Where food vouchers offer dignity for the underprivileged

Monday, May 4th, 2020 11:00 |
Billian Ojiwa explains how the voucher works as his colleagues look on. Photo/COURTESY

Local organisation helps families suffering from the impact of coronavirus access food in Mathare.

Ann Nyathira

In the last few weeks, people have been pouring into informal settlements in Nairobi, where 60-70 per cent of residents live, to distribute and deliver food. These donations were intended to provide aid to households that had lost income due to the impact of Covid-19.

When Billian Ojiwa, founder of Music Family and his colleagues in Mathare, recently planned their first food distribution in the area, they wanted to support 200 vulnerable families.

What they did not know is, despite their good intentions,  they were risking their lives and that of residents.

Social distancing

“In our first distribution, together with the Mariga Foundation, we gathered 200 people in a school.

Everything was orderly and we maintained social distance, but outside the school, there were over five hundred people fighting to get in and have a share of essentials we were giving out.

That was the point we realised we had to do things differently,” says Ojiwa.

Local economy

Ojiwa and his partners had to find alternative means to secure food for these vulnerable households.

They provided vouchers on papers and via SMS instead of food, which were to be redeemed at designated local shops.

Rather than providing direct food aid, the idea is to support local food economy to continue functioning in a more agile way that can address the need of the hour with deeper local impact.

In collaboration with community health volunteers with a good knowledge of Mathare, the team identifies households with severe food shortages. 

“The community health volunteers do the mapping and identify an individual in need of relief.

This is done systematically and based on hardship criteria. People entitled to vouchers include someone has lost informal wage and food, people with chronic illness and single parents,” he says.

Mother and child receive  food supplies.

“Of course, the voucher does not replace everything they have lost or need, but it does offer a lot in terms of dignity, compared to having people queue or fight over supplies.

It is  worth flour and fresh produce such as vegetables for a week. It is equally important to ensure they get a balanced diet, we work with the shopkeepers to offer a diversity of foods like legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables, and millets to complement the maize consumption,” he adds.

The initiative prevents people from crowding in front of salon cars and lorries delivering food, as food voucher holders shop like on any other person.

“In the streets, no one recognises them as voucher holders. They queue as any other client does in front of the designated shops.

The food vouchers are part of a larger package of Covid-19 awareness communication, delivered by the community health volunteers.

As a result, physical distancing is taken seriously. White circles drawn on the ground delineate the waiting spots in front of shops,” he says.

Small percentage

He notes, as much as the goal is to support families confronted with Covid-19 related food shortages, the goal of the initiative is to help cushion food systems in informal settlements by sustaining the informal food economy.

This, he says, will only work when small shops, street food vendors and retailers in the area have business.

“If the business in Mathare closes down due to cash flow issues, it will drastically change the food environment for inhabitants who live from hand to mouth, not forgetting once shopkeepers and vendors lose their livelihoods, they become aid-dependent too,” he explains.

Ojiwa notes since almost everyone in Mathare slums is vulnerable; not having enough funds makes it difficult for them to support everyone in need.

“Our partners, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Kenya Unite, Crime Si Poa, Footprints for change and 7th August Memorial Park, have been supportive and we are working towards scaling up to working with 300 families, which is still a small percentage of the people who need our help.

Another challenge is when we started with the SMS aid, the beneficiaries would forward it to their friends and manipulate the massage, but with vouchers, it becomes difficult to do that,” he says.

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