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HomeMixed GrillChallenges in implementing a Right to Food framework in Kenya

Challenges in implementing a Right to Food framework in Kenya

The article raises key questions that are necessary for setting the context for a Right to Food framework in Kenya. What is food security? Is food security the same as the Right to Food? When a country speaks of having achieved the Right to Food, who is at the centre of its considerations? How is the political economy connected to the realisation of the Right to Food? In his analysis, Philip Kilonzo argues that too much emphasis is placed on agricultural commodities trading from Kenya into global markets and that too little, disjointed and problematic attention has been given to local food needs and livelihoods. This makes the Right to Food in Kenya at best, words in a constitution and at worst, almost impossible to achieve.

To begin with, it is clear that any action that increases or improves access and control over food, broadly referred to as food security, enhances the realisation of the Right to Food at a basic level. The Right to Food cannot be actualised unless a state takes progressive measures in policy, law and practice to dismantle the systemic barriers that face women, people living in poverty and marginalised communities. Women are particularly important in a country that receives over a quarter of its annual GDP from agriculture, and in a continent where women are responsible for about 80% of the agricultural production and food provisioning (FAO, 2011).

The article locates its arguments and analysis on women living in poverty and marginalised groups of people in Kenya who rely on agriculture as their main economic activity. It examines state measures and their implications in realising the Right to Food. In so doing, the article offers us an opportunity to vet state policies related to achieving sustainable food security and in promoting the realisation of the Right to Food.

Legal and Economic Paradigms and the Right to Food Framework

The Right to Food is globally anchored in the United Nations (UN) general comment on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. Generally, it is understood as the right to feed oneself in dignity and the need to put in place and implement policies, national laws and programmes that will guarantee this right for all, but specifically for vulnerable groups.

Under the Kenyan Constitution (2010), agriculture was one of the principal sectors devolved, and Article 43 (1)(c) of the same constitution is explicit on the Right to Food, stating, ‘‘Every person has the right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality.”

This right can be understood in both a narrow and broad context. Indeed, the Right to Food is facilitated by the enjoyment of other rights that are anchored in the Kenyan constitution. Notably, access to land; access to productive resources; access and control of quality seeds and other genetic material; sustained access to water for agricultural production and secure access to markets to trade produce. This article does not delve deeper into land and natural resource rights and how they facilitate achievement of the Right to Food, instead, it privileges an analysis of the immediate laws and policies necessary to protect food rights in Kenya.

The National Food and Nutrition Security Policy (NFNSP) 2012, provides a robust and inclusive framework for the realisation of the Right to Food. Unfortunately, the policy and its implementation have been slow to govern critical attention and action amongst key political stakeholders to food and nutrition security in the country, except when referenced in party manifestos of the major political parties in Kenya. On closer scrutiny, it appears that referencing has been for nothing more than gaining political mileage, rather than an actual and sustained commitment to concretely work toward a Right to Food for all Kenyans.

Within Vision 2030, Kenya’s main economic and development model, there are several agricultural flagship projects, which demand interrogation. To begin with, these projects as a whole put too much emphasis on agricultural export markets. They focus on agricultural commodities trading from Kenya into global markets through value addition and pay little, disjointed and problematic attention to local food needs and livelihoods.

Agricultural projects have also failed to take into account the economic realities of women in Kenya, specifically rural women farmers who by far and large are the biggest food producers in the country but surprisingly face shocking levels of hunger and economic injustice.

The Kenya Agriculture Sector Development Strategy (ASDS) 2010 and the Medium Term Investment Plans (MTIP) of the same sector have continued to guide priority setting and resource allocation. Budgets have been skewed almost entirely towards increasing agricultural commercialisation. The reality, however, particularly in arid and semi-arid agro-ecological zones as captured in the ASDS, shows that the emphasis on commercialisation and farming for export has brought little benefit to local smallholder farmers. As a result of this, the 2017 long rains assessment carried out in July/August has estimated that approximately 3.4 million Kenyans are now acutely food insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance compared to 2.6 million people as established by the 2016 short rains assessment.

Kenya’s recent agriculture laws, namely, the Crops Act (2013) and the Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Authority Act (AFFA) (2013), have significant and worrying implications on the Right to Food in the country. The laws criminalise a number of farmers’ practices, which Kenyan women farmers depend on to strengthen their food and livelihood systems. For example, the Crops Act 2013 prohibits seed exchange among farmers, storing or handling of uncertified agriculture commodities, and the ability of farmers to grow their own seed varieties next to fields of certified crops. This is a dangerous move considering that it is estimated that between 80-90% of seeds used in the country by smallholder farmers do not come from seed companies but is acquired ‘informally’ through established farmers’ networks. The AFFA further attempts to claw back on the decentralisation spirit of the Constitution of Kenya.

Other Elements Relevant to the Implementation of the Right to Food Framework

The exclusion of women and communities from areas where agricultural productivity is perceived to be marginal has been a historical practice in the implementation of agriculture sector policy in Kenya. The over-emphasis on commercial crops for exports and high agricultural productive areas has further compounded the problems of hunger and exclusion witnessed in these areas.

