Despite this Bountiful Country, Kenyans are Starving

An Interview with Route to Food's Layla Liebetrau


By Mariga Thoithi


It’s not in your face everyday on the news, but it is a nagging, painful, ongoing issue in Kenya: HUNGER. Despite a bountiful country and plenty of food around us, it’s just a plain fact that many Kenyans starve. More than 10 million people countrywide, including farmers, pastoralists and fishers, whether living in urban or rural areas, young or old, experience routine hunger and inability to access adequate food.


But one organisation, Route to Food International (RTFI), is out to change that, or as it calls it, “work towards realising the human right to food.” And it puts the government to task. It sees a big gap between well-intended Kenya legislation out to solve Kenya’s hunger problem and the realities on the ground.


When we learned the facts of the hunger problem, we were astonished. How can this be in a place as abundant as Kenya? This is what we found out from the organsation’s Project Lead, Layla Liebetrau.


What are the greatest bottlenecks to Kenya achieving food security?

The greatest bottleneck is the way that successive regimes think about food insecurity. Food security is seen as having sufficient stores of grain to be able to ensure that no one dies from hunger. This is the government’s minimum core obligation to protecting the Right to Food according to Article 43 of the Constitution of Kenya. It falls short, however, of recognizing that food security is not only about the ability to provide emergency food aid, but is also about each individual’s ability to grow, or afford to buy enough food that is safe to eat and nutritionally diverse, in order to live an active and healthy life. In terms of food security and the Right to Food, Kenya’s benchmark for life, should not rest on the threshold of survival.


Whose responsibility is it to ensure food security and why and how can ordinary citizens play their part?

Although all members of society, including the private sector, have responsibilities to realise the right to adequate food, the ultimate responsibility for its realization remains with the Government of Kenya – under its international and national legal obligations to protect this human right. Kenya is State Party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976) and has explicitly recognised the Right to Food in Article 43 of the Constitution (2010):


Article 43.(1): “Every person has the right: (c) to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality”

Article 53.(1): “Every child has the right:  (c) to basic nutrition, shelter and health care.”


Ordinary citizens can play their part, by describing their food security needs in terms of their Right to Food and by holding their respective levels of government accountable for supporting them to achieve this right.


What are the issues faced specifically by women which make them disproportionately affected by food insecurity?

According to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, Women provide 80% of farm labour and manage 40% of the country’s smallholder farms, yet they own only roughly 1% of agricultural land and receive just 10% of the available credit

Patriarchal norms and institutions impact women’s hunger and poverty heavily. They are the reason women work so hard but have so little to show for it. In patriarchal societies, opportunities and resources are allocated on the basis of gender – women simply do not have the same access that men do. Social patriarchal norms dictate who works on farms (women) and who reaps the reward (men). Who owns the land (men) and who merely tends to it (women). Who eats first (men) and who eats last (women).


Proposed legislation, such as the Food Security Bill (2017), does not make specific provisions for the intersectionality of food security and gender except when it comes to pregnant and nursing women who are food poor, which fits directly into patriarchal norms that only find women valuable when giving service to the patriarchy Women are being excluded socially, politically and economically because of their gender. Yet, women are the key to eliminating hunger and poverty.

We need to ensure that women have public and political representation so as to be able to advocate for their rights, including the right to food. At the moment, this representation remains lower than the constitutional requirement.


What are some of the policy changes that RTFI has been pushing for, which would improve Kenya’s ability to achieve food security?

The RTFI is working with the Kenya Parliamentary Human Rights Association and other actors, to develop a Right to Food framework law. While Kenya’s constitutional provision is broad, a framework law on the right to food can elaborate further on the right to food and make it operational in practice. From that point, it will be necessary to do a comprehensive review of all relevant sectoral legislation affecting the availability, accessibility and adequacy of food so that the legal implementation of the right to food is incorporated in all domestic legislation.

In addition, and when the opportunity arises, we actively take part in public participation processes to make submissions on relevant policies or regulations, such as the Food Crops Regulations, the Food Safety Policy, or the Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act.


One of the most pervasive narratives about farming is that youth aren’t farming because it isn’t cool enough? Is this true according to your experience through RTFI?

By and large, farming isn’t lucrative in Kenya, which is possibly what makes it ‘uncool’. In our experience and through the Route to Food Alliance, we’ve met many young farmers – men and women – who are passionate about sustainable farming practices such as organic farming or permaculture, and are creating profitable businesses in the sector. We strongly encourage young people also to think about the role they can play in all aspects of the food system – we don’t only need to grow food, we also need to move it, store it, package it, preserve it and get it to consumers affordably.


Most importantly, young people should think about the values they stand by in this ‘industry’. Do you support fair-trade principles and environmentally-friendly practices, or are you indirectly supporting industrial agriculture dominated by international companies and synthetic inputs, often at the risk of human and environmental health? A moral decision must be made.

How much money is allocated to food security by the government each year and how effective is it?


Kenya’s budgetary allocation remains inadequate for its citizens to progressively realise the right to food. The allocations are not consistent with an important economic sector that accounts for 34% of Kenya’s GDP, employs 56% of the labour force and generates 65% of the country’s merchandise goods exports. Further, expenditure as a share of National Government’s total voted expenditure continues to decline steadily. Growth in budget allocations to the sector are not keeping pace with the growth of the total budgets over the most recent 3 and 5 year periods. The budget allocation this year is 51.6 Billion which represents 2.8% of Total Voted Expenditure.


The trends of declining allocations of budgetary resources to the sector are likely to result in lower food production, growing food insecurity and an increase in the prevalence of undernourishment. We can expect rising food prices that undermine access and affordability of food. The health and nutrition status of the population, particularly the low income and vulnerable segment of the population, are mostly adversely affected. Kenyans need to be concerned about the trend of falling expenditures on agriculture and food; and the clear trend of other budget areas receiving priority in budget allocations.


Do you think Kenya will ever achieve food security?

I think it is possible, if the national and county governments make a meaningful political commitment to realizing the Right to Food. It will be necessary to take risks and change the ways we’ve been addressing the agriculture sector in the past decades. We need to move away from the belief that large-scale industrial agriculture (which is mainly about large-scale production of cash crops for export or about food quantity not necessarily its distribution and affordability) will solve Kenya’s food problems, towards investing in smallholder production of agro-ecologically grown foods coupled with consumer education on good nutrition and food safety.

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