Wean Turkana off aid, get the people working

Wednesday February 26 2014

Devolution Principal Secretary Gideon Konchellah and Turkana County Commissioner Julius Mathenge distribute relief food to residents of Chokochok in Turkana Central January 29, 2014. Photo/FILE

In Loareng village, on the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, the British charity Oxfam runs a European Union-funded programme that, officials say, feeds as many as 5,000 people, mostly elderly, women and children.

Lodwar, the capital of Turkana County, is a 90-minute flight from Nairobi. Loareng is three hours away by 4WD car, through parched and dusty plains that haven’t seen rain in months, through dry river beds that, our driver warns, could suddenly fill up with flash floods bringing water down from the distant hills and mountains sweeping away everything in their path.

Under the Oxfam programme, the poorest and most vulnerable residents in Loareng are given vouchers, which they exchange for fish from local fishermen.

J.B. Kangethe, the manager, says beyond feeding the hungry, the programme is designed to create a local market and spark entrepreneurship.

“We are hoping to create local demand and supply,” he says. “We have started seeing small businesses spring up near and around the fish distribution centre.”

Turkana is the poorest county in Kenya and one of the poorest places in the world. Covering 77,000 square kilometres, this arid and semi-arid land supports about a million people, 60 per cent of them pastoralists. Literacy rates are about 15 per cent by most generous surveys, while more than nine out of every 10 people live under the poverty line, surviving on less than $1.5 per day.


Fifty kilometres north of Lodwar town lies Kalokol, a small town on the shores of Lake Turkana. The lake, which has been shrinking for many years, has receded to the background but local fishermen drag their canoes through the few remaining canals to get to the lake.

Here a brisk trade takes place, with enterprising middlemen exporting 20 tonnes of dried fish to Beni and Kisangani in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Few people know about this story because Turkana is known for famine and drought.

Aid programmes such as these in Turkana offer a direct benefit to their beneficiaries, from food to clothing and medicine yet they also take away something bigger — personal initiative and a demand for accountability from elected leaders.

In a paper published in Development, Eugenie Reidy noted how some people in Turkana had been weaned off personal initiative by the ubiquitous presence of relief aid and had become addicted to “aid waiting.”

Aid agencies have been operating in Turkana since the 1960s. There are residual signs of the aid infrastructure.

In a donor-built store at the lakeshore in Loareng, locals dressed in colourful traditional dress reel off their problems.

All these grievances are addressed to the Oxfam representatives, not to the county or the Kenyan government. Even the local government-appointed chief joins in the chorus. “We are now hopeful that there is someone called European Union who is coming to help them,” he says.

The Kenyan government has established a marine police presence on Lake Turkana. At Loareng, a police speedboat lies moored to the banks while a smaller police boat bobs in the dirty-brown water, but there is no other visible sign of government presence.

The devolution exercise in Kenya has taken money and power to the grassroots. Figures from the central government put Turkana County among the best performers in spending more money on development projects, rather than salaries and recurrent expenditure.

There are signs of new money in the Turkana County government offices. We visit one with air-conditioning, new furniture, a mounted flat-screen television, a small refrigerator, laptop and printer. A pay-tv decoder is still packed in a box.

The proliferation of aid agencies is likely to displace some government programmes anywhere and Turkana, with its army of aid workers, is a typical case. Yet government-to-government interventions have the greater potential to bring about fundamental change.

About three hours west of Lodwar lies Lokiriama, a location that lies in the middle of nowhere. In the distance the Moroto mountain ranges soar, giving birth to the rivers that every so often tease residents with a dash of water. Moroto town in Uganda is 40 kilometres away. The nearest border crossing into Uganda is only 12 kilometres away.

“We came from some of these people but the reason [we used to fight] is because of these borders,” says Christopher Ekuwom, the Turkana County minister in charge of pastoralism and fishing. “The disarmament on the Ugandan side has now forced the Turkana to go across without their guns.”

The resulting peace has created a new economy in the area. Traders from Uganda cross the border in the mornings with pick-up trucks carrying grain, returning in the evening with cash, goats or cattle.

That informal market economy is slowly building a rational mind-set among pastoralists notorious for their traditional and conservative ways.

“Now some of them realise that they can sell their livestock when the dry season starts and buy back livestock when the rains resume,” says Emmanuela Olasambu, a community worker.

The Turkana County government now says it plans to set up a market in Lokiriama to water the fledging shoots of commerce. Sharp-nosed business people, however, have already smelt the opportunity.

In the raging heat, Shukri Abdi, 34, stands over a large vat of aloe-vera sap boiling over a fire. Although Ms Abdi says she was born and raised in the area, she is distinctly of Somali ancestry, dresses well and speaks very good English.

“People here in Turkana mostly depended on relief,” she says. “Then the relief stopped. Now aloe-vera has become their food.”

Locals collect aloe-vera sap from the neighbouring areas or buy it from traders who bring it from far-flung places. They process it into a hardened resin, which is transported to Nairobi and exported to China. Abdi employs four locals and in a good month grosses revenues of about $5,000.

While famine in Turkana can be of biblical proportions, it is mostly a man-made phenomenon, arising out of destructive traditional practices and the lack of investment in markets and transport infrastructure to move food from where it is in surplus to where it is badly needed.

Smart entrepreneurs have found a way to export fish to Congo and aloe vera to China; the challenge for the county government is to create a local market and strike the shackles of tradition from its residents so they can learn how to fish and trade.

The biggest challenge, however, is not how to attract more donors but how to survive them and wean the Turkana off hand-outs.