During the past 5-10 years, the immediate pre and post-devolution era have been characterised by extreme projectisation of development efforts in the agriculture sector. While direct investments in the sector have increased, they have largely been donor-driven, with uneven distribution of projects and funding across counties. Notable projects included Njaa Marufuku and Accelerated Input Agricultural Access Programme among others. Donors provided an average of 14% of Kenya’s agricultural sector spending in this period. In 2010/11, donors were funding Ksh 15.4 billion worth of agriculture projects, with over 40% of agricultural aid being received as concessional loans rather than grants (ActionAid Kenya, 2011).

One of the most troubling results of these projects and funding landscape is that on further scrutiny, it is clear that they have primarily supported the Kenyan middle class and elite. Women, particularly in rural areas who disproportionately bear the burden of feeding the country as well as experience severe levels of hunger, lack the institutional and structural support to access and match the resources available in these projects. As a result, they have been excluded in the targeting process and thus continue to face continued multiple and intersecting violations over their Right to Food and economic rights.

In 2010, the previous (Kibaki) government pledged to put over one million acres under irrigation. The pronouncement was welcomed with pomp and colour by civil society organisations working in arid and semi-arid areas because it indirectly implied an increase in investments that would go toward tapping the water potential in these areas to boost food security. Substantive progress was to be registered much later with a considerable shift towards irrigation in the sector allocation budget, which is evident from the increase in the budget to the Irrigation and Drainage Infrastructure Programme, as a share of the department of agriculture budget from 39% in 2014/15 to the current 47.8% (ActionAid Kenya, 2011). In fact, in 2015/16, irrigation took the lion share of the agriculture budget, while it is budget allocation increased by 41% from the previous financial year. It is, however, important to note that women and marginalised communities in arid and semi-arid areas continue to be bypassed by investments in the sector, with priority being given to Public-Private Partnership (PPPs) programmes. For example, the Galana-Kulalu Food Security Project – a mega irrigation investment – received Ksh 3 billion in 2013/2014 and another Ksh 3.5 billion in 2014/15. The rights of women and local communities to access land, productive resources as a whole, as well as benefit from project infrastructure within the scheme is not only wanting but has done very little to actually promote food security.

In Kenya, the Agricultural and Rural Development sector for the financial year 2013/14, was allotted Ksh 38.8 billion at the national level, amounting to a meagre 2.3% of the total national budget. Seventy-five per cent of this funding is directed to major irrigation schemes, to be managed largely through PPPs and therefore hidden from the much needed public scrutiny and beyond the access of Kenya’s smallholder farmers. If Kenya is to meet its obligation under the Maputo declaration requirement of allocating at least 10% of its national budget to agriculture, counties should be spending 7.7% of their budgets in agriculture (approximately Ksh 130.22 billion).

With the 47 counties collectively receiving a total allocation of a mere 13%-30% of the total national budget based on the last audited accounts, it is practically impossible for counties cumulatively to allocate the remaining 7.7% required in the agriculture sector so as to ensure that the country achieves its financial commitments under the Maputo declaration. Counties have other competing and complimentary service delivery priorities in the water, roads, health care and education sectors, for example. In fact, with devolution, agriculture spending in Kenya seems to be on the decline.

The gap in organising among farmers – noted from both the pattern of allocations towards strengthening farmers’ cooperative movements and local level actions – is a significant impediment to sustained dialogue through public participation. The repercussions being that farmers are not involved in the opportunity to demand that budget allocation is untied to philanthropy and in accordance with international binding commitments that Kenya is a signatory to.


Women farmers’ movements and CSOs working on food security need to advance the Right to Food framing in law and policy reforms and practice in order to put back into perspective the rights discourse that has been eroded over time. A deeper analysis and targeted actions to different farmer typologies remain central in achieving the Right to Food. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) provide useful anchors in promoting women and marginalised producer’s Right to Food. SDGs target 1.4 on equal rights to economic resources among men and women; target 2.3 on doubling the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers; and target 2.4 on ensuring sustainable food production systems, are important in this regard. It is useful to institutionalise the tracking of these indicators at all levels.

Counties and farmer movements need to critically analyse the extent to which food and agriculture legislation either promotes or impedes the Right to Food and livelihoods. Indeed, counties through their visions, integrated development plans and annual budget allocations will continue to shape the agriculture landscape across the country and the extent to which it contributes to the Right to Food. It is not enough for governments to spend money – public finance must work for women and other excluded groups of producers.


Philip Kilonzo has served in national leadership positions on policy and campaign work in the areas of land, natural resources, food and livelihood security for the last 10 years. He has served in the Policy Campaign unit of ActionAid Kenya in different capacities grounding his campaign approaches on the Right to Food. Philip has an excellent grasp of the food security issues in the country and policy analysis with a bias to women and communities living in exclusion. His diverse work experience that includes emergency response and preparedness and women rights with local, national and international linkages enables him to contribute tangibly in a number of development discourses.

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