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10.04.2019 | Project Update

Hunger and Undernutrition in Kenya

Modern Kenya offers a very mixed picture: poverty reduction, rapid population growth and extreme weather. How does this affect the nutritional situation of the East African country? The background analysis by Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide examines the causes of hunger in Kenya and the strategies that can be used to fight it.

Portrait of a woman in Kenya
Beatrice Mumo is part of a support group for mothers in Kenya. "When the rain stops, it gets tough. It's difficult to get enough food together," says the 40-year-old. © Philip Brandstaedter
Kerstin Bandsom Team Communications

With a poverty rate below the average for Sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya is making headway on reducing the share of its population living in poverty. In 2015 Kenya had an estimated poverty rate of 36.8 percent, down from 43.7 percent in 2005 (World Bank 2018a). A lowermiddle-income country, Kenya had a GDP per capita of $1,508 in 2017 in current US dollars, and between 2007 and 2017 its GDP per capita grew by an average of 2.4 percent a year (World Bank 2018a). Yet the country’s rapid population growth led to a rise in the absolute number of people living in poverty from 2005 to 2015.1 And its poverty rate is less responsive economic growth than that in other com-parable countries, pointing to the need for more inclusive growth in the future (World Bank 2018b).

Challenges for Kenya's Farmers

Agriculture, fisheries, and forestry are a vital part of Kenya’s economy. In 2017, they made up 38 percent of total employment and 32 percent of the country’s GDP, and growth in the agricultural sector accounted for the largest share of poverty reduction (World Bank 2018b). Services and industry constitute 45 percent and 18 percent of GDP, respectively (World Bank 2018a). The country’s farmers, however, face a major challenge stemming from rapid population growth, which puts downward pressure on the average size of land parcels available to each farmer (FAO 2018b).

Map of Kenya's regions and counties
Figure 1: Map of Kenya's regions and counties.Note: Kenya was previously divided into 8 administrative provinces but switched to a system of 47 counties in 2013. Much of the subnational data used here is at the level of the former provinces. Following the convention used in KNBS et al. (2015), this report refers to these former provinces as “regions.” © Welthungerhilfe

Extreme weather also imposes heavy burdens on Kenya’s population. More than 80 percent of Kenya is considered arid or semiarid land, and 95 percent of crops are rainfed, leaving farmers highly vulnerable to the effects of drought (REGLAP 2012; WFP 2018; Welborn 2018). Internal and cross-border displacement is common in Kenya, in part brought on by drought and conflict over natural resources, creating additional struggles for the affected populations (UN OCHA 2017). Flooding also poses a challenge: in the first half of 2018 alone, flooding displaced more than 300,000 people as well as damaging cropland and livestock (IDMC 2018; Relief Web 2018).

Hunger and Undernutrition Vary Widely by Region and County

Kenya’s 2018 GHI score is 23.2, on the low end of the serious category. This is a considerable improvement from 2000, when Kenya’s score was 36.5, considered alarming. Kenya has the lowest 2018 GHI score of any country in East Africa, with the exception of the small-island nation of Mauritius, the only upper-middle-income country in the region.

Traditional cattle herders are suddenly supposed to become farmers? They are expected to cultivate land and get plants to grow in barren soil? The Maasai in southern Kenya are rising to meet this challenge.

At the national level, there has been a decline in each of the GHI indicators since 2000 (Figure 2). The mortality rate of Kenyan children under age five has fallen steadily since 2000 (UN IGME 2017).2 Kenya’s undernourishment rate, reflecting the share of the population without adequate consumption of calories, declined consistently between 2001–2003 and 2013–2015 but has risen since then (FAO 2018b). This increase coincides with the 2016–2017 drought that plagued Kenya and neighbouring countries, sparking drops in agricultural production and increases in food prices (FEWS NET 2017a, 2017b). Kenya’s child stunting and child wasting rates have also fallen considerably. Between 2008–2009 and 2014, the stunting rate dropped from 35.2 to 26.0 percent and the wasting rate fell from 7.0 to 4.0 percent (KNBS and ICF Macro 2010; KNBS et al. 2015).3

