Log into your member account to listen to this article. Not a member? Join the herd.

In the arid landscapes of Lodwar and Marsabit, families grapple with the harsh reality of limited resources and unpredictable rainfall. Lodwar’s unforgiving climate leaves little room for families to be self-sufficient in food production. For years, residents have relied on food aid to sustain their households, a lifeline that, although welcome, falls short of meeting their basic needs.  

Families receive a cash transfer through the Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP), part of the larger Kenya Social and Economic Inclusion Project implemented by the government through a loan from the World Bank and a grant from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO). 

The programme currently covers 99,494 poor and vulnerable households in Marsabit, Wajir, Mandera and Turkana counties, with plans to expand the support to an estimated 32,000 vulnerable households in Isiolo, Garissa, Samburu, and Tana River counties. 

Diana Esogon, a mother of five, receives a monthly stipend of KSh2,700 for food and other basic needs, but it has been inconsistent over four years, and the amount has remained constant since the inception of the programme in 2016 even though the prices of basic food commodities have been rising. Food inflation in Kenya averaged 9.73 per cent between 2010 and 2023, reaching an all-time high of 26.20 per cent in October 2011 and a record low of -1.15 per cent in August 2018. 

According to Lt Col (Rtd) Hared Hassan, the CEO of the National Disaster Management Authority that administers the programme, each household is supposed to receive KSh5,400 every two months to meet food and other basic needs when there is a drought. Or any other emergency like flooding that disrupts their livelihoods. High levels of poverty compel families like Diana’s that need regular support – and where the monthly stipend is KSh2,700 – to prioritise expenses like school fees over food.

In Marsabit, Amina Abdi and her family of 15      rely on food donations from the Kenya Red Cross. Every month she receives a two-kilogramme packet of maize, a two-kilogramme packet of wheat flour, a litre of cooking oil, a kilo of sugar and a kilo of rice. These provisions provide a slim lifeline for her family as they barely last half the month. 

Diana’s and Amina’s families are among the estimated 17 per cent of the population in 23 semi-arid and arid counties where an estimated 2.8 million people are in urgent need of food. However, only residents of eight counties are currently receiving food aid or monthly cash transfers to boost their nutritional and other basic needs. For these Kenyans, the paradox of food aid not making them food secure resonates. 

This year, the government allocated KSh10.9 billion to food aid programmes, a 43.5 per cent increase over the KSh7.6 billion allocated in the 2022/2023 budget. While Kenya scored 100 per cent on the presence of a food safety net programme on the Global Food Index 2022, however, it’s score on funding for the programme was zero – for all the countries assessed the average score was 57.5 per cent. Moreover, assessed regarding whether the programme was entirely operated and funded by the government and not reliant on external sources, Kenya again scored zero. Of the four indicators used to measure food security – affordability, availability, quality and safety, and sustainability and adaptation – Kenya scored 41.3 per cent on affordability of food, the only indicator where the country scored below average. Economic access to food remains a challenge for most of the population even as the number of people in need of food aid is projected to increase.

Aside from the question of affordability, other factors like the increasing intensity and shorter cycles between droughts have affected crop yields and livestock production, worsening the food security status of the population, with pastoralists bearing the brunt. According to the Famine Early Warning System Network report for November 2023 to January 2024, pastoralist areas remain in crisis, and even though drought recovery continues due to the short rains, unusually high prices of staple foods are limiting household purchasing power and driving widespread stress outcomes across the country.

It is therefore becoming imperative to ensure that food aid from programmes like the Hunger Safety National Programme being implemented by the National Drought Management Authority in the eight poorest and arid counties (Turkana, Wajir, Mandera, Marsabit, Garissa, Tana River, Isiolo and Samburu) can contribute to food security and the realisation of the right to food. 

In 1972, Kenya ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11 of which affirms the right of citizens to adequate food. The government is therefore obligated to proactively strengthen people’s access to and utilisation of resources to ensure their livelihoods, including food security. Government efforts have included livestock and crop insurance programmes that are aimed at cushioning the losses that pastoralists and farmers face due to drought, floods or other natural disasters, and the drought emergency fund and hunger safety net programmes that are aimed at building community resilience and managing risk. Yet despite these efforts, accessing food remains a challenge for many Kenyans. 

Unintended outcomes of food aid

Food aid can provide immediate relief to communities facing food shortages or crises by alleviating hunger and malnutrition. Gershon Mwakazi, the Director of Disaster Management at World Vision Kenya, emphasises that food aid saves lives, protects livelihoods, and helps communities create productive assets. 

“Food aid also supports the achievement of other rights like education, in the case of school feeding programmes that serve as an incentive for parents to send their children to school or retain children in school in times of stress,” he explains. 

“Food aid also supports targeted interventions such as nutrition programmes for children, preventing malnutrition and other related issues. It also serves as an incentive for parents to take their children to a health facility or to participate in health interventions targeted at women and lactating mothers, or the elderly,” he added. 

During natural disasters like drought or flooding, food aid serves as a rapid response to ensure that affected populations have access to essential sustenance. However, over-reliance on food aid can pose challenges to achieving long-term food sustainability.

Demo Hassan, a livestock trader in Garbatulla in Isiolo County, started an initiative to end food aid that strips beneficiaries of their dignity and destroys any community initiative towards self-reliance more than a decade ago. The initiative led to the establishment of the Community Campaign Against Free Food (CCAFF) that was launched in Isiolo in 2013 to campaign against the community’s dependence on food aid, to encourage farming through irrigation and value addition of pastoralist products, and to lobby the county government to invest in rehabilitating irrigation systems that had been established decades ago for the production of cotton and other crops. 

According to Dr John Recha, a scientist and expert on climate-smart agriculture and policy, food aid not only creates dependency and discourages investments in local agriculture and infrastructure, but can also lead to market distortions where the influx of free or heavily subsidised food aid discourages local production and deters communities from investing in programmes that can lead to food self-sufficiency. 

Dr Recha proposes strategies for sustainable food security, including local procurement, cash-based assistance, and empowering women. Integrated approaches that combine food assistance with development programmes play a vital role in building community resilience. 

Such interventions include the provision of certified seeds and inputs, and fruit and forest tree seedlings to improve farming and diversify incomes. For the pastoralist communities, strategies such as livestock offtake programmes (where herders are encouraged to reduce their animals by selling them to the county which then slaughters and distributes the meat to vulnerable households in the area), and the provision of improved livestock breeds – for example, Galla goats that fetch better market prices, produce more milk, mature early and can withstand the hot climate in the arid regions.

Supporting communities to be resilient to natural disasters and emergencies should also be an integral part of any food aid programme if it is to reduce dependency and help communities to become self-sufficient in their food needs. For example, the repair and reopening of abandoned irrigation schemes in Taveta County has enabled communities in the region to plant food crops throughout the year and have a surplus to sell to meet their other household needs. The construction of water pans in arid areas to harvest rainwater should also be an integral part of food aid. 

Kenya can move towards a more sustainable and resilient food security system, reducing dependency and fostering self-sufficiency within vulnerable communities by crafting interventions that make it possible for communities to reduce reliance on food aid and thrive in dignity.

This article was produced as part of the Aftershocks Data Fellowship (22–23) with support from the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with The ONE Campaign and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).