Nov 10, 2023
Photo Credit: Nawirisha
Women informal childcare providers, in Nairobi's Mathare informal settlement, discussing the childcare food program and their savings during our weekly meetings
One afternoon, in December 2022, I sat in the rear seat of a taxi cab that was ferrying me to a meeting with women childcare providers in one of the vast urban informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya. The heat was excessive and I kindly requested the driver to open the car windows. It was so uncomfortable that after a few minutes in the car I was already sweating and almost finding it difficult to breathe. I reached out for my phone and was just about to take a selfie, when I saw an image that still haunts my mind so much that I have decided to write this piece in the hope that it shall awaken our conscience.
Inside my phone’s camera, I saw the face of a woman who was very beaten and exhausted, worrying about how our child care food program was going to survive the ever soaring food prices! That was me. I tried to smile, but I couldn’t. With the uncomfortable heat and sweat, I only hated the situation our country was facing the most. Until April 2023, Kenya was experiencing severe drought fueled by four failed rainfall seasons, which was reported by United Nations agencies (https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/12/1132047) as being the worst drought situation in 40 years!
On this day, however, the reality of the situation our women-led ‘childcare food initiative’ was facing hit me hard and left me fighting back tears, because I did not want to alert the taxi-driver about my worries. You see, in April 2022, having conducted 3 years of research to understand the challenges that prevented women-led childcare enterprises in Nairobi’s informal settlements from growing and thriving, I narrowed down on ‘access to food for children’ as the main factor that limits their economic viability. This is because, while most women child-caregivers provide childcare services at $0.5, many are forced to use this same income to provide food for the children, despite clearly agreeing with parents that they would bring packed food. As a result, the women childcare providers are constantly in a cycle of unending financial poverty propelled by insufficient food for children left under their care. After consultations with more than 100 of them, we agreed that food for children was their top-most priority, which if addressed would help improve the viability of their micro-enterprises.
Provision of food in informal high density neighborhoods can be a difficult undertaking because many people are often hungry, and if not implemented with care, the food can end up not reaching the intended beneficiaries. Owing to the increased cost of cooking fuel due to macro economic factors, as well as limitations in time and space for cooking, we established that most of the women child-caregivers use their child-care income to buy cheap food for children from the street food vendors. Although rarely nutritionally balanced, the women at-least try to allocate $0.2 for food per child who comes without a packed lunch. The result, of-course, is young children’s health and development being compromised everyday. Buying that basic rice and soup combo for the children, however, helps the women survive the nightmare of 10-20 toddlers crying because of hunger until evening when their mothers come to collect them.
Together with a group of 20 women childcare providers, who mainly operate out of their homes and church halls, we agreed that partnering with the local women food vendors was the most ideal, affordable, and sustainable solution for the challenging situation they were in. In return, they would talk to parents, often single mothers who do odd informal jobs to provide for their families, to accept to pay an extra $0.2 for food and $0.1 for porridge. Through a series of meetings and consultations with the women and local leaders, we identified a group of 5 women street food vendors who would accept to prepare clean and suitable food for the children, and deliver it to the childcare facilities while still warm and fresh. Subsequently, we conducted cooking experiments with the women to establish food costs, suitable portions for children of ages 1-3 years, viable meal plan, as well as overhead costs such as labor and delivery. With these careful steps and various terms and conditions established, we began the child-care food program in October 2022, with the aim of feeding 300 young children per day in the pilot phase, before we could gradually start increasing the numbers to reach more children in other childcare and Early Childhood Education centers.
At first, we thought the food situation in the country would change for the better and make our women-led ‘childcare food initiative’ profitable beyond sustainability. Every Friday afternoon, the women would gather to review the food service, suggest improvements, as well as make payments for meals. They were all incredibly happy, and with a new found sense of optimism about their childcare businesses, fueled by their regained ability to save some of their child-care income instead of using it on food (the food cost was now shifted to parents), the women started a ‘Savings and Lending’ group. Since most of them are not banked, the women childcare providers' most effective route to gaining financial freedom is through community based micro-finance groups, such as the Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA) model (https://www.vsla.net/). With skills acquired through training from various Non-governmental organisations, the women easily formed a VSLA group to save their hard-earned child-care income and readily access micro-loans every Friday. Watching the women run and grow their savings group from average weekly savings of $1 per member to a cumulative total of more than $200 within a very short time was incredibly gratifying! At last, we were on the verge of proving that economic viability for informal childcare enterprises could be achieved by solving the childcare food challenge, thereby creating a clear pathway for accelerating growth of the enterprises and guaranteeing affordable childcare so that more mothers can go to work.
On this Friday afternoon, however, I was wondering what to tell the 25 women entrepreneurs because our numbers were not looking good. Food prices kept increasing at such a high rate, that we could start the week with a price of $1/kg of rice and close it with a price of $1.5/kg. Unlike rice which the government was applying tax subsidies to encourage importation, maize flour (a staple for Kenyans) was worst affected. At the time, the government declared that the most sustainable way to reduce the cost of maize flour was for the rains to start, upon which farmers would be supplied with subsidized fertilizer in order to boost the harvest. In a span of a few months from when we had done our ‘food experimentation’ to establish viability, the price of maize flour had increased by more than 70%. At this point, even government leaders felt the most hopeful way was to ask the nation to pray for the rains!
But a hungry person, much less a child, cannot pray for rainfall or an end to drought. As I gathered myself to enter the community social hall venue for our afternoon meeting, I made a resolution to ensure that our child-care food initiative continues despite the rising food prices, even if this meant digging deeper into my pockets. Yet, I knew very well that this would not be sustainable in the long run, unless the rains come and farmers are finally able to supply food like maize, vegetables, and fruits at more affordable prices.
Although our country, recently, experienced the first successful rainfall season in April 2023, which prompted the Ministry of Agriculture’s Principal Secretary to estimate that 43 million bags of maize would be harvested (https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/business/national/article/2001478139/kenya-expects-to-harvest-of-43-million-bags-of-maize), thereby contributing to lowering of prices for maize flour, the uncertainty in weather patterns and food insecurity still hangs over our heads.
The impact of climate change on children’s health and development, fueled by droughts that are causing food and water shortage, thereby increasing cases of malnutrition and water related diseases, cannot continue to be underestimated. Having monitored our micro-data on childcare food and prices over the past year, I know without a doubt that many parents and facilities are unable to provide sufficient and healthy meals for their children. Yet, we all know that scientific studies as noted by UNICEF, underscore the value of children consuming the right balance of nutrients as a foundation for their healthy brain and physical development, all which are crucial for long-term health and productivity (https://www.unicef.org/nutrition/early-childhood-nutrition).
A call to act now and save the lives of our children has, therefore, never been more urgent. And, as we swing to act on climate change for their sake, we must not forget that women being the backbone of our societies’ care system, are bearing the burden of it all. Our climate change actions, therefore, must begin and stop with women.