Understanding nutrition data and the causes of malnutrition in Kenya

from Famine Early Warning System Network
Published on 28 Sep 2006
A special report by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET)


The Greater Horn of Africa (GHA) has once again been hit by drought. The United Nations (UN) estimates that at least 11 million people across the region in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya are affected(1). In Kenya, 3.5 million people are estimated to be in need of immediate humanitarian assistance making this the region's worst drought in a decade(2). The impact has been particularly severe in pastoral regions of northeast Kenya (Ethiopia-Kenya-Somalia border) resulting in an unprecedented loss of livestock, and migration in search of employment and relief aid. Malnutrition rates have been reported at very high levels in many of the districts in the northeast and in the Turkana region of northwestern Kenya. While there is no doubt as to the severity of the current drought, there is considerable debate regarding the lack of timely action, particularly in terms of protection of pastoralist livelihoods, to reduce the need for a massive and costly emergency response. As well, the high levels of acute malnutrition found in these areas have once again provoked a debate regarding what is "normal" among pastoralist populations, and what should be considered an acute or chronic situation.

FEWS NET is interested in deepening its understanding of the nutrition situation in northern Kenya to improve the interpretation of the high malnutrition prevalence rates reported in 2006. To do so, it is undertaking this assessment and Special Report to:

  • Assist food security and early warning analysts to better understand the nutritional aspects of the 2005/06 drought in Kenya, including the possible contributory causes to persistently high rates of malnutrition;

  • Highlight the issues and gaps in being able to analyze and interpret nutritional data in the Kenya context, based on the 2006 experience; and

  • Outline broad recommendations regarding what types of nutrition-related information should be collected and analyzed, and how the situation should be monitored.
This report is based on information collected during a brief visit to North Eastern Province (Mandera District) and Rift Valley Province (Turkana District) in June 2006. Both areas have been badly affected by drought and have cross-border issues that impact food security. Mandera has a predominantly pastoral livelihood base. Turkana has a mixed livelihood base, but pastoralism is the predominant livelihood. The two districts were chosen in order to determine if there is a possible variation in the causal analysis of the malnutrition rates, according to livelihood characteristics. While this paper is informed by the current experience in Mandera and Turkana Districts, previous similar work of the same nature carried out in Niger shows that many of the issues raised are pertinent to other marginal livelihoods, and to nutrition information, interpretation and emergency response generally.

Discussions were held at national and district levels with the Office of the President's Arid Lands Resource Management Project (ALRMP), Ministry of Health (MoH), the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) implementing health and nutrition surveys, and nutrition programs (OXFAM, Islamic Relief, Medecins sans Froniteres (MSF) - Belgium, Action against Hunger, World Vision, Christian Children's Fund, and Merlin). Discussions were held with communities, and with mothers/caregivers participating in nutrition programs. Site visits were made to Supplementary Feeding Programs (SFP), Outpatient Therapeutic Programs (OTP), Community Therapeutic Care (CTC) programs and to hospital-based stabilization centers (SC) serving severely malnourished children with complications. It proved difficult to access high quality, reliable information regarding nutrition trends and program outcomes. In part this is due to problems of coordination and compilation of nutrition data, and in part it is due to the relatively short time period during which many nutrition programs have been fully operational (around 3 months).


(1) United Nations Consolidated Appeal for the Horn of Africa, April 7, 2006

(2) USAID. Horn of Africa Complex Emergency. Situation Report 15, May 19, 2006

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