Graduating from extreme poverty in Kenya

How can Kenya pioneer an ambitious new approach for graduating poor people permanently out of extreme poverty?

Our Experience

Wasafiri has worked in Kenya for a decade. Since 2018, we’ve been working closely with DFID and the Government of Kenya to help develop, test and scale-up more collective and effective approaches for supporting the poorest Kenyans graduate from poverty. Our work has included:

  • Designing and facilitating a national Graduation Conference which secured collective interest and commitment for scaling up graduation from poverty across Kenya from almost 150 senior government representatives, development partners and implementers.
  • Launching an inaugural Working Group on Extreme Poverty designed to facilitate ongoing alignment and coordination between government and development partners.
  • Examining the challenges and opportunities facing rural youth migrating to urban areas in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.
  • Conducting research on poverty in Kenya, designed to inform policy makers and implementers at national and county level. These included defining ultra-poor populations, engaging county representatives and scoping graduation initiatives.

Through our experience, we’ve been informing the policy and programming of development partners such as USAID, the EU and the Gates Foundation, and implementers such as Care and Mercy Corps.

The Challenge

A dizzying array of obstacles stand in the way of reducing poverty. Across East Africa, poor people are bound up in systems defined by issues which seem intractable. The productivity of small-holder farms is low. Relentless population growth is increasing pressures upon weak education systems and limited livelihoods opportunities. Supply chains and markets are poorly integrated. Farmers struggle to access vital services. Urbanisation is changing the outlook and options for migrants as they start at the bottom of the pile in unfamiliar settings. Investment capital is expensive and hard to access. Increasing climate volatility adds more risk. Policy is often not implemented, and corruption is rife. Local grievances can flare into conflict, and vulnerable young people are being lured by the appealing narratives of extremist groups.

Collaboration across sectors is insufficient. With many rural Kenyans dependant upon meagre incomes earned as as smallholder farmers, pastoralists or small-scale urban opportunists, deeply entrenched problems lock many into an inescapable poverty trap. Innumerable institutions exist to tackle such issues, from government departments, county administrations, civil society and faith groups, community organisations and the private sector… but the power to shift these patterns rests in the collective, rather than the few.

Current approaches are not enough for change at scale. The way development organisations are currently working with their counterparts in government is unlikely to deliver change on the scale necessary. It is haphazard and poorly coordinated. New devolved county administrations as well as investors such as the Gates Foundation and the World Bank have strong unilateral agendas. Without a nationally agreed picture for what constitutes success, we should not expect to see impact at a national scale anywhere close to Kenya’s aspiration for its Vision 2030 or its contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals. Resolve is required to work together in new ways towards collective milestones of progress.

Yet we are in an era of emerging optimism. Kenya is broadly stable, and it is steadily increasing national incomes per capita. It leads other African countries when it comes to innovation. Urbanisation and a new middle class are providing attractive domestic markets. Decentralised governance offers greater scope for people centred decision-making. Many indicators in Kenya show positive trends. New technology, policy reform, and businesses are offering new prospects for Kenyans to beat a path out of poverty.

Further, it is a hub for development partners who are investing billions in countless ways, across hundreds of locations. Many donors such as USAID and the UK’s Department for International Development are making important decisions on significant multi-year investments to provide new opportunities for raising incomes and building resilience. There is also cause for optimism arising out of emerging successes of recently established national platforms able to deliver ‘social cash transfers’ for those facing extreme poverty. Stories of innovation and entrepreneurism abound. The signs are encouraging; we at Wasafiri hold great hope that in time, all Kenyans are able to thrive in vibrant local economies, in ways that mean people are less vulnerable to the inevitable shocks that come along the way.

We’ve been working to help develop, test and scale-up more collective and effective approaches for supporting the poorest Kenyans graduate from poverty

The State of System Change

Tackling extreme poverty in Kenya, sustainably and affordably, is an extraordinarily complex endeavour. Here we take a systems-based perspective on the quality of collective efforts to date, and ask ‘What next?’ is necessary to maintain progress.

Building Shared Understanding: Clarity on problems but no agreement on solutions.

