The Growth of Factory Farming in Kenya: An Interview with Judy Muriithi

Brighter Green fellow Kwolanne Felix talked with Judy Muriithi, Nairobi-based lawyer, advocate, and founder of Lawyers for Animal Protection Africa (LAPA) in August 2021 about the growth of industrial agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, its drivers and impacts, and the direction of the movement for animal welfare in Kenya.

According to Muriithi, both African governments and the foreign investment community view factory farming as a net positive for increasing food security on the African continent. She asserts the importance of approaching animal advocacy with facts and evidence in order to counter the economic argument that many governments promote. Muriithi talks about her study in Kenya to measure the impacts of factory farms on soil, air, water, and health of neighboring communities. Because animal sentience is not widely recognized nor embraced, Muriithi believes the animal welfare movement must frame its message in terms of consumer protection and public health: poor animal welfare practices ripple out to the environment, the human community, and beyond.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Kwolanne Felix: Can you tell me about yourself and your work?

Judy Muriithi: I finished law school in 2014 and I got admitted to the bar in 2017. Then I went to the coastal region of Kenya where I worked at a law firm and went to court and to hearings, and then I started working at an NGO called Wildlife Direct, an organization in Kenya that deals with conservation, wildlife crime, and incidentals.

I worked with them for a couple of years and then I got a scholarship to go to Lewis and Clark, where I did my Master’s in law, in animal law. Then I decided to start my own organization called LAPA: Lawyers for Animal Protection in Africa. I met Mia MacDonald in Ethiopia at a conference and then we had a chat, and then we met up a year later and I began working with Brighter Green on the Tiny Beam FAI grant.

Kwolanne: What do you think is the main reason factory farming is growing and becoming more popular throughout sub-Saharan Africa?

Judy: You see with Africa, we have so many issues. We have food security issues, the economy is so bad, and the population is growing. So we have to really think of ways to increase the food supply and to take on the fact that we have insufficient food security.

Africa feels like factory farming makes a lot of sense because we look at it in terms of how much employment it’s going to bring to the continent, how much food it’s going to bring. It actually makes a lot of sense in terms of how much output you’re going to give to other countries, in terms of exports and everything else. Even when it comes to the international community, where they are funding Africa, that’s what they are advocating for.

Right now, if you go to a standard primary school and you ask for a textbook, they’ll just say “battery cages for efficient poultry farming”. So you can imagine telling a Kenyan that battery cages are wrong, or that they’re inhumane, they’ll say “wait, that’s the only thing I know”. So it becomes quite hard to tell people not to embrace this, but it’s being embraced quite frequently because of foreign policies mostly, and then the government itself. And it makes economic sense. If it makes economic sense, then definitely the government’s going to take it up.

Kwolanne: What are the conditions for an everyday animal who is in the factory farming system in Kenya?

Judy: First, with the population increase that means there may not be enough land for everyone. So we farm on one acre of property to maximize output. You want to grow plants, you want to have animals, you want to have all these things. So you can imagine an acre of land divided into four parts. So a quarter will go maybe to chicken, another quarter will go to maybe cattle. Then you can have grass, beans, maize.

That’s already a stretch for the ordinary farmer. So what you want to do is increase the number of animals. You put up cages, you put maybe one floor under the floor under another floor. So in a quarter acre of land, you can have maybe ten thousand chickens, or even around twenty thousand. And then maybe with an acre, you can have around 30 cows. But they’re maximizing on profits. The more creative you are in terms of increasing the number of animals you have on a small piece of land, the more smart you seem.

Covid is another factor that has made the agricultural sector boom in an instant. In the past two years, it has become really big, because now people don’t have their white-collar jobs, they’ve been laid off. And so they have to go back to the village and look after the animals or think of something to grow. I would say it’s not as bad as the CAFOs you have in the States, but it’s getting there sooner rather than later.

Kwolanne: Do you think that there are particular types of livestock that have been seeing a boom?

Judy: Yes, poultry and cattle. Because these are the staple animals in our country.

Kwolanne: Are these indigenous or native species or are they international species?

