Kenya's rising food prices hurt both buyers and sellers

Food price increases that have caused riots elsewhere in Africa have reached Kenya, and Nairobi residents don't know what to do.

Brendan Bannon
A truck ferrying onions to market arrives at Wakulima in Nairobi.

This post is part of the Daily Dispatches project chronicling life in Nairobi, Kenya throughout the month of April.

Staple foods are twice the price they were at the start of 2011. Mike Pflanz hears how this is hurting traders and customers alike.

It is not yet dawn but Wakulima Market is chaos. Bystanders duck as men carrying 150 pound bags on their shoulders hiss past. Handcart pullers jostle for business in the fluorescent half-light. Vegetable trucks reverse blindly.

This is Nairobi’s largest wholesale farmers’ market. Suppliers who have often driven through the night from their fields strike deals with traders who then sell goods on to the city’s supermarkets, restaurants and small-scale market stalls.

But here, those deals and those trades are in trouble. Soaring food costs caused by increasing international oil prices driven by revolutions in North Africa, and Kenya’s weakening currency, are hitting these businessmen and women hard.

Elsewhere in Africa, this has caused riots. There are fears Nairobi could be next.

Bernard Kihanda comes here every morning to buy 110 pounds of watermelons, which he then loads into his truck and sells in the city’s upmarket suburbs. Prices at the wholesale market are up 29 percent.

“I have to pass that cost on to my customers,” he said, haggling for better prices as dawn began to lighten the sky. “Watermelons are not corn or milk, they are not essential foods. I know people will start to complain, and then where is my business?”

Three stalls down – the traders sit on crates with their wares spread on cardboard on the floor – Margaret Mwaura, selling mangoes, is already feeling the impact.

“This stock I’ve had since Friday, and it’s still here now, it will go to waste if I don’t sell today,” she said. “Prices used to be 8¢ for each mango, now it’s 11¢. I am not able to charge my customers more, they have no money in their pockets. I am the one taking the loss.”

As the sun rose and immediately slipped beneath a blanket of low cloud, trader after trader came back to this common theme.

Mary Njeri, Jane Wanjiru and Elizabeth Nyambura, grandmothers all older than 60, rise at 4 a.m. each day and come to Wakulima to buy a variety of goods to then sell door-to-door at housing estates ringing the city.

“Our customers complain, they cannot afford the high prices we have to ask, but we cannot buy the food here unless we pay those prices,” Njeri said.

“We are the ones making the loss. Especially because people are no longer buying exotic vegetables, they want only the basics, and they refuse to pay the new prices,” Wanjiru added.

Kenya’s staple food is corn, usually ground to flour and boiled into a kind of dense cake called ugali. On this, Kenya survives.

But the wholesale cost of a 250-pound sack of green corn has risen from $40 in February to $70 today, a 75 percent increase, according to figures from Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture.

Prices for potatoes, another staple, have doubled. Beans are up 34%, tomatoes by 20%. In a city like Nairobi, where the majority of households struggle by on less than $5 a day, such price hikes are crippling.

The Consumers’ Federation of Kenya, a watchdog protecting buyers’ interests, has planned demonstrations to protest at what it says is the government’s failure to help the country’s poorest.

“Fuel and food prices are fast becoming unbearable for the majority of Kenyans,” said Stephen Mutoro, the Federation’s secretary general.

Several excuses had been advanced, he said, from a weak Kenya Shilling, the high inflation rate and the Northern Africa and Arab world crises and their impact on oil prices, which trickle down to gas pumps across the country.

“But those are just excuses not because they are not valid but because there is little Kenya can do about them,” Mutoro said. “On the contrary, no one is talking about the internal factors of the high prices, from lack of political will, to outright corruption and institutional gross inefficiencies.”

These are potentially fighting words. Similar sharp statements in neighboring Uganda prompted mass demonstrations which led to police firing tear gas on protesters, many of whom were arrested.

In Wakulima market, few thought that Nairobi was yet ready to revolt.

But Rosemary Nyambura, who sells bundles of used plastic bags (prices up 50 percent), conceded that “we are all getting very frustrated”.

“Corn flour is almost double what it was only a few short months ago,” she said. “It’s just mathematics – I have the same money in my pocket, but food costs twice as much, so my family can eat half what it used to. Now we are taking only one meal a day. This is the reality of today.”

Related: Full-size images from Wakulima Market

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