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HomeFood Law and PoliticsEnhancing food justice for communities in Kenya’s urban informal settlements

Enhancing food justice for communities in Kenya’s urban informal settlements

Food justice and food sovereignty aim to ensure equity in food systems. They represent concrete visions of transforming the current food systems by eliminating the structural inequalities underpinning these systems (Gottlieb & Joshi, 2010). The concepts of food justice and sovereignty are guided mainly by the aspirations of people who have been marginalised by mainstream agro-food regimes. The question therefore is, what problems need to be overcome to achieve food justice and sovereignty in Kenya’s informal settlements?

The Spatial Politics of Nairobi

Informal settlements are rapidly growing as Africa urbanises and a key marker of this growth is the glaring spatial inequalities being witnessed across the continent. In Nairobi for example, 63-70% of people live in informal settlements (UN, 2015), occupying only 6% of urban land (UN Habitat, 2017). The disparity in population densities is such that high-income households on average live on, or have access to one acre of land, whereas there are up to 250 households per acre in the informal settlements of Nairobi.

In a recent study undertaken by Akiba Mashinani (2016) in Mukuru – one of the informal settlements in Nairobi the 101,076 households in the area cumulatively spent Ksh 365,056,000.00 per month on food, provided through informal food networks. This translates to over Ksh 4.2 billion in a year and only represents the 30 villages in Mukuru. The whole of Nairobi has 152 villages spread across different informal settlements (Slum Dwellers International Kenya, 2013). While the consumption base for food is evidently large, access to safe, nutritious, affordable and sufficient food still remains a mirage for many living in these settlements.

In the research, it was also clear that there exists a price penalty called the poverty penalty, where a poor person pays more for products and basic services yet receives goods and services of a lower quality. For example, on average residents of Mukuru pay 172.72% higher for water and 45.35% higher for electricity (Corburn et al., 2017). While water pipes and electricity lines supplying services to the wealthier areas pass through or near informal settlements, county and national governments treat residents as disposable and not worthy of these services, leaving them at the mercy of cartels that control the price and access of basic services.

Navigating Urban Informal Food Networks

Street food vending is an important source of food for many urban dwellers, not just for those living in informal settlements, but also serving the middle class (Githiri, Ngugi, Njoroge, & Sverdlik, 2016). Food traders are typically located near residential areas, offering food on credit, and are often better equipped to sell products in volumes that low-income customers can afford and many times are desperately in need of. It is clear that the informal food trade is the backbone of food security in Nairobi for the poor and marginalised – occurring in a space in which county and national governments continue to shirk their constitutional responsibilities over ensuring that people realise the Right to Food.

Unfortunately, street food vending in the country has historically faced and still continues to face high levels of criminalisation by county and national government officials. The majority of street food vendors practice without licenses, mostly because of how prohibitive the costs of acquiring one are, as well as the bureaucracy and exclusion surrounding these formal processes. In addition, there exist problematic, highly contested and purist ideas of food safety and sanitation around informal food networks that are sadly enshrined in various laws and which urgently need to be debated.

The lack of basic social services creates a situation in which many street food vendors have to sell their food items in locations that may expose food to contamination, such as near open sewers. For women vendors, the lack of lighting presents a real security risk as many of them have to sell until late into the night and walk home alone in the dark (Githiri et al., 2016).

Population growth in urban areas, especially among youth, continues to increase due to rapid urbanisation and the ever increasing rural economic marginalisation that is driving rural-urban migration. On the other hand, land that was previously used for farming in rural and peri-urban areas such as Kiambu, which has historically been a big source of fresh food and milk to Nairobi, is also quickly being converted for real estate purposes. Adjusting to these challenges, urban dwellers have become creative in curbing food insecurity through practising innovative urban agriculture, maximising the remaining public spaces available, and at times, violating laws put in place by state organs to criminalise or curtail these practices, mainly in low and middle-income settlements.

