COVID-19 has only further complicated the challenge of feeding growing cities across Africa and the rest of the world. Researchers are listening to vulnerable urban populations to help develop better, sustainable food system solutions.
Photo credit: Christine Chege / CIAT
The food systems that serve billions of low-income urban consumers around the world are notoriously hard to analyze, consisting of a multitude of actors from fork to farm, formal and traditional activities and partial or even contradictory data. Nonetheless, data on these food systems is critical to support improved decision-making, data-driven policy insights and future research on nutrition and food security.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected access, affordability, and consumption of nutritious foods, especially for low-income consumers in Africa. For example, in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, approximately 60% of the population lives in dense slums under conditions particularly vulnerable to food system shocks. To better understand how COVID is impacting these residents, Alliance researchers are collecting high-frequency data via telephone interviews, which will be used to inform policy interventions, and partnerships with local food suppliers.
The following excerpts, translated from Swahili, are from calls with Kibera and Mathare residents explaining how the pandemic has affected their lives. While these calls paint a grim picture of residents lacking access to water and income and facing high rates of disease, careful listening helps researchers find details and granularity that reveal food system flows and food consumption patterns before and during the crisis, and develop better approaches for a post-COVID recovery.
Researcher: What challenges are you facing because of the COVID pandemic?
Respondent (female adult): This disease has brought many challenges. I am an HIV patient and the doctor told me that I must eat certain types of food to improve my immunity. I need to eat a balanced diet before I take my medication. But now because of this pandemic, I have low earnings and can’t afford a balanced diet. Now it is already 4pm, and I have not eaten for the whole day because I do not have money to buy food. I cannot do the informal jobs I used to do before. I am very worried that my HIV condition will deteriorate because I am not eating well and I am not taking the medication the right way.
Additionally, the water shortage has become a big challenge. We do not have water here in Kibera so we have to buy water for cooking, drinking, and washing. Debts are increasing daily as I have to borrow money from friends to buy food and other necessities for households like soap. I don’t know where I will get money to repay all these debts.
Respondent (male adult): The disease is a great burden for me; it has brought a lot of family crises and I feel like life has come to a standstill. Nowadays, there are constant disagreements within my family due to insufficient money. My wife says the food I am buying is not enough. Access to jobs has become a major problem leading to unemployment. At times I even avoid going home because it will bring stressful family conflicts; I only return home at 7pm because of the curfew.
Respondent (male adult): For now there are no job opportunities; this has created food shortages in our home. The current curfew does not allow me to work enough to get sufficient money for my family. I have been doing informal jobs around the estate and most of these jobs are available in the evenings, but this is when the curfew starts. I have to be home by 6pm because of the 7pm curfew. Before corona, I would get about 500 Kenyan shillings (US $5) per day from casual jobs because I would work until 9pm, but at the moment the maximum I can get per day is about 200 shillings (US $2) or even less. Things have become very tough, I am unable to pay rent and this has led to conflicts with my landlord.
Respondent (female adult): Since the corona pandemic, I have been facing challenges that I have never experienced before. To start, it is challenging to get food for my family. Sometimes we sleep without eating because we don’t have money to buy food. This has never happened to us before. Getting jobs has been a problem. I have been doing informal jobs within Kibera and neighboring estates; for example, washing clothes or cleaning houses. But now since the pandemic, no one wants to see us; if I knock on peoples’ gates asking for work, they say they don’t want anyone from outside because we will spread coronavirus to them. This disease has instilled such fear in people that they do not want to see anybody who is a not member of their family. The worst hit are those of us from the slums. People say we will spread coronavirus to them because we are not observing the social distancing the government is recommending, but this is not our wish. Life has become very tough.
Calling from: Mathare is the second-largest slum in the Kenyan capital. This neighborhood has a reputation for poverty, crime, and overcrowding, with high incidences of diseases.[Source: CNN]
Researcher: I’d like to ask you a few questions on how COVID has affected you.
Respondent (female adult): We have been affected a lot, in many different ways. Since the corona pandemic was announced in the country, I haven’t gone to work.
Researcher: What work were you doing beforehand?
