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Covid-19 in Kenya: the exacerbation of old challenges and emergence of new challenges


Like in many countries Covid-19 presents a threat to food security in Kenya. The threat emanates from exacerbation of old challenges and also emergence of new challenges.

Due to insufficient capacity to produce enough food, safeguarding food security in Kenya is difficult. For example, 10% of the key staple maize has to be imported. This is attributed to erratic weather and also falling productivity. For example, maize productivity has been falling since 1990 as a result of expansion of production to more marginal areas (note that Kenya is around 80% Arid and Semi-Arid (ASAL)).  Today about one fifth of Kenya’s maize production takes place with a probability of a failed season (PFS) of between 40 and 100 percent[1].  The risk of maize failure has been growing as the impact of climate change unravels. Many of the key contributors of calories are imported (almost 80% of rice is imported and 75% of wheat is imported). Already government has announced plans to import 4 million bags of maize by May, 2019[2].

Low levels of productivity  means that even though many people practice farming, many smallholder  farmers are net food buyers[3]. And food purchases can make a big percent of household expenditures. The world bank[4]put the food expense at 47% of incomes of Nairobi households (and given this is average it is a much higher share for the urban poor). So perhaps a much bigger food security problem is poverty.  Many people do not earn enough to buy food. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics estimates that about 12 million people  cannot afford to consume enough calories for a healthy lifestyle and two-thirds of the food poor individuals are found in rural areas[5].

Beyond low productivity, underdeveloped transport systems means that getting food to market is costly. Transport cost can be very high. A World Bank[6]study found that transport costs accounted for 76% of the marketing costs along the maize value chains in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Indeed, high transaction costs (of which transport is a major cost) has impeded many farmers from market participation and thus increasing production.

A recent invasion of desert locust has added to the perennial food security challenges. More than 20 counties and FAO has predicted a second wave of desert locusts, 20 times bigger than the first one, come May[7].

The corona pandemic is exacerbating all these challenges.  This is due to lockdown and restrictions being put in place.

Closure of Markets

Food markets in Kenya are largely informal (close to 90%) and are quite crowded. Many also lack running water. In a haste to implement government social distance rules, many counties have responded by closing markets[8]. Restaurants have been closed (though government has lifted this but with new rules that restrict opening hours and impose social distancing in sitting).

These actions have restricted access to food and also to markets for many low income people (supermarkets remained open). Also the disruption of the informal food value chain have meant loss of income for people employed in various functions:

Disruption of Transport: Transportation has been distributed by corona in two ways. First government has imposed restriction of movement in and out of certain counties and also imposed a night curfew. Second airports have been closed and third the port operations have been disrupted.

  • Road transport for essential commodities is not restricted, however this does not run smooth. Workers do not have protection equipment and they are becoming key carriers (Uganda is preventing  drivers from Kenya entering Uganda)[9]. Police traditionally harass truck drivers and in the uncertainty surrounding rules imposed police have been filmed beating up truck drivers for flimsy reasons[10]. Indeed one transport and logistics company has reduced its fleet operations in Kenya[11]. Cost of transport is already high and is likely to increase due to these challenges making food unaffordable to many.
  • Inputs are likely to be delayed and more costly. The key port of Mombasa is now a corona hotspot with many workers infected[12]. The ports have seen delays in clearing of goods moving from 3-4 days to 3-4 weeks. Such delays can have huge impacts as inputs needs to be put at the right time[13]. Also food imports will be delayed
  • Airports have also been closed (mainly for passenger flights many of which also carry cargo) and one of the bigger and most dynamic sectors is flowers. The Kenya flower sector has particularly been hit hard. Many workers have already lost jobs due to inability to airfreight products. In addition, around 50% of Kenya’s fruit, fresh vegetables and nut exports also go to the EU. Although demand for grocery items remains high in Europe, production and supply chain disruption pose risks for this labour-intensive segment, which is dependent on efficient logistics due to the high perishability rate of produce[14].
  • Transport disruption has also impacted on the ability to control the desert locust. Chemicals needed which are imported are not available in sufficient numbers.

Disruption in farm services: Movement restrictions and lockdowns are hindering the delivery of technical services needed by farmers. Farm inspections by banks, putting their financing at risk, and creating problems physically getting tractors - which are often hired - to fields. Extension agents are also unlikely to be as available as before.

