Financial pandemic: How inflation has worsened women’s woes

Rose Akinyi a resident of Kibra slums, Nairobi, at a vegetable stall in Mashimoni area of Laini Saba in Kibra on July 27, 2022. With the hard economic times, her family can no longer afford three full meals a day.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data shows that 30.2 per cent of female-headed households are poor compared to 26 per cent of those led by male.
  • The rise in cost of living exacerbates an already uneven economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, with the gender pay gap worsening an already precarious situation for women, globally.

Christine Nyakundi always takes a cup of tea every evening before she sleeps. The teacher at a school in Embakasi, Nairobi County, is lactose-intolerant and only takes lactose-free milk.

In March, a litre of her preferred brand sold at Sh160. Four months later, the milk costs Sh170, and often out of stock, she says. The brand available regularly goes for Sh203, which is Sh33 above the price of her normal brand. 

“I am forced to buy milk. If I don’t take tea, I wake up feeling sick,” she says. She has three children aged eight, six, and four and they, too, take the same milk.

With Sh1,000, Ms Nyakundi afforded six packets that would last three days. Today, due to the frequent unavailability of her preferred brand, she spends Sh1,218 on an equal number of packets of the alternative brand. To balance the equation, she has regulated the purchase of bananas and apples. “I used to spend Sh100 every two days on bananas. I would also buy apples worth Sh550 per week. The apples that cost Sh165 now go for Sh200, and those for Sh275 now cost Sh300. Unbelievable! I can only buy apples once a month,” she notes.

“I can’t even save,” she says, noting that her net income is less than Sh15,000.

Ms Nyakundi says her responsibility in the family is to cover the food and gas expenses, while her husband takes care of the rest. Gas prices have since risen by more than 33 per cent. A 13kg cylinder of cooking gas rose from Sh1,977 in December 2020, to Sh2,638 in December 2021. She has been hit hard by inflation. Her experience mirrors those of millions of women because they spend more on basic necessities than men.

Kenya’s 12-month inflation rate for June 2022, was 7.91 per cent up from 5.39 per cent in January, according to the Central Bank of Kenya.

A 2019 survey by Max Life Insurance, an Indian-based life insurance company, found women spend nearly 42 per cent of their salary on household expenditure compared to 28 per cent for men.

Notably, in Kenya, 32.4 per cent of households are headed by women. Poverty levels for these households are, however, higher than those led by men.

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data shows that 30.2 per cent of female-headed households are poor compared to 26 per cent of those led by male.

Contrastingly, GenderGap.AFRICA, a tool that calculates gender pay gaps, shows that women make $89 (Sh8,900) less than men per month. Their lesser earnings are further thinned out to meet the cost of highly-priced basic necessities. This leaves them with little or nothing to save.

The rise in cost of living thus exacerbates an already uneven economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, with the gender pay gap worsening an already precarious situation for women.

And so, as inflation continues to rise, so do women flip into extreme poverty.

Already, UN Women and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs has warned that some 34 million women and girls in Sub-Saharan Africa could live in abject poverty in the next decade, thanks to the disruption of empowerment initiatives by Covid-19.

Well, for women, this abject life has come home too soon, listen in as they speak.

Rehema Bakari, Food vendor in Tabata, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

I only make enough to feed the family.

Rehema Bakari serving customers at her business premise in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Edward | Mwananchi, Nation Media Group

“I have to continue doing business because I’m not used to sitting at home; my family depends on this business. The truth, however, is that as prices of essential commodities continue rising, I earn nothing from this business. I am a food vendor and most of my customers are boda boda riders and small business people in this area.

Inflation has also affected many other Tanzanian women in food business. While the prices of products used to prepare food continue to rise, we are forced to still sell our food at the old price of TSh1,500 (Sh76) to TSh2,500 (Sh127) depending on the location. My food goes for TSh1,500 whether it is rice, pilau or ugali.

I have been in this business for five years. I started encountering difficulties last year after the prices of products began to rise.

Previously, I would buy a kilo of rice for between TSh1,500 (Sh76) and TSh1,800 (Sh92), but now I need TSh2,200 (Sh112) to get good rice. If I cook bad rice, the customers run away, so I am forced to buy the expensive brand.

Every day, I buy eight kilos of rice, enough to make plain rice and pilau. I also buy a litre of cooking oil for between TSh5,500 (Sh280) and TSh6,000 (Sh306). I have to use it sparingly for it to be enough for all the food that needs oil.

The price of flour has almost doubled. A kilo that sold for between TSh800 (Sh41) and TSh1,000 (Sh51) two years ago now goes for TSh1,800 (Sh92).

