A growing number of Kenyans are going hungry as Covid takes its toll

What you need to know:

  • Over half of households (51 per cent) say that they strain to get enough food to eat daily with their consumption having declined in the past few months, a new survey has revealed.
  • Two in three  families could not go more than a day without needing to get food if there was another lockdown. 
  • Today, more Kenyans are food insecure and undernourished than over a decade ago, reveals a Newsplex review of food security data.

The proportion of families struggling to put adequate food on the table is at an all-time high amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Over half of households (51 per cent) say that they strain to get enough food to eat daily with their consumption having declined in the past few months, a new survey has revealed.

The share of families that could not go more than a day without needing to get more food if there was another lockdown doubled to 60 per cent in the fourth quarter of last year from about a third (31 per cent) in the second quarter, according to the survey by Twaweza East Africa, a research organisation.  About a fifth of the food-insecure families say they have no food available at home at all.

Those living in Nairobi and Mombasa, the less educated and casual workers were most likely to report that they did not have enough to eat or any food stored, according to the mobile phone survey done from 18 November to 3 December.

Behind the stark numbers are real Kenyans like Mary Waceke,58, who lost her thriving poultry business during the first government partial pandemic lockdown. 

Having lost her 38-year-old son on Christmas day in 2019, Ms Waceke was still in mourning at the start of 2020, but she found solace in other aspects of her life, like her poultry business that earned her about Sh70,000 a month.

The business enabled her to comfortably provide for her five other children until the government announced a lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 “When President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a partial lockdown, all the hotels that I supplied with chicken and the road hawkers who were my customers closed shop” she recalls.

 “I had to pay rent, buy chicken feeds and feed my family. I made a lot of losses until it reached a point where it was very difficult to feed my family,” she adds.

Besides her poultry business, Ms Waceke, who is HIV positive, also leased a farm where she grew vegetables and fruits, but the owner of the land threw her out late last year.

“She wanted her piece of land back and so my poultry house and some of the vegetables I had planted in the farm were gone just like that. I did not even get time to salvage anything,” she says.

Since she was HIV positive and was on anti-retroviral drugs, lack of proper nutrition took a great toll on her.

Things got worse for her when Kenya was hit by a stockout of Septrin last year, a vital drug that is taken daily by HIV patients to fight against opportunistic infections. There is still a shortage of the drugs at the clinic where she gets her medication.

Through a support group for women living with HIV, in Kiembeni, Mombasa, Ms Waceke has been getting food and medication aid from local leaders and well-wishers. After depleting her savings, Ms Waceke moved from her rental house in Kiembeni estate to Kashani Florida village in Kisauni constituency.

“It reached a point where I could not pay Sh15,000 rent. A friend of mine showed me a place in Kashani where I came to an agreement with the owner of the land, that I would put up an iron sheet structure and pay in instalments,’’ she explains.

Since the beginning of the year, her women’s group has not received any donations, worsening her situation. 

Mary Waceke outside her poultry house.

Photo credit: Brian Osweta | Nation Media Group

With a 35-year old mentally unstable son to take care of, she now depends on her three daughters aged between 20 and 25, who do online jobs to help feed her family, as she looks for other means to bring food to the table.

Too many families, just like Waceke’s, are also struggling to meet their basic needs.

Of households in need of prescription medicine, a fifth are running very low on stocks, and a further third have no more than a week’s worth of supplies, according to the Twaweza survey.

Respondents say Covid-19 restrictions have dealt negative impacts on families. Over half (56 per cent) report that their economic situation has got worse and over a third (35 per cent) say they lost jobs or business opportunities.

One in five families blame increased prices of food and other necessities for their plight.

Food insecurity was already a major problem in Kenya even before the pandemic with the country’s general food security situation on a steady decline for over a decade.

Today, more Kenyans are food insecure and undernourished than over a decade ago, reveals a Newsplex review of food security data. The number of hungry (undernourished) Kenyans is growing, reaching about 12 million in 2017, or one in every four people. The figure was a 12 percentage-point increase from more than 10 million a decade earlier, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Stunting record

In 2017, one in four (26 percent) children under five in Kenya were stunted (too short for their age) an improvement from a third (35 percent) in 2012 but still placing the country’s stunting record the 40th worst out of 77 countries for which data was available.

Kenyans say education, health and the informal sector are the most badly affected by the economic effects of Covid-19, shows the Twaweza survey. Two in three Kenyans reported that education was the most negatively affected by impacts of Covid-19.

Last year schools were closed on March 15 and did not open for the rest of the year, except for about three million Grade Four, Standard Eight pupils and Form Four students who returned to school in mid-October after staying home for about seven months.  The remaining 10.5 million primary and secondary school learners returned at the start of this year.

During the closure, one out of six homes with learners who are out of school due to the pandemic restrictions were not learning at all, according to a Survey on Socioeconomic Impact of COVID-19 on Households by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.  A majority (58 per cent) used self-learning at home.

About two thirds of Kenyans who took part in the Twaweza survey, felt informal sector ( jua kali) businesses like Ms Waceke’s were gravely affected by the pandemic while a third felt that the tourism sector was worst-hit.

Kenyans say the government could do more to cushion citizens from the effect of the pandemic.  Three in five Kenyans say the government should provide grants and funds to businesses to help them recover economically, more than any other suggestion. This is followed by employment creation (54 per cent) and funds or loans for young people to start businesses.

 Tax relief (32 per cent) was also widely cited.

The government last year responded to the crisis with personal income tax cut that favoured those in formal employment and big business with limited benefits for those in the informal sector and the poorest.

The Twaweza survey collected data from 3,000 respondents who were selected using random sampling and statistical weightings to ensure it is fully representative at national level, for rural and urban areas, as well as for Nairobi and Mombasa.