Food crisis lands government in the dock

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NAIROBI, 31 May 2011 (IRIN) - Just as it declares a national disaster over drought, the Kenyan government is being sued over its alleged failure to respect a new constitutional right to food.

High prices and poor rains have left some 2.4 million Kenyans at risk of severe food insecurity, according to a report [ ] by the Famine Early Warning Systems network (FEWS Net) covering the period between April and September 2011.

"Food insecurity is anticipated to rise, after a brief respite from April through July, due to the impacts of the [expected] poor long rains [September-October]. Heightened food prices, rapidly depleting grazing resources, an expected increase in conflict and likely upsurges in livestock and waterborne diseases could severely accentuate food security per pastoral and marginal agricultural households after July," the report states.

President Mwai Kibaki declared a national disaster on 30 May, and told cabinet ministers and MPs from the badly drought-affected North Eastern Province, to "expedite the process of availing foodstuffs and other vital supplies".

He also directed the Treasury to facilitate urgent importation of maize - the country's staple - to boost stocks held in Strategic Grain Reserves. These are set to run out in a few weeks, according to the National Cereals and Produce Board.

Kibaki said the Ministry of Water and Irrigation would receive an additional KSh600 million (US$7 million) to fund the drought response, while the Livestock Ministry would get KSh1 billion shillings ($12 million) to help cushion pastoralists' losses.

Food is a right

Every Kenyan's right to "be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality" is enshrined in Article 43 of the new constitution, overwhelmingly approved in a referendum in August 2010.

This clause is among several constitutional provisions being cited by the Consumer Federation of Kenya (COFEK), an umbrella group, in the landmark legal case it brought before the high court on 30 May.

"High fuel prices have resulted in very high and unaffordable transport costs . [and] have also resulted in very high and unaffordable cost of basic commodities, including all household goods such as unga [maize flour], the staple diet of a majority of Kenyans," Stephen Mutoro, the federation's secretary-general, said in a statement to the court.

Heartened by a judge's granting of urgent status to the case, Muturo told IRIN: "We are upbeat that we will win. A win for us will be a win for Kenyans and a win for the new constitution. We are trying to set a precedent, to tell Kenyans they should not wait for their rights to be given to them on a silver platter."

Tipping point

"Throughout the world, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled is seeing dynamic change," Aly-Khan Satchu, a Kenyan business analyst, told IRIN on 31 May. "The new constitution was the tipping agent with respect to this in Kenya. The key issue for the Consumer Federation should be to achieve some alleviation at the bottom of the pyramid [the extremely vulnerable]. Urban East Africans spend the highest percentage of anyone in the world on food."

Satchu said the inflationary impact in Kenya was twice as high for those earning $100 or less.

"These price points [kerosene and food] are creating unprecedented stress and I think it's a very poor bet to bet on the tolerance level of the people," Satchu said. "It would be far more intelligent to ameliorate the impact."

Overall, the price of food and non-alcoholic beverages is up 20 percent on a year ago, according to government data.

"Food prices are being driven by demand and supply; the supply is capped while demand continues to expand," he said. "Financial speculators have jumped on this trend, further amplifying the acceleration. Fuel prices are the most sensitive to geopolitical risk, especially in oil-producing countries.

"Satchu said the country's "food and fuel architecture is outdated and optimized for racketeers and profiteers". He said the government should clean up its "Augean stables because each misspent coin brings North Africa [recent people's uprisings] and a tipping point closer.

"In recent years, well-connected businessmen with no milling capacity were granted licences to import subsidized grain, which they went on to sell at vast profits to bona fide millers.


However, Michael Makohka, a food security specialist with Farming Support International, a Kenyan-based research and development organization, told IRIN Kenya's precarious food insecurity was not without hope.

He said the expected depletion of strategic grain reserves could be alleviated in about a month when farmers in parts of the country begin to harvest green maize and Irish potatoes.

"Right now, people have started harvesting beans; by the end of the coming month [June], green maize will be ready in lowland areas like the Lake Victoria region and the coastal ecosystems," Makokha said. "This is likely to cushion the impact caused by the acute grain shortage brought about due to the expected exhaustion of the national strategic reserves."