The ongoing Hollywood writers’ strike has drawn attention to just how far businesses can go to eliminate humans and the cost of their labour from production. Here in Kenya, tea-picking machines were introduced to the great chagrin of workers. 

One change that still seems far from Kenya is the cashier-less supermarket, where money leaves your account as you walk out of the store. Of course, cashier-less services such as Amazon Go are only ever possible because of all the personal data that is continuously collected. Security of the data and privacy are obviously concerning, but its seamlessness makes it very alluring. 

Here in Kenya you still have to hand over your data, but in a process that is not seamless at all. It used to be that you went grocery shopping, paid via mobile money and told the cashier your phone number. That was worrying enough, but now the cashier wants to know your name, and very pointedly too.

“What’s your name?” a cashier asked me the other day after a milk purchase. Incredulous, I breathed out something in response. “Can you speak louder?” the officious cashier asked, clearly enjoying my discomfort. 

The customers waiting in line behind me were wondering what’s wrong. Well, what’s wrong is that I was not best pleased at having to introduce myself in public as if I was new, to prove I had a clean title to the milk I had clearly just bought. It’s milk, not a fridge. 

I think I’m done shopping with mobile money and this grocery store personal data creep. God bless the Central Bank of Kenya and De La Rue’s heirs and successors because now I’m using cash and I’ll be damned if they ask for my name before giving me my change back. At this rate you’ll have to input biometrics before you eat that supermarket pilau. A lawyer to whom I texted my complaint replied that I had no recourse but it still rankles. What if I pay him?

It’s different if you can afford to fuel a car in this economy because the pump attendants are more accommodating when you pay by mobile money. “Niangalie jina gani?” (What name shall I check for?) they always ask. They don’t ask for your name but for a name, any name and you’ll have no problem telling them your name. Funny how that works. Not much to complain about except their galling tendency of demanding you free the pump for a new customer while you’re in the middle of paying them. Apparently, the customer behind you would rather find another petrol station than wait for a single M-Pesa transaction to go through. 

Then there’s the banking app that persists in demanding to track my location. Just as doggedly, I decline. I can imagine the email that would follow if I agreed. “Dear Customer”, it would begin. “You were recently tracked to a raucous nightclub at 3:10 a.m. Further, while at this den of iniquity, you were recorded uttering unprintable Maragoli expletives unbefitting a Fit and Proper Customer of the Bank. This has jeopardised your Maradufu Loan application”.

If you’re ever hungry in this country, you may find yourself at one of these butchery-bar-carwashes, where a la carte menus exist but are beside the point. At these establishments, which sell lots of meat, the butcher will almost always tell you that “huku tunauzanga nusu” (here we sell half a kilo going upwards).

I’m sure it makes excellent business sense, but dear Kenyans, half a kilo is a lot of flesh to eat in a single sitting. Yes, you can always go elsewhere but why not simply serve healthier portions? For example, according to Kenya’s National Guidelines for Healthy Diets and Physical Activity published in 2017, a single serving of meat at each meal should be 30 grams or the size of three fingers. That’s it. That may seem paltry if you’ve been watching lions gorge themselves on buffalo and giraffes in documentaries, but you’re not a lion. You’re a human to whom excessive meat consumption poses serious health risks.

But then, can the government legally regulate food portions? 

In June 2012, the City of New York’s Board of Health banned the sale of sugary drinks (read sodas) in cups containing more than 16 fluid ounces (around 470ml), but the beverage companies, the hospitality industry, chambers of commerce and even street vendors banded together and sued the city. To the dissenting judges, the regulation, though unpopular, was not illegal. But the court held that the board of health had “exceeded the scope of its regulatory authority” and usurped the city council’s law-making powers. 

So always excepting brilliant lawyering, it’s not clear one can regulate food portions. Yet it cannot be right that the minimum amount of food – not the maximum – that one can order at an establishment is excessive for human health. Clearly, we don’t fear bowel cancer enough because if we did, the government would protect the rights of customers to healthier portion sizes and teach Kenyans to eat less like they do elsewhere

There’s no knowing when this could change, the government being the slow behemoth it is. In the meantime, stand up to businesses. Fight for your rights, value, privacy and health.

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