Living on the edge: Harsh realities of poverty in slums

Uncollected garbage piled between houses in Mukuru Kwa Reuben slum in Nairobi on July 19, 2023. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Every month, Jenifer Wangari (not her real name) has to choose between purchasing food and taking her three children to school.

She stays in Kibera, one of the poorest slums in Nairobi. She and her family moved there in 2014 following the death of her husband who worked as a security guard in one of the firms within the city.

“Life is unbearable, “Wangari tells The Standard. It could at least be better if my husband was alive to assist me reduce the burden. I have nothing,” she says.

On a good day, she can make between Sh200 to Sh300 doing menial work such as washing clothes, supplying water to nearby construction sites, or at times babysitting.

She says the condition has worsened due to the high cost of living, stating that now it is a “game of wait and see” for one in her class to fend for the family. A times faced with the temptation of joining prostitution or as he puts it, ‘the sisters in the street’.

“When I visit residents where I used to get work, everyone is adamant about giving out money as they decry the state of the economy. This means that sometimes we sleep on an empty stomach because we have no money to buy food. I was tempted to join prostitution but thank God I didn’t,” she narrates.

In Korogocho, the condition of 35-year-old Josephine Apondi and his 30-year-old husband Richard Apondi is no different. They have tested abject poverty to the fullest.

Their five children have not reported back to school due to lack of levies and rent is still a bane. The husband says that efforts to look for alternative means of generating income such as working in construction sites and roasting maize are yet to solve the challenges of his demanding family.

A general view of Kibera slums from the Southern bypass. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

The poverty levels are increasing day in and day out with the middle class now feeling the pain as a result of numerous taxes introduced by the Kenya Kwanza regime. I can’t speak for the ones in penury who are just surviving.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), five out of every 13 Kenyans lived in poverty by 2021, representing 38.6 per cent of the total population. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of people living in poverty increased by 20.7 per cent to 19.122 million.

KNBS notes that the creation of paid jobs has been limited and, as a result, most of the poor remain engaged in self-employment or agriculture, activities where productivity and earnings are dependent upon the availability of assets that the poor lack.

The authority further says the poor participate less in the non-subsistence labour force, and the difference in the labour force participation rate between poor and non-poor individuals has widened over the past 15 years, particularly in rural areas.

“The youth and women, particularly in arid areas, participate less in the no subsistence work activities than other groups, driven by lack of suitable jobs in the area linked to low non-farm diversification and, for women, family responsibilities. Poor individuals and those living in rural areas continue to rely on agriculture and low-productivity services subsectors for employment,” KNBS. “In sum, the poor face twin challenges in the job market: fewer household members work outside of subsistence activities and they are mostly engaged in low-productivity sectors.”

In the year 2020, two shocks affected household consumption: the COVID-19 pandemic led to a lockdown of some counties affecting transport hence interfering with the food supply. In addition, an infestation of locusts in some parts of the country saw the destruction of crops in the farms.

The data from ICEA LION Asset Management, a research institution released in January 2024, also shows a greater increase in poverty level indicating that the individual’s spending sub-index fell by 3 per cent between July and September 2023 while the retail business sales sub-index remained broadly flat in the same period, resulting in a decline of 1.5 per cent in the overall consumer spending index.

The report further states that there is a relatively resilient level of consumer spending in the third quarter considering the perception that disposable incomes had reduced. However, we note that many consumers attributed the additional spending to an increase in the cost of items purchased rather than higher income per se. At the same time, we also note that the spending came despite continued slowed private sector credit.

 “As Kenya stands at the crossroads of progress and persistent challenges, addressing poverty requires a comprehensive and collaborative approach. International partnerships, innovative solutions, and sustained efforts at all levels are crucial to unraveling the intricate web that poverty weaves across the nation. Only by acknowledging the depth of the issue and fostering collective action can Kenya aspire to build a future where every citizen has the opportunity to break free from the shackles of poverty,” said one of the ICEA research managers.

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