Food Insecurity in the City a disaster in waiting: Government action is needed

Friday, February 24, 2017
Elizabeth Wayua,31, a domestic worker feeds the baby of her employer in Pipeline, Embakasi, Nairobi, Kenya. 2016. Photo Credit/Allan Gichigi

Food insecurity in the urban areas is becoming serious and requires urgent intervention before it becomes disastrous. Urban areas, especially the slums have high populations. In Nairobi alone, over 60% of the city’s population (5% of Kenya’s total population) lives in the slums - About 2 million people. Most of these people rely on low-wage casual labour to survive, and as such they rely on food bought from markets to feed their families. During food crises, they adapt in ways different from rural populations – In the slums, most food insecure people resort to begging or prostitution, selling belongings, withdrawing children from schools, or looking for a second job to feed their families. These populations are also politically marginalized, they live in poor housing and sanitary conditions, have limited access to health facilities and water, and they do not have security of land tenure.

The result of this is that in case of emergencies like small-scale fires, floods, political violence, or security risks, access to food will be greatly reduced. This may further be worsened by rising food and commodity prices which affects the poorest the most and threatens their livelihood. The size and frequency of these risks and disasters may vary depending on the slum and have different effects. But the ultimate result is food insecurity and malnutrition, with negative impact especially on children and women who are more vulnerable.

These disasters and emergencies are therefore unique to urban settings.

There are measures that have been proposed to deal with such disasters. Some international standards provide pointers that guide actors on when to respond to food insecurity. For instance, the United Nations (UN) through its World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that agencies should respond to food insecurity and malnutrition when the number of children (below the age of five) who face starvation[1] amount to 15% of the same-age population and above. The challenge with this is one: This percentage may mean different numbers for different places. In just one slum in Nairobi County, Mathare for instance, with a population of 423,000 people, this percentage will be 63,450 starving children. On the other hand, Marsabit County, with a population of about 291,166 people has an equal percentage of 13,272 children facing starvation. Such data, while correctly representing acute malnutrition in Marsabit, also likely undermines malnutrition and food insecurity in Nairobi and other populous urban areas.

The second challenge has to do with legislation and governance. The Constitution of Kenya puts responsibility of policy coordination around disaster management on national government. However, it does not list the type of disasters or recognize food insecurity and malnutrition in urban areas as a type of disaster or potential emergency. At the county level, the Nairobi City County Government also has a law on disasters and emergencies management[2]. But this law is silent on food security related disasters discussed above. The existing agency[3] at the county government only deals with spontaneous disasters like fires and terrorists attacks but does not involve itself when people in the city face starvation.

Therefore, there is a need for national and county government agencies to work together and establish early warning indicators for food insecurity and malnutrition in urban areas and also identify appropriate responses towards the same. This is called the Urban Early Warning Early Action (UEWEA) mechanism. If this mechanism is set up in Nairobi County and replicated in other urban counties in Kenya, it will form the basis of effectively responding to food security related crises in other cities around the world.

Oxfam, working together with other other International NGOs (Concern Worldwide, World Vision and Kenya Red Cross) are supporting the setting up of this mechanism in the Nairobi City County Government.

[1] Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM)

[2] Disasters & Emergencies Management Act (2013)

[3] County Emergency & Disaster Management Unit (EDMU)

Notes to editors: 

The following materials are available on request:

  • Indicator Development for the Surveillance of Urban Emergencies – IDSUE Annual Report, 2016/207 developed by Concern Worldwide indicating entry-points for response to food insecurity related crises in the urban slum areas of Nairobi.
  • Urban Emergencies Surveillance Toolkit (2016) outlining guidelines and indicators that are monitored for early warning of food insecurity in the urban areas

We will arrange for technical focal points of the project to provide media interviews on request.

A profile on UEWEA project is available on Oxfam website. Read it here 

Contact information: 

Andrew Osiany, Oxfam in Kenya +254 (0) 20 282 1217 

Joyce Kabue, Oxfam in Kenya +254 (0) 725 690 506