Mother nature throws a curve-ball – COVID-19, floods and locust challenges in Kenya

Photo: by Forbes

The current global pandemic coupled with frequent natural disasters puts Kenya’s food basket in a perilous position. Towards the end of 2019 and early 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Kenya’s food security status was already under pressure following the devastating desert locust swarms that invaded parts of the country just after an excessive rainfall. This, coupled with inflation and weaker purchasing power, left many Kenyan households’ unable to afford their basic needs such as healthcare and food. The Kenya Food Security Steering Group estimated that nearly 10 million Kenyans were food insecure by the end of 2019, of whom 4 million were already in need food aid.

Food insecurity in COVID-19 pandemic

Staple foods in Kenya are maize, rice, wheat, and potatoes. Nearly 90% and 75% of the country’s rice and wheat supply, respectively, are imported. Local maize production occurs in the Rift Valley region and some parts of Central Province, which contributes to over 70% of the national consumption. The production of fresh vegetables and fruits that supply most of the country is either from the fertile highlands in the central region of the country or from the neighbouring countries such as Tanzania and Uganda.

As of April 6th 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta enforced enhanced COVID-19 prevention measures by announcing a 21 day commitment plan which included the cessation of all movement by road, rail, and air in and out major cities (Nairobi metropolitan area, Mombasa, Kisumu) and high-risk counties (Kwale, Kilifi and Mandera). With the new curfew and lockdown mandates in the cities the food supply chain has been severely impacted.

As of April 15th 2020, the World Food Program reported that at least 14.3 million people had been affected in Kenya by the pandemic and 5 million people were already in need of food and livelihood support, the majority of whom housed in the informal settlements outside of established urban areas.

Image of informal food systems in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Getty, CityMetric

The informal settlements are bound to experience the current pandemic and natural disasters differently as opposed to the middle-class urban dwellers. The lack of basic hygiene and sanitation facilities and safety nets, the impossibility of practicing social distancing measures, and the further breakdown of vulnerable food systems from lock down and curfew disruptions suggest that the current food crisis among the urban poor is only exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.

Abdi Latif Dahir in his recent updates on Coronavirus in The New Times indicated that residents of Kibera slums, the 2nd largest in Africa only after Soweto in South Africa, set off a stampede during a food assistance distribution event leaving dozens injured and at least two people dead as they proclaimed “instead of coronavirus, the hunger will kill us”.

While governments in the Global North are now yielding to temptations and political demands to reopen the economy, the lockdowns, curfews and other social distancing measures continue in the major cities in the Global South with the anticipation for possible increase in the cases of COVID -19. In addition to the COVID threat, poor households in the urban areas are battling food insecurity as their resilience to pandemic emergencies and economic shocks is being tested. For households that depend on their daily earnings to make a living, and with children out of school, the COVID-19 measures not only impact the ability to purchase food for their daily nutritional needs, but have also disrupted the agricultural production and supply chains for the informal markets that they depend on.

Though some have argued that the coronavirus pandemic is a great equalizer as it has devastated the rich countries as much as it has in poor countries – when it comes to food insecurity, the commonality diminishes. Poor countries that are more prone to the effects of climate change and that already experiencing food crisis even before the pandemic have left millions experiencing sleepless nights as they worry about their next meal.

The resilience and adaptation of these households are under a trial as the informal food systems, such as the food kiosks from which they can buy on credit or even the ready-made foods, remain closed during this pandemic. The loss of mutual interactions between the formal and informal settlements and the rural and urban communities as people continue to socially distance has weakened the social protection systems available to poor urban households. While the formal settlements have access to healthy foods through the formal food systems such as the supermarkets and grocery stores which remain open, the closure of the fresh food produce markets and the dawn to dusk curfews are significantly affecting the informal food systems that the poor urban dwellers depend on.

Although the government of Kenya through its Ministry of Agriculture has recently classified transportation of fresh foodstuff as an essential service, this might not be a sufficient solution to the current food crisis in the informal settlements. Closure of the fresh food markets remain sensible at this time, but these markets are key players in the food supply chain and their closure mean that the supply systems are incomplete.

Mother nature throws a curveball amidst COVID-19

Amidst handling the current pandemic, the long rains have wrecked additional havoc as floods are sweeping over 36 of the 47 counties. Nearly 600,000 people have been affected with over 122,000 people displaced and over 200 deaths according to the Kenya Ministry of Devolution and ASAL.

The major cities including Mombasa and Kisumu have witnessed displacement of people in informal settlements. People displaced by the floods are living in temporary camps where 70% of people do not have adequate access to clean water. Congestion, poor sanitation, mosquito nets, bedding and clothing, and inadequate food are major concerns as possibility for new outbreaks looms. Landslides and flash floods have rendered parts of the country inaccessible and transportation of the fresh foods usually done by road impossible. The current state of events in the country hampers the efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic given the resource limitations in poor countries.

Floods and landslides in Kenya render parts of the country inaccessible hampering transportation of food to the open food markets in the city Photo: Kenya Red Cross Society

As the county and national governments grapple with issues of resource allocation to deal with the current natural disaster and the pandemic, evidence for the need for stronger social protection systems to support household health and food security cannot be emphasized enough. The occurrence of the unprecedented natural events due to climate change will continue to be experienced differently by poorer nations. Most of these countries are in dire need for revolutionized social safety nets that are adaptable to their context. Kenya for example must ensure diversification of its food systems to allow for new ways of delivery even to those in the informal settlements and the rural areas. At the same time, the healthcare needs through universal health coverage and emergency preparedness for floods and drought must move away from being reactive to a more active model if we are to keep the country food secure and make Kenyans healthy. The county and national government must work hand in hand to find lasting solution to these pertinent issues.




  • MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates)

    MEDA is an international economic development organization that creates business solutions to poverty. We work in agri-food market systems, focusing primarily on women and youth in rural communities in the Global South. Our success is measured by income, improved processes, increased knowledge, and the creation of decent work.

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