In Post-Structural Adjustment Kenya: Bumper Harvest and Famine

Bettina Ng’weno

Posted September 12, 2006

ON MY RECENT trips home to Kenya, I have been struck by a series of images about the country’s metamorphosis. Amid the constant arguments about politics, and in spite of the continuing complaints about the economy, there is little analysis about how politics and the economy alter people’s daily lives. Nevertheless, as someone who visits Kenya for a short time twice a year, I am increasingly aware of a number of disconnecting features.

Most immediately striking is the huge growth in supermarkets. These began more than six years ago; over that period they have increased both in number and size. These new mega-supermarkets sell anything from beans to cars and, often located on the fringes of towns, serve an automobile-based consumer population.

At the same time, friends of mine (architects, businessmen, housekeepers, sales managers, tour guides, shopkeepers and secretaries) complain about a job shortage, the inability to get by and growing corruption. These complaints are echoed by people I encounter on the streets, in buses, in stores and offices. If more and more people are barely getting by, who is shopping in these super markets?

Another striking contrast is that of politicians driving through town in newly imported SUVs while the majority of the population (outside of subsistence agriculture) is employed in the informal economy. Yet in recent years the government has engaged in consistent and protracted attacks against street hawkers and Matatu operators (who provide public transportation through their privately owned minivans). In Nairobi the city has sought to remove street hawkers and stall owners from sidewalks, vacant lots and locations some had occupied for over forty years, bulldozing numerous stalls and destroying the hawkers’ property.

Usually if Kenya is featured in the U.S. press, the story is about the wildlife or the latest travel advisories. But early this year the press reported a major drought in Kenya’s northeast. Then, in March, masked members of the government’s little known secret police viciously attacked the offices of the daily newspaper, the East African Standard. These events raise questions about what has become the defining feature of the New Kenya in the post-colonial, post-independence, post-single-party, post-cold war, post- structural adjustment era.

A New Election, a New Era

After 37 years of independence, 22 years of de facto and official single-party rule and at least 20 of structural adjustment, by 2000 Kenya’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate had fallen to 0.6% (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2006).

Amid cheers from huge and hopeful crowds, a new government came to power at the end of 2002. It was a “turning point” election, one where people voted more against the old regime than for the new. More than any other election Kenyans viewed this one as ushering in a new era. No longer the independence generation, nor the one-party state, this government was to be a multiparty democracy at its best.

With a high voter turnout (57%) and a clear mandate, Kenya voted overwhelmingly for the coalition party (62%), the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) headed by Mwai Kibaki (Nunley, 2006). Kibaki was well known, a former vice president for 10 years (under outgoing President Daniel Arap Moi) and a former cabinet minister for the previous decade (in President Jomo Kenyatta’s government). President Kibaki’s inaugural speech reflected the hope of the moment but also pointed to the state of affairs in Kenya:

The economy, which you all know has been under-performing since the last decade, is going to be my priority.  There is deepening poverty. Millions of our people have no jobs. School enrollment has been declining, the education sector, like all other sectors, is steadily deteriorating. Millions of our people do not have access to basic and affordable health services.  Our roads and other infrastructures are dilapidated. Most of our institutions are failing and basic social services are crumbling.  There is growing insecurity in our cities and towns.  The list is endless. My government will embark on policies geared to economic reconstruction, employment creation and immediate rehabilitation of the collapsed infrastructure (The Standard 2005).

This summary might be compared to descriptions of countries restructuring after war. Kenya, however, was not at war. Rather, it needed recovery from years of “structural adjustment” that had been implemented as the condition for foreign and multilateral aid. Yet at the same time aid, throughout the 1990s, had been withdrawn before each election cycle. Each government was forced to find the resources to borrow internally, thus offering banks 30% interest rates. Two consequences were that banks had no incentive to lend to the private sector, and thus the internal market was stifled.

