Biting Baby Formula Shortage Eating Our Pockets

The slurp of gurgling milk that Manyala drowns in, refusing to break for air thrills me as much as it worries me in the wake of the worsening infant formula shortage in Kenya.

You see, the young man can gulp down a tin in a couple of days, a damning appetite under the current economic times. I think to myself that if my finances hurtle south, and like most Kenyan middle class, I am a paycheck away from poverty, it will be Manyala’s baby formula that will be one of the first victims on the chopping board of domestic cost-cutting. 

I know most of you have no idea that there is biting a baby formula shortage in Kenya and across the globe, too, because of supply chain woes and a massive safety recall in the US that swept many leading brands off store shelves.

In Kenya where the mean age of childbearing is 28.6 and almost half of the population is below 15 years with 25 percent between 18 and 34, a huge number of parents are yet to enter this world of baby formula.

It is not thrust on your faces like fancy tins of sky-blue glory among the rows of multicolored stuff on supermarket shelves. Rather it is concealed in some corner at the counter selling among others pencils, shavers, and rulers.

What is not concealed though is the prices of the damned tins, which of late have gone past Kes1950.

In my house, however, the small guy has to gurgle, so I make a stop and turn into a Naivas Supermarket with no need for a shopping basket, waving off the guy with the metal detector like we are making a social distancing hug. (I bet all of you have forgotten what those stickers all over building floors instructing you to stay a meter apart mean anymore)

I stroll towards the counter hidden around the isles of consumerism. And to my utter surprise, there are no Nan tins. Looking surprised, I ask the attendant and he says there is a shortage. I turn, rather too enthusiastically, and dial-up Nyar Sindo, “There is no Nan.”

Sad and disappointed, I google and the current infant formula shortages are not unique to Kenya. Covid-19-related supply chain disruptions hit the global market two years ago, sparking the initial round of shortages.

Then in February last year, the US Federal Drugs Association shutdown Abbot Nutritions factory over product recalls citing cronobacter bacteria; worsening the situation. Abbot Nutritions controlled roughly 42 percent of the US formula market. Two infants lost their lives.

The closure of Abbot’s Michigan-based factory triggered fear that there would be a product recall in Kenya but the Kenya National Bureau of Standards (Kebs) assured us that we did not import any of the contaminated American milk.

The matter would have rested easy were it not that the shortage has further disrupted supply chains forcing rich countries such as USA to purchase huge stocks of infant formula from the market and ship them in military aircraft just to underscore the gravity of the matter. 

On the one hand, economists say that when a sharp increase in price stretches the elasticity of demand, we either quit a product or embrace the alternatives. But this game is not that simple, apparently, some infants need specific types of formulas to cope with allergies, sensitivities, and digestive issues as advised by physicians.

So when I turn up at Nyar Sindo’s door with Cow & Gate baby formula, which was conveniently pocket friendly, she said, “no, this will not work.” I tell her if the boy is anything like me he will drink it, after all, we are Manyala, and we can eat anything.

But when she finally agrees to try it, my boy rejects it, apparently, his taste buds have been primed for the elite stuff and now would have none of whatever is available.

It is then I remembered a Professor who taught me some economics. That  milk is an inelastic product, which means that you have to buy it whatever it costs. 

Officially about 34 percent of children use alternative modes of feeding for one reason or another. While it is recommended that women breastfeed exclusively for six months, it can be difficulty in practice especially for working mothers besides a significant number of women who experience problems with breastfeeding.

With just three-month maternity leave instead of the six months, the worst face of capitalism is exposed when it tears mothers away from their children forcing them to make a choice between guilt of survival or regret after quitting. Even with all the paraphernalia of breast pumps and work places built without consideration for women, the struggle is real. 

The anxiety of imagining what the house help is doing to the baby cannot be cured even by CCTV cameras, add to the worry that you are not pumping enough milk to fully satisfy the infant and milk just dries up. All the mamalait, breastfeeding cookies, special teas, flasks of porridge can only do so much when you are barely sleeping taking care of the infant at night. 

So hold your judgement, I know the picture that comes to most people’s head is that this baby formula business is just a problem of middle class women who do not want to breastfeed to maintain perky breasts.

