Mother nature throws a curveball: COVID-19, Floods and Locusts in Kenya

Elizabeth Onyango

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 on its death bed following the devastating plague of desert locusts that invaded parts of the country following excessive rainfall. These disasters, 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 of food aid.

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

On April 6th 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced enhanced COVID-19 prevention measures, including a 21 day commitment plan which included the cessation of movement by road, rail and air in and out of major cities (the Nairobi metropolitan area, Mombasa, Kisumu) and high-risk counties (Kwale, Kilifi and Mandera). With curfews and lockdowns of cities in Kenya, the food supply chain was bound to be affected.  On April 15th 2020, the World Food Programme 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 are in the informal settlements in urban areas.

Informal settlements are uniquely positioned and are bound to experience the current pandemic and natural disasters in a different and distinctive way than middle-class urban dwellers.  The lack of basic hygiene and sanitation facilities and safety nets, the impossibility of practicing social distancing measures, and crucially, and the vulnerability of food systems to disruptions during lockdowns and curfews, taken with the current raging floods in different parts of the country, all suggest that the food crisis among the urban poor is not relenting anytime soon. In his recent updates on coronavirus in The New Times Abdi Latif Dahir indicated that desperate residents of Nairobi’s Kibera slums (the 2nd largest in Africa 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 some bellowed “instead  of coronavirus, the hunger will kill us”.

While governments in the Global North are now yielding to political demands to reopen the economy, the lockdowns, curfews and other social distancing measures continue in the major cities in the Global South in anticipation of a possible increase in COVID -19.  Most poor households in the urban areas are battling food insecurity as their resilience to emergencies and shocks is being sorely tested. For households that depend on 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 daily nutritional needs, but have also disrupted the agricultural production and supply chains for the informal markets that they depend on.

Some have argued that the coronavirus pandemic is a great equalizer as it has devastated the rich countries, much as what was anticipated in the poor countries. When it comes to food insecurity, however, the commonality diminishes. Poor countries are much more prone to the effects of climate change and were already in food crisis mode before the pandemic.  Now millions are in survival mode with many experiencing sleepless nights as they worry about their next meal.

Inequality is also evident within cities across the South.  The resilience and adaptation of poor households are on trial as the informal food system (such as the Kenyan food kiosks from which they can buy on credit or even the ready to go foods), remains closed during the pandemic.  The loss of mutual interaction between formal and informal settlements and rural and urban communities has weakened the informal social protection systems available to poor urban households. While the formal areas have access to healthy foods through the formal food system such as the supermarkets and grocery stores which remain open, the closure of fresh food produce markets and the dawn-to-dusk curfews significantly disadvantages the poor urban dwellers that depend on the markets.

Although the Government of Kenya, through its Ministry of Agriculture, has recently classified the transportation of fresh foodstuffs 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 remains sensible at this time, but these markets are key players in the food supply chain and their closure means that the supply systems are not complete. As the government continues to assess its options, having the markets open all day, but at a reduced capacity, is a better option.

Amidst the current pandemic, the heavy rains have wreaked new havoc as floods are currently being experienced in over three-quarters of the 47 counties in Kenya. 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 seen displacement of people in the informal settlements. People displaced by the floods are living in temporary camps where 70% do not have adequate access to clean water. Congestion, poor sanitation, mosquito nets, beddings and clothing, and inadequate food are major concerns as the possibility of new COVID-19 outbreaks looms. Landslides and flash floods have rendered parts of the country inaccessible and transportation of fresh foods usually done by road is impeded. The current state of events in the country hampers the efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic given resource limitations.

As the county and national governments grapple with issues of resource allocation to deal with the flooding and the pandemic, the need for stronger social protection systems to support household health and food security cannot be over-emphasized.  Kenya must also ensure diversification of its food system and develop new ways of delivery to those in the informal settlements and the rural areas. At the same time, health coverage and emergency preparedness for floods and drought must move away from being reactive to a more proactive 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.