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High food prices hit Kenya amid warnings of shortages

Rioters torched a market in Nairobi's Kangemi slum that was destroyed during post-election unrest in December 2007. The violence, combined with a worldwide surge in food prices, has made basic staples unaffordable for most Kenyans.
Rioters torched a market in Nairobi's Kangemi slum that was destroyed during post-election unrest in December 2007. The violence, combined with a worldwide surge in food prices, has made basic staples unaffordable for most Kenyans. Shashank Bengali / MCT

NAIROBI, Kenya — To see the lingering effects of Kenya's recent post-election violence, combined with the worldwide increase in food prices, look no further than the size of the lunches served at Fatma Abdallah's small neighborhood restaurant in Nairobi's sprawling Majengo slum.

Beans and maize flour are selling for twice the prices of four months ago, and rice and cooking fat cost triple. To keep the price of a plate of rice and lentils at about 40 cents, Abdallah is cutting back on the portions she serves her clientele of day laborers and masons — and even then she barely breaks even.

"Prices of everything have gone up," said Abdallah, a matronly woman in a flowing blue and yellow African print dress. "Now we only buy foodstuff that we can afford."

Kenya's political violence after its disputed presidential election in December forced more than 350,000 people to flee their homes. Rift Valley province — the country's breadbasket, which stores most of Kenya's tea, milk and grain reserves — was hardest hit as mobs of youths destroyed 350,000 tons of maize and shut down tea farms.

The destruction coincided with a worldwide surge in food prices, due in large part to the soaring costs of energy and fertilizer, which have more than doubled in Kenya. Experts are warning that the food crisis could put tens of millions of people in the world's poorest countries at risk of starvation.

In West Africa, where food prices have risen by 50 percent, violent demonstrations have broken out in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire. Five people died in Somalia earlier this week when authorities cracked down on crowds protesting high food prices and rising inflation. The U.N. World Food Program has launched a worldwide appeal for $755 million to stave off an urgent funding shortfall.

Food prices have risen about 30 percent in Kenya. The post-election unrest, combined with inadequate rainfall, shortened this year's planting season. Maize, or corn, the country's staple, is running short, and analysts have warned that national reserves could be exhausted within three months.

"One month we were thinking of what to do with the (grain) surplus, the next month we are thinking of what to do with the deficit," said Romano Kiome, a senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture.

Agriculture accounts for 20 percent of Kenya's economy and employs two-thirds of the country's 36 million people. Kiome fears that diminished tea exports, coupled with rising fuel and transportation costs, will badly weaken the economy. The International Monetary Fund already has revised Kenya's economic growth forecast downward for the year, from 6.5 percent to about 4 percent.

Making matters worse for consumers, government officials suspect that Kenyan farmers are hoarding up to 10 million bags of maize to cash in on the higher food prices.

"It is good for African farmers producing a surplus and bad for consumers," said Pedro Sanchez, an agriculture expert at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

To save pennies, many Kenyans are buying food in smaller quantities. At a local supermarket one recent weekend, Lorraine Anyango, a mother of two, stood at a food stall calculating the new prices of goods, and when the math didn't add up she decided to return a packet of wheat flour and a large bag of rice.

"I will have to spend more than $100 (a month) to shop for things that cost me

$80 previously," she said.

This week the Kenyan government launched two major initiatives aimed at bolstering the farm industry: a program to resettle internally displaced refugees, many of whom come from the Rift Valley region, and a $50 million credit line for small farmers.

"Our farmers...are hardworking, but their efforts are continuously being frustrated by inadequate resources," President Mwai Kibaki said at the launch of the farm credit program. "This initiative is therefore expected to make a major contribution towards efforts to eradicate absolute poverty."

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