Street family

A homeless mother with her two children sort out their belongings along Uhuru Highway on September 26, 2021.

| Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

More Kenyans have sunk into poverty, new report reveals

What you need to know:

  • Findings show government’s heavy investment in infrastructure will take longer to realise returns.
  • Kenyans living in poverty increased from 38.9 per cent to 53 per cent of the population between 2014 and 2018.

Millions of Kenyans have sunk into poverty during President Kenyatta’s administration, indicating a mixed economic legacy for the outgoing Head of State, whose government has spent billions of shillings on infrastructure projects and overseen Kenya’s jump into the category of lower middle income countries.

A new report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) shows the number of Kenyans living in poverty has jumped by 15 percentage points since 2013 when the Jubilee Party took over power from former President Mwai Kibaki. 

The SDG [Sustainable Development Goals] Fact Sheet 2021 survey released last Friday shows the number of Kenyans living in poverty increased from 38.9 per cent to 53 per cent of the population between 2014 and 2018. Living in poverty is considered as more than just the lack of income; it encompasses lack of access to healthcare, education, decent shelter and other basic services.

“This means more Kenyans are losing ability to purchase essential commodities for survival since their incomes have fallen below what can afford such commodities. It’s a surprising study,” Mr John Mutua, a programme coordinator at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said.

He added that the survey findings are an indicator that the government’s heavy investment in infrastructure projects will take longer to make returns and could currently only be benefiting a few people directly involved in their development.

“Kenyans are still not reaping much from agriculture, which employs most people in the economy, due to low value addition,” he added.

With Kenya’s current population estimated at 53.77 million as per World Bank data, the 53 per cent poverty level translates to about 28.5 million people living in deprivation.

The wide-ranging survey also captures some key achievements of the Jubilee administration. 

Schools with access to electricity have increased from 82.6 per cent in 2016 to 97 per cent in 2019, the proportion of births attended by skilled personnel has risen from 61.8 per cent in 2014 to 70.2 per cent in 2017, while households using clean energy have gone up to 25.4 per cent in 2019 from 14.6 percent in 2016.

National poverty line

The number of Kenyan children enrolling in organised learning facilities has increased from 71.8 per cent in 2014 to 77.2 per cent in 2018, while the death rate due to road traffic injuries has dropped from 11 per 100,000 people in 2014 to seven in 2018.    

The report shows that, by 2016, 36.1 per cent of men in Kenya lived below the national poverty line, as the proportion of women under the same category was marginally higher, at 36.2 per cent. It adds that, in 2016—just a year before the 2017 General Election when President Kenyatta was re-elected—children aged 17 and below constituted the largest group of the population living below the national poverty line.

Almost half of the age group (41.5 per cent) lived below the national poverty line. Following closely, elderly citizens aged over 70 also had 39.1 per cent of their population living below the poverty line, and 36.2 per cent of the population aged 60 to 69 also living in the same difficult circumstances.

The report shows that even the youth—aged 18 to 35 years—who recorded the lowest number of those swamped in poverty, had 29.1 per cent of its population living below the national poverty line.

According to the World Bank, the international poverty line is defined as having an income of less than $1.90 per day (Sh214.7 as per current exchange rate). The World Bank further sets poverty line for lower middle income countries, where Kenya belongs since 2014, at $3.20 per day per person (about Sh361.60).

In 2018, the report further states, 54 per cent of women in Kenya lived in poverty, while 52 per cent of men were in economic hardship.

But just five years earlier, in 2014, the national average of Kenyans living in multidimensional poverty was 38.9 per cent of the population. The 2014 research categorised poverty in terms of urban and rural areas, finding that, while 20.3 per cent of urban dwellers lived in poverty, almost half of the rural dwellers—48.4 per cent—were poor.

The deteriorating state of Kenya’s performance could be as a result of its transitioning from a low- income country (LIC) to a lower middle-income country (LMIC) by World Bank standards in 2014, which meant that standards by which poverty is measured changed- including increasing the amount that qualifies one beyond poverty line from Sh92.4 to the Sh155.7 wage per person per day.

