On the menu in Kenya: kale laced with lead and fries cooked in industrial oil

Take a bite of Nakumatt.
Take a bite of Nakumatt.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
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Food staples sold in open-air markets and supermarket chains in Kenya may be laced with toxins, according to a report by local media group the Nation.

Nutrition students at Kenyatta University in Nairobi found milk samples with higher-than-recommended amounts of hydrogen peroxide and formalin, commonly used as a disinfectant. Bananas, apples, oranges, and mangoes, as well as fruit from three supermarkets in Nairobi, contained high levels of calcium carbide—a chemical used to make fruit ripen quicker that is also used in welding.

Researchers also found high levels of lead in sukuma wiki, or kale, one of the country’s most commonly eaten vegetables. Investigators tested samples of fries and mandazi, a kind of bun, and found traces of oil used in transformers. (Oil stolen from transformers has been known to be used for frying fish, chips, and cassava in roadside stalls.)

This isn’t the first time food safety has come under scrutiny in Kenya, where it is managed by 17 different agencies (pdf) and over 20 laws. Previous studies have discovered sukuma laced with levels of heavy metals and coliform, a bacteria found in animal and human fecal matter, beyond what the World Health Organization deems safe. Food in some parts of Kenya have some of highest rates of aflatoxin contamination in the world, a byproduct of a fungal growth that is linked to liver cancer, immune system damage, and stunted growth in children.

Worries about food safety and the country’s rising rates of cancer are giving businesses that focus on “farm to fork” products an opening. Kenya-based organic home delivery services have begun cropping up, like Kalimoni Greens, founded by a former marketing executive, Kitchen Soko by former tech execs, and Mlango Farm, run by a couple with a farm outside of Nairobi.

What’s particularly interesting, according to Bitange Ndemo, an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s business school, is how these upstarts are investing in logistics—like their own dedicated delivery fleets—to get around the shortcomings of the current infrastructure, which could be partly to blame for substandard food safety. As Ndemo wrote in an editorial in November, “technology-enabled farming and distribution will create the next billionaires right here in Kenya.”