, from the proponent of the project – President Geingob, there is unequivocal support, and the requisite political will has been mustered to see this through.
However, as we mull over the details of how best to lift the needy, we need to constantly enrich our interventions so they are sustainable and workable. Importantly, we need to inform ourselves of how others with more experience run these facilities, so we do not copy and paste their mistakes. My intervention in this piece is not to unpack and contrast comparative models of food banks, but I will rather shed light on a model of a food bank that I recently visited here in the UK[United Kingdom], with the aim to enhance our experience.
One of the first things that struck me about life in the UK is the level of affluence and prosperity. There’s seemingly no lack for anything. People live contently and everything is within reach and within their means. I understood within days of my stay here why thousands of Namibians have found home in this island of over 64.5 million inhabitants. However, this picturesque outlook belies the reality on the ground. My first contact with poverty was a homeless man finding shelter near a university building with just a sleeping bag to keep the elements at bay. I was astounded by this and enquired from one of the local students about this unusual situation. He retorted: ‘He is not the only one, there are many others who have no means to provide for themselves.’ Indeed, he is not the only one. A startling revelation is that 1 in 5 people in the UK live below the poverty line. Last year, the Office of National Statistics estimated 4.6 million people lived in persistent poverty from 2010-2013, while 19.3 million people experienced poverty at least one year in that period. Without going into the debate about absolute poverty and overall poverty and their definitions, it should be pointed out that these figures are alarming.
Armed with this knowledge I set off to visit the Cardiff Food Bank that operates 6 sites within the city of over 346 000 inhabitants. At one of their warehouses located in a serene business centre, I found close to 15 people busy packing and sorting out hundreds of items that have been donated. There is currently no law which compels retailers to donate wasted food to charity – unlike the French who last year passed a law which bans the destruction of left-over food in a bid tackle waste. Last year, close to a million people were fed through food banks in the UK, and there is still added pressure on government to consider a new law to cut down on food wastage.
The food banks in the UK rely on the goodwill of ordinary citizens, charities and churches who donate tinned and packaged food items at retailers and other avenues. This makes room for a system that incorporates all and sundry; government, civil society, ordinary citizens and businesses.
The warehouse I visited serves as the dispatch for the 6 sites where the actual distribution of food takes place. Here, food items are catalogued and neatly packed before they are transferred to the various sites as per daily orders that are made by the administrators. This eliminates any oversupply and therefore makes for an efficient system of accountability, I am told. And they do not take perishable goods – so no bread or fresh fruits and vegetables. The reason for this is not complicated: they simply do not want to have food rot in their warehouses or distribute food that have reached their-sell-by-date, posing a health risk to the recipients.
The distribution of food works on a voucher referral system where recipients are referred to the food bank by other organisations and frontline professionals. This means, the food bank cuts down on administration costs as other organisations and agencies along the chain help to identify the needy. This in my view, should be an idea worth exploring in our case. A lean structure will help our food banks to focus on its mandate instead of creating a bureaucracy that competes for meagre resources and endless paperwork. We already have a system in place of social workers at Ministries such as Gender and Child Welfare, Health and Social Services and Poverty Eradication, plus we have regional councillors who identify the most vulnerable when it comes to other governmental services. These structures can serve as an extension of the referral system. In this way, we will eliminate the recruitment of a bloated structure to administer the programme.
Another aspect worth emulating is volunteerism. I was impressed by the number of volunteers roped in who sacrifice their time and energy to help their fellow human beings. Here, I met selfless elderly ladies who volunteered at the food bank for over 20 years. They went about doing their thankless tasks with so much love, knowing that their small contribution helped to make society a better place. If this is replicated in our own programme, it will create the necessary ownership and goodwill needed to drive projects of this nature successfully.
Additionally, I met two former inmates who informed me that they were part of a rehabilitation programme that helps them acquire the much-needed work experience and references before they apply for other jobs. I know our model places emphasises on the youth who will receive some form of compensation to help administer the programme. In the same vein, I suggest that the programme should also be open to former inmates to help them get involved in interventions that uplift their communities. I am sure this will open an avenue to re-integrate them into society.
I am also optimistic that as the programme nears full implementation there will be an opportunity for us all to make an input to make a success of the food bank. However, we cannot ignore the fact that this is one of those low-hanging fruits that can be implemented with minimal fuss and help ameliorate the bleak situation facing many urban Namibian families. We do not need to wait this long!
Kazembire Zemburuka is a broadcaster by profession, currently a post-graduate student in the UK. These comments are made in his personal capacity.