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Urban poor face rising food insecurity

A vegetable seller waits for customers at the Wakulima market in Nairobi, Kenya. Recent price shocks triggered by extreme weather and increasing use of grains to produce are causing international concern according to the United Nations Food and Agricultur
A vegetable seller waits for customers at the Wakulima market in Nairobi, Kenya (Siegfried Modola/IRIN)

Food insecurity is common in many rural parts of northern Kenya, but the country's rapidly growing urban population is increasingly also dealing with food insecurity, according to experts.

"Cities and towns in Kenya, like many in Africa, are growing and so are the populations, but just a small fraction of the people who live in them have a consistent source of income, which makes them very vulnerable to poverty," Francis Mwangi, a food security analyst and lecturer at the University of Nairobi, told IRIN. "The urban poor are sleeping hungry because they can't afford food."

A recent urban food security assessment carried out by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the government of Kenya has revealed that more than a quarter of urban children in the country are stunted - a symptom of chronic malnutrition - while 13 percent of high-density urban households have unacceptably low levels of food consumption.

Many of the urban poor resort to coping strategies such as restricting consumption, eating fewer or smaller meals and eating cheaper products. The urban poor in Kenya spend 60 to 65 percent of their income on food.

According to the assessment, Kenya's urban population accounts for about 35 percent of the total population, with 70 percent of urban dwellers living in slums. Kenya’s urban population grew by 4 percent in 2010, and the World Bank estimates that urban poverty will represent almost half of Kenya's total poverty by 2020.

Trephine Ambimo, a 35-year-old single mother of five, lives in Korogocho, an informal settlement in the capital Nairobi. Every morning, she walks to a nearby middle-class estate to do menial jobs, earning about US$2.40 per day. The money is not nearly enough to feed her family - a 2kg pack of maize meal costs $1.43 - and pay her rent; she is often forced to choose between the two.

"If I don't pay my rent, the landlord will throw me out with my children," Ambimo told IRIN. “I have made children get used to skipping meals so that we can save and pay rent."

Senior government officials told IRIN that women-headed households, children and widows were most vulnerable.

"These groups of people are particularly affected because they have either very little income or none at all," Wilson Songa, Secretary for Agriculture in the Ministry of Agriculture, said.

In May 2012, the government, through the Ministry of Special Programmes, distributed 4,800 bags of rice and soya and another 400 tins of cooking oil to vulnerable populations in eight districts in Nairobi, where an estimated 65 percent are food insecure, according to the ministry. However, the assessment reported that just 12 percent of needy households received food assistance.

Exceptionally high food costs

Even though around 29 percent of urban households manage to grow some food, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, it meets only a little of their needs. Between 97 and 100 percent of food consumed by city-dwellers is purchased in the marketplace, making households vulnerable to price fluctuations

"In the rural area, you have a farm on which you can grow vegetables, and you don't need money to access it; in urban areas, you only have food when you have the money," Mwangi said.

Experts say increasing rural food production would lower food prices for city dwellers. "Urban areas rely on food produced in rural areas, and as the law of supply and demand dictates, if rural areas produce more, urban areas experience decreased food prices. The government must provide fertilizers, seeds and water for irrigation," Cynthia Andere, an agricultural expert and director of the Kenya Urban Livelihoods Association, told IRIN.

"As a food-deficit country, Kenya has to import to satisfy its demand. We have very unfriendly import regime, which makes whatever is imported too expensive for people to afford," she added. "At the end of it all, it is a zero sum game as people are still left vulnerable."

In its recent economic update for Kenya, the World Bank noted that while East Africa can feed itself by permitting free trade, Kenya has continued to maintain barriers to trade "in maize, wheat and sugar, which result in Kenya's exceptionally high food prices".

At present, the government is promoting urban and peri-urban agriculture to improve food access among the urban poor.

“Urban agriculture is an important coping strategy for the urban poor, many of whom would be food insecure. We are targeting some 100,000 urban farmers per year over the next three years," the Ministry of Agriculture's Songa said.

The government says it will subsidize seeds, fertilizers, sacks and training to the farmers to help them produce short-cycle crops such as tomatoes, vegetables and beans. 

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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