Whilst the work of policy makers and practitioners is being driven by myriad interests and agendas, a broad consensus about the nature of the problem appears to be emerging, and steps are slowly being taken to align efforts. In 2015/16, the last time a national analysis was completed, there were over 16 million people classified as the ‘absolute poor’. Of these, 3.9m were considered the ‘extreme poor’, meaning that they struggle with their daily existence. Furthermore, the distribution of poverty varies enormously across counties; from less than 3% in some, to over 50% in others.

However, crucial gaps in knowledge remain; who are the extreme poor, what are the systemic conditions which ave contributed to their poverty, where are the entry points to provide effective support, how can barriers be overcome, what works in scaling up success, how can these be sustainably afforded? We believe that collective efforts to explore questions such as these hold the key to the ambition of sustainable graduation from poverty.

Securing Commitment: Joint ambitions need translating into action.

The Kenyan Government should be lauded for its commitment to providing social welfare to enable its citizens to meet their rights. For example, it is now funding over 50% of the Hunger Safety Nets Programme (HSNP) established by DFID – an initiative to support people living in the Northern arid-lands with cash transfers. Efforts are now underway to roll out programmes such as these to additional counties, and to integrate different forms of social protection (such as pensions or support for vulnerable children) into a coherent framework that makes sense nationally and locally, both to help the right people in the right way and to maximise economies of scale.

But, we we suggested earlier, even this is not enough. Now collective attentions must turn to the question of what to do beyond cash transfers to generate sustainable pathways out of poverty. We believe the time has come to develop some answers, together.

There are already numerous schemes which merit further support; mechanisms exist to coordinate cash transfer services, oversee agricultural investments and deliver rural development programmes. But a mighty challenge remains in leveraging existing efforts, and in ensuring current investment planning not only gathers pace but also coheres into a collective national approach with strong input from County Governments.

Lifting eyes up and beyond the conventional 5-year programming horizon toward 2030, 2035 or even further, could help establish the space and freedom for new forms of collaboration. The current willingness of Government and its development partners must be seized upon to build a more ambitious shared vision for the future.

Changing the Dynamics: Diverse interventions, but what works at scale?

A myriad of initiatives, investments and policy reforms are rapidly evolving the social protection space in Kenya; Investments in infrastructure, women’s empowerment, a new old age pension, mobile ICT, value chain partnerships and many more… all promise positive impacts within a busy landscape.

What is unclear is how to translate this into meaningful impact for poor people at scale. Typical poverty graduation projects reach thousands of people, but initiatives need to reach millions. New jobs are created and training occurs but these efforts are not keeping pace with the numbers of young people entering employment markets each year.

Bold interventions can change the dynamics in the system. For example, the Government recently launched a pension for those over 70 years of age (known as Inua Jamii). This pension provision will draw down on Government funds which will in turn influence other aspects of the social welfare system. For instance, funds might be used by grand-parents to support their children to access higher-quality health care or to help grand-children attend a better school. As the government continues to integrate social welfare recipients into a single National Registry, such effects intended or otherwise, will become apparent.

The best place to move forward may be to work at county level with those having energy for change. Small pilots with a few thousand people are useful, but genuine change requires larger scale implementation that offer real models for county-wide coverage.

It is in this context that the array of new economic and social programmes being commissioned by the World Bank, DFID, Gates, USAID will be launched. Each will have their contributed their own intended and unintended influence upon the system from 2019 and beyond. The question is whether they will encourage change in a similar direction.

Enabling Coordination: Established platforms need to drive collaborative action.

At national level, there are platforms for partners to come together around key issues. The national Social Protection Secretariat leads the Government’s agenda and convenes interested stakeholders. They are committed to finalising the National Social Protection Investment Plan, laying emphasis on which development priorities the sector will support till 2030. Its role is vital, yet the Secretariat themselves recognise that coordination needs strengthening.

As a result, there isn’t a clear sense of what is going on across this landscape, and, unsurprisingly, various initiatives are vying for future funding. The assortment of approaches being proposed will themselves suffer from a lack of coherence, and are likely designed around an organisation’s own interest; food insecurity, nutrition, economic deprivation, economic empowerment of women and so on.

No doubt such issues are important, but a coherent and nationally applied framework for graduation could be a game-changer. With this in mind, the Secretariat intends to map and assess social protection programmes in Kenya’s counties to establish a common directory, and to develop common guidelines & standards of operation. This will be a helpful next step.

