By Marion Gachuhi

Hannah Wambui wears a mask and keeps a social distance from her customers as per the government’s orders

On March 25, 2020, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared a nationwide 7:00 pm – 5:00 am curfew effective as of March 27, 2020. This very same evening, our local supermarket, Naivas, was thronged with people, clearing the shelves off basic necessities. Long-life milk, flour, cereals, tissues, cooking oil, soaps, hand-wash, sanitizers etcetera. The same happened till late in the evening the following day, Thursday, but on Friday, the streets were empty, as if rapture had occurred, by 6:00 pm. It was silent, all shops were closed and the police were manning the streets.

Cessation of movement

On April 6, 2020, the president declared the progressive cessation of movement as of 7:00 pm in and out of Nairobi, and Mombasa, Kwale and Kilifi counties as of April 8, which had the highest records of COVID-19 in the country for 21 days. There was a confusion among people as most did not understand the meaning of the phrase ‘cessation of movement’ and thought of it as a lockdown. The kind of lockdown they watched on TV in countries like Italy and France and therefore, so most people were in panic mode. Many travelled that very same day, most moving to upcountry, where they deemed as safe from COVID-19, causing heavy traffic.

Due to everyone’s rush to stock up, our local supermarkets gained a lot of profit within a short time span. In order to get products available and quicker and to avoid long queues, my family went for shopping very early in morning, since curfew almost caught up with us before as we waited in the queues – it was hectic.

The huge movement of people from Nairobi also a meant a decrease in customer base. Several businesses in my community were hit hard.  First, it was the transport sector. Not many people were around and those who were present either used private means of transportation or rarely left their houses. Despite suddenly losing customers, the government’s directive of mandatory social distancing in Personal Service Vehicles (PSV) meant a decrease in profits per trip. To compensate on this, the matatus in my area hiked their fares and people were not that happy about it, complaining that their businesses were going on losses as well which made them unable to keep up with hiked fares. It was all about survival of the fittest. Simon Karanja and wife Catherine own matatus and their business got negatively affected. Catherine Karanja said, “Our customer base went down since many people were either laid off, had their businesses shut down, worked from home or had moved to reside in rural areas. People also preferred walking to using matatus on short distances. Due to social distancing, we had to hike the fare but reduced it later on since people complained. Fuel prices did not lower and neither did police officers desist from demanding for their ‘daily cut’.”

Since many people shifted to upcountry, Annastacia Njoroge, a landlady, lost many of her tenants. She said, “Most of my tenants went to live in their rural homes because they couldn’t afford rent and those who remained pay their rent in instalments. Also, getting new tenants is hard because most businesses are incurring losses.” Jedidah Wachuka, a university administrator said, “COVID-19 forced us to work from home but around fifty people were laid off. Enrolment has decrease while deferment has increased. Since I’m physically needed in the office only once or twice a week, I’ve managed to invest in my side hustles and projects.”

The beauty and fashion shops suffered huge losses to a point in which some owners even temporarily shut down their shops. Most women bought food instead of make-up; most did not even apply it. With rarely leaving the house and always wearing masks in public, most women resorted to keeping a natural look not only on their faces but also on their hair. Winnie Chege said, “I watched YouTube tutorials on how to manage my natural hair and had to buy expensive products. While I was keeping safe, I was draining my pockets. I stopped applying makeup as well since I asked myself, is it me or is it my mask that’s wearing makeup? Vaseline petroleum jelly became my best friend.”

Therefore, salons increasingly lost customers. People were scared of getting their hair done in salons as it could be a means to contract the virus. Peninah Macharia, a hair salon owner said, “COVID-19 greatly affected my business since many stopped coming in. I was also afraid to do anyone’s hair for the fear of contracting the virus from the customers. Some customers opted to wearing wigs while others shaved.”

Barber shops were not spared either. Since hair clippers are shared among customers, most people avoided going to get their hair cut. It looked like a ‘No-Shave November’ way before even midyear reached. My father actually bought himself a hair clipper and we had to learn how to cut his and our brother’s hair. Some mistakes happened at the onset but we got a hang of it with time. Naftali Mwangi, owner of Naf Master’s Barbershop said, “We lost a lot of clients due to corona consequently getting lower income. We are even struggling to pay for electricity bills. The curfew has also reduced our customer base since some prefer coming in the evening. Some clients actually bought their own hair clippers and hire us to go cut their hair in their homes. Currently,  four customers come in, in a day or none at all.”

