We can fight food insecurity in Northern Kenya, we can be independent


By Billow Abdi Hassan.

Billow Abdi Hassan

Food is one of basic needs of human wants. Without it we are doomed. A food item can be in numerous physical states.  It can either be solid, liquid or semisolid or a combination of all these states as a meal. It’s mandatory that we feed for us to survive.  It is an everyday and every time imperative requirement in our lives.  When we fail to get it at all then, regardless of how long we will survive, at last we will die and when we fail to get enough of it we go into full or partial dormancy. It gives our body the energy to keep us living and going, the ability to grow and develop and the most important of all; the ability to detect the presence of various pathogens in our bodies and successfully destroy them.

Despite the fact that all these benefits are obtained from the foods we eat it is not that everybody gets them.  There are those who live a desperate life; they do not get enough food or at times they don’t get food at all. They live in chronic hunger or fear of starvation in the near future. On the other hand, others live a good life; they get any sort of a food item they require or admire. They choose what to eat and when to eat. They have the ability to select their meal from a wide range of nutritious as well as delightful varieties of food supplies. About 75% of people in Northern Kenya are in the former category. That is how our world is. However, despite this enormous difference in our society’s way of life it does not mean that there is no enough food in this world to feed everybody. It is all about the availability and stability of food supplies in our surrounding, our accessibility to that food and how we utilize it, off course in our body.  When all those factors are at our door steps or within our perimeter of reach then we are food secure. We don’t live in hunger or fear of starvation.

In the former North Eastern province of Kenya fighting hunger and its impacts has been a milestone goal for the government and the locals for many years. The region is known for its chronic food insecurity and persistent hunger for over many years. It is defined as regional problem that is responsible for the region’s poor performance in development and growth. From independence to the region’s fifth decade anniversary various government agencies as well as non-governmental organizations have been on their toes just to mechanize a lasting workout to this chronic adversity. But that has failed us to overcome the challenge, now where is the mistake? To get an insight to this scenario we need to understand what food security is? And thereafter find out the root cause. Let’s go.

I can vividly remember that there were other food items we used to obtain from the bushes. Those were said to be wild foods and they used to grow in plenty during the raining seasons. Those were times when nobody used to die of hunger….. some of these wild foods I am talking about are (in Somali) Macadamia (Gestow) and xanshalla nuts, fruits of danbiriiq, mareer, kamash and koronjai and tuber of diingax. These foods are good sources of all nutrients although most of them are rich in micro-nutrients. Billow Abdi Hassan

The term food security was coined and established as a formal concept in the first world food conference in 1974 in Rome by the United Nations. This was induced by the devastating famine in Bangladesh in the preceding two years. In 1996, the current definition of food security was formulated by the United Nations in the world food summit of that year.  According to UN FAO, food security is defined as a state when all people at all times have physical and economic access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preference  for an active and healthy life. Otherwise you are food insecure.

Fighting food insecurity requires us to address the four pillars of food security one at a time.  The first pillar is availability and this is our focus for now.  The other three pillars are food accessibility, food (supply) stabilization and proper utilization of the food in our body (absence of mal-absorption triggering factors and diseases; or intrinsic factors). Food availability mainly relates to the supply of food through production, distribution and exchange. The United Nations has graded nations across the globe. This is determined by assessing their position in addressing the needs of food security pillars in combating food insecurity as stipulated in millennium development goal number one of eradicating extreme poverty by 2015. And that is why we have the third world countries. In these countries people succumbing to hunger is a ‘norm’. However a number of these countries are, though in a slow pace, addressing food availability through local farming using irrigation instead of rain fed agriculture. In Kenya especially in the northern part, without exaggerating, we are lagging behind in this primary goal just because we have forgotten our bounties. We are lazy. When countries like China and Japan are focusing on ways to feed their overpopulated countries by persuading their people to eat insects and raw plant products we reduced ourselves to beggars and we are known for being less innovative!

Allah has created the whole land in a way that different parts of it support the growth of certain foods or crops and to be food secure we need to exploit our land. For instance a good cash crop like sugarcane does not grow everywhere. And in fact were it that way everybody in the world would have been a sugarcane farmer. Sometimes back during my childhood period in the pastoral lands besides the foods prepared at home I can vividly remember that there were other food items we used to obtain from the bushes. Those were said to be wild foods and they used to grow in plenty during the raining seasons. Those were times when nobody used to die of hunger. In fact these wild foods were perfect supplements to the household foods of animal products and carbohydrates like maize flour and sugar (which were not even available in plenty).  These indigenous foods belong to a good class of food group called vegetables. Unfortunately, I cannot list all of them here.  However, some of these wild foods I am talking about are (in Somali) Macadamia (Gestow) and xanshalla nuts, fruits of danbiriiq, mareer, kamash and koronjai and tuber of diingax. These foods are good sources of all nutrients although most of them are rich in micro-nutrients.