Rates vary substantially between regions and counties, however, with some still having values significantly higher than the national averages. The highest stunting rates are in Kitui County at 45.8 percent and West Pokot County at 45.9 percent (KNBS et al. 2015). Although these counties have high poverty rates (48 and 57 percent, respectively, based on national poverty lines), stunting in Kenya is not perfectly associated with poverty levels. Rather, it is influenced by a complex set of factors, such as dietary diversity, feeding and caregiving practices, access to adequate sanitation, and disease (KNBS 2018; Eberwein et al. 2016). Wasting is highest in Kenya’s northernmost counties: 22.9 percent in Turkana, 16.3 percent in Marsabit, 14.8 percent in Mandera, 14.3 percent in West Pokot, and 14.2 percent in Wajir (KNBS et al. 2015). These counties are arid or semi-arid, are dominated by pastoralism, and have high rates of poverty (Krätli and Swift 2014; KNBS and SID 2013). Moreover, rates of contraception use and women’s education levels in these counties are low and fertility rates are high (KNBS et al. 2015).4

The Relation of Nutrition and Education

Indeed, children’s nutritional status is also associated with mothers’ education and literacy rates (Ruel, Alderman, and Maternal and Child Nutrition Study Group 2013), both globally and in Kenya specifically. 

Job prospects for 15,000 young people in five countries.

A study from urban settlements of Nairobi finds that maternal education strongly predicts children’s nutritional status, even when controlling for other socioeconomic and demographic factors (Abuya, Ciera, and Kimani-Murage 2012). The latest data from Kenya show that the stunting rate of children whose mothers have had no formal education was 31 percent, while that of children whose mothers have had secondary education or higher was just 17 percent (KNBS et al. 2015). Children’s nutrition is also associated with mothers’ nutritional status. A study from rural Kenya showed a positive correlation between maternal nutrition and children’s nutritional status in terms of anthropometric measures (Gewa, Ottugu, and Yandell 2012).

As Kenya attempts to further reduce child undernutrition and improve the situation in the counties with persistent challenges, it will be crucial to address infant and young child feeding practices. Breastfeeding practices have improved substantially in Kenya, with 61 percent of children under 6 months exclusively breastfed in 2014, compared with just 32 percent in 2008–09 (KNBS et al. 2015; KNBS and ICF Macro 2010). Meanwhile just 22 percent of children between 6 and 23 months of age receive a minimum acceptable diet5 (KNBS et al. 2015).

Table: GHI indicator values by region, Kenya
GHI indicator values by region, Kenya. © Welthungerhilfe

Finally, although most food and nutrition analyses of Kenya have traditionally focused on rural areas, where rates of child undernutrition tend to be higher than in urban areas, Kenya’s population is increasingly urban, and urban food insecurity and undernutrition are rising concerns (KNBS et al. 2015; WFP 2010; Concern Worldwide 2017). Urban dwellers are highly vulnerable to food price spikes, which affects their access to food. In addition, urban populations are subject to illness and disease and may lack adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene (WFP 2010; Concern Worldwide 2017). Moreover, child mortality declined much more slowly in urban than in rural areas of Kenya between 1993 and 2008, perhaps because of the deplorable living conditions in urban settlements (KimaniMurage et al. 2014). In 2014, Nairobi had the second-highest child mortality rate among Kenya’s regions (Table 1).

What Has Worked in Addressing Food Insecurity and Undernutrition

Agriculture is considered to have considerable potential to increase household food security and nutrition. Although evidence on the impact of agricultural technologies on relevant outcomes is limited (Kabunga, Dubois, and Qaim 2014), some studies show promising results in Kenya.

