NEMA could have communicated better on plastics ban

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A day after the ban on use of plastic bags came into force, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) was fire fighting. The online trending headlines were Nema denies shutting down plastic manufacturers; No order for cops to check cars for plastic bags – NEMA and Police, county askaris accused of extortion after plastic ban.

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment Prof Judi Wakhungu gazetted the ban on February 28th, 2017 yet six months later it appears like the grace period was inadequate. Why was this the case? Kenya has previously attempted to ban plastics thrice without success.

This was in 2005, 2007 and in 2011. Now anyone caught breaching the notice is subject to a one to two-year jail term or millions of shillings in fines. Is this the answer?

No one doubts that the increased use of plastic bags is a leading cause of environmental degradation. It is also widely accepted that poor disposal of the bags contributes greatly to that degradation.

Whether thrown in a garbage dump, or simply flung into the air by a careless person, the plastic bags dance to the ebb and flow as the wind carries them wherever it pleases. In rainy seasons, the impact is experienced the most as water fails to flow in the clogged gutters mostly due to non-biodegradable dirt such as the plastic bags.

Instead of celebrating the ban however, people panicked. Warning messages urged people to throw away all plastic in their handbags and vehicles because police were doing random inspections. Flower and tree growers and sellers sensed loss of business; their trade thrives on their ability to grow the plants in the plastic papers and sell them as such ready for transplanting.

Questions on NEMAs communication strategy then become the focus. While the objectives may have been clear (to foster a clean and healthy environment for all), the authority failed in delineating its audience and the concerns that each audience may have had in relation to the matter. This ambiguity led to the roadside plant nursery industry’s concern, the manufacturers declared loss of 60,000 jobs and the shoppers were left confused wondering what alternatives they had.

The enforcement strategy was also lacking. NEMA created a vacuum by failing to outline their actions leading to other people taking advantage and forcing the authority to run and announce that neither the police nor the county askaris had been assigned the role. With all the plastic bags now hoarded in the houses and offices, NEMA has promised to come back with a message on appropriate disposal methods later creating another vacuum with the lack of a timeline.

In all of six months between gazettement and implementation, NEMA had time to be more clear and engaging in its messaging. We have seen goats and cattle rummaging through dumps full of plastic in the city. The savannah countryside where the ranchers and nomadic people graze their herds is also now competing with a rainbow of plastic papers and the animals are eating them.

What impact does that have on the health of the animal? What impact does it have on the consumers of the meat on the other side of the food chain? What impact does it have on economics especially because some of the animals will die before their time?

All these are messaging opportunities that NEMA could have utilised. They could have been more graphic such as use of video and short films, more story telling on radio and television to ensure that as many people as possible get to hear the message and know why the ban was necessary as well as what to do.

More important however, is the authority’s ability to work through its communication/Public Relations strategy and clearly define the objectives of its campaign, the target audience as well as the key messages of the campaign. This would be followed by the tactics that will reach each target audience.

Hopefully, NEMA intends to evaluate the plastic bags ban campaign and will draw useful lessons for the future. It is hoped that they will realise that imposing a fine of more than a million shillings on people who have never seen that amount of money is out of turn and the alternative of a year in jail is ridiculous. This is simply creating avenues for the enforcers of the ban to engage in corrupt deals to ‘free the victims’.

In the meantime, it must not let its moment in the limelight fade into oblivion. NEMA should engage all its audiences and point them to solutions, provide answers to questions and do so in a timely fashion.

(Jane Gitau is a Communications Consultant and Chair, The Chevening Kenya Alumni Association as well as the Chair, Public Relations Society of Kenya. Contact email: [email protected])

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