I would buy coconut for between TSh800 (Sh41) and TSh1,000 (Sh51); today, it costs Sh76. A bunch of vegetables that sold for TSh200 (Sh10) now costs TSh500 (Sh25).

TSh1,500 (Sh76) worth of tomatoes used to be enough for a day’s cooking. Today, I need TSh3,000 (Sh152) for the same; a kilo of meat goes for TSh8,000 (Sh408), one fish is TSh2,000 (Sh102), and a kilo of liver is TSh12,000 (Sh612), it is unbearable!

Apart from this expenditure, I still have to pay the lady who helps me, and buy charcoal, onions, salt and other spices.

In short, I spend TSh70,000 (Sh3,600) a day, to ensure the business runs. When I sell everything, I earn TSh85,000 (Sh4,300), a profit of TSh15,000 (Sh700).

This amount may seem large, but two years ago, I earned three times more and would save some for personal and family use. Now I can only get enough to feed the family. Since the beginning of this year, I have not even bought new clothes. I work to satisfy customers and feed my family.”

Zahwa Ashwah, a widowed Palestinian refugee

With all our money going on the generator, we have nothing left for food or medicine. 

By the light of a candle, Zahwa Ashwa heats water over a gas stove in her kitchen during one of the daily power cuts in the Burj el Barajneh Camp in Beirut, Lebanon.

Photo credit: Photo | The Fuller Project

Zahwa Ashwah, a widowed Palestinian refugee, lives at a camp in Lebanon with her three adult children. She believes she is in her 60s. Her children are unable to find work, so the family relies on loans from friends and occasional help from NGOs.

Her comments have been translated from Arabic and edited for length.

“A bag of flatbread used to cost 1,000 Lebanese pounds (LBP) (Sh78).* Now it costs 17,000 (Sh1,300), and we can’t always get it. My son suggested I make my own bread at home. Well, we tried that, but even that was expensive as the flour isn’t affordable any more, and we have to buy the gas to cook it. Cooking gas used to cost 24,000 LBP (Sh1,890), now it is 280,000 LBP (Sh22,000). When we can’t get bread, we cook rice with yoghurt.

Each day we just eat what we have in the house – potatoes, vegetables, sometimes eggs. We cannot buy meat or fish; a kilo of meat is now around 250,000 (Sh19,600). We depend on what others give us, or when they invite us to eat with them.

And there is the electricity crisis. The government does not give us power, we get maybe one hour of mains electricity a week. We have always relied on generators, but now the diesel is so expensive. Before the crisis we paid 100,000 LBP (Sh7,860) for 3.5 amps of power, but now it is 1.5 million LBP (Sh118,000), so we share it with another house. We can’t always run the refrigerator on that, only the lights, certainly not the electric heaters.

Right now, we don’t even have the lights, because the generator cuts out for six hours every day. The food goes bad, and we could not heat the house through the winter. My son got hold of a heater that uses wood for his house, so during the day we would go there to keep warm, but at night when we came home, we had only blankets, and it was very cold. We have been ill, and cold, and living in the dark, it has been so depressing.

With all our money going on the generator, we have nothing left for food or medicine. My daughter got sick from eating ruined food, and we couldn’t afford the hospital treatment. UNRWA helped us with 300,000 LBP (Sh23,600), but we were expected to pay 1.5 million (Sh118,000) more. Friends loaned us the money, thanks be to God, but we haven’t been able to pay them back. Before the crisis, UNRWA helped us more, but now there are many people who need their help, so they can’t meet all our needs. All of us are ill. I have diabetes and need insulin. UNRWA helps me with that.

Crime and violence rates in families are also rising — people are so angry and desperate, I’m worried. We try to stay positive, but right now, things only seem to get worse. Thank God for the help we receive, but we need more.”

Lucy Adala, Senior clinical research nurse in Mombasa

I was a big fan of popular brands. These days, I go for less-known, cheaper brands.

Lucy Adala, a senior clinical research nurse in Mombasa. 

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

“Even with a well-paying job I must admit that I am feeling the pinch of inflation.

Prior to the Covid-19, I would take up to three vacations a year. Today, that’s unthinkable. In fact, since last year, I have not been able to finance such luxuries.

Additionally, I loved outdoor lunches and dinners after work as well as retreats with friends. I have since cut down on the unnecessary spending.

At home, I have downgraded my television subscription package from a premium plan to a cheaper bouquet.

With prices of basic commodities soaring, a big chunk of my salary now goes into household spending.

Interestingly, it has also become very common to experience stock outs of items like maize flour and cooking oil. Even when they are available, they are rationed and you cannot buy in bulk and or on wholesale, which would be cheaper in the long run.