A Kenyan woman watering plants
Jane Manka is watering a sunk garden in Kumpa, Kenyal. Sunk gardens are built to save water. © Stefanie Glinski

A programme in western Kenya promoting the production of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are high in vitamin A, led to increased consumption of vitamin A–rich foods when combined with nutrition education and counseling (Hagenimana et al. 2001). A study conducted in Kenya’s Central and Eastern provinces showed that banana tissue culture, a propagation technique that reduces the transfer of pests and disease to banana plants, increased household food security as measured by the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale (Kabunga, Dubois, and Qaim 2014). Small-scale vegetable farmers who sold produce to supermarkets consumed more calories and micronutrients than other farmers, owing to increased income and higher vegetable production and consumption (Chege, Andersson, and Qaim 2015). A project promoting soil fertility management techniques increased crop yields and food security for participants, as measured by an increase in the number of months that food stayed in storage, relative to a control group (Wanyama et al. 2010).

Chart: Kenya's Global Hunger Index scores and indicator values, 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2018
Figure 2: Kenya's Global Hunger Index scores and indicator values, 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2018. © Welthungerhilfe

Smallholder dairying and pastoralism play an important role in Kenya, with significant implications for nutrition. Roughly a quarter of Kenyan households engage in small-scale dairy activities. A detailed study of pastoralism in four of Kenya’s northern, arid counties – Mandera, Marsabit, Turkana, and Wajir – showed that livestock is the main source of livelihood for at least 57 percent of the households in these counties (Njuki et al. 2016; Krätli and Swift 2014). For pastoralist households in Kenya, animal ownership is associated with household milk consumption, and as livestock holdings decrease, so does milk consumption. Milk consumption at the household level is positively associated with higher body mass index values among youth (Iannotti and Lesorogol 2014). Consumption of animal-source foods by Kenyan schoolchildren has also been shown to be positively associated with height and weight gains (Grillenberger et al. 2006). A school-feeding programme that tested the effect of different types of snacks given to children found that meat and milk snacks contributed the most to children’s arm muscle growth (Neumann et al. 2013).

Lillian talks about her experiences in a male dominated industry.

In the early 2000s, Kenyan dairy policy was revised to accommodate the needs and interests of small-scale producers (Kaitibie et al. 2010). The Smallholder Dairy Commercialization Program provided training to help small-scale dairy farmers improve their productivity and marketing skills. Participating households had better food security than households in the control group: they consumed more foods rich in micronutrients and protein, such as red meat, milk and dairy, and pulses (Bonilla et al. 2018). However, there is reason to exercise caution—in households with diseased livestock, child growth was lower than in households with healthy livestock, suggesting that in some cases livestock ownership has both positive and negative effects (Mosites et al. 2016).

Cash Transfer Programmes Increase Nutrition Security

Kenya is also home to a number of cash transfer programmes – increasingly common in developing countries – that show evidence of positive impacts on food security. The unconditional cash transfer programme Cash Transfer for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (CT-OVC) increased households’ food expenditures, dietary diversity (Ward et al. 2010), and consumption of food produced by households themselves (Asfaw et al. 2014). The NGO GiveDirectly’s unconditional cash transfer programme in rural Kenya also increased households’ food security and food expenditures, particularly when the transfers were made monthly rather than in a lump sum (Haushofer and Shapiro 2016). Kenya’s Hunger Safety Net Programme, another unconditional cash transfer programme, boosted beneficiaries’ food consumption relative to controls and increased dietary diversity for poorer households in the project (Merttens et al. 2013; OPM and IDS 2012).

Nutrition education can help improve diet quality for children and adults in Kenya as well. A pilot project in western Kenya found that providing nutrition education to fathers and grandmothers on proper complementary feeding practices for young children raised social support for mothers and improved some types of child feeding practices (Mukuria et al. 2016).

Existing Policies and Government Measures Affecting Food Security and Nutrition

Policy Recommendations for Moving Forward

Bibliography: References are available here. 


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