Kenya launched an ambitious plan dubbed Kazi Mtaani in early June that sought to shield thousands of jobless young people from the biting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
State Department of Housing and Urban Development Principal Secretary Charles Hinga said the Sh10 billion ($100 million) programme targeted 270,000 Kenyans, in a country with about 14 million unemployed youths, according to the 2019 census data. Each beneficiary of the project would earn a daily wage of Sh455 ($4.55) and would be engaged in community and infrastructure development projects.
Each beneficiary of the project would earn a daily wage of Sh455 ($4.55) and would be engaged in community and infrastructure development projects.
In the early stages of the pandemic, on 25 March, President Uhuru Kenyatta said he “recognise[d] the anxiety that th[e] pandemic ha[d] caused millions of Kenyan families … with the possibility of job losses and loss of income weighing heavily on their minds”. He announced a reduction of Value Added Tax to 14% from 16% and corporation tax from 30% to 25% and also declared 100% tax relief for individuals with a monthly income of less than Sh24,000 ($240).
Michael Okoth, 33, from Dandora slums in Nairobi, told Africa in Fact that he lost his job as a school bus driver when coronavirus struck, and the Sh2,275 ($22.75) payment from a Kazi Mtaani job, which he receives through his mobile phone weekly, had helped him to cover his family’s daily expenses. “Between April and June, my family and I really struggled to survive and we even [went] without food for a day or two,” says Okoth. Now, the father of two says, he can afford to pay rent, buy food for his family and cater for other basic needs.
But as the pandemic has raged across the globe, many other Kenyans who have endured months under various forms of social restriction have not benefited from the scheme. On 5 August, hundreds of youths from Uasin Gishu in Rift Valley demonstrated, claiming that money meant for their wages was being diverted to other activities by unnamed senior government officials.
The Sh2,275 ($22.75) payment from a Kazi Mtaani job, which he receives through his mobile phone weekly, had helped him to cover his family’s daily expenses.
Joyce Kipchirchir, 27, from Nyathiru on the outskirts of the town of Eldoret in the Rift Valley, who got a job under the Kazi Mtaani scheme, told Africa In Fact in a phone interview that she had been paid Sh1,365 for 11 days worked, rather than the Sh5,005 that she should have been paid. “We suspect someone is taking advantage of our misfortune,” she said.
On 23 July, youths employed under the Kazi Mtaani programme in Kikuyu, Kiambu County, protested over delayed and low payments. The region’s assistant county commissioner. Rosemary Mwangi, said the issue had been escalated to the relevant county administrators for action. A week later, on 30 July, another protest was held in Nyeri County over the same issue.
Responding to the queries on 5 August, Hinga said that all Kazi Mtaani employees were being paid a standard amount of Sh455 per day, and those who had received Sh1,365 ($13.65) and Sh910 ($9.10) had been paid for two or three days worked. The balance of what they were owed would be paid on the following day (6 August).
“We suspect someone is taking advantage of our misfortune,” she said.
The Kazi Mtaani programme has been charged with favouritism (in the recruitment of candidates). County commissioners, county secretaries and county directors of housing in charge of implementing the programme in their areas of authority have been accused of demanding bribes from those who want to be considered.
“I was not considered for the job because I could not afford to buy chai,” said Okore, 22, a disabled and jobless University of Nairobi graduate who lives in the Mathare slums in the capital (The phrase, “buy chai” is a common euphemism for bribing officials in Kenya). Okore, who said he was from a poor background and an orphan with no direct family to care for him, told Africa in Fact that friends of his had “bought chai” and were now Kazi Mtaani employees.
Given that government programmes may be failing to reach all of their intended beneficiaries, development partners and not-for-profit organisations have stepped in to augment the government’s efforts. On 2 July, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) launched cash transfers and nutrition support for more than 250,000 people in informal settlements in Nairobi. The body’s country director and representative in Kenya, Annalisa Conte, said the cash distributions were aimed at supplementing the Kenyan government’s social protection programmes.
“I was not considered for the job because I could not afford to buy chai,” said Okore, 22, a disabled and jobless University of Nairobi graduate who lives in the Mathare slums in the capital.
Poor urban families usually lived hand-to-mouth, relied on informal day-to-day employment and had no food reserves after months of containment measures, including lockdowns in some areas. “They need all our help now,” she observed.
Meanwhile, Shikilia, a Kenya-based coalition of the private sector and NGOs, entrepreneurs, operators, designers and researchers is working with GiveDirectly, a US-based not-for profit, to help low-income Kenyans living in extreme poverty by making unconditional cash transfers to them via mobile phone. Some 100,000 potential recipients have been identified, according to Shikilia’s website, though it is unclear how many of them have received payments. Each recipient has received at least $30 a month for three months.
