WFP aids struggling families in Nairobi’s informal settlements

But many more lack a safety-net to fall back on

Hannah Muthoni, one of the recipients of cash from WFP, sits outside her home. Photo: WFP/Martin Karimi

Story by Martin Karimi

Hannah Muthoni runs a posho (maizemeal) mill in Mukuru Fuata Nyayo informal settlement in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi. On a good day, 58-year-old Hannah would make about 300 shillings (US$ 3). Or at least, she used to, before the coronavirus pandemic.

Her business was struggling even before the pandemic struck. Now it has completely collapsed. Some days go by with no one arriving at the door of her clanking diesel-run posho mill. The noisy motor has gone quiet and with it her meager income has vanished.

Hannah moved here in 1992 fleeing ethnic violence in the Rift Valley following disputed national elections. She and her husband lost everything in the months of conflict that threatened to tear the country apart. Her house was torched to the ground, her crops and animals destroyed or looted.

They fled and vowed never to look back.

“We have never thought about going back there,” she says. “We don’t have anything to return to. The only hope we have is to make a life here where we are.”

Coronavirus just made a bad situation worse for Hannah and hundreds of thousands of the poorest Kenyans who lived hand-to mouth in slums before the pandemic who have now lost their jobs because of the economic downturn. A hard life has just got tougher.

A daily struggle in the concrete jungle

WFP’s Regional Director (left) and Country Director visiting some of the recipients of cash. Photo: WFP/Alessandro Abbonizio

Somehow Hannah and her husband managed to raise their seven children, despite life being an uphill struggle most of the time.

Hannah’s husband had been working as a security guard in the industrial area but unfortunately a year ago he was diagnosed with diabetes, requiring him to take medication daily and stop working. With one source of income gone and an extra expense to meet, life was tough.

However that did not stop Hannah taking in two of her grandchildren, so that their parents could go to work. Somehow Hannah found a way to afford to feed and pay school fees for her own two sons who are still of school-going age and support the grandchildren.

But now the burden is too much.

“Corona[virus] wiped off everything,” she says. Hannah had no choice but to send the grandchildren back to their mother’s house. “I cannot afford to take care of them and now that their mother is also at home since her contract was terminated I asked her to pick the kids up.”

Hannah pauses as if to question her own decision.

“My children are not doing very well, so they cannot support me,” she says. “In fact, I help them out from time to time.”

Help finally arrives

Since the pandemic began, Hannah has registered several times to receive assistance through different programmes. The village elders knew her plight so her name was put forward every time an opportunity arose.

“Two or three times I gave out my details but no assistance came,” she says. “So when my phone buzzed and I saw a message saying that I have received 4,000 shillings [US$ 40] I couldn’t believe it,” she says with a broad smile. “The first thing I did was to give my husband 1,000 shillings [US$ 10] and he immediately rushed to town to buy medicine because he had run out.”

Hannah explains that if her husband goes for long without medication he is unable to eat and sweats profusely. Hannah described the cash as simply ‘prayers answered.’

Hannah’s family is one of the 70,500 families targeted to receive help through the World Food Programme (WFP) in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection and the Bureau for Humanitarian Affairs (BHA). So far, WFP has transferred more than US$ 2.2 million (240 million shillings) to 55,700 families through a mobile money transfer service and is on track to reach the remaining 14,800 families — whose records are yet to be confirmed.

A U.S. contribution of US$10 million is funding the cash transfers, nutrition support and social protection systems in Nairobi, Finland’s US$1.1 million will also support cash transfers and Poland’s contribution of US$117,000 will fund the treatment of malnutrition among affected mothers and children in informal settlements.

WFP has received additional funding from the U.S. which is allowing the expansion of nutrition and cash transfers to vulnerable families in Mombasa, Kenya’s coastal city, that is heavily dependent on tourism and has recorded the second highest cases of COVID-19.

The particular impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods and access to food for vulnerable people has required WFP to expand into urban areas at an unprecedented scale in more than half of its countries of operation.

