Ann Gakenia Muthungu, 69, outside her home in the Mukuru Kwa Reuben settlement [Asha Jaffar /Oxfam Kenya]

Cash Safety-Nets could protect the lives of millions of food insecure Kenyans, if adopted widely


“How can we stay at home without food? We cannot live in the house. You will die in the house” - said Ann Gakenia Muthungu, a 69 year old single mother and grandmother, taking care of 7 children in the Mukuru Kwa Reuben informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya.


Already an Emergency

In April, most families living in informal settlements in Nairobi were only able to afford one quarter of the food they needed, according to a rapid food insecurity assessment conducted by the Urban Early Warning Early Action Coalition (UEWEA), with partners Oxfam in Kenya, The Kenyan Red Cross Society, Concern Worldwide and ACTED. The report found that 30% of informal settlement residents are likely to be experiencing severe hunger in the household, and only 22.5% of all informal households reported having at least one stable income earner.

It has been two months since the Government of Kenya enacted a nationwide curfew and movement restriction in and out of major Kenyan counties Mombasa, Nairobi, Kilifi and Kwale. Since then countless domestic workers, cleaners, beauticians, street vendors and others in the informal sector without unemployment benefits and social security have lost their income streams. Beginning in April, the UEWEA coalition has been piloting an innovative cash transfer programme to help protect the most vulnerable informal settlement residents from these shocks.

“I take care of 7 children. They do not have a mother or a father. I earn a living by selling cabbage and charcoal, and these days work has reduced a lot. We don't earn anything because people don't have money.” said Ann Gakenia Muthungu.

“Before I used to earn even 500 shillings (5 USD) or more per day, so you would have some left over after you buy food for the family. Now you only get enough to buy some sukuma wiki (collard greens). Sometimes we only eat some porridge for lunch, and some chapatis in the evening.” she said.


Dangerous Coping Mechanisms

At the height of Kenya’s last urban food crisis of 2009, an estimated 4.1 Million people living in informal settlements were at risk of starvation. A report by the Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG) measured up to a 30% increase in prostitution and showed that many food insecure kenyans began engaging in crime, selling dangerous illegal brews, and child labor. The KFSSG report also found that starving informal settlement residents reduced expenditure on essential sanitation goods and services, such as soap and water —  goods that are crucial fighting today’s menace, COVID-19.

“Life was so hard, I contemplated killing myself. I would go get drunk, come home and find the children asleep. I tried borrowing money to start my business, but to no avail. I contemplated being a prostitute but I was scared of sexually transmitted diseases.” Said Njoki Nyambura in 2009, single mother of four and Nairobi informal settlement resident. 


Ann Gakenia Muthungu washing her hands with soap provided by Oxfam in Kenya’s COVID-19 WASH programme [Asha Jaffar /Oxfam Kenya]


Past Success

In response to the 2009 food crisis, Oxfam in Kenya launched an emergency cash transfer project sending KSH 1,500 (15 USD) to 3,400 households with the aim of providing immediate protection of residents, and long-term entrepreneurship and micro-financing mentorship.

The results of the initiative were eye-opening. Over 50% of the households that received grants used them to improve or revive their small businesses in addition to meeting their basic needs. By the end of the initiative, 83% of beneficiaries no longer received nor needed the cash grants to fulfill their basic needs, and households in the initiative were protected from resorting to negative coping strategies.

With a grant of KSH 1500, in 2009 Njoki was able to restart her business, which in the years following the project reported making profits. 


Safety-Nets for COVID-19 relief

Unlike 2009, Kenyans today are not allowed to freely move to seek out livelihood opportunities between restricted counties. They are also unable to travel to rural areas, where stronger social bonds and opportunities to grow food for themselves can reduce the risk of starvation. 

Many Elderly Kenyans, like Ann Gakenia Muthungu are afraid to move around for fear of contracting COVID-19 and risking her life.

“Everyone fears a sickness, no one wants to get sick. And like me I am old so I will die If i get it” she said. 


Ann Gakenia Muthungu in Mukuru Kwa Reuben settlement in Nairobi, Kenya [Asha Jaffar /Oxfam Kenya]


To help protect the most vulnerable Kenyans like the elderly, orphans, the chronically ill, disabled individuals, and pregnant or lactating women, the UEWEA coalition has launched a pilot project sending grants worth an average of KES 5654.5 (56.54 USD) per household to 1,504 vulnerable Nairobi informal settlement households or 6,016 people. The grants are being sent remotely to recipients in partnership with mobile service provider Safaricom, to minimize beneficiaries’ risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Many in informal settlements were left with two options, go out to earn a living, and risk COVID-19, or stay home, and starve. We're trying to open a third way, stay home, stay safe, and have enough to feed the family, cover their basic needs” said Gabriella D’Elia, the coordinator for the cash safety-net pilot.

Over the next few weeks, the UEWEA coalition is gathering beneficiaries’ feedback and measuring the impact of the pilot. In the coming months with additional fundraising being pursued, the coalition hopes to scale this project to protect 20,000 vulnerable informal settlement households, or an estimated 80,000 individuals who are currently unable to meet their needs in Nairobi.

This story was produced in partnership with the Mukuru Youth Initiative.