Friday, April 05, 2019

There is hunger in Kenya yet there is food

A drought is creating suffering across much of the north and northeastern parts of Kenya, imperilling nearly a million people. Despite the heart-wrenching pictures and footage of emaciated villagers published on newspaper front pages, broadcast on TV channels and shared on social media,  officials  in Kenya continue to insist that the situation has been blown out of proportion.

In December, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which monitors food insecurity across more than 36 countries, warned that poor households in the northern counties of Kenya would experience heightened food insecurity in February and March.This, however, did not spur any concerted action to avert the suffering.

The irony is there is actually more than enough food in the country to feed everyone. Maize, the country's staple, has flooded the market. None of that maize, it seems, made it to where it was urgently needed. Although adequate information exists to predict and thus avoid food shortages, the government has eschewed forward planning in favour of emergency interventions once crises are under way. Further, there has been little in the way of long-term measures to build resilience within communities or even to integrate the remote regions into the country's food economy, which would allow surpluses in other areas to flow there.

According to the Institute for Security Studies, the drought cycle has decreased over the years, from once every decade, "to every five years, further down to every two to three years, and currently every year is characterized by some dry spell." While this is attributable to factors, such as climate change that are largely beyond the government's control, the accompanying food crises are not.

One study, for example, notes that poor infrastructure means transport costs account for nearly two-thirds of the cost of maize and that "maize moving from surplus to deficit regions is levied multiple local taxes for traversing different local government municipalities."

Kenya has committed itself to ending drought-related food emergencies by 2022, yet three years to that deadline, officials are still blaming the weather. It is thus more than a little ironic for Eugene Wamalwa, the cabinet secretary under whose docket this falls, to claim he now wants to end "this relief food business" and "focus more on resilience", as if the government has not had a decade to do this.

In the end, the real reason why people are starving in Northern Kenya has little to do with rain or climate-change and everything to do with a government, politicians and media that for decades have been indifferent to their plight.

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