Since not many were printing documents or dining out, cyber cafés and restaurants in my area had a tough time keeping up. Priscilla Wangeci, a printing services business owner said, “Most of my printing customers are students, teachers and government employees and since schools were closed, printing suffered huge losses.” A restaurant named Tripple N had to shut down and lay off some of its employees. Social distancing was not an option either due to its small space and food delivery could not thrive since many did not trust food they did not prepare themselves.

Hannah Wambui works in a farmers’ market and sells food such as tomatoes, onions, carrots etcetera. She said, “The number of customers reduced drastically because many businesses sustained losses. Also, the cash flow went low and people were scared of contracting coronavirus. In as much as my products were purchased, it happened at a very slow pace. Sometimes I couldn’t even open my shop.”

Albert Sibweche has also had losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. He sells chicken to restaurants and when they got shut down, their demand for chicken went low. He said, “The restaurant shut-down happened abruptly yet we had a huge stock. We had to reduce the price of one chicken from Kshs. 400 to Ksh. 150 and even advertised on Facebook. However, the price of supplies for the maintenance of chicken did not budge and we sustained huge losses but we are striving to recover.”

However, some business thrived while some made over 50% in profits. An estimate of around 80% of those in my community are home owners. Since most spent their time in their homes, most got the urge of making their houses look more like homes. Construction, plumbing and electrician services boomed as some finished up on their building projects as others began building new ones. In my community, we tend to source for products and services amongst ourselves hence those in the construction business among us gained a lot of revenue for all the contracts they got. James Njoroge, a contractor said, “Some people had their homes built during this pandemic because they had a lot of time on their hands. However, we didn’t get in as much profits as we normally would when COVID-19 did not exist.” 

Dan Mwenda, who owns a hardware and plumping company gained huge profits. He said, “I got a lot of contracts this year and made 100% in profits. People who usually spend their time at work were now spending their time at home and invested in finishing the construction of their homes. Some who were tenants but had land elsewhere, resorted to building their new homes in a rush so as to stop paying rent. My business has expanded tremendously and I even bought two cars; one is a pick-up for my company. This has been my best year economically, so far.”

Not leaving the house meant either working from home or a lot of entertainment. Priscilla Wangeci also owns a famous movie-shop that had a lot of customers. Curtis Kilonzi often dropped his flash disk before heading to work, with a list of movies he wanted then picked it up after work. “My movie shop made 70% in profits since many people were idle and had a lot of time to watch movies,” said Wangeci.

Some neighbours invested their time and money in local tourism like visiting the Nairobi national park, tagging photographers along. Victor Emmanuel, who owns a catering and photography business said, ““Despite my catering business making around 80% in losses, my photography business thrived in indoors family portraits and outdoors like at the Nairobi National Park. In catering, clients would hire me to teach them how to make certain meals in their homes.”

Huge losses

At the moment, with eased restrictions, the businesses in my community that incurred huge losses are getting back in business. With COVID-19 being the new normal, wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands frequently and using sanitizers is the norm in all businesses. More people are purchasing other products not deemed as basic necessities such as an expensive dinner dress. As we strive to maintain and better our sources of income, we have to always be careful on how interact with each other.

George Munga, an accountant said, “Many sectors have been negatively affected. Hotels are now serving A la carte and doing away with buffets. The entertainment industry and event planners moved online but aren’t making as much; look at ‘Churchill Show’ for instance. Safaricom made a Ksh. 9 billion loss within six months, in revenue after foregoing MPESA money transfer charges of Ksh 1,000 and below. Banks were also not charging money transfers between mobile wallets and bank accounts. Reduction of income tax by 5 percent has led to a loss of 65 billion government’s revenue. We saw a rise in unemployment and plummeting of businesses. The Kenyan currency has gone to a high of Kshs 111 against US dollar, which hasn’t happened in a very long time, making imports very expensive. Before COVID-19, it was Ksh. 102. Fuel prices have shot up, the stock market is not doing well and real estate as well. COVID has taught us that hygiene is at the core. By maintaining it, we have been avoiding bacterial diseases that would cost us a lot of money, drastically. Manufacturing sectors that produce masks, face guards and sanitizers have made huge profits. In as much as some sectors have benefitted economically from COVID-19, they haven’t managed to improve the country’s economy since the ones that are suffering losses are overwhelming.

COVID-19 has enlightened my community in terms of which businesses can thrive better at any given time or circumstance and which can be affected very easily. It has basically made us economically intelligent.

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