The jump to lower middle income country status has been achieved on the back of heavy domestic and foreign borrowing, raising Kenya’s total debt level to nearly 70 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Basic commodities

“The rate at which the government has been borrowing has led the country into a debt trap, where to service the loans the government has had to raise prices of basic commodities, escalating the cost of living and pushing more Kenyans below the poverty line,” Dr Samuel Nyandemo, an economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi, said.

The report contradicts earlier reports indicating that, Kenya’s poverty situation had reduced over time, but could also explain impact of the tough economic conditions Kenyans have been living under, with a weakening shilling, growing public debt obligations and rising taxes for basic commodities.

KNBS data shows that prices of basic commodities such as sugar, maize flour, sukuma wiki, cooking gas and petrol have increased by up to 46 per cent since 2013. For instance, while a kilo of sukuma wiki cost Sh34 in 2013, by 2018—the latest available data at KNBS—a kilo of the produce cost Sh48.61, a 46.2 per cent price increase.

Also, while a kilo of sugar cost Sh122 in January 2013, the sweetener is currently retailing at Sh135, representing a 10.7 per cent increase in price over the 10-year period. 

January 2020 was the only period Kenyans enjoyed lower prices of the commodity, retailing at Sh108.79.
Maize flour, which is currently retailing at up to Sh145 depending on the brand, sold at Sh112 in 2013 and remained below Sh120 up to 2017. The product’s current price represents an increase of between 11 per cent and 30 per cent, over the 10 years. 

Petrol has seen its price increase by 16 per cent between 2013 and 2022 from Sh112 to Sh130 per litre. Between 2017 and 2022, however, the product’s price has increased by 35 per cent, from Sh96.88 per litre.

The report also indicates that, the proportion of population covered by social protection systems reduced from 78.3 per cent in 2018 to 63 per cent in 2019—even before the global Covid-19 health pandemic struck and ravaged economies.

The SDG Fact Sheet 2021 shows the population covered by the safety nets by sex, distinguishing children, the unemployed, the elderly, persons with disabilities, pregnant women, newborns, work-injury victims and the poor and the vulnerable. It shows that, while 67.3 per cent of male Kenyans were covered in 2018, a proportion of almost 10 per cent more Kenyans were uncovered in 2019, with only 57.7 per cent covered.

Severe food insecurity

Also, while 87.3 per cent of females in Kenya were covered by social protection systems, only 67 per cent were covered in 2019. On food insecurity, the report indicates that the average income of small-scale food producers in the country by 2020 was Sh16,131, with males contributing Sh11,422 and females Sh6,679.

It states that, by 2016, there was a 19.1 per cent prevalence of severe food insecurity among Kenyans, and a 56.5 per cent moderate prevalence.

This revelation comes close to last year’s Global Hunger Index (GHI) report, which ranked Kenya as having a level of hunger considered serious, with a score of 23. 

GHI continues to rank Kenya lowly among countries with secure food systems, and over the past two decades has only managed to cross from alarming to serious hunger levels, with most strides made during President Kibaki’s tenure. 

The most notable efforts towards reducing Kenya’s hunger index were made when Mr Kibaki was in power, between 2003 and 2012, the GHI reports show.

While just two years before President Kibaki rose to power in 2000, Kenya’s hunger index was 36.7 (indicating it was at alarming levels), by 2006, the index had reduced to 31.2 points and 25.4 (serious levels) by 2012, just shortly before he left office.

Between 2012 and 2021, Kenya has only moved two points to the current 23. The GHI report last year showed that a quarter of Kenyan children under five years are stunted (having low height in comparison to age), while almost the same number (24.8 per cent) of the population in Kenya is undernourished (measuring inadequate food supply as an indicator of hunger). The World Bank in November 2020 reported that Covid-19 had worsened Kenya’s poverty situation.

“Kenya has made considerable progress with poverty reduction over the last years, but COVID-19 has destroyed the livelihoods of many Kenyans, pushing an estimated two million people into poverty. A swift and well-targeted response is needed to protect livelihoods and avoid trapping more people in long-term poverty,” Utz Pape, World Bank Senior Economist in the Poverty & Equity Global Practice, said.