Hard Work & High Prices for Kenyans on Low Incomes

After the food and fuel price spikes of 2008/9 and 2011, Kenyans today are working more, but for every hour they work they are earning less. These are some of the findings of a 4-year study into the impacts of food price rises in Kenya.[1]Many in the informal sector are doing multiple jobs, while they are not sure of having a job tomorrow. ‘There is no money since some of the people who were working last year were laid off……… They are employing those who will accept less money for the same work.’ (Female youth, Mukuru)

Women are going out for jobs like cleaning, working longer hours in order to earn a little more, while men are taking up riskier work like searching for jewelry and valuables from sewers and garbage. Children are also working more. With all these new entrants to the labour market, competition for casual jobs has risen. ‘There are more people who are looking for the same casual labour. They even come from other places to do laundry in South B (Female youth, Mukuru).’Families have also been starting small businesses, but they do not always do well. “More people began selling vegetables. As people felt the effects of the high food prices, more of them started up businesses. Most women began selling vegetables.’ (Food Vendor, Mukuru)

Before the spikes it was common for women to spend considerable time caring for their households, while elderly members of the community were spending more time resting. However, by 2014, costs of living had risen and more women left their homes to look for work. In rural areas, elderly people felt forced to go out and earn to help support the household. By 2014, parents in the two study sites had less time to spend with their families, leaving this role to private daycare centers, while older children were left to care for themselves.

In 2008 and 2011, global costs of food and energy spiked to unprecedented levels. In Kenya, prices of wholesale maize had already begun to rise after a bad harvest and the post election violence of 2008, and, fuelled by global price hikes, they peaked in 2009. They fell again in 2010, but reached new highs in 2011, more than double the pre-2008 level. Global prices then began to fall after 2012, but Kenyan food prices remained high. This affected people in various ways, with the most negative impacts on people whose livelihoods were already precarious.

Response to spikes food prices

In the urban slums and on rural farms, people’s first reaction was to skip meals and eat cheaper foods, cutting out meat and reducing flavoursome vegetables. People looked for ways to make more cash: in the slums people took on more jobs, and some turned to crime and prostitution, while in the rural areas people took on more farm work or went to local towns for casual work. In both rural and urban areas mutual assistance groups began to fail under the stress of debt and immediate needs.

As the years moved by, these responses solidified to more permanent adaptations, as high prices of commodities became a ‘new normal’. In rural Kenya poorer households are still skipping meals and eating less diverse diets. In Lango Baya, a diet of cassava roots and leaves has become normal for many, rather than the old mixed diet of maize, meat and cassava. In urban Mukuru, people need money to spend on expenses like water, toilets, housing and education and care for their children. So they are spending more time out of the house raising cash. They cook less at home and shift to prepared and pre-processed foods, often eating lower quality items bought from kiosks and small hotels. These foods are tasty and fast, helping people to enjoy life a little and to get on with their job seeking, but they are also lower in nutrition than the foods they say that they used to eat.

By 2014, people are working harder for less, eating less well and caring for children and the sick and elderly under more difficult conditions. To outsiders, they appear to have weathered the storm and adapted, but the costs are high. They feel that government and employers have done too little to support the people at the bottom of the economic pile. They point out that government interventions aiming to protect the poor against rising prices are inadequate. During the study, farmers had not benefited from input subsidies, while formal social protection (urban and rural) had been piecemeal, unpredictable and unfairly distributed. Interventions were not successful in supporting the ways communities built their own resilience –their efforts to reduce costs and gain more income. By 2014, people had not yet found ways of rebuilding societal structures that offered them mutual support.

Why are people adapting in this way?

People have accepted stress and uncertainty in the new economy. When forced to think only of their immediate needs, they do not have the time to generate a collective response. Working in the informal sector in both urban and rural areas, they cannot risk protesting to employers about low wages or poor work conditions, in case they lose jobs to others as needy as they are. The informal sector does not have strong labour unions that work on collective action to increase protections and productivity.

It’s not all suffering. The new foods are often tasty and the jobs they find and the new businesses they start offer a sense of progress. Women are getting out of the house, men are always hopeful of a chance for more income tomorrow. It’s exciting to have cash and be in the market; connecting by cell phone to new opportunities, relying on entrepreneurial capacity and learning new skills.

Having cash is significant in the modern political economy. Today it seems more valid to earn money than to work as a subsistence peasant. Young people are leaving the farm and heading to town where they become more politically active and more significant as citizens.

What can be done?

Ordinary people should take collective action to call for better care, social protection and labour conditions; demanding values of fair treatment, claiming rights, and holding market regulation and social protection systems to account.

Peasant farmers should insist on preservation of indigenous seeds and food crop varieties which are drought and pest resistant and more nutritious. Their food production should be sheltered from price distortions brought about by the liberalization of food production.

The middle classes should be taking action to promote fair wages and working conditions.

The government should deliver on promises of social protection, care, price controls, and input subsidies for the poorest and food quality regulation.

Responsible agencies should be making available disaggregated data on prices, wages and social stresses, informing collective and official action on the real situation of rising costs of living.


[1] The ‘Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility Project’ was led by IDS and Oxfam GB in ten countries. In Kenya researchers made an annual visit to households in Mukuru, an urban informal settlement in Nairobi and Lango Baya, a farming community in Kilifi County between 2012 and 2014 as well as conducting interviews and analysis of secondary data.


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