SIPALLA: Kenyans have right to food, especially during pandemic

Hungry Baringo residents eat wild fruits.  PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Reading about the Peninah Bahati Kitsao, the widow who was boiling stones to feed her eight hungry children reminded me of Kurt’s musings.
  • Before her neighbours came to her rescue on hearing the cries of the children, like Kurt, Kitsao was wondering how she could turn what was around her into food. 

“I wonder how grass tastes like” is a statement that those who, like me, grew up watching The Sound of Music might remember. The little boy Kurt was so hungry that he wondered out loud, what grass tastes like. That statement struck me. And stayed with me.

Reading about the Peninah Bahati Kitsao, the widow who was boiling stones to feed her eight hungry children reminded me of Kurt’s musings. Before her neighbours came to her rescue on hearing the cries of the children, like Kurt, Kitsao was wondering how she could turn what was around her into food. This mother, at her tether’s end, decided to give her children a semblance of hope, a boiling pot of stones as she thought of what to do to find their next meal.


“If you don’t work, you don’t eat!” I have heard this statement repeated often. But it does not apply for many people. It is not that they are unwilling to work, but that they are unable to. Newspapers are awash with news of job cuts, including in the newsrooms. There are many who have lost jobs as a result of the implementation of the necessary social distancing guidelines. There are those who earn a living from the many commuters on the roads, as they hawk their wares, sell water, sodas, provide food (breakfast and lunch) to many office goers. All these are jobs that have shrunk or disappeared and with them, the ability to put food on the table. Those who would employ them to do odd jobs, are now either doing it themselves, in a bid to observe social distancing guidelines, or trying to save an extra coin for a rainy day, or both.

Unfortunately, this is the reality of many Kenyans, especially those living on the margins. Kenyans who survive on piece-meal work, which continues to shrink with people opting to do such work themselves, cleaning, gardening either as they adhere to social distancing instructions or as they cut down on expenses.


The right to food is enshrined in article 43 (a) of the Kenyan constitution (2010). The African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) Right to Food initiative led by Dr Elizabeth Kimani-Murage asserts that: “Every Kenyan has the right to feed oneself in dignity.” Many of our economic and social rights (ECOSOC) also captured in international instruments such as the universal declaration for human rights and Sustainable Development Goal two which aims to eradicate hunger.

Food insecurity especially in urban areas was the discussion of APHRC’s first webinar, bringing together like-minded people to discuss the impact on the pandemic on this basic need. It had Wawira Njiru, founder of Food for Education, an initiative that provides affordable meals to school children and James Smart, a seasoned freelance journalist who has been documenting the impact of the pandemic on small traders who are key to food distribution networks in informal settlements discussing what they are witnessing on the ground.

After the school closures occasioned by the pandemic, Food for Education changed their approach and were supporting the families of the school children, providing care packages as many of these parents depend on shrinking casual jobs to put food on the table. Mr Smart indicated that some traders selling food items such as cereals and pulses had seen a market increase in demand for their wares as families made plans to ensure that they could feed the children who were home from school for an extended break. However, the traders were also incurring increased costs as they procure food items as a result of the restrictions put in place to help control the spread of the COVID-19.

To discuss the research and movement building perspectives we had Dr Kimani Murage, Senior Researcher and Head of the APHRC Maternal and Child Wellbeing Unit, and Emmanuel Atamba, Program Officer, Research and Policy at Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, working with the Route to Food Initiative. We also had Veronica Kirongo, head, Nutrition and Dietetics Unit at Kenya’s Ministry of Health who shared information on the nutrition guidelines put in place by government as part of the Covid-19 response.

Atamba noted that cessation of movement and lockdown measures in some urban centers such as Nairobi and Mombasa had an impact on food distribution. This is because small-scale traders depend on public transport to transport food items (in the boot) from rural and peri-urban centers. This supply chain had effectively been halted by the measures implemented by the government.

Kimani-Murage shared a finding from the Wellcome Trust funded public engagement work where participants identified urban farming as one of the solutions to food insecurity in informal settlements. This is because it would provide a source of food and livelihood as the urban farmers can sell some of the produce to their neighbors. She noted that urban farming is very critical, especially for the most vulnerable households in informal settlements. In the discussions, we highlighted that often, those who live in urban informal settlements experience food scarcity at home, even when there is an abundance of food in the market, owing to limited purchasing power.


The researcher also spoke about the visionary work she is leading, to craft a vision for Nairobi in 2050, where all city dwellers can enjoy food and nutrition security in a peaceful and serene place of cool waters. The team is working on refining the vision that we hope to bring to fruition through a transformed food system where no one will have to worry about food or have to dupe children by boiling stones, in the hope that food will come. Policies to support food production and distribution are the building blocks that will help us realise this dream.