Gendered-Class Realities of Urban-Informal Food Trading

Looking at the informal markets in the country, you will find that they are mostly comprised of women, who are the major providers of food. Recent research, Nourishing Livelihoods; Recognizing and Supporting Food Vendors in Nairobi Informal Settlements, found that, women comprise the majority of food vendors: 63% and 81% of vendors are female in Mukuru, Viwandani and Korogocho respectively. Men prevailed in the sale of meat and milk. In rural areas, food markets are predominantly also occupied by women (Quisumbing, 2014). The informal food markets are important in terms of creating employment opportunities for women, which in turn helps in alleviating poverty. Other benefits of operating local informal food markets include the ability of women to combine work and child care, reduced transport costs and a high number of customers due to population densities. It is imperative that a strong gendered class analysis guides any formal and informal approach to addressing food and livelihood inequalities in the country.

Case Example: Grassroots Responses to Urban Food In(security)

Muungano wa Wanavijiji’s advocacy and research work looks into the challenges of informal settlements especially in the areas of land tenure and basic services, addressing them through partnerships with the county governments and urban right-holders. During these engagements, issues touching on food safety and security, in general, are a constant feature. Communities are mobilised and brought together through the strategies that the Muungano wa Wanavijiji collective has been using for the past 20 years, ensuring that community members are at the forefront of dealing with the food insecurity challenges they experience.

In Mathare informal settlement, for example, an association of food vendors – Food Vendors Association – was created to bring food vendors together from all of Nairobi’s informal settlements. This association was tasked with the role of sharing the reports of the existing conditions for food vendors in all settlements and proposing collaborative solutions to address existing challenges to the relevant stakeholders. Through the association, many food vendors have come together to form savings groups, which not only unite them but sustain their businesses through loans and welfare kitties that they would not be able to access from mainstream banks.

The association also works to challenge toxic ideas of ‘illegality’ associated with informal food traders and demand for the same recognition and livelihood security that formal food traders have. Most importantly, the Food Vendors Association is at the forefront of demanding quality and non-privatised social services for themselves and their families, from both county and national governments.

Towards Development Justice as a Form of Food Justice

It is imperative that both state and non-state actors undertake a situational analysis in all the informal settlements in Kenya, in order to better understand the complex challenges – many of which are described here – with regard to food security. An analysis is critical in formulating strategies to overcome the challenges while building on the existing systems mapping work of grassroots organisations working in these communities. In cognisance of the fact that state and county governments are trying to upgrade informal settlements, it is important to align housing and infrastructure development goals with food justice plans and in particular, recognising and including food vendors who are important in helping to achieve food security in these areas.

Upgrades should be holistic as Githiri et al. (2016) argue, “improving food security in African informal settlements must form part of a broader set of upgrading interventions to promote jobs, improve safety, and political empowerment and economic justice for residents.” We must guard against any form of upgrading that further excludes already marginalised communities or presents a development path that continues to concentrate urban wealth in the hands of the elite.

State and non-state actors, rural and informal food providers who are predominantly women, should work together to achieve food justice both in the informal and rural areas. Tackling the shelter and environmental short-falls in informal settlements can, in turn, strongly support vendors’ livelihoods and thereby help to reach the urban poor with safe, affordable food sources. Additionally, by prioritising jobs and improving security in informal settlements, upgrading policies can support equally vital transformations in living conditions and community empowerment.

Finally, informal food vendors are invaluable repositories of information about the histories of the politics of urban food provisioning and understand the challenges in very personal ways. Moving forward, it is important that the state relies on and resources their existing knowledge and visions for food justice.


Grace Githiri is an urban planner and GIS expert working with Muungano wa Wanavijiji. She currently holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Urban Planning and a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Urban Development. She is also an Environment Impact Assessment and Audit Lead Associate. She has been involved in working with urban slum communities in data collection and using data to develop both short and long-term solutions to challenges facing them. She has also specifically participated in food safety studies in most slums in Nairobi. Urban Agriculture Innovations in part of the formal and informal settlements in Nairobi was part of her Master’s thesis. She looks forward to sustainable cities in Africa when it comes to food.

 Patrick Njoroge is a program officer at Akiba Mashinani Trust – Muungano wa Wanavijiji, with a Bachelor’s Degree of Science in Public Relations from Moi University and a CPA Part 1. He has been working with different communities in urban slums especially in Nairobi for the last five years. He has been key in community organising and data collection which includes food security studies.

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