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Gucci Purses and Watermelons: Dreaming of Better Future for Kenya's Hungry North


A woman and a child walk past a long line of plastic water containers queued up to be filled with water from a tanker, in the drought-affected village of Bandarero, in northern Kenya, March 3, 2017.

Kenya can escape the “Groundhog Day” of recurrent hunger crises by investing in irrigated farming and leather tanneries in its arid lands, experts said on Friday, as poor spring rains have failed to relieve biting drought.

With 2.6 million people across Kenya short of food due to consecutive failed rains, aid agencies have been slaughtering herders' weakened livestock in northern Kenya and distributing the meat to hungry families.

“Their skins could actually have been part of large tanneries,” said Sid Chatterjee, the United Nations resident coordinator in Kenya, describing a small tannery he visited in northern Turkana County, which has been hard-hit by drought.

He saw goat skins processed into world-class soft leather, increasing their value ten-fold.

“If I had gone and bought that same purse in a Gucci store in Rome, I would probably have not known (it was from Turkana), such was the quality,” he said. “I can see the huge potential of Kenya.”

Five major droughts

Chatterjee was speaking at a forum on resilience to discuss ways of ending the region's food crises.

A record-breaking 26.5 million people are going hungry across the Horn of Africa due to poor rains and conflict, with many on the move in search of grazing, water and work.

The long-awaited spring rains were delayed and erratic, with parts of Kenya receiving less than 40 percent of normal rainfall, the country's meteorological department said.

Five major droughts have hit Kenya since 2006, said the Kenya Red Cross Society's (KRCS) operations manager James Mwangi, with 2 to 4 million people needing emergency aid each time.

“For me as a humanitarian worker, it becomes increasingly disturbing to go back to the same households to deliver food assistance or other forms of assistance every time,” he said.

No time to rebuild assets

With droughts every two years, families do not have time to rebuild the assets, like livestock and savings, needed to see them through emergencies, he said.

KRCS has set up more than 20 resilience projects in the wake of a devastating 2011 drought, largely focused on using drip irrigation to grow grass for livestock and food for people in lands where rain failures regularly decimate nomads' herds.

“We can't just remain relief based organizations,” said KRCS's general secretary Abbas Gullet. "We want to address the root causes of these humanitarian crises."

KRCS has dug boreholes to create dams, lined with tarpaulin to prevent evaporation and seepage, which have produced food during the current drought.

“In the middle of nowhere, people are farming,” Gullet said, describing fields of watermelon, onions and kale.

Projects have worked in India

If such projects are scaled up, they could have a massive impact, experts said, pointing to the success of the agricultural Green Revolution in boosting harvests in India.

“We need to be investing in prevention,” said Mamadou Biteye, the Rockefeller Foundation's Africa managing director, adding every dollar spent on resilience saves $4.5 that would have been spent on disaster response.

In Turkana, underground lakes the size of the U.S. state of Delaware were discovered in 2013 but excitement waned when it was found the water was too salty to use without desalination.

“The opportunity is there,” said Chatterjee, calling for greater government and private sector investment in Kenya's drought-stricken northern counties. “By focusing our action on a few counties ... getting the resilience model going, we'll be able to change the game.”

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