We were huddled in a routine team discussion at FSD Kenya when we received news of the first confirmed Covid-19 case in Kenya. Like many others, we wondered what this might mean for our work, our families and our country in the days ahead. We also began thinking about how we could help our communities through the uncertainty and how the financial sector can help navigate these challenging times.
The government has been proactive in learning from the experiences of other countries in preventing the transmission of the virus and mitigating the impacts on households and businesses. Examples include:
- The Ministry of Health’s initial communication confirming the first case and subsequent information on identifying, quarantining, and testing those in contact.
- The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) press release with a cautionary notice on illegal price increases and hoarding that could “attract a penalty of 10% of the respective turnover”.
- The Insurance Regulatory Authority (IRA) engagement with the insurance industry to assure the public that the “insurance companies will continue to provide their services to policyholders affected or infected by the virus”.
- The President’s decision to institute new containment and treatment protocols including appeals to the financial sector to encourage the use of digital finance.
These laudable moves by the government will be even more effective if followed by appropriate supervision and implementation to ensure adherence such as the recent action by CAK to require Cleanshelf to refund customers overcharged for hand sanitiser.
We are also impressed by the actions taken by many private sector players. The Kenya Banker’s Association, the Kenya Association of Manufacturing and others are sending public service announcements across social media and other platforms. Payment service providers like PesaLink have instituted business continuity measures to ensure that transactions can be authorised remotely through secure channels in case of closure of their physical office. Health insurance support organisation, CarePay, has split its team into two, alternating their presence in the office so that if one team is exposed to the virus, the other can continue operating. And the latest news we received was that following a meeting convened by the Central Bank of Kenya, Safaricom has just waived fees for transactions below KShs 1000 and increased daily transaction limits to KShs 150,000. Other measures announced by the Central Bank of Kenya include the elimination of charges for transfers between mobile money wallets and bank accounts.
At FSD Kenya, we are supporting these efforts by telecommuting this week, cancelling all travel and participation in events. We will determine how long these efforts will be in place, based on advice from government and unfolding developments. As we discussed the implications, a top concern is for those most vulnerable among us, such as the elderly, those with pre-existing medical conditions, and those without the financial resources or transportation to access necessary healthcare. We can all do our part to support these vulnerable groups within our own circles.
We are also worried for the majority of Kenyans without stable incomes and are most likely to feel the economic impact of this pandemic. These include micro, small and medium enterprises, casual labourers who are paid daily based on need, salaried staff who may be laid off or sent home on leave without pay, and dependents who rely on the benevolent support from their social networks. We started thinking about how we can personally support these vulnerable groups. For example, keep buying from our local Mama Mboga even if the supply isn’t as good as usual, paying domestic staff even if they are unable to come to work, or pre-paying for future lunches while working remotely to help these restaurants have some liquidity to stay afloat.
And since FSD Kenya is all about supporting the financial sector to play its essential role in the economy, we generated ideas for how our financial sector could live up to its own social contract during these challenging times. Here are some of the questions we considered:
- In addition to the fees already reduced from some payment service providers, could the government consider a temporary removal of the 20% tax on digital payment transactions to encourage the switch from cash to digital? Could the government reduce digital economy taxes to boost e-commerce and remote delivery of goods and services?
- Could more financial service providers reduce costs to ease the burden on both merchants and consumers and encourage the switch to digital and remote payments and banking services? (Learn how switching to digital already saves money in our Cost of Banking report).
- Could the Ministry of Labour use its communication channels with the older population through Inua Jamii to provide this higher-risk group specialised guidance on prevention and treatment?
- Could credit providers consider temporary suspensions of interest, repayment delays or rescheduling in line with the needs of businesses and individuals considering downturns?
- Could credit providers provide emergency liquidity facilities for sectors (like tourism) that are more likely to be impacted to help them manage this crisis?
- How can healthcare providers and transporters embed financial solutions to enable vulnerable populations to access care?
- How could the financial sector provide financing to help key sectors operate in this new environment such as schools needing to adopt on-line platforms or businesses needing to develop delivery capability?
- How can insurance providers and others help the vulnerable manage risks including farmers who need to be planting this season with the onset of the rains?
- Other countries have made policy decision to ease credit market including Italy’s decisions to suspend mortgage payments and the US decision to reduce interest rates. What steps could Kenya take to help enable the financial sector provide liquidity and risk solutions such as those outlined above?
- How can informal financial mechanisms such as chamas and harambees leverage digital tools and payments to continue?
None of us knows how long this period of uncertainty will last or how significantly it will impact Kenya’s economy. However, we are confident that there are opportunities for inclusive finance to demonstrate its capacity to help households and businesses manage day to day, deal with risk and even invest in the future. We would love to hear your ideas for how we can achieve this in Kenya!
As I close, let me quote former US President Barack Obama reminding us of our responsibility to protect ourselves and our communities from Covid-19: “Wash your hands, stay home when sick and listen to the…health authorities. Let’s stay calm, listen to the experts, and follow the science.”
Tamara Cook is CEO of FSD Kenya.