Adapting to COVID-19: Stories from Kenya

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a public health emergency, but also a major threat to the African economies. While the virus itself has been slower to impact Africa than other parts of the world, the drastic declines in global trade and travel — combined with measures like quarantines aimed at preventing the virus’ spread — are significantly impacting economies and well-being across the continent.

Partial or total lockdown of economies during the pandemic may reduce Africa’s projected GDP growth in 2020 from the projected 3.2% to 1.8%, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). It will also result in unemployment of many Africans.

In Kenya, the partial lockdown and restrictions in movement, which were put in place at the beginning of the pandemic, have resulted in the disruption of the various sectors of the economy, including tourism, agriculture, transport, and the entertainment industry. According to the ONE Africa COVID-19 Tracker at least 130,000 formal jobs have been lost, while 500,000 workers have been put on unpaid leave.

Kenya is one of the seven African countries that have reported more than 30,000 COVID-19 cases, having seen a steady rise in infections over the past month with over 500 fatalities to date. The country has 259 ventilators, 1 for every 206,000 people, as of October, according to the ONE Africa COVID-19 Tracker.

During a national address on the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta remarked, “Our economic health as a country is ultimately tied to keeping our infections and fatalities as low as possible. There will be little tourism, scarce investment and falling trade if our headlines start to match those of countries that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.”

COVID-19 has unexpectedly affected the lives and livelihoods of all Kenyans. Here are five stories that give a snapshot of COVID-19’s impact.


Avido, fashion designer, Kibera, Nairobi county

Renowned Kibera-based fashion designer David Ochieng, popularly known as Avido, is renowned for his wax-print bomber jackets. He got his big break in June 2019, after being featured in the Black Parade Route, a new initiative by Beyonce Knowles to support Black-owned small businesses by featuring their catalogs on her website. As soon as the pandemic started, Avido saw a big dip in his business.

Avido was born and raised by a single mother in Kibera, Kenya’s largest informal settlement located 6 km from Nairobi’s capital. The challenges in Kibera mirror other big informal settlements or slums in the world, dotted with tin-shacks and home to over 70% unemployed young residents, with no access to electricity, clean piped water, and proper sanitation facilities.

Avido is passionate about empowering his community in Kibera, which is why he decided to produce and distribute thousands of masks for free in Kibera during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I decided to do something to help my community during this difficult time. My business of designing and selling clothes for social events has been affected by the pandemic, but I am glad that I am able to do something instead that can guarantee employment and provide protective gear for free to my community in Kibera,” he said.

According to Avido, most of Kibera’s residents work in the informal sector and are unable to afford a mask (retailing at $0.50) with their daily earnings of between $3-5. “With my mask distribution campaign, I provide employment to the youth and women who help with the design and stitching of the masks.”

His 12-person team helps him to cut and stitch masks, made with fabric he had collected in his four-room shop over the years. He has managed to secure additional funding through donations to buy more fabric and elastic and to pay his team.


Samuel, Safi organics, Mwea County

Samuel Rigu is a young entrepreneur based in Mwea County. In 2013, Rigu co-founded Safi Organics, a low-cost fertilizer company that makes organic fertilizers from farm harvest waste such as rice husks. Safi organics fertilizer is affordable and designed to improve yields for rural farmers by up to 30%.

Since April, Samuel has been incurring huge losses as a result of the locust infestation that ravaged East African farms and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further disrupted trade and farming, including efforts to protect crops from the locusts.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced our fertilizer sales,” Rigu explains. “Most of our customers who are farming vegetables and herbs for the export market have suspended their operations due to the travel restrictions limiting the transport of cargo to Europe. We have experienced a 40% decrease in sales. Before COVID-19 we sold over $10,000 monthly.”

Following the lifting of travel restrictions to Nairobi in late July, farmers have been able to transport their food produce to local markets, and are beginning to see an increase in sales. Despite the uncertainty about the pandemic, Rigu is optimistic that the future holds a silver lining: sales had picked up to $60,000 by August.


Lilian, cleaner, Kibera, Nairobi County

For Lilian Ochieng, a mother of four who lives in Kianda in Kibera, COVID-19 has made life more difficult. Before the pandemic, Lillian used to work as a cleaner in Langata, a posh estate that neighbours the Kibera slums.

“My employers have been confined to their houses since the pandemic started. I used to clean their houses, but now my services have been reduced to just washing clothes for them, and this is done outside the house. Whenever I visit their houses, they consider me a risk for spreading the coronavirus,” says Lillian.

With the rise of infection rates, most of her clients have stopped giving her work or have since reduced her pay due to the tough economic times caused by job losses and pay cuts.

“Before the pandemic, I used to earn more than $6 daily. I am now unable to make even $3 a day. It is difficult for me to feed my family,” she says.

The Kenyan government is using direct distribution and cash transfers and is piloting an innovative programme. But the programmes depend on state-level implementation, and capacity varies significantly, leading to inconsistent approaches. Not all cash transfer programmes reach the people they need to for lockdowns to work.

Lillian is faced with another challenge: With schools closed, she has no one to watch her school-aged kids when she leaves the house to look for work. Her four children are among the 15.3 million Kenyan children affected by the school closures since March 2020.


George Were, farmer, Kitengela, Kenya

George Were is well known for his organic chicken farm and the vegetable haven that he has created at his home in Kitengela, located over 30 km from Nairobi. Currently, he raises over 500 indegenous birds in his farm.

But since the start of the pandemic, he has witnessed a 50% decline in sales of chicken and eggs from his farm, as most of the bars, eateries, schools, and catering companies he used to supply have closed.

In an address to the nation on 26 August, President Kenyatta extended the closure of bars for another 30 days and ordered that restaurants close by 8pm.

“This extended closure means that I will still not be able to supply my chicken to restaurants and pubs,” Were explains. “The price of maize and chicken feeds has also gone up since the pandemic due to the maize shortage brought about by high transport costs incurred by farmers since the pandemic.”

“I have been forced to pass on the extra operating costs to my customers. Before the pandemic, we would sell dressed birds at $12 per bird, now we sell each bird at $15, which is expensive for my customers,” he adds. Food inflation in Kenya currently stands at 5.4%, and was as high as 8.2% over the summer. A deficit in maize is being bridged by imports from Uganda.But since the end of April,COVID-19  tests for drivers can lead to up to 30km queue for lorries at the border.

“The pandemic has forced me to change my business strategy. I now sell chicken and eggs directly to families because most people are operating from home and are unable to visit eateries,” Were explains.


Anyiko, publicist and events organiser, Nairobi County

Anyiko Owoko is a celebrated figure in East African entertainment and  Music.  She has managed the public relations of major events such as Coke Studio Africa and artists such as Yemi Alade from Nigeria, Sauti Sol from Kenya, and many more.

Prior to the crisis, Owoko’s Nairobi-based business, Anyiko Public Relations, was thriving and overrun with bookings of events and PR campaigns for artists. But the ongoing events ban and curfew in Kenya has greatly impacted her business.

“We can’t host listening parties, press conferences, and album launches and concerts. That is a big hit to the entertainment industry, which employs many young people. Many creatives work in the sector or the Jua Kali sector, which is the primary economic engine in Kenya as it employs over 70% of the country’s labour force,” she says.

As the virus continues to spread, artists are now adapting to a new way of working virtually as they conduct social parties on their social media pages. This further impacts Anyiko’s ability to make a living in her profession, in a country which has already seen more than 130,000 formal jobs have been lost, while 500,000 workers have been put on unpaid leave.