While these efforts appear to be having a positive impact on the lives of vulnerable Kenyans, critics say the coronavirus outbreak has brought with it a need to reflect deeply on sustainable, long-lasting plans to deal with other large-scale threats to life and welfare that might arise in the globalised world. “The coronavirus crisis has reminded us that we need to focus seriously on how we address the challenges facing the vulnerable in our society in terms of social protection,” Technical University of Kenya communications lecturer Julius Bosire told Africa in Fact.
The coronavirus outbreak has brought with it a need to reflect deeply on sustainable, long-lasting plans to deal with other large-scale threats to life and welfare that might arise in the globalised world.
The Kenyan government needed to support productive sectors of the economy, to create the conditions necessary to generate employment opportunities for the thousands of jobless youths, said Bosire. Among the measures he proposed for achieving this were extending tax holidays to businesses, reducing the cost of doing business by cutting energy costs, and incentivising multinational firms to set up operations in Kenya.
“Technically, an economically empowered person can be assumed to be socially protected,” he said. But in recent decades, Kenya has seen hundreds of thousands of young people, high school and college graduates, failing to find work. Other demographics have increasingly fallen by the wayside in terms of government support. “Hence, our focus should not just be on the youth – it should be wider and broader to cover even the ageing population,” Bosire said.
Deputy President William Ruto, in a tweet on 24 July, challenged youths not to depend on formal employment, but to come up with innovative ways to create employment for themselves during the coronavirus crisis. The government intended to “nurture, encourage and protect” micro-, small- and medium-sized businesses, he said, because they had the power to “boost the livelihoods of the vulnerable and provide an environment for the youths to unlock their potential”.
Deputy President William Ruto, in a tweet on 24 July, challenged youths not to depend on formal employment, but to come up with innovative ways to create employment for themselves during the coronavirus crisis.
But critics say the Kazi Mtaani programme was hurriedly conceived, to give the appearance of doing something for vulnerable youths, and without a clear roadmap. Under the plan, university graduates were being offered bush-clearing jobs that paid a small amount per day, when they might have been engaged in activities that made use of their skills, Dr Michael Okello, an economist and independent media commentator based in Nairobi, told Africa in Fact. “Were there ever any clear plans for this initiative?”
The government had mobilised, both internally and externally, “massive funds” to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, but the country’s medical care and support had not improved, Okello said. Moreover, in previous years, important sectors of the economy such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction, among others, had not received support, which would have helped to generate jobs for young people, and these sectors were still receiving no support.
“These failures are all due to greed and corruption,” said Okello. “The government has a solid track record in corruption, rather than in serving the people. Where are the jobs that were promised in 2017, when about 40% of our youth are unemployed?”
“The government has a solid track record in corruption, rather than in serving the people.” – Dr Michael Okello.
Indeed, there have been persistent allegations of misuse and theft of Covid-19-related funds. On 29 July, Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau said “billions of shillings” had been allocated to addressing Covid-19, but Kenyans who had tested positive for the virus “still lacked access to proper medical care”.
On 26 June 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta, launching his campaign for a second term, pledged to create at least 1.3 million jobs a year. Youth employment was “at the heart of his administration,” he said. Yet according to 2019 census data published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, some 38.9% of young Kenyans were still jobless two years later.
Central Bank of Kenya Governor Dr Patrick Njoroge faulted the structure of Kenya’s economy for delivering economic growth without jobs. He said the country was focusing on huge infrastructural spending, which did not spread wealth among many Kenyans. Those without jobs, Njoroge argued, remained unemployed and those at work did not see hikes in their wages. These sorts of expenditures boost GDP numbers, he said, “but you cannot eat GDP”. What was needed was specific income. That was what people wanted: jobs and income.
These sorts of expenditures boost GDP numbers, he said, “but you cannot eat GDP”. What was needed was specific income.
President Kenyatta announced a post-election pact with opposition leaders on 9 March this year, widely publicised with a photograph of himself shaking hands with the leader of the main opposition, Raila Odinga. But with the opposition virtually non-existent, Kenyans have been left with no one to put pressure on the government to fulfil its pre-election promises, including youth job creation.
“One handshake killed the opposition,” says Wilson Rono, a human rights activist in the coastal city of Mombasa. “The media are policed by government, while civil society actors are routinely intimidated and arrested. There is no one to hold those in power accountable.”
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Mark Kapchanga is a senior economics writer for the Standard newspaper
in Kenya and a columnist for the Global Times, an English-language newspaper
in China. He is pursuing a PhD in investigative business journalism at the
University of Nairobi.