Judy: The native species take the kill, they could be maybe around 70 percent. But if you’re not in the rural areas, in urban areas, you have to take the scientifically improved breeds. Because they need to grow up very fast and start making the sale very fast. The  Masaai still have the traditional kind of systems, but people living in the urban areas, they are using a modified kind of animal. There’s a boom in that.

Kwolanne: You mentioned there are urban settings as well as rural settings. How do you think those settings differ in affecting animal wellbeing?

Judy: I know in the US you have organically grown meat and then the conventional meat, right? It’s the same thing here in Kenya. So in rural areas, they are the organic ones, and then in the urban areas, they need to make the sale quite fast. And so they need the animals to grow very, very fast. They have the very small pieces of land and so they’ll be genetically modified to suit that. So when it comes to animal welfare matters, definitely the one in the urban areas will not comply with animal welfare standards.

But in the rural areas, they revere animals. They will really take care of animals. And the longer the animal is alive, you’re respected because you take care of your family… but if an animal keeps on dying, that means you cannot take care of your family. In urban areas, people think, “oh my gosh, I need to get this kind of money to pay rent”, but in rural areas, animal welfare standards are way better.

When it comes to animal welfare matters, it’s not about how many animals you have, it’s how you are treating them. We cannot say that because communities in the rural areas are eating meat or rearing meat that they are going against animal welfare matters. It all depends on quality, not quantity. In peri-urban areas or urban areas, they maximize the profit rather than the welfare of the animal. They commodify the animal more than in rural areas.

Kwolanne: What are the livestock transportation, manufacturing, and slaughtering processes like throughout Kenya and Africa?

Judy: I did such a study maybe two years back, in 2019, and you could see that animals are really mistreated. Let me give an example. In the slaughterhouse, they would bring maybe around a thousand chickens. They’ll just tie them on a rope, on one leg, in a huge bunch. Then they have a boiler. So they just stick them in, then remove them. Then another machine plucks the wings, and another one cuts the head. It’s so mechanized. Such systems are very inhumane because we definitely know animals should be stunned at the very beginning, but they don’t even have the time. 

My team and I are trying to come up with a study where we can evaluate the effects of such slaughterhouses on the environment and public health. And so we have this proposal to send to donors to get some funding and test the soil, test the people around, and then come up with a scientific paper to show that indeed, bad animal welfare practices impact people.

In such a system, you’re so disconnected from the animal that you don’t even care about anything. For slaughterhouses, the only EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) needed is only for the incorporation but not the subsequent effects of the system. In legal terms they say, once you affect a specific region in terms of environmental aspects, if you come back five years later, it will have changed. There’s not even a law to go back and study it and then find out if indeed it is going as per the initial EIA. You’re not even able to evaluate it, to know exactly how the process is going. 

And so with this study, we’re able to evaluate such things and see from the inception. Then two years later, three years later, four years later, five years later, we can see what exactly should we do better.

Kwolanne: What are your thoughts on the activist movement for animal welfare? What is the public perception of it?

Judy: I think we’re still figuring it out. We don’t even know how to pass on the message, because people don’t really embrace the notion that animals have feelings or animals are sentient. People just resonate with dogs and cats, but not other animals because they’ve been deemed as property and also food.

And so they just think like, “oh, my God, that’s my food! Why are you talking about my food? It doesn’t have feelings!” I think we have yet to figure out how to package the message and tell people that it’s not [only] about what the animal feels, it’s about what you get from how you treat the animal. Because at the end of the day, it’s going to have a ripple effect on us.

Kwolanne: Can you tell me about fighting for better policies on animal welfare?

Judy: What I believe is that when you go to an authority, or an entity which [prioritizes] the economy, you have to give them something that makes sense. You cannot go to the government and tell them, this is not humane, this has negative effects. We need to not go through the process with emotions, we have to come up with facts. This kind of study will be a very important thing in terms of how we’re going to diversify our advocacy activities.

Because see, if you come to me with facts, then I will give you what I have. But if you come at me with emotion, and I’m giving you economics, then we are not on the same path. And I feel like most advocacy entities come up with so much emotion. This is true, yes, but back it up with facts and science.