Lending a hand from a handful of crumbs

Hannah bought spent some of her cash on medicine for her ailing husband, but also bought food for her grown children — who have their own homes. Photo: WFP/Martin Karimi

Hannah did not only think about how the cash would help her own household but how she could stretch it to help her older children who were struggling and that meant that her grandchildren too were suffering.

“I know that my children are not earning any money now because they have lost their jobs,” she says. “So I bought some posho (maizemeal flour) and sent it to my kids, so that my grandchildren can have something to eat also.”

That of course meant that the 4,000 shillings meant to feed a family of four for one month was spent very quickly.

“I’ve spent all the money already. I hope you [WFP] will be sending some more help. These are my children whether grown or not and as a mother you cannot eat and be satisfied when your child is starving.”

Hannah is eternally grateful for her husband’s health: “Buying my husband his life-saving medicine was the greatest gift. I know how bad his health gets when we cannot afford the drugs.”

Office assistant to hawker

Mary Makena, a resident of Mukuru Fuata Nyayo. Photo: WFP/Martin Karimi

Mary Makena is another resident of Mukuru Fuata Nyayo whose life has been turned upside down. She has never in her life needed to borrow, let alone to beg.

“I was working as an office assistant in different government offices before coronavirus,” says Mary. “Just before corona[virus], I had signed a new contract and I worked for one month in February and then the job was terminated. The Ministry said they did not require casual workers anymore because many government officers had been ordered to work from home while other offices closed down completely. I have been jobless since then.”

As if that was not a blow enough, the dusk to dawn curfew and movement restrictions affected Mary’s husband, also pushing him out of a job.

“My husband is a matatu [public mini-buses] conductor,” she says. “When the government locked down the city he was affected. There was little business and he also lost his job.”

Mary’s husband used to make about 1,000 shillings (US$ 10) daily and she earned about 18,000 shillings a month (US$ 180). This may not seem a lot in the developing world but it allowed the family to have a pretty comfortable life.

The need to invest in durable safety nets

WFP’s Country Director, Lauren Landis hands out nutrition products to a mother. Photo: WFP/Alessandro Abbonizio

Mary was responsible for budgeting for food and domestic expenses but now does not have a money to plan with and constantly worries about where their next meal will come from. Neither did the family have any savings to cushion them from the sudden loss of income.

“I was delighted when I received the 4,000 shillings from WFP and the Government,” she says. “I had been informed that I will receive the assistance because my daughter was enrolled for nutritional flour at the clinic.”

Mary is among those that have received cash assistance from WFP because her only child, a 20-month old girl, was diagnosed with rickets and enrolled in to the programme for the treatment of malnutrition. The child is recovering now but Mary’s family is deemed to be too vulnerable. Any shock, such as the loss of income, could roll back the gains made in the child’s health.

WFP’s assistance will help protect Mary and her family for a period of four months, giving them time to try and get back on their feet.

Adapting to new uncertain realities

Mary’s husband is now working odd jobs repairing electrical for a couple of dollars. Mary has resorted to hawking fruits and food stuffs on the streets in the central business district of Nairobi.

“It is not an easy job. It is the first time I’m trying this. You know that as an adult, you cannot just sit and wait. You have responsibilities. If this fails, you get up and try again,” she says with determination. “My family’s diet has changed as we can not afford to buy the type of foods that we were used to. Some days we can’t raise fifty shillings [50 US Cents].”

Mary gazes into the distance keeping her raw emotions under wraps. Pain clearly visible in her eyes.

As of 1 September, the Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics estimates that many as 1.7 million Kenyans have lost jobs. The unemployment rate has doubled to 10.4 percent as compared to 5.2 percent in March — when the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Kenya.

The devastating impact of COVID-19 is still playing out in terms of rising unemployment, shattered livelihoods and increasing hunger. Many families that rely on the informal sector for their daily bread are currently fighting powerful headwaters on the road to recovery. They could use a helping hand.

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