Fuel, in particular, is denting my pockets. Initially, Sh6,000 would be sufficient for fuel to and from work for a whole week. Currently, the same amount can barely last me three days and I’m forced to spend money I would have saved or used for other purposes.

My shopping behaviour has also changed. I was a big fan of popular brands. These days, I go for lesser-known brands, which tend to be cheaper. I find myself exercising financial discipline more than ever before. I am making adjustments here and there to save money because I am paying fees for my youngest child who is in college.

I can definitely say she has also felt the impact of inflation. You see, I have cut back on the amount of pocket money I send her. I also reduced the frequency with which I would send her the money. Initially, I would send her pocket money three times a week; nowadays, I only send it twice. Everyone has had to adjust.

All in all, I count myself lucky that I’m still able to meet my basic needs and those of my family at a time when many people cannot.

Working a nine-to-five job limits the time I have to pursue any side hustles without ripping my employer off. Perhaps if I was in business, I would look for ways to diversify my sources of income. But then, with the tough times, many people are moving into small businesses and the space is becoming flooded.

Like many in formal employment, my only hope is that the government will implement additional measures to cushion us from the biting inflation.”

Francisca Syombua, fruit vendor Umoja, Nairobi

People are shunning fruits and instead using the money to buy essential commodities.

Francisca Syombua a fruit vendor in Umoja estate in Nairobi. She says the ongoing inflation has negatively impacted on her lifestyle.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

“I am a single mother. Prior to this inflation, I would make sales of between Sh1,000 and Sh1,600 a day. Today, I only manage between Sh500 and Sh700.

People are shunning fruits and instead using the money to buy essential commodities like maize flour and cooking oil whose prices have hit the roof. I had to move houses from a Sh3,500 a month house, to one going for Sh1,800.”

Racheal Nyakundi, 37, newspaper vendor in Kisii

I pray the incoming regime makes things better.

Racheal Nyakundi at her place of work in Kisii town on July 27, 2022. 

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

“Apart from selling newspapers, I also sell caps and hats. I am a mother of three, one is a Fourth Year student at the university, the other two are in primary school — one in Class Eight and another in Grade Two.

I am the sole-breadwinner since my husband lost his job months ago. He used to run a printing business; his business premise was, however, demolished by the county government, rendering him jobless, having suffered losses from the destruction of his property. I have since then shouldered the burden of catering for the basic needs at home. The inflation has added to our woes, with increased commodity prices, especially food items.

I have since changed my lifestyle, quickly adapted, with austerity measures, both at my home and work, to cut down on unnecessary expenses and luxuries. I have made painful decisions like pulling out my two children from a private academy and enrolling them in a public school. The free education touted is, however, not a reality — from time-to-time fees and levies are charged by the school. It is, however, cheaper than their former school.

I have also had to cut down on food expenses, for instance, we used to have a farmer deliver fresh milk for our breakfast daily, but I have since stopped that. We no longer have bread or mandazi for breakfast. Instead, we take black tea with potatoes or bananas from our small farm in the morning. I also introduced boiled food to save on the cost of cooking oil that has tripled.

At my workplace, I barely take lunch to save up on my little income. I, at times survive on roasted maize and water. I also started selling betting slips as another income-generating venture to supplement my income. Being that I live out of town, I commute daily using public transport to and from my home in Itumbe. With increased fuel prices, the fare has gone up. I have, however, adapted and comfortably fit into the boot of a Probox vehicle that ferries me at a lower rate.

The high cost of living has led to people no longer buying non-food products that I sell as they did before. For example, I supplied hospitals, banks and hotels with newspapers, many have since discontinued the business or cut down on the numbers. We are living in very hard times but are managing. Generally, my lifestyle and that of my family has taken a whole new approach, I only pray that things get better with the change of government in August.”

Rose Akinyi, resident of Kibra slums, Nairobi

I can’t tell what my family will eat the next day. 

 Rose Akinyi  at her salon located in Mashimoni area of Laini Saba in Kibra on July 27, 2022. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

“I am so tired today. I can’t even walk any longer. I have not eaten in the past 36 hours. And since 6am, I have been walking around Mashimoni and Laini Saba slums here in Kibra, hoping to meet one or two candidates campaigning. They usually dish out Sh200. If I met two, that would be Sh400.

With that, I can buy a two-kilo packet of maize flour and some vegetables to feed my five children and two grandchildren. I feel terrible that I have no food for my daughter who delivered a week ago.

I’m suffering like this because of inflation. I have been running a salon for the past eight years and before 2021, my life was better and my family enjoyed three meals a day.

I used to make a weekly profit of Sh1,600. This was enough to feed my family for a week. I would buy four packets of two kilogrammes at Sh90 each, three kilos of rice at Sh300 and a litre of cooking oil at Sh160.