Since the post-2002 government was no longer viewed as objectionable, the World Bank has made loans available. The government immediately dropped the interest rate on treasury bills and banks began to look at the general public as potential borrowers. The Kibaki government has also reinfused money into the countryside by providing, through government boards, on-time payments for certain agricultural products (coffee, tea, and dairy). It has also re-provisioned free primary education. In the last three years more than one million children were added to the public school rolls. The majority had been excluded from school by fees but others transferred back from private schools.

In reality President Kibaki’s government came into power after Kenya had already seen two years of economic improvement. By 2006 economic growth rates topped 5% for the first time in three decades.

The Legacy of Structural Adjustment

Nevertheless, the drought caused by the failure of the 2005 October-November rains points to the lasting effects of structural adjustment. In spite of its record in successfully managing the horrific 1984 grain shortfall, Kenya implemented the structural adjustment policy of severely reducing emergency food storage.

Under the new, lean state a year’s worth of emergency food is considered too costly to store. So by 2005 Kenya had reduced its food storage and liberalized the grain market, removing restrictions from importing and exporting grain. When the short rains of October-November 2005 failed completely in northern and eastern Kenya, some pastoralist communities lost up to 80% of their herds. Unable to grow crops or feed their cattle, these communities faced famine.

Bitterly ironic, however, was that in the western highlands there had been a bumper grain harvest. How was it possible that one part of Kenya had so much grain while in another area famine loomed? The government had neither emergency food reserves nor a mechanism to insure that grain needed at home could be purchased and distributed when needed. Now those who could pay the highest price for grain were first in line, which meant the grain was sold to buyers in other countries.

Although in 1984 Kenya experienced a greater per capita grain shortfall than Ethiopia, the country did not suffer a devastating famine. During that drought the state-owned Kenya Meat Commission bought even cattle in poor condition because they could still be used in the production of corned beef. But during the structural adjustment era the meat commission folded. No other company moved into the corned beef market, so pastoralists found they could neither purchase grain nor sell their cattle.

News of the 2005 famine hit just before Christmas. Members of parliament had gone home for vacation and the government ignored the emergency. Meanwhile individuals, groups, schools, banks, supermarkets, even telephone companies mobilized to collect food and money for the northern and eastern people. But there was still the problem of transporting it over bad roads.

The newspapers reported the crisis, the grassroots mobilization and the government’s inaction. These scathing stories and letters to the editor revealed a high level of anger.
The famine reveals the defining features of the New Kenya, a Kenya structured by bumper harvests and famines, side by side. These features include a countryside (70% of the population) divided between areas of highly productive agriculture like the central highlands, which have benefited under the structurally adjusted economy, while others have been adversely affected.

Present benefits have powerful historic precedents. In 2002 the new government was under extreme pressure to implement one of its campaign promises: to make primary education free. Over the previous 20 years public schools began demanding extra fees for improvements, matriculation, teachers’ salaries and infrastructure as the schools and populations expanded. Public primary education had become prohibitively expensive for the average Kenyan.

Ironically, education was one of the first priorities of structural adjustment programs. Just before President Kenyatta died in 1978 these schools were created as part of the so- called “national” schools. They upgraded existing secondary schools through a loan from the World Bank. However, due to politics of the time, out of about 40 schools that were targeted for upgrading, all but four or five were in Nairobi and the Central province.

The effect was dramatic. Previously entrance into Nairobi University, then Kenya’s only university, was drawn from the general population of the country. But within a short time, entrance was skewed in favor of students from the Central province; this imbalance continues to this day.

During the 24 years of Daniel Arap Moi’s regime the government instituted different educational affirmative action measures – from new curricula and regional quotas for national schools to different entrance requirements between rural and urban areas. New universities were created in an attempt to even out imbalances between provinces. But since human and financial resources were limited, the new universities had problems maintaining standards.

Financial donors complained about these falling academic standards and began pressuring the government to allow private universities to do what the public universities were failing to do. Considering the educational structure already in place, this push toward developing private education has had the effect of increasing the disparities in education, with resulting disparities of wealth.