Augmenting Learning: Information flows need to reach frontline change-makers.

We see evidence-based learning as vital for evolving and scaling current approaches. To help with this, the Secretariat has plans to develop a Community of Practice (COP) Kenya Chapter to help harness the wealth of knowledge that exists & to strengthen linkages and coordination across various approaches. This builds on other initiatives explicitly designed to promote learning, such as the second national Social Protection Conference held in March 2018.

But more needs to be done, most importantly to cohere the efforts of actors providing social cash transfers with those focused on economic development and poverty reduction. The work is only just beginning in understanding how to graduate poor Kenyans from social welfare programmes, particularly those that are poverty based.

What Next?

So, what should protagonists focus on next? How best to focus on the foundations laid in recent months to build a collective ambition (refer to the Graduating Poverty in Kenya website)? We believe the following offer immediate opportunities to drive progress:

Nobody should be left behind from Kenya’s national growth. The timing is right to consider ‘cash-plus-what’? No poor people wish to survive hand-to-mouth on small cash hand-outs for the long-term. Equally the Government will want to reduce the enduring cost of social welfare. What might a concerted multi-stakeholder approach to supporting graduation across Kenya achieve? What should accompany cash to help families graduate sustainably from poverty?

Recent multi-stakeholder processes must be continued and supported to marshal the agenda, with economic programmes working hand-in-hand to help deliver a social protection graduation agenda.

Both Government and donor-funded programmes must deliver coherent packages of support. These must be evidence-based, and evidence generating, providing full county coverage. Efforts to design and agree the basis for these packages must involve the counties. A package of economic support, based on national principles and agreed at County level, will help ensure coherence and local ownership for resourcing and implementation.

Priority should be building skills and opportunities for young people given the potential demographic and gender dividend. We suggest the geographic focus should start with the ASALs and urban populations.

Value chain partnerships, infrastructure projects, savings and loans groups, business development training, literacy enhancers, and apprenticeships could form the core of graduation packages. It is here that farmers, businesses, government agencies and their partners will find common incentives to actively collaborate.

Coordination will be vital for ensuring adherence to agreed approaches and to avoid overlap. We suggest this should be provided by a well resourced secretariat function (new or existing), informed by thought-leaders empowered with mechanisms to generate and disseminate learning. In our view, this would be co-funded by development partners and situated in Government.

Such a central platform would be well positioned to orchestrate a national learning agenda on graduation that will vary across the country, and to lead a public discourse to amplify the approach through champions, media, political leaders and policy makers

Any national graduation agenda must leverage economic development related policies and programmes. For instance, national businesses can be incentivised to invest in and partner with technical training centres to help develop the ‘business-ready’ skills of young people to boost their employability.

Success of any national graduation programme will boil down to access. Poor households must be able to participate, which will require careful consideration and investment in appropriate communications channels and programmatic platforms.

Tools & Resources

Eradicating Extreme Poverty in West Pokot

Insights into the policy priorities & lessons from the development of Kenya’s first county poverty graduation policy in West Pokot.

Graduation from Poverty in Kenya – Perspectives from Stakeholders

Insights and experiences from stakeholders involved in poverty graduation in Kenya.


Graduation From Poverty National Workshop

Highlights from the national poverty graduation workshop designed to harmonise graduation efforts at scale.


Government and Donor Key Messages

Headlines from Kenya’s Social Protection Secretariat in tackling sustainable economic and social empowerment for the ultra-poor.


Defining and Better Targeting the Ultra-Poor in Kenya

A study produced by Wasafiri designed to strengthen policy making and graduation programming.


Country Scoping West Pokot

A scoping study produced by Wasafiri of socio-economic inclusion efforts for the Working Group on Ultra Poverty in Kenya.


Sustaining Poverty Escapes in Rural Kenya

A report from ODI examining the means for interventions and approaches in Kenya that aim to enable poor households to escape poverty and remain out of it.


SCI Youth migration/ livelihoods study

A review of challenges and opportunities facing youth migrating to urban areas in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.


Related Case Studies

Generation Africa: Grow Entrepreneurs.Transform Food.

New approaches for preventing violent extremism in East Africa

Millions of smallholders reached through private investment

Systemcraft Labs: innovating new approaches for complex problems