Does KSh4,500 for a bag of maize approach a “tipping point”?

There are a lot of good things happening in Kenya that are helping to lay the groundwork for a positive future.   Right now, however, the combination of the plummeting shilling and high inflation focused especially on basic food items and other household necessities, along with an especially severe regional drought is causing suffering and raises questions for the intermediate future as we head into another election year.

Increasing numbers of refugees are flowing to Kenya from Somalia due to drought aside from the fighting, in a situation in which Kenya is already well beyond current capacity under existing refugee arrangements.

The basic situation of high and inflating cost of food staples, drought and refugees is “the usual crisis” in Kenya–its not less severe because it doesn’t get solved but we all somewhat get used to it as “background” and pay more attention to “the next new thing”.  Now however, it is getting worse.  Will Kenyan politicians continue to see this as a challenge primarily for Western donors while focusing on the election?  Is there a “tipping point” where this moves out of the background and disrupts the usual course of things in Nairobi, for better or worse?

“Severe food crisis hits region”, IRIN Global

In Kenya, rising inflation rates have also adversely affected poor households’ ability to buy food. Prices of the main staple, maize, have tripled from about 1,300 shillings (US$14.4) in January to 4,500 ($50) for a 90kg bag.

Recently, the government announced the removal of tax on imported maize in a bid to cushion consumers. But millers say rising global maize prices mean the measure will have little impact on the commodity’s prices locally.

“The problem has been compounded by the fact that the Kenyan shilling has been on a free-fall, trading at an all-time low [about 90 shillings to the US dollar] not experienced in the country for almost two decades. I do not see the cost of maize dropping any time soon,” said a miller who requested anonymity.

The recent March to May “long rains” in Kenya were poor for the second or third successive season in most rangelands and cropping lowlands, with many of these areas receiving 10-50 percent of normal rains, noted the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET).

The consequences include declining water and pasture, and subsequent livestock deaths. In the predominantly pastoralist north, a low milk supply has contributed to malnutrition levels soaring above 35 percent. The GAM rate in northwestern Turkana has hit 37.4 percent, the highest ever in the district.

Nationally, at least 3.2 million people are currently food insecure – up from a projection of 2.4 and 1.6 million in April and January, respectively.

Even in Kenya’s coastal region, thousands are food insecure, says the Kenya Red Cross Society’s (KRCS) region manager, Gerald Bombe.

“There is a need to import maize and distribute food and water to the hardest hit areas,” added Kevin Lunani, a local leader in the coastal Kisauni region.

Figures I read recently would place Kenya as the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside the greater Middle East/North Africa and Afghanistan/Pakistan–in other words greater than any other country in Latin America, Sub Saharan Africa or elsewhere in Asia, for the 2008-2011 period.  I don’t have time to dive into the numbers for serious comparisons, but accepting the general point that Kenya is a particular favorite as a major target of aid for the U.S. we need to ask whether we are accomplishing what we want to accomplish.

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