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Posted on September 25, 2020

Njoroge’s story: How Kenya’s informal economy is struggling in the shadow of COVID-19 and graft

After several years of “hustling,” my friend Njoroge saved money enough to construct his own little fruit shack in the Hurlingham suburb of Nairobi.  He painted his kiosk orange and green colours to give it a tropical feel and was always ready with an easy smile for his local and expat customers in the fairly affluent suburb. He himself lived right across the city, in the lower income suburb of Kayole with his wife and newly born daughter. Every day, the 32-year-old woke up and walked 18 kilometres to his small business, saving every shilling he could. He lived frugally to ensure there was always food on the table and money for his daughter’s clinic visits, and at the back of his mind he kept devising ways in which he could expand his business.

One Friday morning in April 2020, as Kenya was ramping up its COVID-19 response, Njoroge was in his kiosk as usual, tending to his clients, when Nairobi City Council askaris (local government police) arrived at his postern. They asked him a series of rapid questions, asking for his trading licence and lease for use of the city council land on which his kiosk stood. He did not have the documents. He had started the licencing process but got delayed when government offices closed as part of the citywide lock down. Before he could stammer out an explanation, the askaris whipped out their batons and smashed his beautifully arranged assortment of fruits. He knew if he had some bribe money, they would have let him be.

Njoroge sat down despondently as they walked across the street to their car. He looked around him, his facemask below his chin, and looked despairing at his wasted stock of fruits. He raised his head to the screech of a police hatchback braking right in front of his kiosk. Two officers swung out and demanded why he was wearing his face mask wrong. He quickly pulled it over his nose and mouth and pleaded for clemency. Before he knew it, he was being hoisted onto the back of the police car. He tried to plead for understanding but one officer grunted out that he needed to pay Kshs 2,000 (about US$ 20) or face charges in court. When he explained that he had no money they sarcastically reminded him that he could borrow the money from M-Shwari right from his mobile phone. Unfortunately, he had maxed out his credit line with M-Shwari and could not borrow any more. And being a Friday, he faced the prospect of spending the entire weekend in the police cells, without his family knowing where he was, and await arraignment three days later on Monday.

Suddenly, something snapped inside Njoroge. An incredible flash of anger washed over him and he no longer felt at the mercy of the officers. He began to rant, castigating the two officers for oppressing poor people who were only trying to survive. He spoke about his family and what had happened to his kiosk. He dared the officers to kill him, saying he was ready to die rather than continue living in constant fear of his own country’s security agencies.

To Njoroge’s surprise, his bitter monologue touched a string in the hearts of the police officers. They were quiet the whole while. They then parked the car on the side of the road and the officer on the passenger side stepped out and opened the door for him. Without holding eye contact, the officer asked Njoroge to “just go.” Njoroge stepped out, bewildered. In the officer’s now mellow voice he discerned a strangely mutual recognition. It seems that they, too, feel the yoke of COVID-19, just as humanly as I do, he thought. Perhaps they had only resorted to squeezing money from ordinary citizens to care for their families.

As Njoroge began his long trek back home to Kayole, he pondered what seemed like the end of the road for his fruit business. He sighed as he recollected his extraordinary day, and wondered when things would be back to normal—and realised he had no idea when how “soon” any normalcy would return, considering that not even scientists or the government had a full sense of the novel coronavirus. He momentarily thought of his wife and daughter. Instinctively, his mind began mulling the next ‘hustle’ he could start to make ends meet, at least for their sake.

Njoroge’s story illustrates just how low-income Kenyans in the informal sector are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) estimates that 83.6% of Kenyans are employed in the country’s large informal sector. Informal businesses have this year suffered in the shadow of COVID-19. Curfews, containment, and other government efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus have affected the informal businesses.

Fortunately, one of the most enduring attributes that low-income earning Kenyans are known for is the “hustle culture,” an inclination to make the best of generative possibilities that emerge in the course of everyday life. As he trudged homeward, Njoroge’s his mind was actively thinking up ways to craft a new future, embodying the spirit of Kenya’s “hustle culture.” A culture borne out of a longstanding struggle to survive in a largely informal economy.

Rebeka Etuku is Office Administrator at FSD Kenya.