Falling demand in export markets: Irrespective of closure of airfreight demand has also fallen as lockdown takes place in key demand markets. The Kenya Flower Council points that sales have fallen below 35% of what would currently be expected as Europe and UK local sales in flowers have declined to almost zero[15]. A as result around 10,000 casual workers have been laid off, and about 50% of permanent workers given compulsory annual leave[16]. Indeed World bank points out that the prices of certain cash crops  have been depressed by the slowing of global demand with significant impact on incomes of many people who depend on them[17].  

Import Restrictions: Countries are already starting to restrict food imports, As of 28 April 2020, 15 countries have active binding export restrictions on food[18].As pointed, Kenya is a net importer of a number of key staples. As of yet import restrictions have not hit Kenya, though this is a looming danger.

Food insecurity is likely to hit those in lower income brackets as it is the informal sector that has been mostly disrupted. Supermarkets have stayed open (some requirements on sanitizing and social distancing in queuing to pay). Couriers have also been working meaning that for those with means food is readily available.

The government has given some incentives to businesses to remain open and keep the supply chain up. However, these incentives which include reduction in valued added tax (VAT) from 16% to 14%, exempted income below Sh24,000 from pay-as-you-earn and lowered corporate tax from 30% to 25% seems to target the formal economy oblivious of the fact that much of Kenya’s economy is informal and also agriculture based.

All the same we have seen actions to address the impending food security challenge mainly directed at giving food to the poor especially in the slums[19]. However, food donations do not take accounts that the food business supports many livelihoods. Cash transfers would do much better as it can keep the business alive. Notwithstanding cash transfers, this will also need to be thought out carefully as the threat of Covid-19 cannot be wished away.  Decongesting rather than closing markets is one way. This can be done by asking traders to trade on alternate days, restricting numbers of people at markets at any time or opening new markets (say converting playground to temporary markets) and also working with traders to ensure they observe proper hygiene and are tested regularly[20].

One development of note that is showing the way forward is the collaboration between Twiga Foods, which distributes foods for many small farmers (17,000) directly to informal food retailers, and Jumia which is the biggest e-commerce platform in Africa. Under the arrangement, Jumia will sell bundles of Twiga’s fresh produce on its e-commerce website. Jumia’s delivery fleet will pick up orders from Twiga’s sorting and distribution centers and then complete last mile, contactless delivery[21]. Though this solves the problems of market access for farmers, it essentially cuts of the “mama mboga”, the retailer and thus her livelihood.

Much more innovation is need to ensure food security is enhanced through ensure farmers produce can access markets but also crucially protecting the many livelihoods involved in moving the food from farm to the fork.

Written by: Dr. Julius Gatune Kariuki

World Bank. 2009. Eastern Africa: A study of the regional maize market and marketing costs. Washington, DC:

World Bank (2016). Kenya Urbanization Review. /curated/en/639231468043512906/pdf/AUS8099-WP-P148360-PUBLIC-KE-Urbanization-ACS.pdf. Washington, DC:: The World Bank;2016.

[1] La Rovere, R., T. Abdoulaye, G. Kostandini, et al. 2014. “Economic, Production, and Poverty Impacts of Investing in Maize Tolerant to Drought in Africa: An Ex-Ante Assessment.” Journal of Developing Areas 48(1): 199–225.
[3] An FAO (2014) study of maize farmers in Bungoma and Meru counties found that the net maize sellers were only 45%. An earlier study at found 65% of maize producers are net-buyers in western Kenya ( Barret, 2008)
[4] World Bank (2016). Kenya Urbanization Review. /curated/en/639231468043512906/pdf/AUS8099-WP-P148360-PUBLIC-KE-Urbanization-ACS.pdf. Washington, DC:: The World Bank;2016.
[6] World Bank. 2009. Eastern Africa: A study of the regional maize market and marketing costs. Washington, DC:
[11] Trucking logistics firm Kobo360 has halt 30% of its fleet across Nigeria, Kenya, Togo, Ghana and Uganda was not operating as a result of uncertainty surrounding movement restrictions.
[13]  For example  due to disruptions, Nigeria’s fertilizer stocks are currently 20% below normal levels. There are only enough seeds and other inputs to farm 1 million hectares out of the roughly 30 million typically farmed, the study showed.
[19]  Much of the donations have been done haphazardly and has seen chaos and people scramble leading government to establish rules on food donations that will see donations routed through Kenya Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund.