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Blog Series: Land Governance and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nearly half of formally employed Kenyan have lost their jobs amid Covid-19 crisis: The plight of low-income households’ food and nutrition security

Authors: James Wangu (LANDac and Utrecht University) and Fridah Githuku (LANDac and GROOTS Kenya)
Date: 1 July 2020

This blog explores covid-19 pandemic impact on food and nutrition security in Kenya and proposes some response measures that Kenya could adopt to remedy the crisis. Kenya has struggled with a persistent problem of food insecurity in the recent past. In 2019, about 2.6 million people were critically food insecure, relying on food assistance. Proceeding the novel corona virus outbreak in the country, late last year, and early this year, Kenya experienced excessive rains and locust infestation respectively that already posed major threats to local food security. The locust infestation is said to be the worst the country suffered in 70 years. Today, due to Covid-19 pandemic, Kenya is under partial lockdown and there is a curfew from dusk to down, now revised to 9pm-4pm. Schools, bars, and churches are closed, with partial exceptions for restaurants made in the recent weeks. Public events are banned. All these measures instituted by the government to curb the spread of the virus in the country are having enormous adverse effects on the local livelihoods and food systems, thereby making it difficult for people to acquire adequate and right food for their needs, especially the poor and vulnerable.

About the authors
James Wangu is a LANDac fellow and PhD Candidate, Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning, Utrecht University. James’ research focuses on the contribution of inclusive agribusiness on local food security in Kenya.

Fridah Gituku is a LANDac fellow and executive director of GROOTS Kenya, a national grassroots movement led by women. The movement was created to give grassroots women visibility and decision-making power to create change in their own communities.


Income loss and food inaccessibility
Lack of access to food is one of the major and immediate impact of Covid-19 on Kenyan households’ food and nutrition security. A rise in unemployment has been widely reported globally following the virus outbreak, thereby making people that rely on their job to access food vulnerable to malnutrition. Based on the Kenya Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) survey of May 15, 2020 on covid-19’s economic impact, 43 per cent of the previously employed Kenyans have lost their job, majority of them women (51%). Nearly half of them indicate having been asked to stay away or were locked out from work following government’s lockdown and curfew measures. The other major and Covid-19 related reasons for job loss include temporally slack or work reduction. Nearly all of those who lost jobs due to the government measures are not sure when they will be able to return to work. The toll of the job losses on the households’ basic needs is strongly evident given over 30 per cent could not meet their rent demand for April, citing reduction in incomes, job loss and delay in income payment.

A loss of employment or reduction in income implies a reduction in households’ purchasing power, particularly among the low income-earners who may still be lucky to have some savings. This implies a decrease in spending on healthier food as a coping mechanism. A study conducted by GeoPoll in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya included indicated that 60% of the respondents were buying less food than usual. In the same study, 86 per cent of Kenyans reported worry for their food security due to Covid-19 pandemic. Elsewhere, an early survey from rural households in China, families are cutting back on nutrition by spending less on more expensive, healthy food items such as meat and bulking on grains and staples. Such move has significant consequences on the households’ nutrition and the long-term human capital development and dealing with the aftermath of the crisis, considering food security is the basis for active and healthy life.

A story of a Kenyan single mother, Beatrice Achungo Mbendo, who is worried about starvation following loss of clients in the wake of Covid-19 illuminate the gravity of the problem. She narrates a telling experience of undergoing two days without food in her family of five. Beatrice is one of many examples of how low-income Kenyans are grappling with the current difficult state of affair. The stakes are even higher for over 1.3 million Kenyans who were facing food crisis prior to Covid-19 phase. For the world’s poor, hunger pose a bigger mortal threat than corona virus. In Kibera, Kenya and Africa biggest slum, a recent stampede over Covid-19 food aid led to a death of two residents and scores injured. A similar incident has been reported Sri Lanka.

Gender-based violence
Besides being the majority proportion of those losing jobs (51% in Kenya), women are also experiencing increased gender-based violence. Quoting UN News, Amnesty International emphasizes that the current lock downs, isolations, quarantine, restricted movement and social distancing have caused women and girls to spend more time with potential abusers or known abusers’. Indeed, it is reported that following the government measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, incidences of gender-based violence are on the rise in Kenya. Such violence undermines women’s role in securing household food and nutrition diet. Further, as pointed by Lentz, (2018), women experiencing gender-based violence often choose to eat less or lower quality food to avoid violence. It is also critical to note that household food and nutrition insecurity emerging from the negative economic impact of Covid-19 may fuel more incidences of gender-based violence. Studies shows food insecurity is strongly and positively associated with violence against women (see Diamond-Smith et al. 2019; Hatcher et al. 2019; Ricks, 2015). Given the relations between gender-based violence and food security, if neither is addressed, the repercussion will be a vicious cycle.

Food availability
Food supply chains disruption is another major area of concern that relates to the issue of food availability and access which yet again mostly affect the low-income and the poor. It has been reported that the government’s Covid-19 measures, including the closure of open air produce markets and the dawn to dusk curfew has been detrimental to food distribution. While scientifically justified by the potential ease of spread of the virus due to crowding and hygiene issues, open air markets are not only the main employer of women in urban and peri-urban region, but also the main source of food, accounting for roughly 90% of the market. As such, the implications are far reaching, ranging from interruption in food delivery to high incidences of food wastage, the loss of livelihoods for the women as well as the entire local food economy.

The fear of the importation of the virus from Tanzania and Somalia has seen the country close the boarders with the two countries, a move that has particularly ignited a trade row between the Kenya and Tanzania, and which is feared to have an impact movement of goods. Kenya rely heavily on food imports including wheat, rice, and potatoes and to a lesser extent, maize. The current trade dispute if unaddressed and/or left to escalate could negatively impact the country’s importation of these crucial food products. The list of the countries from which Kenya import food products is extensive raising concerns over sustainability of such dependence to feed her population in a period of crisis that the respective countries and the rest in the world are experiencing. Kenya’s reliance on import for such basic agricultural commodities in a country that is regarded economically as predominantly agricultural exposes the vulnerability of the local food systems in times of crisis.

The closure of schools and bars, the ban on public events and selective opening of the restaurants significantly impact the uptake of smallholder farmers produce. Schools, bars to some extent, public avenues and restaurants play a major role as end consumer of agricultural food produce in the country, implying that their abrupt closure has led to considerable loss in both income and food for the period (two months) the country has been practicing ‘stay at home’, and ‘social-distancing’. For smallholders, a loss in income impart a great toll on their production capacity, and as a result will likely adversely affect future food production and supply. While schools remain closed, children from poor background in the marginalized arid and semi-arid region, and the slums that rely on school meals programme are exposed to hunger. Luckily, some humanitarian efforts strive to ensure some of these kids get to be fed despite lockdown.

Perhaps most disconcerting impact of Covid-19 pandemic on local food and nutrition security is its long-term effect on the country’s food systems. Most of the country’s food is produced by smallholder farmers, accounting for 78 per cent of the total agricultural output and 70% of the agricultural produce sold the local market. In the same way Covid-19 is affecting the food supply, it is likely to affect the other elements of food systems particularly national and international markets; by affecting factors that pertain access to production inputs, labour and capital. The immediate consequences will be most strongly felt by smallholders who already depend on some form of external support to effectively produce and reach the market. Furthermore, these challenges coincide with a growing problem of lack on inputs around the world, amid the very real and present threat of pest outbreaks such as army worms and locust infestation in Kenya and the rest of East Africa specifically. A decline in food production will mean limited food production and increase in the food prices for the net buyers. A scenario that will undoubtedly hit low-income earners and poor the hardest.

Kenya face a tough challenge to ensure her population, particularly the poor, vulnerable households, and low-income population meet their food needs. So far, the government has made some effort by approving a relief package amounting to Ksh. 40 billion (≈ € 333 million) to cushion the needs of households in urban areas. In a country where millions were already experiencing hunger pre-Covid-19 crisis, the amount allocated will not be enough if at all it reaches those in need, given reports that some of the beneficiaries are yet to receive any food aid. Furthermore, the government should ensure that the delivery of the food relief package does not increase vulnerability in already struggling communities. We have learnt that in one of the low-income urban community where cash transfer support is given to a household through wives, it has fueled incidence of gender-based violence with the husbands demanding the money from their wives. Should irresponsible parent (husband) get hold of these funds, the intended goal might be lost if the money is spent on alcohol or other expenses that are not in the interest of the household. Understanding the local dynamics by working closely with grassroot organizations and/or groups within the communities will prevent such drawback. Government partnership with village-based retail shops as distributors of food packages will go a long way in supporting small scale businesses and help in curbing cartels in humanitarian assistance.

Kenya’s smallholder farmers, pastoralists included, are greatly affected by Covid-19 presently in terms of production, and marketing, but remain the main source of the food that is consumed in the country. As such, to ensure continued availability of affordable food, the national and local governments and development institutions need to step up their support. Irrespective of the country in sub-Saharan Africa, smallholders are confronted with many constraints, including in physical, financial and human capital. Smallholders across the developing countries have always relied on support of government and development institutions to improve their production capacity, either through access to input and capital, extension services, knowledge and technology, and linkage to the market. Compounded by Covid-19 crisis, these supportive services could not be more critical. Given the diversity of farmers needs, the support should be context based to meet the varied needs of the specific farmers. Among the provision that farmers could benefit from is structural investment in subsidies and increased extension services.

The critical food sector would benefit greatly from injection of affordable and flexible financial capital to actors at different levels of the value chain. Historically the cost of financing in Kenya is very high and COVID-19 has increased financial risk for banks making loans more expensive and less available. A state-driven intervention that lower the credit risks for bank with a direct impact on increased lending to small holder farmers is highly recommended.

While the ‘most vulnerable’ Kenyans are targeted by the relief packages, the numerous Kenyan who have lost their stable means of livelihood, be it employment, business etc., in the past few months continue struggling to meet their basic needs; particularly in meeting food and rent needs for those living in the urban regions. Unfortunately, unlike what we have seen elsewhere where governments are supporting their population through direct cheques, or supporting companies financially to maintain employees, none such efforts have been made here in Kenya. Improvement in food market access could benefit from stimulant packages to food retail businesses that have closed due to Covid-19. In addition, the continuation of the businesses is contingent on consumers having adequate income to spend on food.