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In Kenya I saw how the Horn of Africa drought is pushing people into hunger

An eyewitness account from the World Food Programme's Tomson Phiri in Kenya shows why governments and other donors must step up to avoid a deepening humanitarian catastrophe
, Tomson Phiri
Two women carrying a sack of food
Drought-affected families collect monthly food rations from a WFP distribution centre in Garissa County, northeast Kenya. Photo: WFP/Martin Karimi

I have just returned from northeast Kenya. It’s only the beginning of February – typically you would have grazing pasture and water holes that would have regenerated from the October to December short rainy season. This time it’s different.

There is no grazing pasture and water sources have dried up. The drought is widespread, severe and likely to grow worse. What is particularly striking about this drought is its breadth. Livestock are dying and that is devastating for farming families. With pasture and fodder out of reach of many, pastoralists have watched their livestock die.

I have driven on several occasions in pastoral areas in the Horn of Africa – areas within Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, where the UN World Food Programme is currently warning that millions of lives are at risk because of drought, and calling for US$327 million to respond. Dead animals by the roadside are a common sight – they have not been hit by passing vehicles, but rather died in large numbers from thirst and starvation.

Farmers have watched their crops shrivel up, wilt and die due to lack of rain. After three consecutive failed rainy seasons – a fourth is on its way – harvests are up to 70 percent below the norm in affected areas.

People talking alongside sacks of food
Tomson Phiri, right, talks to people receiving food assistance in Maalimin, Garissa County. Photo: WFP/Martin Karimi

Food and water prices are skyrocketing, significantly curbing families’ access to nutritious food. Cereal prices have risen three to fivefold above typical levels in several markets, coupled with a decline in livestock. The amount of cereal that could be purchased with the sale of a goat has dropped in some case by up to 40 percent below the five-year average in Kenya, and by over 80 percent in parts of Somalia. 

The weather has really dealt the countries a damaging blow and the impact of this drought has extended beyond farming. My heart broke when I met a 14 year-old boy called Ali (not his real name). He has completed primary level schooling, graduating with full colours. 

Tragically, his family is out of options. They have lost an entire herd of livestock, with nothing left to sell. Ali is unable to go to secondary school and is repeating grade to keep busy, in the hope that his family may find their feet again so he can progress with his education. 

Food being loaded onto a truck
Bags of WFP food assistance being loaded onto a truck for delivery to distribution points in Garissa County. Photo: WFP/Martin Karimi

The drought is exacerbating other shocks in the region that impact food security, including conflict, flash flooding, desert locust infestations and the socioeconomic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Farmers are having to make hard decisions. Out of options, they are trekking very long distances to save their remaining livestock. And that has its own consequences. There has been a spike in displacement across the Horn of Africa as families move from their homes in search of water and pasture, leading to an increase in inter-communal conflict.

I visited one family’s homestead in Maalimin village. It’s a pastoral family. The land is virtually empty and silent, with no livestock in sight. On any given day, they would have had between 200 to 300 animals – camels, cattle, goats and sheep. They told me they had tried to drive the surviving herd of 21 to Dadaab, 160 km away, where the chances of survival would be higher. After trekking for nine days, stopping at night to rest, only 10 out of the 21 animals survived the journey.

Man speaking in front of camera
WFP's Tomson Phiri outside a WFP warehouse in Garissa town. Photo: WFP/Martin Karimi

Across the Horn of Africa region, water levels are falling and access to clean drinking water is diminishing, while malnutrition rates remain high. Some areas are reporting very high global acute malnutrition rates of over 50 per cent, well above the WHO emergency threshold of 15 percent. 

After spending four days speaking with affected communities, I went to bid the village elder in Maalimin farewell. I said hoped to see you all again. The elder walked up to me, held my hand firmly, looked me straight in the eye and said: “Our livestock is gone. Please don’t take too long to come back to see us, otherwise you find us gone as well.”

Tomson Phiri is WFP’s Global Spokesperson based in Geneva


This week, the World Food Programme launches its Regional Drought Response Plan for the Horn of Africa. Across the three drought-affected countries, WFP teams are already on the ground, supporting families with cash and emergency assistance. WFP is providing life-saving food and nutrition assistance to affected communities. Additionally, WFP cash grants and insurance schemes are helping families buy food to keep their livestock alive or compensating them for their losses. In Kenya, WFP's drought relief work is made possible through the support of the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, and the governments of Sweden and the US.

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