On hunger, and a nation in need of a conscience

While majority of Kenyans sleep hungry, the political class and other elite are chocking under the weight of too much food, little exercise and no worries for the country. FILE PHOTO |

What you need to know:

  • The poorest 10 percent consume on average 918 calories per day, which is slightly over half of daily requirement.
  • The wealthiest ten percent consume on average 3,330 calories, which is twice the minimum daily requirement and three and a half times the consumption of the poorest lot.

Hunger stalks this land. One third of the respondents to Ipsos Synovate’s latest opinion poll answered yes to the question whether they or other members of their households ever sleep hungry.

The facts are much worse that the poll’s finding.

The most comprehensive information on our food situation is in a report published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in 2008 titled Food Insecurity Assessment in Kenya.

It shows that over half of Kenyans, 51 percent, consume less than what they require on a daily basis. They consume an average of 1,261 calories per day, against a requirement of 1,683 calories — a shortfall of 422 calories or 25 percent of the daily requirement.

Simply put, half of the country suffers from chronic hunger.

Half of them, a quarter of the population that is, were found to be critically food poor. To be critically food poor means that even if they spent all their income on food, they would still not be able to meet the minimum dietary requirement.

The data also suggests that the problem is not one of food availability but rather of distribution.

The average food consumption for the country was estimated at 1,800 calories per person daily — that is, 117 calories more than the minimum daily requirement.

There is perhaps no other indicator that captures inequality in Kenya than food.

The chart below shows the average food consumption by income group from the poorest tenth of the population to the wealthiest tenth.

The poorest 10 percent consume on average 918 calories per day, which is slightly over half of daily requirement.

The wealthiest ten percent consume on average 3,330 calories, which is twice the minimum daily requirement and three and a half times the consumption of the poorest lot.

These statistics can be validated by attending a political rally or any other public event and sizing up the girths of the wenyenchi on the dias vis a vis the attending wananchi.

Hunger has a geographical dimension also.

Based on the old provinces, it divides the country into two, four hungry regions and four relatively well fed ones.

The old western province is the hungriest region with 70 percent of the population below minimum daily requirement, closely followed by Nyanza (68 percent), North Eastern (66 percent) and Rift Valley (63 percent).

On the other end of the spectrum, Nairobi is the least hungry with only 15 percent of the population not eating enough, followed by Eastern (27 percent), Central (35 percent) and Coast (39 percent).

How do we compare with other countries? The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a Washington based multilateral food policy think tank, has published a Global Hunger Index since 1990.

The index takes into account underfed population, malnutrition in children and child mortality and has a possible score range of 0 to 100, where zero is no hunger and 100 would be a country where everybody is undernourished.

Countries which score below 5 are rated as fully food secure countries, between 5 and 10 as moderately food insecure, 10 to 20 is seriously food insecure, 20 to 30 it is alarming and over 30 it is seriously alarming.

Our score has improved modestly from 21.4 — the lower end of alarming food insecurity — to 18, the upper end of serious insecurity.

This is very poor compared to global as well as Sub-Saharan African progress in reducing hunger.

Globally, the Index has improved from 20.8 to 13.8 and Sub-Sahara Africa from 25 to 19.

Many African countries have made a lot of progress; Malawi and Rwanda from 30 to 15, Mali from 27 to 15, Nigeria from 25 to 15, Togo from 23 to 15, Mozambique from 36 to 22, and Ethiopia from 42 to 26.


Food is the foundation of health and productivity, and in effect development. When all is said and done what we all strive for is to live long healthy productive lives.

All the edifices that we build are either means to these ends or shrines to our individual or collective egos.

Some of the most compelling evidence on the rise and demise of ancient monument building civilizations—from Egyptians to Easter Islanders—points to first abundance, and then running out of food.

Undernourished people are more vulnerable to infectious diseases and more likely to succumb to them.

This means that adequate nutrition would reduce disease burden and in effect save us a lot of money that we spend on curative health care.

Hunger is particularly deleterious on children. It undermines both physical and mental development of children.

And hunger is one of the main reasons why children miss school or drop out altogether. Up to one third of our children are chronically undernourished, half of them severely.

Cognitively challenged semi-literate children are unlikely to develop into productive, well-adjusted adults. They are an inexhaustible reservoir of criminals and other miscreants.

We shall not want for dimwits to recruit into majeshi ya wazee and hooligans to throw shoes at VIPs.

These being the recruiting grounds for politics, some of them will end up in the county assemblies and ultimately in parliament.

There are signs that one or two could have made it all the way to the Senate already. We reap what we sow.

But most of our hungry people are semi-subsistence farmers.

They are trapped in a vicious cycle of hunger, disease and poverty. They very often have adequate land but lack the energy to till it, and between food and medical expenses, no money for expensive inputs.

Moreover, a good number are those who performed poorly or dropped out of school altogether, the hungry children who did not develop their full physical and cognitive abilities.


What then is this data telling us?

Let’s assume that the hungry half of our workforce is only able to produce at half the potential.

This translates to losing 25 percent of the country’s productivity potential, forgone output in the order of US$10 billion (Sh87 billion) a year — three times the cost of the standard gauge railway.

Hopefully, readers who wonder why I have a rather dim view of mega infrastructure projects can begin to see where I am coming from.

I cannot think of any other intervention that would have as significant a development impact as food security — and I have been thinking, reading, talking and writing about this for a long time. How can we achieve it? Three things.

First and most immediate redistribution. Let’s go back to the chart. The poorest third starves, the wealthiest third eats too much.

A person who routinely eats 3,300 calories a day needs help as much the one who is eating 900.

There can’t be that many instances when redistribution is such a win-win situation. How can it be done? There is no shortage of policy interventions that would achieve this.

My preferred policy is to impose VAT on food—all food without exception. The proceeds of the tax would then be earmarked for food subsidies.

This has the additional advantage of doing away with the corruption prone administrative nightmare of VAT refunds. And fortunately, information technology now makes it possible to administer such schemes efficiently and cost effectively.

Second, is to raise the agricultural productivity, particularly of resource poor households.

The interventions required to do this vary because the causes of low productivity differ from place to place.

In the dry lands, lower Eastern for instance, water harvesting and storage at the household level may be sufficient.

In other areas such as western Kenya and rural coast, research shows that asset building (e.g. acquiring livestock) and access to wage labour are the most effective means of lifting households out of poverty.

Third, targeted social safety nets, particularly with regard to health. Health shocks is the single most critical factor that drives households into poverty or prevent them from escaping it.

One extensive study published by Tegemeo Institute, an Egerton University linked agricultural policy think tank, found that farm households that fell into poverty were four times as likely to have or have had in the past a chronically ill person in the household as compared to households that escaped poverty and non-poor ones.

The households falling into poverty spent seven times more on chronic illness, equivalent to 22 percent of their income, than households that managed to escape poverty who only spent 6 percent of their income on such diseases.

These are not particularly novel, difficult or expensive things to do, so why don’t we do them? Why do we tolerate so much hunger in our midst? Why do we run to donors to beg food whenever there is a mild drought, and leave the UN to feed our children, while we applaud overpriced highways and railways? What do hungry children need more to learn better, food or computers?

Here’s my take. It is not for want of vision, or values or policies or resources or political will. If is because it does not bother us. We don’t care. What this country lacks, what we really need to become a nation, is a conscience.

Dr Ndii is Managing Director of Africa Economics. [email protected]