Kenya's general election due in August is fast approaching and the economy seems to have taken centre stage in all four candidates’ campaigns. Given the recent national and international developments that have eaten away at Kenyans’ pockets, voters seek to know what economic reforms lie ahead as well as the future President’s plans around food security.
Along with climate change and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, rising fuel and food prices have contributed to increasing food insecurity across the country. Recently, the joint FAO/WFP hunger hotspots for early warning system listed Kenya as a high-risk country for the first time ever, with 3.5 million people now facing acute food insecurity, recording a country-average increase of 67%, against the 2.1 million of 2021.
Against this background, international dynamics have contributed to further weakening an already frail structure.
Food security: a constitutional right hindered by a weak devolution of power
To give an understanding of the relevance of food security in Kenya, it suffices to say that food is acknowledged as an economic and social right in the Constitution. This is enshrined in Article 43, stating that “every person is free from hunger and should have adequate food of acceptable quality”, touching upon the four dimensions of food security: availability, access, utilization, and stability.
The right-to-food approach has two implications: the State is committed to this goal through all possible means and resources; while the people, especially the most vulnerable, should be involved in the decision-making process. The State, together with Counties and civil society, is required not only to accomplish the final goal but also to put in place appropriate tools and processes to achieve it.
The devolution of power to Kenya’s 47 Counties — accountable for several economic and social objectives, including food security — is one of the instruments implemented by the central State to improve Kenya's development. Devolution aims to bring citizens into the centre of public policy to ultimately get a better understanding of their needs. The idea is that, through devolution, the needs of minorities and local communities can also be taken into greater consideration. As such, the national food security programme was intended to be integrated into Counties’ plans and budgets. However, the scarce management of resources, a weak governance system, and the lack of a clear systemic link between the State and the Counties have hampered the success of power devolution.
Instead of being instrumentalised as an election slogan, the food crisis ought to be seriously addressed
While the candidates’ campaign speeches have revolved around the need to support the agricultural sector and smallholder farmers, the price of maize flour — a key ingredient in Kenyan households — has skyrocketed by 75% since the beginning of the year. This crucial staple food had already been a source of tension. A contestation over its price had indeed already occurred in 2017, demonstrating the system’s fragility and the need for structural interventions.
The sitting President, Uhuru Kenyatta, continues to blame the war between Russia and Ukraine as one of the main drivers behind the food crisis. In turn, William Ruto, his deputy and one of the favoured presidential candidates, has insisted more on domestic problems than international ones. He affirms the need to comply with national food security programmes and has deliberated about the inadequate action taken to remove fertiliser subsidies, which may have had serious consequences on crop yield.
As such, discourse around food security has become a battleground among presidential hopefuls. As Kenya faces a new surge in maize flour prices — mainly due to a significant drop in production — the issue has become all the more relevant. Furthermore, the situation is exacerbated by Kenya’s import-dependency for major food commodities, which are in turn affected by high transportation costs. Inflation hit 7.9% in June 2022, breaking the central bank’s ceiling (7.5%) for the first time since summer 2017. As an emergency measure, Kenyatta has decided to halve the cost of maize flour to ease the food crisis and support the population.
Regional pressures, domestic flaws: the need to take action
Kenya’s four pillars of food security have been undermined by several issues. International tensions have significantly affected both the availability of food and imports, while inflation peaks have also affected the variety and utilisation of food, thus its adequacy. In addition, the Horn of Africa region has been experiencing an escalation of political tensions that contribute to the deterioration and long-term stagnation of food security, thereby threatening its stability. Moreover, political tensions in Ethiopia — which have inflamed the Tigray region since November 2020 — and political instability in Somalia have reinforced food insecurity in the area. The situation is aggravated by rampant local conflict over the supply of natural resources in the region, made harder by the immense pressure imposed by the ongoing drought. Crucially, this year’s drought, the fourth consecutive in the area, is considered the most extensive and persistent since 1981.
In this conjunction, external pressures clash against domestic issues, such as the decline of agricultural productivity and under-investments in rural infrastructure, which impact food accessibility. National maize production has also been significantly below average: the harvest during the long rainy season accounted for only 88% of the national five-year average; while the harvest of the short rainy season was even worse, amounting to only 47% of the five-year average. Although droughts are a recurring phenomenon in the region, the drought cycle has recently become shorter and more intense. Initially every 10 years, then every five, and now the population faces extreme droughts every year. Farmers are used to implementing mitigation and adaptation measures to recover and rebuild their livestock and crops, but not with this frequency. This highlights the need for an intervention from the government, which can no longer rely solely on emergency measures for a phenomenon whose nature is becoming more and more structural.
The combination of internal and external challenges has contributed to the deterioration of Kenyans’ livelihood. As possible drivers of improvement have been made more difficult to implement, food security ranks at the top of the political agenda. It remains to be seen, however, whether the campaign speeches will turn into actual policies for the population after the August 9th election.