Hidden crisis in Nairobi’s slums

June 26, 2009
Photo by Phil Moore

Nairobi’s urban slums are in the middle of a food crisis as its million people living in grinding poverty are facing a 133 percent raise in the price of staples like maize. Concern launched a report with evidence of this crisis that demands an immediate response that’s being delivered through cash transfers and food subsidies.

Four million people living in the grinding poverty of Nairobi’s huge and overcrowded urban slums are on the brink of a massive food crisis. Because they are already so poor and their living conditions already so bad, this deadly threat is hard for the outside world to see. Concern has launched a report urging an immediate response – before it is too late.

The Kenyan government has declared a national food emergency, but there is no coordination mechanism within Kenya to determine how recent shocks—post-election violence and  rising food costs—have impacted people in the urban slums. The findings in a joint report by Concern, Care, and Oxfam confirm suspicions that the urban food crisis has reached a critical impasse.

Young siblings in their home in the Korogocho slum.

Musungu (1.5), Gloria (6), Aggrey (3). Gloria takes her two siblings to a health center feeding program in Mathare slum, Nairobi every day on her own since her mother fell ill and was hospitalized. Photo: Sarah Elliott

Under normal circumstances, malnutrition rates of at least 15 percent in a specific geographic area qualify as a humanitarian emergency. But in the slums, this international standard measurement would mean that there were hundreds of thousands of severely malnourished children—a crisis of monumental proportions to which neither NGOs nor the government would have the capacity to respond rapidly and effectively.

Four million people living in the grinding poverty of Nairobi’s huge and overcrowded urban slums are on the brink of a massive food crisis.

Concern, Care and Oxfam publicly launched the findings of their report at a press conference in Nairobi, and Concern’s Country Director in Kenya, Anne O’Mahony, has been tirelessly talking to government and donors to try and get the crisis in Nairobi’s slums on the agenda.

O’Mahony says, “We know that the international standard for signaling a nutrition emergency does not apply in Nairobi’s slums: we must act now. If we wait until we have evidence of reaching that standard, it will already be too late.”

RISING FOOD COSTS & SHRINKING INCOME

The price of maize, the staple diet of most in the slums, has risen by more than 133 percent in the last year, forcing families to survive on just one meal a day, if they can even afford that. At the same time, people are earning less money—incomes have shrunk by 20 percent. In just two “neighorhoods” of Kibera slum, the report commissioned by Concern, Care, and Oxfam revealed that more than 5,000 children under five years old are currently suffering from malnutrition, with one-fifth of these suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Food shortages have been exacerbated by drought and poor harvests. Cooking fuel prices have risen by 30-50 percent, and the cost of water has more than doubled.

The crisis is becoming more and more serious, with visible signs of families resorting to desperate and risky measures such as: begging on the streets, combing rubbish dumps for food or scraps to sell, a 30% increase in the number children being pulled out of school because parents cannot afford both food and education costs.

The price of maize, the staple diet of most in the slums, has risen by more than 133 percent in the last year, forcing families to survive on just one meal a day, if they can even afford that.

The report also noted an alarming spike in the number of children entering the sex trade, which increases the threat of HIV and AIDS in an area with already high prevalence rates. Petty and violent crime rates have escalated.

To compound these issues, frequent, unannounced, night-evictions, often involving the complete destruction of property, are making it impossible for slum communities to maintain adequate shelter. Despite a 2007 High Court order barring evictions, the government committed last year to clearing areas up to 30 meters from the river, in efforts to sanitize the Nairobi waterways. Since then, frequent unlawful violations of basic living rights have been widely reported.

CONCERN’S RESPONSE

The problem in the slums is not that there is no food available in the markets, it is that the poorest  no longer have the resources to buy enough food to meet even their most basic needs.

Concern is responding with emergency cash distributions using mobile phone technology rather than with food aid–this will drive income back into the local markets, and allow the poorest to make their own choices about meeting their greatest needs.

Concern’s immediate priorities in response to this growing crisis are to provide:

  • Emergency cash transfers to the poorest urban families
  • Food subsidies such as food stamps to offset high food prices

Concern is also expanding its emergency nutrition program to identify and treat malnourished slum children.

Country Director Anne O’Mahony and her team will continue to monitor and track the urban food crisis and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable.

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