Antonina Mutoro, a researcher for the African Population and Health Research Centre found out that only two percent of women in informal sector were exclusively breastfeeding. She said most could not afford baby formula and were using cow’s milk and porridge to supplement their children’s diet before six months.

The scramble for baby formula hit Manyala’s stocks and my pockets hard and triggered my propensity for bargain hunting. The several trips to various supermarkets, chemists and retail shops first brought me to the attention that there are outlets where you could get Nan at cheaper rates. The first one was a small tuck shop in Syokimau that sells the stuff at Kes1500 which I thought was the bargain until we discovered you can get it at Kes1450 in Umoja.

So this time I was in Umoja and when Nyar Sindo calls, I tell her yes, yes, I know, I had thought about it. Umoja has changed meaning for us and now it is cheap Nan. Forget that this is the first place I lived when I came to this city, forget that it has the largest concentration of my relatives and friends or that its beer tastes like memories, Umoja is now that small chemist that sells Nan at Kes1450.

So I go and a middle aged man with a bald head reading a newspaper considers me keenly. I want to ask if he still sell Nan for Kes1450. Initially I figured he must have been selling old stock. Maybe he got caught up in the shortage but demand was not so high so he had a bit of the old stock. I did not know if he had restocked or not so asking if he still sold it at Kes1450 would tip him off on his mispriced product. So I asked how much the Nan cost, trying to sound nonchalant as possible. He says Kes1450 and he can see me giddy up like I had come across a gullible seller, and I can see him thinking what I am thinking of him and he cannot hold the twitch of his curved mouth.

Najua kile unafikiria, nishawai kukuona hapa, sindio?” So, he had seen me here before, and knew it was just the bargain that had brought me back, and so I was the gullible return customer.

Nilikiua supa nikacheki hio bei, nikafikiriiiia niongeze, but nikacheki hii ni kitu ya watoi. Hakuna haja na mimi upata stock yangu ki-design; hakuna haja juu tu ni ya watoi”.

It is not strange for a middle-aged man with a tinge of white sprouts in his beard to crack it in street lingo with a customer in Umoja. Nor is it strange that a man operating a chemist would proudly tell you they get their stock ki-design, which might as well involve counterfeit or outright theft.

He, however, assures me that his product if genuine, indeed, very safe for my Manyala and even if I want to have it tasted, I can do it at my pleasure. But he does not want to be in the news, which he says, will blow up his sources.

Then, he turns the heat on me, asking, as a journalist, how do we make our money. It is a solid question, with media houses forced to fire journalists to survive how do we as individual journalists survive. Maybe, just maybe, someone would pay Kes20 to read our stories, just maybe, we will survive.

We talk about the baby formula shortage and he articulates the supply chain bottlenecks since the war in Ukraine.

He also divulges details that the government also wants to discourage it because many present-day women do not want to breastfeed as a lifestyle choice. He, however, believes that the product cannot be advertised.

He is partly right because the next day when I pass by Bazaar and buy a tin to compare physical features of the Nan to see if there are obvious markers of counterfeit, I get the same theory. The shortage is because the government wants to discourage the use of baby formula.

Serikali nataka wafanye labelling plainwatoe hii yote, hakuna instructions, just the name Nan the rest plain. But these are products for Europe maybe Nan will change but some of them say they will discontinue so shortage will be bad from next month,” the Indian lady whose shop I have patronized even before Manyala saw the light of day tells me.

Last year, Kenya passed into law the Breast Milk Supplements Regulation and Control Act of 2012 which regulates bottles used for feeding infants, infant formula and complementary foods.

While the law does not say the labels will be blank, it says manufacturers and sellers of breast milk substitutes must ensure consumers understand that breast milk substitutes undermines breastfeeding and suboptimal breastfeeding is a leading but preventable cause of death and serious illness in infants and young children.

The government withstood lobbying to remove the clause during the Regulatory Impact Assessment, Ministry of Health, 2021 where stakeholders held that the clause is misleading, regarding the role of scientifically formulated infant formula.

The government said it was in line with the World Health Organisation guidelines, which has been at the forefront in pushing against marketing of baby formula that discourages women from breastfeeding.

In Kenya, where malnutrition is a leading cause of infant and child morbidity, mortality and hospital admission it will be an interesting trend to monitor in the coming days and months on account of shortage of baby formula on shelves.

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