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Where Sh5,400 stipend means life or death for drought-stricken residents

By Betty Njeru | December 4th 2021

Rosemary Gumato, a beneficiary of the Hunger Safety Net Programme, outside her house in Merille, Marsabit County. [Betty Njeru, Standard]

Just about 120km south of Marsabit town in Merille village, Marsabit County, Rosemary Gumato sits outside her home preparing lunch for her family.

A grass-thatched manyatta, Gumato’s old house stands to her left, but even more beguiling is the modern stone house on her right, which leaves a resounding impression.

Delight beams off her face as the 28-year-old mother of six narrates how she built this three-bedroom house off her savings.

Despite the sweltering heat, her children happily play outside their newly-built house that is green and orange themed.  

Gumato is a beneficiary of the Hunger Safety Net Programme (HNSP), a cash transfer programme by the government aimed at cushioning poor and vulnerable households from drought.

“Before these payments, survival was a struggle. I had a kiosk but I was making very little profits. I had no funds to go look for jobs, which were elusive anyway,” she says.

More than 100,000 households in four Northern Kenya counties – Turkana, Wajir, Marsabit and Mandera – have each been receiving Sh5,400 every two months from the government through the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) to alleviate the effects of hunger in the region.

For many beneficiaries, the money goes into buying food and paying their children’s school fees. But for Gumato, who started receiving the stipend in 2013, the payments were her saving grace.

In 2016, after attending training on how to save and grow money, she and 23 other women, all beneficiaries of HSNP, formed a self-help group. They would each contribute Sh500 per week towards the chama, and bank the savings for a rainy day.

“We give the contributions to one person in the group weekly to boost their small businesses. After a week, they return the full amount plus profit,” she explains.

More than 100,000 households in four Northern Kenya counties receive Sh5,400 every two months from the government. [Betty Njeru, Standard]

After three years of saving, Gumato saw an opportunity to upgrade her family’s lifestyle. She was able to increase her loan limit to Sh500,000, which she borrowed from her bank and built her new home.

“I took a Sh500,000 loan. I gave the fundi Sh300,000 to cover all construction costs and used the remaining Sh200,000 to buy goats, which I would later resell at Nairobi’s Kariobangi market. I used the profit to buy more building materials.”

She is grateful for the bi-monthly stipend, which she says, improved her troubled past, one where they would go for days without food.

“Were it not for these payments, I would never have formed this chama. I’m proud to call myself ‘mwanamke bomba’,” Gumato says.

Her husband, Philip Leparmarai, says he is indebted to his wife for improving their lives.

When The Standard visited Turbi, a sleepy village on the Marsabit-Moyale highway, we found more than 10 beneficiaries lining up outside an Equity Bank agent for their share.

Seventy-three-year-old Talaso Waqo, barefoot and clad in traditional attire, is a happy camper. She says, unlike previous days, she would get a meal that night.

“This money is better than getting relief food because food isn’t always enough,” Waqo says, adding that due to the prevailing drought in the northern frontier, food prices have soared. Data from NDMA shows that food prices in Marsabit County alone are 16 per cent above the national average. So handy is the stipend that it has enriched the business owners in the region.

Francis Mutuma, who runs an Equity Bank agent stall in Moyale town, says he has felt the impact of the payments, considering he now gets more customers. “The economy is much better now. I serve at least 100 to 200 customers after the money comes in. The more the customers, the more the commission,” Mutuma says.

Beneficiaries lining up outside an Equity Bank agent for their stipend. [Betty Njeru, Standard]

While Hussein Ibrahim, who owns a shop in Turbi, says since the payments began coming in, his customers now pay off debts in time. “The town has grown. More people have established businesses and business owners rake in good profits.” In Marsabit County alone, over 20,000 households have benefited from the HSNP programme.

Marsabit County Drought Coordinator Mustafa Parkolwa hopes that with financial aid, poor and vulnerable households can uplift themselves. “We are targeting the poor households because we don’t want them to liquidate the assets they currently own. We want them to preserve those assets and multiply so that when they finally succeed, they can leave the programme,” Parkolwa says.

The county currently receives Sh110.5 million every drought cycle. “This money has conferred the households dignity,” he adds.

But hope isn’t always lurking. Hawo Abdullahi, a resident of Turbi, has lost half her cattle to the drought and insecurity in the area.

She grumbles over the inconsistency of payments. “The money used to come in every fifth of the month, but now it takes up to two months. Further, the payments are disbursed late, yet the economy is bad and drought is killing us,” she said.

Hawo is among 2.5 million Kenyans currently affected by drought.

“Without rain, the situation will worsen. Conflicts will also increase,” Parkolwa says.

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