Covid-19 in Kenya: did you say resilience?

Saturday June 6, 2020, morning. The excitement roams the streets of Nairobi. For good reason: President Uhuru Kenyatta must detail in a speech scheduled at 11 am the new measures to combat the expansion of Covid-19 in Kenya. Two points are particularly expected: the lifting of the curfew, which has been rhythmic the lives for two and a half months, and the opening of the borders of certain zones like those of Nairobi, closed to the entries and the exits of people since March 27. A prospect bringing hope, in a country where movements between the capital, which concentrates job opportunities, and rural areas where 70% of the population reside, are usually frequent.

11 am: eyes riveted on cell phones or ears stretched towards the radio, the whole of Kenya is impatiently awaiting the announcement. First disappointment, the speech is postponed to 2 p.m. It will not be issued until two and a half hours later.

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A speech necessarily measured

At 4:30 p.m., Uhuru Kenyatta appeared on the steps of State House, the presidential palace. It is an able account that he delivers to a country where the number of positive cases of Covid-19 has passed the 3,000 mark.

“I took the time to think about what needs to be done. If we lift the traffic ban, how will that help us to fight the pandemic? And if we don’t, how will the ban affect our economy, especially microenterprises and those who make a living from it? Begins Kenyatta. And to continue: “I want to open as soon as possible and revive the economy”, before explaining the scientific models built by his team of doctors. Health arguments that made it possible to decide.

Over the course of the speech, the measures fell: gradual resumption of school from 1er September, establishment of an interfaith council to decide on the modalities of reopening places of faith, organization by the Ministry of Transport of meetings with stakeholders in the sector to decide on the resumption within 7 days of internal flights. But extension of the closing of the borders of the counties of Mombasa, Mandera and Nairobi and extension for 30 days of the curfew in force, with however, an easing. From now on, the ban on going out only applies between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. (instead of 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.).

A man wearing a face mask walks past street vendors selling fruit in Nairobi on April 20, 2020.
© SIMON MAINA / AFP

The prudence of Kenyatta’s speech responds to the distrust of public opinion, shaken by the echoes of police violence that have been committed repeatedly in recent weeks in several working-class neighborhoods. At a time when the measures announced impact workers’ lives to varying degrees depending on the sectors in which they work.

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Restoration is gradually resuming for some…

“For us here, nothing has changed,” says Steeve, who runs a kibanda, a street canteen. ” The [il montre le chantier en face], they come every midday, it’s full. You just have to pass by 12:30 to realize this: all the benches are occupied by workers from the neighborhood who have come to eat stew, ugali [farine cuite à l’eau] and sukuma wiki [feuilles de chou] for some 250 Kenyan shillings [environ 2 euros].

This vitality barely conceals a darker reality of everyday life. “Okay, in Kangemi [un bidonville] where I live, people toil, says Steeve while cooking. Besides losing jobs, Kenya is not spared an outbreak of domestic violence. UNWomen is sounding the alarm in its latest report “Covid-19 and the elimination of violence against women and girls”. If the reality is already worrying in Europe, it is growing in communities in Kenya where the sources of income are weakening and where the space is even more desperately short when the schools are closed and the children forced to stay at home.

Since the appearance of the first cases of Covid-19, most families have had financial difficulties. NGOs have mobilized to provide them with the basic necessities, and in particular medical care.
© YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP

At the other end of the chain, Sonia runs a high-end restaurant, which opened in Westlands just a year ago. “At the start of the curfew, I tried home delivery. But I had to stop after three days: it was not tenable, ”she says.

From then on, Sonia is preparing to reopen. “I started the process last week,” she continues cheerfully. But reopening while satisfying all legal constraints is not an easy task. As stipulated in the form sent by the Ministry of Health to restaurateurs on April 24, the measures to be taken are numerous and drastic: display of hygiene awareness panels, provision of alcohol-based disinfectants, at a minimum a person at the entrance to control the temperature of staff and customers; tables should be spaced 1.80m apart; in the kitchen, one meter must separate the preparers … and, above all, the staff must have been tested negative for Covid-19 by a laboratory certified by the government. An approach to be renewed every 14 days. This, when it seems that the tests are lacking… which forces us to turn to private laboratories, where the test costs on average 100 dollars [environ 90 euros].

Kenya has announced the deployment of additional laboratories to increase the number of tests, especially in private companies.
© SIMON MAINA / AFP

These drastic measures imply that, with a few exceptions, only a few big players, like the Java House or ArtCaffé chains, are reopening for the moment. “They benefit from impractical economies of scale for small restaurateurs,” sighs Sonia. Fortunately, the sector is organizing. The EatOut platform, for example, has brought together its fabric of restaurateurs in a WhatsApp group where everyone can share their experience in an informal setting. As for the rent, “the owner has agreed to a deferral of payments,” says Sonia. A real estate challenge, because as soon as the government announced the reopening of restaurants in late April, some owners began to claim their rents, sometimes temporarily frozen.

Simon, a flower seller on a small street in Westlands since 2005, experiences this issue differently.

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… While the flowers are wilting for everyone

Its location right on the street, Simon remunerates it informally to the municipality, whose agents come irregularly to collect their due. In addition, Simon has made an arrangement with the house keepers in front of his stand: he tips them to watch over the flowers when he returns home to Kiambu in the evening.

But for two months, it has been difficult to make ends meet: “Usually people stop by car and buy a bouquet. But now it’s very bad. People are afraid that there will be diseases because the flowers pass through many hands. If his business is evolving in the informal sector, Simon is well aware of the larger ecosystem in which he operates. His flowers, he buys them from a relay man who collects them himself in large farms in Nakuru and Thika. “We sell those that are rejected by Europe,” he says pragmatically.

This flower market, Aldric and Isabelle Spindler, founders of Red Lands Roses, know it by heart. Owners since 1996 of a 28 hectare farm in Ruiru, 35 km north-east of Nairobi, they cultivate with a team of 550 employees more than 200 varieties of roses for international customers. “We specialize in the very high end through direct sales,” says Isabelle. “Russia is by far our first customer; we make around 50% of our turnover there ”, underlines Aldric, who supplies, for example, Agnès b. in Hong Kong as well as other prestigious houses.

Many Kenyan horticulturalists have not exported anything since the first week of March and the first restrictions. Especially since the weddings and funerals have been canceled.
© SIMON MAINA / AFP

For fiscal and demand reasons, horticulture remains an almost exclusively export market. “We are net exporters; if you start selling locally, you lose that status, ”says Isabelle. The floral industry contributes 1.06% to Kenya’s GDP and is also one of the country’s largest job providers, with more than 100,000 direct jobs and around 2 million indirect jobs, according to the Kenya Flower Council.

But the health crisis could unfortunately make these figures obsolete. At their scale, while they produce an average of 50,000 stems per day, Aldric and Isabelle indicate that they produced only half in May. “And still, unlike others, we did not have to face the floods in April. “And to continue:” We held on with the cash reserves we had. At the end of March, we had to put half the staff on a part-time basis, ”says Isabelle. Large farms may also fail to recover. “It is still too early to know,” temper Isabelle and Aldric in unison.

Simon returns to the conclusion: “Valentine’s Day was before the corona… There, I sold well. “Far blessed times. As the roses wither, the pandemic remains contained. But how long can this delicate economic and health balance last?

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