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Briefing: Five ideas on how to ease the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns in Kenya

‘Mutual aid is a form of political participation, where people take responsibility for caring for one another.’

People queuing for public transport in downtown Nairobi Njeri Mwangi/REUTERS
People queuing for public transport in downtown Nairobi ahead of the 7pm curfew. One impact of the government's measures is that there are fewer private buses on the streets and they have been ordered to carry fewer passengers.

Africa was one of the last regions to register a confirmed coronavirus case, but COVID-19 is now spreading fast. There have so far been more than 9,400 confirmed cases in 52 countries, with no sign yet of a slow down.

Governments initially responded with travel bans and flight restrictions. As coronavirus cases have climbed, most African countries have implemented social distancing measures – including lockdowns and curfews – to try and contain the secondary spread within communities.

But in cities like Nairobi, two-thirds of the 4.4 million people are crammed into informal settlements that lack basic services, and entire families can live in a single room.

“Social distancing, as described in the public policy provisions, doesn’t work for overcrowded informal settlements,” Irungu Houghton, executive director of Amnesty International Kenya, told The New Humanitarian.

The informal sector provides jobs and incomes for the majority of African citizens, but these small-scale entrepreneurs need to work to eat. Social distancing measures are beginning to close businesses; strict dusk-to-dawn curfews are narrowing the working day; and supply networks for food and goods are being disrupted.

At the same time, heavy-handed policing to enforce lockdowns – seen in viral videos from Congo to South Africa – is stoking public anger. In the Kenyan town of Eldoret, crowds took to the streets on 29 March to defy the 7pm curfew and protest that they could no longer make a living. 

Is there another way? This briefing looks at five ideas being touted in Kenya that could help ease the economic disruption of lockdowns.

Free water

Most urban informal settlements in Kenya do not have proper access to public water and electricity. Instead, residents often must pay a fee to criminal “cartels” that control access.

“You can’t base your strategy on washing hands if you don’t have regular supplies of water,” said Amnesty’s Houghton.

In Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum of 250,000 people, only a third of households have access to in-house piped water. Everyone else must fork out roughly 10 US cents for a 20-litre jerry can. 

Sphere standards, the common humanitarian guidelines for emergencies, recommends a daily minimum of 20 litres per person. The average family size in Kenya is just over four people, so a typical Kibera household would pay 40 cents per day just for water. 

“You can’t base your strategy on washing hands if you don’t have regular supplies of water.”

When average monthly earnings are only $22 – 70 cents daily – that means half of all income goes towards water.

Amnesty International Kenya and 15 other human rights and community organisations have called for a moratorium on water and electricity charges to the public utilities, and removing a ban on rainwater harvesting in Nairobi’s urban slums. 

Alternative currencies

Governments can respond to the fiscal devastation of COVID-19 by broad stimulus packages to boost the economy or cash transfers directly to the people

Kenya, like most African countries, has existing social protection programmes in place that can be scaled up, and aid organisations based here have a good deal of experience running cash transfer schemes

Economist David Ndii has suggested an alternative – a targeted “lifeline fund” to protect jobs.

A more radical approach involves “community currencies”. They allow a network of micro-businesses to exchange local goods and services using digital vouchers when the official currency is scarce. An old idea – used, for example, during the Great Depression in the US in 1929 – it injects credit into the system based on the value of the network’s assets.

Sarafu-Credit, a blockchain-backed system of community currencies, is in circulation in six low-income neighbourhoods in Kenya, supplementing the official currency. 

The Kenya Red Cross Society is using the currencies to support local economies. They create a more lasting impact than direct cash transfers by helping build businesses in the communities, according to Asha Mohammed, secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross.

Antony Ngoka of Grassroots Economics, the non-profit foundation behind Sarafu-Credit, told TNH that the number of transactions has shot up in the past couple of weeks with many new users scrambling to register as the formal economy contracts.

Mutual aid

Kenya’s economy was already in trouble before the coronavirus, and that may impact the speed of the government’s response. COVID-19 is also limiting the reach and work of established NGOs and aid agencies. So, rather than waiting for help to come, local mutual aid initiatives are stepping forward – providing informal, voluntary support to those in need.

Suhayl Omar and Wevyn Muganda of Mutual Aid Kenya, a grassroots disaster relief organisation, are using community-based groups in Nairobi and Mombasa – Kenya’s second largest city – to identify at-risk households. They then collect mobile money contributions from Kenyans to buy and distribute flour, beans, and soap in bulk in both cities.

Omar, a journalist and student, said he took inspiration from neighbourhood initiatives he saw in the United States, and believed it was possible to implement the same community self-help approach in Kenya.

“Mutual aid is a form of political participation, where people take responsibility for caring for one another,” he told TNH. “We don’t have to wait on anyone.”

Other organisations that normally work in informal settlements have also readjusted to become channels for mutual aid. Ghetto Foundation is a community-based group in Mathare, a Nairobi shanty neighborhood, that supports at-risk youth. 

Capitalising on the group’s deep knowledge of the community, programme manager Daniel Wainaina said that members have been able to identify the most vulnerable – the disabled, precariously employed, and ill – and send $20 directly to them via mobile money.

Religious organisations have always been active in crises. Zakat Kenya, for example, is organising food drives, where supplies can be dropped off to local mosques throughout Nairobi. Contributions can also be made via mobile money.

Community-led messaging

The Kenyan NGO LVCT Health normally offers services for HIV prevention, testing, and care. Over the years, it has developed a strong network of mentors and peer educators made up of trusted individuals within key at-risk communities – such as sex workers, men who have sex with men, and injecting drug users.

“While people know there is a dangerous disease out there, the basic information is missing.”

In the COVID-19 crisis, these networks – built to promote accurate information about HIV/AIDS – have shifted gears to battle coronavirus misinformation through door-to-door advocacy and, in a nod to social distancing, small peer-to-peer groups.

“While people know there is a dangerous disease out there, the basic information is missing,” said Onesmus Musau of LVCT Health. “What works for the community, in my view, is face-to-face communication, where you’re discussing and they’re allowed to ask questions.”

A focus of LVCT’s work, in partnership with the government, is getting information out to Kenya’s robust network of community health workers. Community volunteers are a key part of healthcare systems in many African countries and played a crucial role in the West African Ebola epidemic, for instance, doing the groundwork for community surveillance and contact tracing.

Leaving the cities

A common coping strategy for some urban residents – typically employed at election time, when the threat of violence looms – is to leave the city and travel to rural ancestral homes. Such locations are not only less prone to political and social instability but also cheaper.

“The informal sector has cratered,” economist Ndii told TNH. “The extended family is our informal welfare system.”

But heading to “shags” risks carrying coronavirus to rural areas, which have more fragile, under-resourced healthcare centres than the cities. For that reason, Kenya’s Council of Governors has urged urban Kenyans to stay put.

Jerotich Seii, a humanitarian and development consultant, says the government’s approach is oppressive. “People came to the cities to find work, that work has gone,” she told TNH. “The government should facilitate those that want to travel [back] by providing appropriate, free medical screening. Restrict those not fit to travel rather than a blanket ban.”


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