Kenya today, 54 years after independence, is supposedly a ‘food secure’ nation, producing enough food to adequately feed each of its estimated 46-48 million citizens.
What is a most baffling dilemma though is that while the economy has steadily been on the rise, its ability to feed its people has been on the decline. Resolving this dilemma has been a critical challenge for the incumbent government and to previous regimes since 1963.
According to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (2008) more than half of the country’s population eats less food than required on a daily basis. One in every four Kenyans is critically food poor meaning that even if they spent all their income on food, they still wouldn’t be able to meet minimum dietary requirements. We live precariously with hunger on our doorsteps.
The hunger I am talking about here is not just the occasional physical sensation of an empty stomach – we are not just talking about hunger pangs.I am talking about the continuous inability of many Kenyans to adequately meet basic nutritional standards needed for an active and healthy life. It deprives a significant portion of our population the ability to realise their full potential as productive citizens.
One of the most basic requirements of any state is the ability to feed its people. A healthy population translates into a productive population. Kenyans should not be sleeping hungry or getting insufficient nutrition 54 years after independence in a country whose economy largely depends on agriculture and livestock production.
Different attempts by successive governments to resolve the situation have been biased towards technical solutions that are aimed at increasing food supply such as large-scale irrigation projects (Galana-Kulalu comes to mind) and input subsidies on seeds and fertilisers. During crises, price subsidies on processed food – particularly maize flour – have been implemented. Indeed, such a programme is currently underway.
Unfortunately, even after billions of shillings have been invested in various irrigation schemes, there is little to show for it. The money ends up in a few well-connected politicians and corrupt business people’s pockets. Essentially, the money is stolen.
According to Kenya’s Deputy President Ruto, the country harvested a record 42.5 million bags of maize in 2015, the best performance in our history, yet a year later in 2016 people were dying of hunger and in 2017 the government had to call for international food aid while introducing maize flour subsidies.
Experts argue that our food shortages are artificially induced. Corrupt politicians and civil servants collude with business cartels to create artificial shortages and distribution bottlenecks which result in price hikes. These individuals are then licensed to import maize duty free and make a kill selling on to the government. This has happened consistently for the last few decades, always around elections time.
Additionally, our food security challenge is inextricably linked to poverty. The Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey of 2005-2006 indicated that most people spend approximately 40%-60% of their income on food. This clearly demonstrates that food is too expensive and that the majority of Kenyans have low incomes. Essentially, we work to eat. Could one then be allowed to argue that our poverty is deliberately induced by government to keep us dependent in order to line a few well-connected thieves’ pockets?
Going forward, food security interventions should be cognisant of this context and should attempt to ease the burden of the most vulnerable even as broader poverty eradication efforts are pursued. Time-capped subsidies on processed maize flour, only available in certain neighbourhoods do precious little to alleviate chronic food insecurity. In truth, most of the grand food security solutions only provide grand opportunities for unsustainable interventions, mega corruption and profiteering on the misery of many.
The time has come to explore alternative approaches such as direct cash transfers to the most needy or even monthly basic income disbursements to significant portions of the population. These would at the very least grant recipients the dignity to choose suitable nourishments. Not everybody wants porridge for breakfast and ugali for lunch and supper.
In an election year, it is telling that an officially declared national crisis and another maize scandal is receiving cursory attention from our political leadership. Clearly, citizen demands and expectations have not made ongoing hunger politically costly, especially for the regime in power. Wananchi have little to lose and therefore our political elites have everything to gain. Politicians belonging to the current administration are bribing voters with packets of maize flour. Our political organisation remains a rudimentary coalescing around individuals whose claim to leadership is an ability to mobilise ethnic passions. History has proved it a tall order to organise on anything else other than ethnicity.
But, hunger knows no tribe. There is no Kiosk or special food market in Kenya with lower or higher prices to benefit or punish certain ethnic groups or political affiliations. There are no special shops for supporters of the Jubilee Party, which exclude supporters of the opposition parties. We all suffer the same. Many Kenyans who suffer from chronic hunger are manipulated through politicking and the promise of food. Sadly, in this way, the power of millions to demand change is lost.
While the food security outlook does not appear hopeful, there are examples of unity amongst citizens that we can learn from. For example, the labour movement has shown us how citizens or organisations can transcend ethnic barriers when their interests are threatened. During the doctors’ strike earlier in the year, attempts to divide individuals on the basis of the ethnicity of their union’s leadership flopped spectacularly.
The influential Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) has also staged industrial action against different regimes with all members united behind the cause irrespective of the ethnic background of the union’s leaders or that of the nation’s leaders. Only a similar unity of purpose in demanding that our constitutional Right to Food be respected could move our political leadership to act innovatively and decisively to ensure no Kenyan struggles for food in the 21st century.
The poor must stand together and demand their interests be addressed. We must start organizing on the basis of our interests, such as adequate food and nutrition, good health, security etc. as opposed to ethnicity. It’s time for us to build horizontal solidarity on the Right to Food as opposed to vertical solidarity with our ethnic kingpins based on their manufactured grievances as opposed to our real interests.
We either stand together for our interest, the Right to Food, or die individually.
Mutemi is a Social Justice Advocate, Social Accountability Champion, Human Rights Defender and a champion for “Wanjiku’s (the common person)” interests. @MutemiWaKiama @WanjikuRevolution on Twitter.