Respondent: I was working in a restaurant in Nairobi town… The first case of the corona was announced on 16th March and the restaurant I was working in closed on 22nd March.
Researcher: And you have been unable to work since 22nd March?
Respondent: Yes, the president is against people resuming work. And now without work, I do not have money for food and household use.
We only eat by God’s grace. When we get something to put on our plates once a day, we thank God.
Researcher: Have food prices increased during this period?
Respondent: For some food, the prices have risen but for others, they have not. But whether prices have increased or not, getting money to buy any food is a big challenge.
Respondent (female adult): Life is very tough right now. We are just waiting for food donations from people who may have a little more to share with us.
Researcher: Are there people coming around giving food donations?
Respondent: So far there are none, but we hope people can help us. We go for days without food. If you have anything to share with us, even one kilogram of maize flour, we would appreciate it.
Getting jobs has become a major problem. The casual (informal jobs) we used to do in town or within the estates are not available anymore. So we do not have money to buy food.
Researcher: Can you tell me about your business?
Respondent (female adult): II cook porridge and walk around the estate selling the porridge in cups.
Researcher: Have you had any challenges selling the porridge since the pandemic?
Respondent: Ooh yes! Now not many people buy my porridge, people are scared of coronavirus. So I am earning much lower income each day, plus even the working hours have been reduced. I cannot sell porridge past 6pm because I have to be in the house at 7pm due to the curfew.
Researcher: What about the food prices, are they rising?
Respondent: The prices of food have gone up. And we cannot afford to buy many of the foods we used to eat before corona. We do not have the money to buy food. So we buy only the little we can afford.
Researcher: How many people live in your house?
Respondent: We are a total of seven: six children, and me.
Researcher: Has COVID affected you?
Respondent (female adult): Yes, now I don’t work anymore. My business (knitting flowers) was at Kariakor market, but now the market is not operational. The government closed it. I have been trying to sell to people here and there, but people are not buying. I think people do not have money.
Researcher: What about the issue of food? Are you encountering challenges accessing food for home consumption?
Respondent: There are problems getting food and even medicine for the baby. My baby has a medical condition, but now I cannot get the medicine, I do not even have money to buy the medicine.
Researcher: Have these job problems started after COVID, or you were facing these challenges even before the pandemic?
Respondent: All these are because of the coronavirus. Before corona, I would sell my knitted flowers and earn enough money to buy food and medicine for my child.
Responding to these needs
A clearer understanding how food system actors are impacted and their behavior as food consumers, will better enable private partners, such as Nairobi-based Twiga Foods – which offers a market-based solution through its innovative business-to-business (B2B) model – to structure their supply systems in a way so that consumers can access a variety of nutritious foods at affordable prices. Data from these calls can assist policy-makers in identifying sustainable ways to provide healthy, safe, and accessible food to growing urban populations in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.
Over the coming months, Alliance researchers plan, in collaboration with Twiga foods, to analyze the impact of the pandemic on food distribution by focusing on diverse outlets that serve poor consumers (such as open-air markets and other retail outlets in the slums). Phone surveys with 2,500 consumers, transaction records of 30,000 vendors and data tracking in 10 open-air markets will be combined to provide up-to-date information on the pandemic’s impacts on the vulnerable urban population. The data will also be published to inform other actors and organizations that may be interested in improving the food and nutrition security in Nairobi’s informal urban settlements.
The team behind this work
Twiga Foods is a Nairobi based start-up founded in 2014. It connects over 20,836 farmers and more than 30,000 small-scale vendors using mobile technology to capture demand for 17 fruits and vegetables. Twiga works with farmers to plan, manage, and consolidate production which is then sorted and distributed to small stores in low-income communities across Nairobi. Twiga sells produce at a 15% discount (compared to traditional channels) to retailers, who pass along savings to consumers. They provide low-risk market access for producers with set volumes, fixed prices, and favorable access to capital for farm infrastructure to increase productivity. Twiga is a data-driven business with all transactions captured using ICT tools.
Agri-Nutrition & Food Systems Specialist
Director of Food Environment & Consumer Behavior, Alliance Bioversity International and CIAT