These kinds of regional disparities are not just educational. In terms of human development and poverty, different regions look like they are in different countries. The 2005 UNDP 4th Kenya National Human Development Report highlights the spatial effect of this fractured distribution of the country’s wealth. It points out that the majority of the ten districts with the lowest human development index (HDI) are in western and northern Kenya, while eight out of ten with the highest HDI surround Nairobi (Central and Eastern provinces).

The UNDP report specifically points to the effect education has on poverty. It argues that households headed by those with a secondary level education are less poor. More specifically, out of eight provinces only three (Central province at 31.1%, Nairobi province at 43.9% and Rift Valley province at 47.9%) have poverty indices under 50% (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2006). Nyanza province in western Kenya has the highest poverty rates (64.6%), twice as high as the Central province.

More shocking, however, are the rates of infant mortality. In the Central province infant mortality is 36.9 per 1000 and the death rate for children under five is 66 per 1000. Children in Nyanza province are three times more likely to die. Their mortality rates are, respectively, 111.6 and 192 per 1000 (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2006).

Under the Kibaki government a policy of reconstruction is underway, but its benefits have been unevenly distributed. They have principally enriched the coffee, tea and dairy producers in the countryside around Nairobi. Today people talk about how those from the countryside are sending money to their city relatives rather than the other way around.
Other areas have not seen the same investment. Pastoralists in the livestock areas of the Rift Valley and northern Kenya, and farmers in the sugar, cotton or groundnut areas of western Kenya have not shared in the economic boom. In addition, anyone who is not producing commercial crops has been left behind. So while there have been improvements in revenues from agriculture, they are concentrated in certain areas and valorize certain forms of production. There is a growing economic disparity, with rich and poor living side by side in cities, and within regions.

Do these disparities go unnoticed by the population? In November 2005 Kenyans voted in a referendum. The proposed constitution would have increased presidential power and made any subsequent changes almost impossible. Although President Kibaki came to power with the campaign promise of instituting, within six months, a new constitution that would split power between the president and prime minister, he actively backed the referendum.

Almost one million more people turned out for the referendum than had voted in the 2002 elections. A total of 6.1 million voted, with a resounding 58% voting no (Nunley, 2006).  What was striking about the vote, however, was its geographic distribution. It more or less matched the map of UNDP human development index distribution. The “no” vote was a majority in all provinces except the Central and Eastern provinces, with Nairobi as the lone exception. Although the majority of people in Nairobi are from the Central province, Nairobi voted no. This might point to potentially new politics driven by Nairobi’s urban poor.

Often when we analyze politics, corruption and the present administration (whoever they are at the time) we point to the president favoring his home region. Although the Kibaki government does favor the Central province, it did not establish the differentials of wealth and poverty. Rather, 24 years of different regimes (favoring a different area but still implementing structural adjustment programs) was unable to undo the compounding effects of structural adjustment on an already skewed education distribution. Similar to the long-term affects of red lining for African-American poverty in the United States, affirmative action measures were unable to change the basic inequalities produced by structural adjustment’s educational program.

Today’s policies favoring already favored areas and groups of people will only compound the problem set out by structural adjustment, cementing growing disparities across and within urban and rural spaces. Yet people’s organizing can have an impact. One small sign is that the government, forced to respond to the anger over the 2005 drought, resuscitated the state-owned Kenya Meat Commission.

If these are the defining features of the New Kenya, hopefully these disparities also suggest a strategy for the urban and rural poor.


Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) 30 June 2006 Ministry of Planning and National Development, Government of Kenya.

Nunley, Albert C. 1 May 2006 African Elections Database: Elections in Kenya

The Standard, 2005 “Greatest Speech Ever Made by a President” Nairobi: The Standard Friday December 30th 2005

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) 2005 “Linking Industrialisation with Human Development” Fourth Kenya National Human Development Report Nairobi: United Nations Development Program.