A cross the globe various governments are allocating good sum of their national budgets to the fight against micronutrient nutrient deficiency disease which indeed is another form of malnutrition whose impacts are mostly irreversible. A form of malnutrition commonly known as the hidden hunger as it is normally not detected or seen easily unlike other forms of malnutrition like kwashiorkor, Marasmus or obesity.  The deficiency of micronutrients like Vitamin A, Iron, calcium  and B-complex causes common disabilities and diseases like night blindness, Iron deficiency anaemia and various metabolic as well as digestion and mal-absorption disorders. For us we don’t have that pretty amount of money allocated for us and we have not been helping ourselves out of this regional progress barrier. It is like you suffer from thirst when safe water to drink is just in a shallow well nearby. You have to device a way to get it from the source. I am nobly sure that you won’t fail if only you sincerely try.

The Macadamia and other local nuts are almost the same in nutritional value as the most expensive and populous nuts like the groundnuts and the dates. They contain sufficient amount of natural and simple sugars that are easily digested and used by our body to generate energy. 100 grams of the Macadamia nuts provide 718 calories which is one of the highest values among the nuts across the globe. The nuts are also good sources of mono-unsaturated fatty acids like Oleic and Palmitoleic acids.  These fatty acids are our saviors. They enable us to lower total as well as low density lipoproteins or bad cholesterol and increase high density lipoproteins in our blood. In other words, they help us live healthy and be free from hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.

Macadamia and other local nuts are also excellent sources of trace minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese and zinc. These minerals are required for physical as well cognitive growth and development of our body. For instance, minerals like calcium and iron are required in the growth and development of our bones and red blood cells respectively. In their absence we develop osteoporosis and anemia.

The indigenous tubers like diingax and other red vegetables are paramount. They contain varied amounts of micronutrients and fast energy supplying carbohydrates or simple sugars. Micronutrients like Vitamin A, Iron, B-complex vitamins, Zinc among others are mainly found in tuber red vegetables like arrow roots,  sweet potato, diingax and carrots. The fruits of the Xanshalla tree are also very nutritious. They are good sources of vitamins A and B-complex and minerals like iron, zinc, calcium among others. They also contain simple sugars. Their consumption is a lasting remedy to a fatal medical problem known as hypoglycemia. Their simple sugars supply the brain and other vital major body organs with instant energy. That is why we used to eat them in plenty during times of drought and famine. Look, these plants used to bear their fruits or tubers during the raining season which were to be ripe during the dry season. Then they could be ready for consumption when animals start reducing in productivity due to the exhausted or overstretched supplies of pastures and water.

Fortunately, good sources of these micronutrients which I have illustrated above are the local vegetables that can grow in our vast arid land of northern Kenya. They do not require a lot of farming skills and they can withstand the adverse climatic conditions of low seasonal rainfalls and high temperatures defining our land. Despite this endowment we are still victims of food insecurity, famine and various forms of one of the world’s deadly diseases; acute malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency diseases.

We are not making use of our locality and we are known to be persistent relief aid and asylum seekers. We are done! Let’s wake up from our deep slumber and exploit our environs before others do for their benefit.  We need to start farming these precious food crops. The rewards of this milestone intervention will be a major blow to poverty as well as food insecurity in the region. The agricultural products can be consumed as food by the farmers and they can be sold. The effects of this will be improved economic power and reduced poverty. Marketing the products will enable the farmers to acquire their other needs such as other food items after getting the means to access market supplies. Also harvested tubers, nuts and fruits will supplement as well as complement the diet of the local people given that they are rich in multiple micronutrients.

We have given value to growing foreign fruits like banana, lemon and pineapple that do not do well in our land and when we grow them we get a little amount of products from them.

Every nation in the world of today depends on local industrial or agricultural production. If you have ever keenly examined there is no country that produces all agricultural and industrial products we utilize or we see in our markets.  For instance a global staple food like maize is mainly produced in America because it has the favorable climate for the crop if we keep aside other inputs and power of the state.  In our Eastern Africa region Uganda is the main supplier of green banana and in Kenya the rift valley region is the top. This has given people in these regions an advantage over others. They consume their farm products as food and sell the surplus to acquire other necessities. Food is available and its supply is stable from local production and from imports and accessible through improved economy from sells of produces in different markets. They may have a problem with utilization and this requires little effort to address. So they are food secure.

Given that maize cannot do well in our region without a massive investment in agriculture which we cannot afford we need to do otherwise. But this does not mean that we do away with other crops. We need to start and put more effort in what can do better in our area.


Mr. Billow Abdi Hassan is a Food Security and Livelihoods Analyst and Consultant from Wajir County. He is also the founder of Health Concern and Empowerment Centre. You can reach him on 0728990492 for free nutritional consultancy and diet therapy.  

You can Email him your views and concerns through bilhazanz@gmail.com or bilhazanz@yahoo.com




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NepJournal is Northern Kenya's online newspaper. It is also a space where the leading thinkers and writers from the region bring you unsolicited and uncensored views, analysis and opinion from the region and beyond.

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