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Kenya Serves as Transportation Hub for Food Aid to East Africa

Food distribution in Kenya

Food distribution in Kenya

Despite the post-election violence that broke out in Kenya last year, the East African country is widely viewed as an island of stability and economic progress in a region plagued by war and poverty. And because of this, Kenya serves as a transportation hub for international food aid to Uganda, southern Sudan, Somalia and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Fierce fighting, flooding, devastating droughts and other disasters in East and Central Africa translate into this: millions of hungry and desperate people.

But for the fortunate among them, food aid does get through by way of a sophisticated network of road, sea and air routes connected to Kenya.

Peter Smerdon is senior public affairs officer at the United Nations' World Food Program, or WFP, in Nairobi.

Peter Smerdon

Peter Smerdon

"Kenya is the biggest economy in East Africa and that means it has more infrastructure than other countries, certainly than Somalia, but also Eastern DR Congo, Southern Sudan and to a certain extent Uganda," said Peter Smerdon. "So it means generally the roads are better, the port works better, there are more transporters who take commercial cargo as well."

Key to the food distribution system is the coastal city of Mombasa.

It has a well developed port that last year handled 670,000 tons of food aid from around the world. Smerdon says that some 10 million people in the region rely on food aid that arrives in Mombasa.

But the food still has a long way to go. Aid workers have to truck it across vast distances, and often through volatile areas. Nick Wasunna is senior adviser at World Vision Kenya, WFP's largest partner.

"On one occasion we were passing through one part of Kenya that we needed to move food through to get to another community, but those two communities were in conflict, and so they were actually attacking the lorries as they would pass through," said Nick Wasunna.

For places such as Southern Sudan, where few roads exist and communities are isolated, airdrops are necessary.

And when heavy fighting in Somalia makes it risky to transport food by road, aid is shipped from Mombasa to Mogadishu accompanied by European Union naval escorts.

In a typical year, Smerdon says the WFP purchases approximately half of its food aid from large-scale food traders in the region. The other half comes from the United States and other foreign donors.

Aid agencies also try to buy from small, local farmers.

"We've now launched a program called Purchase for Progress, which is aimed at helping marginal farmers, buying from them when you do purchase locally," he said.

World Vision's Nick Wasunna says his agency is also setting up programs where communities build schools, dams and other infrastructure in exchange for food and work.