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Essential food items like tomatoes and cooking oil are fast becoming luxury commodities.

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We can’t breathe: Kenyans choke under cost of living

What you need to know:

  • Essential food items like tomatoes and cooking oil are fast becoming luxury commodities.
  • The rise in the cost of basic commodities pushed inflation from 5.78 percent in February to 5.9 percent in March 2021.


Wangare Kang’ethe, a greengrocer in Nairobi’s sprawling Pipeline Estate, jokes that she is rich because her small kiosk is the only one selling healthy-looking tomatoes.

A spot check vindicates her, as most estate greengrocers are barely able to stock tomatoes on their shelves. 

“A case of tomatoes now goes for around Sh15,000. We used to get it at Sh10,000 or even Sh5,000. Right now one tomato retails at Sh10 at the market. Or two for Sh25, or even more,” said Ms Wangare in an interview.

Many Kenyans have had to adjust their lifestyles after the cost of basic items rose beyond their reach in recent months.

Essential food items like tomatoes and cooking oil are fast becoming luxury commodities, with most households having to seek alternatives or do without them.

As if the rising prices of green vegetables are not enough to make Kenyans hold tightly onto the few coins they come by, the taxman delivered worse news by reinstating value-added tax (VAT) on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). This means that, from July 1, households will pay at least Sh350 more for cooking gas.

Why cost of living for Kenyans may not go down any time soon

Cutting household budget

“I had to effect a 360-degree change to my household budget. I did not go for drastic measures such as telling members of my family that we will be skipping a meal, but I had to find ways of making sure food was on the table without drilling a huge hole in my pocket,” said Ms Carole Kimutai, a city resident.

One of the things she had to do was start a kitchen garden outside her house. She started by growing her own vegetables including onions, lettuce, rosemary, kales and chillies to supplement her vegetable requirements.

What she does not grow at her kitchen garden she sources directly from farmers, effectively doing away with exploitative middlemen. She says she has devised a way of sourcing other food items such as cereals.

Her saving grace is the high number of wholesale stores tucked in the busy streets of Eastleigh, from which she and her friends jointly buy foodstuffs.

“I used to do all my shopping at the supermarkets, but this has helped cut my budget by 15 per cent,” said Ms Kimutai.

The rise in the cost of basic commodities pushed inflation from 5.78 percent in February to 5.9 percent in March 2021. Inflation has been rising steadily over the past seven months, from 4.2 percent in September last year to the current 5.9 percent.

This is, however, still within the government’s target range of between 2.5 percent and 7.5 percent. Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) Director-General Macdonald Obudho said the month-on-month food and non-alcoholic drinks’ index increased by 0.35 per cent between February 2021 and March 2021.

Increase in prices

“This food inflation was mainly attributed to an increase in prices of some food items, which outweighed the decrease in prices of other foodstuffs,” Mr Obudho said.

KNBS said the prices of mangoes, green grams and tomatoes increased by 1.97, 1.58 and 1.58 percent, respectively. On the other hand, prices of onions (leeks and bulbs), maize grain-loose and fortified maize flour decreased by 2.98, 1.96 and 1.94 percent, respectively. The year-on-year food inflation rose by 6.65 percent between March 2020 and March 2021.

The housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels’ index increased by 0.59 percent between February 2021 and March 2021. This was mainly attributed to the increase in prices of kerosene and electricity by 5.79 percent and 5.19 percent respectively.

Over the same period, the month-on-month transport index increased by 1.49 percent mainly due to a rise in the prices of diesel and petrol by 5.58 percent and 6.57 percent, respectively. For Mr Barasa Kizito, feeding a family of five is increasingly becoming difficult.

“I had to cut on so many things. A loaf of bread is now Sh55. This means Sh100 is no longer enough to buy milk and bread,” he lamented. Bread is a common food item on breakfast tables across the country and any price increase hits many hard.

Mr Kizito says when the going gets tough, he has to walk to his place of work in Industrial Area, Nairobi, to save money for milk.

The price of petroleum products has been on a steady increase, affecting bus fares and the cost of various items on account of rising cost of production.

Survival for the fittest

Bus fares have been increased owing to the Covid-19 containment measures that dictate that PSVs can only carry 60 percent of their capacity.

“When analysing prices, we have to look beyond supermarkets. Prices are largely dictated by manufacturers, who supply supermarkets. They are also influenced by market forces. For example, flour prices will be determined by the farm-gate prices of maize and international wheat prices. You will also note that sugar prices are always volatile. That’s because manufacturers’ sugar prices change every week,” said Mr Adrian Kibai from Bei ya Ukweli, a popular research platform that compares prices of key items from various supermarkets.

“Unfortunately, it has come to a point where survival will be for the fittest. The pandemic has brought about many things, people losing jobs and businesses collapsing. Some people had emergency funds and were able to survive for some time. However, we all had to have honest conversations with ourselves and figure out what is essential and what is not,” Ms Felista Wangari, a financial literacy champion and leader of an online personal finance community on Facebook called 52-week Savings Challenge Kenya, opined.

And the situation has not been helped by excessive borrowing by most people due to the ease of accessing quick loans offered by mobile loan apps. Another factor that is making it hard for people to feed their families is carelessness.

Ms Wangari argues that, instead of carefully budgeting for their money, most Kenyans spend it on frivolous things. Another factor, she says, is “black tax”.

“I think we are all guilty of this; lending money beyond our income, whether it is to friends, close family members and other relatives. And sometimes it can be difficult to say no because maybe it is a friend who has lost a job and is borrowing from you to buy food for their family,” she says.

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