Every day, I also took quality tea made with two 500ml packets, which I bought at Sh45.

My children loved eating rice with potatoes and cabbage, then crowned it all with thick tea. They loved the meal. The day for rice was a day of celebration. I loved that because my joy as a mother is to see my children happy.

Now, I cannot tell what they are going to eat the next day. And it torments me. I feel horrible.

My customers have stopped doing their hair. When I meet them and ask why they are no longer visiting my salon, they tell me they are spending the money for hair on maize flour and cooking oil. How am I going to survive?

In June, I had only two customers and I made Sh550, out of which I paid the landlord Sh300 to partly cover my Sh1,500 rent for the salon. I have not had a single customer since then.”

I used the remaining money to buy one and a quarter kilo of rice which cost me Sh165. If it was in 2020, I would have spent Sh130 for the same amount.

I also bought a tin of charcoal at Sh50 each. The price has increased from Sh30. I spent the rest on water. I usually buy a 20-liter jerrican of water at Sh5.

We cooked all the rice at once. That was our supper and lunch for the following day.

The last Sh200 I had from doing laundry work, was spent on a single meal and water.

Although the government has reduced the price of a two-kilo packet of maize flour to Sh100, I had to bribe the shopkeeper with Sh30 to sell it to me because there are so many people in need of the flour.

I bought Sukuma wiki for Sh50 and we had ugali with plain Sukuma wiki. It had no cooking oil, no tomatoes and no onions. I cannot afford them anymore. But we had to eat not for our satisfaction, but to keep ourselves alive.

I am in that stage in life that I have completely given up. Whatever happens, let it be.”

Patience Mboni, teacher at Kipevu Primary School, Mombasa

I have had to radically alter the family’s menu.       

Patience Mboni, a teacher at Kipevu Primary School in Changamwe, Mombasa. She is no longer able to take her children out as she did in the past.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool


“If the government can’t bring the cost of living down, then it should increase civil servants’ salaries to help us cope with the harsh economic condition.

In the past, I would take my three children out at least once a month – a way of bonding. This is no longer possible. Due to the prevailing high cost of living, I am only able to afford my favourite delicacy, meat, once a month. I have had to radically alter the family’s menu, with cereals now comprising the largest share of our meals.

I no longer go to the supermarket to buy foodstuff and rely on our local market, which is cheaper.

When I realised that I had to choose between putting aside some money in my Sacco and feeding my family, I chose the latter. The Sh5,000 savings I would make to my Sacco every month now goes to buying food. It was a painful decision but the only option I had.”

What is inflation?

» The International Monetary Fund (IMF) simplifies it as the rate of increase in prices of goods and services over a period of time, usually a year.

It measures the overall spike increase in prices or rise in the cost of living in a country. But it can also be more narrowly calculated — for certain goods such as food or services such as a haircut.

Consumers’ cost of living depends on the prices of many goods and services, and the share of each in the household budget.

How it is measured?

» To measure the average consumer’s cost of living, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics conducts a household survey to identify a basket of commonly purchased items, and track, over time, the cost of purchasing this basket. The baskets vary from one country to another.

In Kenya, it contains food and non-alcoholic beverages, furnishings, household equipment and routine household maintenance. It also constitutes transport, housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels.

The cost of this consumer basket at a given time expressed relative to a base year, is the consumer price index (CPI). And the percentage change in the CPI over a certain period is consumer price inflation, the most widely used measure of inflation.

Kenya’s context

» In Kenya, food and non-alcoholic beverages take the largest share of the CPI. In May, the component’s slice was 12.4 per cent, a rise from 12.15 per cent in April.

Comparably in May, housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels index had a 6 per cent stake, an increase from 5.47 per cent in the previous month.

Ken Gichinga, chief economist at Mentoria Economics, says women are disproportionately affected by inflation as they spend most on food, the largest component of consumer price inflation.

He says women in urban areas feel the pain more since the number of goods and services they pay to access are higher.

Coping mechanism

Further, the urban woman has limited access to cheaper alternatives unlike the rural woman, he says.

“For instance, a woman in the rural area can shift to firewood if kerosene or charcoal becomes expensive. But for the urban woman, the option to shift from gas to charcoal may not make a difference since the prices are equally rising,” he says.

Unfortunately, finding low-cost alternatives is the best way to cope with inflation as Mr Gichinga advises.

By Agatha Gichana, Moraa Obiria, Elizabeth Edward, Esther Nyandoro, Ondari Ogega, Kamau Maichuhie and Katherine Pangonis,

Editor’s note: and The Fuller Project produced this dispatch as part of our ‘Financial Pandemic’ project, a collection of first-hand accounts on how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting the daily lives of women around the world.


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