• Irungu Houghton

Kenyan state must step up capacity to produce enough food urgently


The global food crisis punctuated most of the heads of states’ speeches to the UN General Assembly this week. The 77th session takes place as several nations stagger from the instability simultaneously driven by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, high cost of living and the climate crisis. Should we take comfort in the recent attention or brace from difficult times?


Several twitterati were distracted from the President Ruto’s speech by the merits and demerits of teleprompters. Others I am sure, were left wondering whether the Kenyan President had managed to get the entire world to hold a conference on unga. The UN General Assembly takes place in September every year. This year, it takes place in one of the worst global food crises in a generation.


In the last two years, there has been 300 per cent increase in global food insecurity. More than 345 million people are food insecure across 80 countries. Among them are 70 million East Africans. With the fourth consecutive rain failure and the worst drought in 40 years, Kenya is among the 10 countries hardest hit. Ironically, while these ten nations who also include Somalia, are hardest hit by the climate crisis, they are collectively responsible for 0.13 per cent of carbon emissions according to Oxfam International.


More controversially than this, is that two weeks of fossil fuel profits made by oil multi-national companies could meet the entire annual costs of all UN humanitarian appeals. This is worth remembering as humanitarian appeals receive on average 40 per cent what they require.


Freedom from hunger dominated party manifestos before the elections. With the electoral commission handing the national mandate to the Kenya Kwanza Alliance, the new administration must retain a singular focus on rescuing a tenth of our population from starvation and alleviate tens of millions from the high costs of food.


With 20 of 47 counties in the drought alarm or alert stage, close to a million children acutely malnourished and the stench of dead livestock in our northern counties, we must educate Kenyans to look beyond the recent fascination with teleprompters. We must focus not only on availability, but access and cost.


The food cost burden is disproportionately borne by different classes. Some agricultural experts estimated that low-income Kenyans are spending 60 per cent of their income while their high-income cousins spend 15 per cent. With 60 per cent going to nutrition and sustenance, what is left for rent, health, debt-servicing, school fees, clothes, transportation, savings, and entertainment one wonders?


Article 43.1of the Constitution clearly states that every person has a right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality'. This provision binds all 47+1 administrations to a human rights-based approach to food security. The right to food is central to the constitutional promise of social and economic rights for all.


The campaigns now over, multiple collaborative strategies are required to respond to the gravity and complexity of the problems we face. Rather than re-introducing the risks of the shamba forest cultivation for our limited forests and water sources, the 47+1 administrations could strengthen the food value chain production and distribution system and bring down the costs of fertilisers and other inputs. Alternatives to Ukrainian and Russian fertiliser is urgent but not at the cost of four decades of solidarity with the Saharawi people.


With violent conflicts and instability driving 70 per cent of global food hunger, we must build greater domestic production capacity to reduce reliance on others. Rich nations must be pressed to provide more financing ahead of the predictable famine cycles. We can phase out dirty fossil fuel energy and adopt climate smart energy strategies. Let us look at food safety also. Two recent studies found 47 per cent of the milk produced in Nakuru, Laikipia and Nyandarua was contaminated, and meat sold in Nakuru carried large amounts of salmonella and E. coli.


Without action on these fronts, the situation for us all will predictably get worse. Let’s hope the Institute for Development Studies and Friedrich Naumann Foundation Global Food Crisis national conference in November will accelerate our national sense of urgency and action


This opinion was published in the weekly Saturday Standard column 24 September 2022 #StandardSettingKE


President Ruto's UN General Assembly 77 speech can be accessed here.

Data on the drought and food crisis data and East Africa can be found here and here. Oxfam's analysis for the UNGASS is also incisive here.

Recent research on the risks of poor food quality regulation can be read here and here.