Families sweat to buy food amid job losses and a slow economy

Closed shops at City Market in Nairobi. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Millions of Kenyans who have lost hope of makings ends meet as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ruin businesses and disrupt way of life.

  • President Uhuru Kenyatta has painted a picture of a government ready to tackle the pandemic without hurting vulnerable homes that lived from hand to mouth.

The effects of job losses and slowdown of the economy are taking a toll on Kenyans, with parents, particularly in urban centres, struggling to provide food for their families.

For Sarah Auma Owiti, a 54-year-old fishmonger in Kisumu, the Covid-19 pandemic has sunk her hopes after destroying her business and livelihood.

While for the last three decades she had managed to shelter, feed and educate her family comfortably — the Covid-19 crisis has left her bearing the brunt of the Coronavirus pain.

Ms Owiti’s customers have not only thinned but she is slowly sinking into penury and is one of the millions of poor Kenyans thrown into a spin within a span of 30 days.

Ms Owiti is among millions of Kenyans who have lost hope of makings ends meet as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ruin businesses and disrupt way of life.

On March 15, when President Uhuru Kenyatta briefed the country on the third confirmed Covid-19 case, he painted a picture of a government ready to tackle the pandemic without hurting vulnerable homes that lived from hand to mouth.

While the President’s address set in motion a series of plans and promises by his administration — all of which pointed to shielding poor families from suffering throughout the battle against Covid-19 — vulnerable families are now hanging in abeyance as their income continue to dwindle. Compared to the middle-class, the Covid-19 is bringing a disproportionate amount of pain as the unforgiving effects of the coronavirus pandemic takes toll on the poor.

DN body text: The government has been desperate to raise money to plug into the budget holes and had received Sh16 billion from local and international institutions that were looking to help in combating the pandemic and shield the poor.

Desperately, it also diverted travel budgets for civil servants to chalk up at least another Sh15 billion, in addition to other belt tightening moves by government. Last week, President Kenyatta announced that Sh40 billion has been set aside to assist vulnerable homes in urban areas.

But with several businesses either shutting operations or retaining minimal staff on their payrolls, several Kenyans are now suddenly exposed to the possibility of bankruptcy and poverty, with President Kenyatta’s stimulus package being the only chance of surviving through the pandemic period.

Yesterday, senior figures within the Presidency said the government is planning to support vulnerable families by giving them e-wallets (vouchers) which they will use to buy food from suppliers within their localities.

The idea, the official said, is to ensure money continues to circulate within communities, as opposed to involving the government in the logistics of buying and distributing food.

The programme, which is being championed by the private sector, will first be piloted on 20,000 households before it is expanded to 300,000 households in Nairobi. Food supply chains to determine whether families can be fed during a time of restricted movement, like now, are being tested and mapping for other urban centres is ongoing.

According to the source, the Nyumba Kumi structure will be used to identify heads of households, who will receive the vouchers.

Vulnerable families can only hope the programme will soon kick in and reach as many of them as possible in good time.

For James Makai, a 49-year-old kitchen steward, his worry is what his family will eat.

Mr Makai has been a kitchen steward in one of Diani’s finest hotels, but was sent home on unpaid leave. Unable to cope, he has now moved back to his rural Mwingi home and taken up farming.

“I am already facing a precarious situation, as I have not cleared two months’ rent arrears of Sh6,000 and still, I’m yet to figure out where next month’s rent will come from,” he says. “Apart from the rent, I have an unpaid loan of Sh40,000.”

Thousands of Kenyans have lost their jobs after businesses closed shop. Others have been sent on unpaid leave. Those in the informal sector, like Ms Owiti, are recording low sales which cannot sustain their families.

On Monday, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe appealed to employers who sent workers, like Mr Makai, on unpaid leave to at least provide a stipend to enable those at home to put food on the table.

Mr Kagwe’s plea followed reports of several individuals on unpaid leave unable to afford food and rent.

The government has no capacity to address the rent crisis, and thousands of Kenyans now stare at homelessness in the face.

Last month, President Kenyatta urged landlords to reduce rent for tenants, but did not address the issue in regards to any policies that his administration will take — given that most of them have bank loans to pay.

Many of the measures announced so far — tax exemptions for salaried workers, VAT reduction to 14 per cent from 16 per cent, transfer of travel budgets to the emergency response fund — require Parliamentary approval.

A special sitting last week where legislators were to discuss and approve the measures was postponed by speakers Justin Muturi and Ken Lusaka.

Today, the National Assembly will sit on its return from recess, and it is expected that the stimulus package could be discussed.

Elsewhere, Agriculture CS Peter Munya says that government has put in place adequate measures to ensure farmers produce food which will be moved around the country quickly to avoid a shortage.

But as Mr Munya’s statement sounds attractive, food prices in counties like Mombasa, parts of Nairobi and Kiambu have already shot up.

Elsewhere, food business that sustained many families are getting a direct hit.