There is no shortage of stories on how Kenya’s wealthy live.
From watches costing well more than half a million shillings to palatial mansions and cars worth tens of millions to travel many dare not dream of, life is very, very good for a few. For these people, obviously, affording food is the smallest of worries.
One survey from Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute showed that the wealthiest fifth of Kenyans spent 16 per cent on food, a figure expected to drop further still for the ultra-wealthy. Meanwhile, the lowest-earning fifth of respondents spent nearly half their income (49 per cent) on nutrition, according to the study published in 2011.
But it is not just the poorest who are living hand to mouth. In 2015, the average household in Kenya spent a total of Sh40,678, data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows.
"My job is not constant and not a guarantee."
The majority of Kenyans spent 44 per cent of their domestic income on food every month as the who-is-who of Kenyan society spent on what they would term extravagance. To put that number in international perspective, the average American spent only 10 per cent of their income on food that year, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
For purposes of calculating inflation in urban areas, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics classifies Kenyans into three groups, namely, upper, middle and lower.
Lower-class households spend less than Sh23,000 a month based on 2005 money, while the middle class spends between Sh23,000 and Sh120,000 each month on food, transport, airtime, entertainment and fashion. The upper class spends more than Sh120,000 a month on domestic expenditures.
David Kang’ethe, a construction worker who lives in Kitengela, Kajiado County, survives from hand to mouth. The 26-year-old once dreamed of becoming an aeronautical engineer but could not afford school fees. He resorted to masonry for survival in a jungle where only the fittest live on.
Unlike wealthier Kenyans, he counts his salary and tries to fix it in a budget to push days through to the end of the month.
"I cannot have three packets of flour in my house and go ahead to add another one until a need arises.”
In a good month, Mr Kang’ethe pockets Sh24,000 from his masonry work. But he is paid per day so he spends the money as it comes to avoid debts he cannot pay in future. “We are paid per a day’s work and I get at least Sh1,000 a day, excluding Sundays,” Mr Kang’ethe says.
“I spend about Sh200 on food daily; Sh50 on breakfast (tea with two mandazis), a Sh100 lunch that comprises a plate of githeri with avocado and another Sh50 supper that is ugali and sukuma wiki.
“A Sh100 packet of maize flour lasts me three days. I buy tomatoes and onions worth Sh200 weekly and Sh100 of airtime every day – what am I left with?” he pondered.
He only eats beef once a week, four times a month. It is not much; at least it costs him Sh100 for a quarter kilogram. He lives alone.
'JOBS GET LOST'
The 26-year old spends Sh100 daily on airtime to call and surf the Internet on his smartphone. That translates to Sh2,800 a month.
Every end-month, he strives to do household shopping worth Sh2,000 and treat himself to a haircut for Sh50. His shopping bag includes things like cooking fat, soap, and toothpaste and body oil.
“I spend according to what I have. I cannot have three packets of flour in my house and go ahead to add another one until a need arises.”
He does not spend any money on fashion and only buys clothes when the occasion calls for it. This allows him to save Sh3,000 to pay rent for his bedsitter, where he cooks, sleeps and entertains his visitors.
Mr Kang’ethe’s form of extravagance is a minimum of Sh4,000 monthly that he spends on alcohol.
He tends to look for casual jobs nearer home to reduce transport costs. “If, for instance, I get a job around Syokimau area I spend Sh100 daily on fare but mostly the one calling you for the job pays or provides transport.”
What he saves, Mr Kang’ethe says, depends on what remains after his monthly expenditures, which is almost nothing. He spends roughly Sh23,000 out of Sh24,000 he gets on a good month.
When a casual contract he normally gets is not forthcoming he is forced to borrow a Sh2,000 loan to push him through the month. “I would wish to save about 50 per cent of what I get but I get myself saving 10 per cent or less, sometimes none…”
“My job is not constant and not a guarantee. Those in formal employment should plan their lives too since jobs get lost and you would need a backup plan in terms of savings,” he said.
He believes county governments should be the solution to poverty, bridging the gap between the rich and poor.
“If you go on your way to Nyeri, the price you pay for a cabbage and potatoes is so cheap you would think someone forgot to do calculations."
As Mr Kang’ethe breaks down his domestic expenditure, the wife of a nominated Member of Parliament says she uses Sh16,000 alone on perishable foods every month and another Sh20,000 on other foods to last them for three months, for a household of three.
She is enrolled in a post-paid platform of Sh3,000 monthly of airtime with another Sh2,000 on Internet expenditure. Fuel costs depend on what car she is driving, she said. But roughly it costs her between Sh10,000 to Sh30,000 a month.
“It could be true that we spend so much on food. I buy a lot of food personally. In a month I could spend about 36,000 on food alone. Perishables include milk, meat, potatoes and sweet potatoes.” She said.
“I save about 40 per cent of my salary monthly.”
When I call businessman Chris Kirubi for an interview, he asks to call me back in a few minutes. At the age of 75, he still wakes up every morning to go to work yet he is not employed.
He, however, insists that he is not extravagant, saying that he spends what he has to spend but looks to retaining as much money as he can because “without saving you can never be anybody, once you spend more than you earn then you have a problem”.
He advises people to put a big saving of about 50 per cent of their domestic income - if they can. This, he says, will enable them to buy things for the future, like property.
He also notes that people are looking to make lots of money by gambling. “This trend will make Kenyans very poor because the only winner in this is the owner of the game. They (owners) are not out there to enrich anybody, they are out there to take money from every single person they can.
Mr Kirubi, who still pulls deejaying stunts at Capital FM, happens not to gamble, even for free. “I wish, for especially poorer Kenyans - they are always dreaming to become rich by gambling there is no free lunch anywhere, anytime, nobody has ever become rich by gambling.”
He said the cost of food has not changed per se but government can work on providing good infrastructure to ease food prices.
“I go with Sh1,000 to Nyeri and I fill my boot with fresh vegetables,” he said. “What we need is transport from sources in the rural areas to people in the cities because food is not expensive and not exploited and I hope government can help those farmers bring stuff to the local market so that people can benefit from cheaper prices.”
“If you go on your way to Nyeri, the price you pay for a cabbage and potatoes is so cheap you would think someone forgot to do calculations. Food is not expensive; it is the lifestyle we lead. What is expensive in this country is the cost of money,” Mr Kirubi said.