The Politics of Food – Alex Njeru Ndungu

The long rains are here with us again in Kenya, and the drag of floods that they usually bring with them is here with us to contend with. This serves to remind us that the subsequent hunger and famine is not far off. Sometime from now our television screens will be inundated with images of famished women and children, their lives ebbing away from them like receding high tides, and once again our Kenyaness, our spirit of compassion will be called upon to save our not so privileged brothers and sisters. Some will generously respond, while most of us will shrug it off. But most of us never care to ask why, rains, floods, draught and famine in that order are an accepted course of events in this country. Managing hunger and the politics behind hunger in Kenya has proven quite the bane in Kenyan society. The reasons why we are hungry are pretty apparent, yet finding the solutions has not been easy for policy makers.

Subsequent regimes after subsequent regime have failed to provide galvanizing policy solutions that will extricate Kenyans from the hunger. Structural reasons, economic reasons and cultural reasons have conspired to rob off Kenyans the opportunity to satiate their hunger. In this country farmers find it very expensive to produce food, especially due to the high cost of agricultural inputs and implements. As a country though, I have a feeling that we have never taken time to develop synergies within sectors to try to provide solutions to the hunger problems. Take fertilizer for example, what makes fertilizer so expensive?

Kenya does not have local fertilizer manufacturing capacity, previous efforts to have fertilizer manufactured locally have ended in white elephant projects, specifically turning into cash cows for bureaucrats involved in the projects. The cost of fertilizer starts to skyrocket immediately fertilizer hits the Port of Mombasa as is the case of other loose cargo like grain that comes through the port of Mombasa. A monopoly held by the Mombasa Bulk Grain handling at the port serves to spike up the price of grain and fertilizer coming into the country. Structural problems have also conspired to deny Kenyans, especially urban Kenyans access to affordable foodstuff. Poor farm gate policies and an overstretched chain of distribution works against the farmers pushing them more into poverty and works against the urban poor for when the foodstuff hit the urban market place the price adjustments to cater for the extra layers of distribution push the food items way out of the majority urban poor. The net effect of the lack of a synthesizing food policy is that it creates an impervious distribution ring that is quite hard to yank open.


At times I think we are hungry because we choose to, first because what goes for food and be defined as food in this country is pretty limited. Some years back in the middle of a crippling drought, when children and women were dying in the peripheral districts of Northern Kenya, when pictures of emaciated Kenyans were being flashing on international news channels, a woman from New Zealand offered to donate flour from her pet food company as food aid, she was deeply concerned about the fate of the famished. She claimed her pet flour was good nutritionally and that she also mixed it in her porridge every morning. The ire the gesture drew, from fuller Kenyans especially the fat cats in parliament was appalling; with members of parliament arguing that the woman did not accord reasonable dignity to the famished. What is dignity to a man dying of hunger? I have seen hungry Kenyans try to squeeze food from all assorted plants during drought let alone pet food, in a recent show of the Human Planet, I witnessed a community in Papua New Guinea that got a whole load of protein from fruit bats, yes fruit bats. In Kenya though, we are very conservative when it comes to food. Our palates are very uncomfortable with exotic foods. We take pride in the unadulterated local diets even when these diets are hard to come by.

Which is part of the reason why we have been slow and apprehensive toward the uptake of Genetically Modified foods. Recently a whole shipload of maize from South Africa was reduced to fodder while Kenyan’s were dying because of what the sensationalists called ‘questionable genetic make-up.’ The solution to Kenya’s food problem lies not, with the government alone, but with us as well. Governments need to put policies and remove impediments in the production and trade of food. We Kenyans should get inventive, for while neither bread nor cake is forthcoming we should seek yam.

Alex on food and solutions to its scarcity in Kenya