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HomeFood Law and PoliticsOf Kenya’s eaters and eatists
Small farmers in Kenya

Of Kenya’s eaters and eatists

Hunger as a development and social justice challenge (abridged version)

“Give bread to those who have hunger, and to those who have bread, give a hunger for justice.”
— Statement issued by the Conference of Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Christians on Food and Energy in Bellagio, Italy (1975)

Article 43 of the Constitution of the Republic of Kenya deals with economic and social rights and among these rights, Section 1(c) recognises the right of every person “to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality”.

That Kenyans sought to have this right enshrined in their constitution is not accidental but born out of their hard experience that law can be used to change society. Indeed the development of effective legal institutions and processes can contribute to the strengthening of individual rights and the pursuit of equality, two things that have eluded Kenyans since independence in 1963. Thus, getting rid of legal rules or institutions that are not consistent with realisation of social justice and development and that tend to distort and delay their achievement are also a function of law. The social, economic, cultural and political goals that are necessary for Kenya’s development can only be achieved in an atmosphere of a dynamic legal process that is ready to innovate and change hence the enactment of the new constitution.

Kenya’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture and up to 80% of farming is undertaken in small holdings. At the same time, landlessness is a serious problem among a large section of Kenyans who in spite of this do not have opportunities for employment in the non-agricultural sector.

Given the foregoing, agrarian reform should be a crucial issue as regards the issue of food production. In spite of this, agrarian reform in Kenya has been slow in coming and land remains one of the most contentious political issues that people fight and even die for. It is an area in which law would play a decisive and important role in bringing about desirable changes to promote social justice and development. The fact that agrarian reform has not come, points to the desire of vested interests to maintain the status quo. It is with these concerns in mind that Kenyans sought to empower their constitution to become an active instrument in the development process and to ensure social justice. And yet today millions of Kenyans are still going hungry. The current situation may in part be attributed to the phenomenon of Kenya’s eatists.

The eaters and the eatists

When Kenyans talk of “eating” they understand the term in at least two senses. The first sense, of course, is the normal reference to the intake of food through the mouth. The second sense in which Kenyans use the term is metaphorical and refers to the misappropriation of public funds and goods for personal benefit. Eatists are mainly those in public office. To a great extent, opportunities for “eating” provide a major incentive for certain individuals to aspire to and hold such offices.

Among the various meanings the dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 2006) gives for the suffix “ist” is someone that adheres to or advocates a doctrine or system or code of behaviour. Thus, “eatist” here refers to a member of that select class or group of Kenyans who have permanently placed Kenya in the league of the most corrupt nations of the world. Specifically, the eatists adhere to the doctrine that whatever public resources they come across is theirs to expropriate for their personal benefit. They therefore loot and plunder at will and their actions inevitably lead to the misery of millions of Kenyans who are supposed to benefit from these public resources.

Although it is obvious that everyone needs to eat in order to survive (we are all eaters), a substantial proportion of Kenyans are not always in a position to do so due to absolute poverty. However, the ability to eat in the second sense guarantees eating also in the first sense. In spite of what the constitution says, in Kenya, the “mere” hunger for food does not yet guarantee that one will indeed get food to eat. The few eatists have often gobbled up what may have been used to ensure that all Kenyans are eaters. The net effect is that there is widespread poverty among Kenyans the worst manifestation of which is hunger.

The food situation in Kenya today

Poverty and hunger are pervasive facts of life for many rural and urban Kenyan families. Nutritional shortages have a serious impact on human beings and may cause physiological problems. Mild energy shortages cause lost growth for infants, lowered ability to learn among school children, and decreased ability to work and thus earn a living among adults. Severe food deficiencies result in weight loss, susceptibility to disease, more severe sickness and listlessness (Greer and Thorbecke, 1986).

The statements below illustrate the challenge facing our country:

  • A 2005/2006 household budget survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics showed that 20 per cent of Kenyans suffered from food poverty, such that their entire income was not even enough for purchasing food (Irungu, 2013).
  • “Prices of food in Kenya are higher than in Germany and the US. International sugar prices are lower than those in Kenya” John Randa, Nairobi-based World Bank economist (Irungu, 2013).
  • More than 10 million Kenyans (nearly one-third of the population) are chronically food insecure (Kenya, 2011; FAO, 2011).

Although this food and nutrition insecurity is often attributed to the poor performance of the agricultural sector, this is only part of the reason. There are issues to do with poverty and wealth distribution in the country as well. The unequal distribution of wealth has left nearly one-half of the country’s population living below the poverty line. The most obvious outcome of this poverty is malnutrition.


Malnutrition is a term that indicates a lack of some or all nutritional elements that are necessary for human health. There are two types of malnutrition. The first is protein-energy malnutrition and it refers basically to the lack of calories and protein. The second type of malnutrition is micro-nutrient (vitamin and mineral deficiency). Of these two types, the first is the most lethal and it is in this first sense that the word hunger is used here. This is not to downplay the importance of the second type of malnutrition but merely to recognise the fact that the majority of hungry Kenyans will readily accept any kind of food rather than asking first whether it contains this micronutrient or that vitamin.

A significant number of Kenyan small farm households, who are estimated to comprise 75-80% of the total national population, is estimated to consume less than the recommended total daily intake. In this sense, these households suffer from food poverty. 

Who are the hungry in Kenya?

It is possible to identify five main categories of Kenyans who are most vulnerable to food poverty (Rural Poverty Portal, 2011; Greer and Thorbecke, 1986):

  • Rural poor;
  • Kenyans living on land with low potential for agriculture and so-called marginal lands;
  • Urban poor;
  • Pregnant and lactating mothers;
  • Young children.

A person who is hungry or starving is in no position to meet any other needs or to participate in activities that are useful to the community. The contribution of such persons to the development process is nil since all their thoughts and physical efforts will be geared towards satisfying their hunger for food before they can do anything else. If they are in a position to satisfy this need and avoid hunger, they are then in a position to pursue their other basic needs be they physiological needs, safety needs, love, esteem or self-actualisation. The aim of pursuing all these needs is to improve their quality of life. If people are the objects of the development process, then the improvement of their quality of life in all possible ways must be the emphasis. It is, therefore, necessary that there be a measure of guarantee for everyone’s access to food.

What has the government done?

That the government is aware of the prevailing situation can never be in doubt. Various policy documents and the constitution itself bear ample testimony to this awareness. But whether this awareness translates into any meaningful action is in serious doubt.

From a reading of all food security-related policy documents produced since independence, there is no shortage of good intentions on the part of government planners. What therefore goes wrong and why are these plans never implemented as intended? In spite of having all the right policies and plans little ever seems to come out right. The attitude amongst the implementers may be best characterised by the attitude: “now that they have drawn up the plans that they wanted, we can now go on to do as we please”. The Galana Project is illustrative of this attitude.

Kenya Vision 2030 and the Galana Food Security Project

Kenya Vision 2030 is the official government blueprint that seeks to turn Kenya into an industrialised middle-income country by the year 2030. It recognises the challenges of food insecurity and the importance of Kenya becoming self-reliant in food resources. It also recognises poverty and its challenges to national development.

In recognition of the fact that 80% of Kenyans who reside in the rural areas of the country are smallholder farmers, Kenya Vision 2030 proposed that in the plan period 2,000 hectares of small-scale irrigation schemes would be launched in each of the country’s then 70 districts. With this kind of plan, it would be possible to envision smallholders benefiting from irrigation technologies as these would be spread throughout the country.

However, in January 2014, the Ministry of Agriculture abandoned this path charted out by Kenya Vision 2030 and zeroed in on one mega-irrigation project covering one million acres: the Galana-Kulalu Food Security Project. This is in sharp contrast to the target set by Kenya Vision 2030 of putting 80,000 acres under irrigation each year. That would mean a timeline of 12.5 years from July 2013 to develop one million acres.

What happened? In its campaign manifesto, the ruling Jubilee Coalition had promised to put one million acres of land under irrigation in its first term from 2013-2017 hence the decision to opt for the Galana Project.

However, the pertinent questions that need to be asked are:

  • Although it is claimed that the project will offer opportunities for employment of up to two million jobs, considering that it is a public-private partnership in which the private sector is expected to put up nearly the whole cost of Kshs. 250 billion, what are the implications for equity in terms of food supply and the transfer of irrigation technology to the small farm holder (who constitutes the majority) in the country?
  • With the Galana Project straddling only two counties, namely Tana River and Kilifi, what happens to the other 45 counties and the smallholders in those two host counties?
  • Although it is anticipated that the project will double the national production of maize and thus Kenya will not only have enough for its needs but also for export, what distribution mechanisms are there to ensure vulnerable people do not resort to such desperate measures as eating puppies as reported in the press in January 2014? Who owns this production and how will it help the poor?

It is important to answer these questions honestly because as I have tried to show it is not the lack of good intentions that has brought Kenya to where it is today but a failure to implement equitable policies to maintain the existence of the poor at a humane level. It has never been the lack of legislation or policy that has led to nearly one-half of the population going hungry. Given Kenya’s political economy and given this kind of lack of coordination or agreement between the planning and implementation wings of government, it would only seem reasonable to conclude that the poor and the hungry might be in for more of the same in the future.

The Right to Food is important from a social justice perspective

One principle of morality, beneficence, demands that we do not bring about harm or evil. A principle of justice demands that we treat people equally except when unequal treatment can be justified on the grounds that it will promote greater equality in the long term. Those who are in charge of the Kenyan state have to understand these important moral principles. That those who have enough food have a moral obligation to those who do not have enough since no harm to themselves would come about as a result of their meeting this obligation.

There is, therefore, nothing that makes well-being, improvement in the quality of life or development incompatible with social justice. The perception one may have of incompatibility arises from a perception of development as the development of things, systems and structures (such as the Galana Project) rather than of human beings (such as those forced to eat puppies). It is this distorted perception that tends to relegate basic needs to a secondary position.

By instituting “mega” projects such as the Galana Project the government is of necessity removing from the poor any opportunity that would make it possible for their efforts to be rewarded.

In the final analysis, it is the “micro” or small projects of irrigation that can benefit a majority of the vulnerable in the country and not the Galana-type of a project that does not address the realities of the structure of Kenya’s agriculture or its political economy. It may make for a great campaign rally sound byte to say that what would have taken 15 years to achieve has been done in only five years by “our” government. But at the end of the day, it is only the development of things and not of people. It will have done nothing for the majority of the people who will still be unable to purchase food and will, therefore, continue to go hungry. The state as the guardian of the constitution has a duty, indeed a moral duty to realise not only the right to food but the right of all to eat. This right must not only exist in the constitution but must be translated into reality so that all Kenyans become eaters of food rather than only some of them becoming eaters of what truly belongs to everyone. Under the new constitution ending hunger becomes a political imperative and is no longer a choice.

By Dr Dickson M. Ombaka. Dr Ombaka is the Chairman of the Department of Sociology, Kenyatta University.

The full article was first published in the Journal of Social Welfare and Human Rights, Vol. 2(1), March 2014. It is available here.

Image: Jared Okeke, Royco Municipal Market, Kitale. Photograph by Armstrong Too.

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