In business, as in careers and life generally, there is always a secret to unlocking value, success, growth and wealth. In the times of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, that secret was encrypted in two magic words: “Open, Sesame!” Today, in Kenya, a country of 47 million, the question on almost every lip as we inch closer to June 6 has been: “Will he or will he not open?”
At the beginning of the movement restrictions meant to slow down the spread of coronavirus, Kenyans welcomed staying at and working from home. It had its high points. For instance, senior managers could be called Baba Boi during working hours. It was novel. We got to learn about Zoom and the more we used it, the richer Eric Yuan, the founder and CEO of the platform, became.
Today, if I am not wrong, he is worth about $7.6 billion. That is about five times the size of the Budget that Treasury Secretary Ukur Yatani will be reading to us next Thursday. Never mind that Yuan, who shares a name with the Chinese currency, is still three years shy of his 50th birthday, which makes him nine years younger than Kenya.
With time, the novelty of working from home began to wear off as many businesses felt the harsh financial effects of the restrictions, which were more painful than the coronavirus swab test. Bills were growing but incomes were shrinking for both companies and individuals. Where it had started raining, it was now pouring, with workers being sent home on unpaid leave, taking pay cuts or losing their jobs.
Surveys started showing that employees considered working from home less productive compared to working from the office. People started finding reasons to step out. Some forgot social distancing when they met their friends. In no time, photos of well-intentioned Kenyans being hauled into police vehicles for enjoying a beverage near each other started emerging on social media, followed, in short order by more worrying images of excessive indulgence in tea estates. The result was an extension of the restrictions for a further 21 days.
Since the first case was reported, Kenyans have spent 50 days in an economic wilderness where the definition of work, income generation and building the nation has been turned on its head, with the role of side hustles growing as professionals looked for new ways to bridge their income gaps.
That is why the story about buying milk from the boot of a BMW and managu (amaranth) from a Range Rover trunk excited us. Ah, so these luxury brands could be used for ordinary, nay, mundane tasks! Suddenly, the rich were humanised. They had, in a sense, become purveyors of healthy organic foods and we could mingle with them by the road sides that they had cleverly converted into informal markets.
Considering that one of the markets was right outside a golf course, one could safely presume that once the super-rich hawkers had sold their last onion, they would head to the course for a well-deserved round.
However, due to social distancing, they had to caddie for themselves, meaning that even the way the rich play had been disrupted. Now, there are not only more people on the golf course but clubs have tentatively opened their ninth holes where members can do business while social-distancing.
For many, however, this is not enough. The other day, a board member with a government agency argued that the economy can no longer afford the restrictions.
“He should open,” the man said. “Those who will die will die.”
However, there is an important lesson that Kenya should learn, especially from America and France, where thousands upon thousands of angry citizens have poured into the streets to protest police brutality on people of African descent: Human rights are as important, if not much more, than public health.
Citizens have put themselves at the risk of contracting coronavirus to demonstrate to their governments that they will not accept injustice. This is an important lesson for the police in Kenya, who have used excessive force, leading to needless deaths — including of innocent children — as they enforce movement restrictions. As such, even as the government tells Kenyans what to do to stay safe from corona, it must also rein in its police officers so that they — and the country — can stay safe from the wrath of Kenyans. They should borrow a leaf from Mama Mbogas, who have repeatedly warned that they would rather die of corona than of hunger, meaning that the government must continue investing in social capital.
On a less political note, we must not forget that without the courage of the Mama Mbogas, we would be worse off economically. They kept at it, even as Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe repeatedly warned that he would not treat them normally. Indeed, their resilience inspired the BMW owners we are now celebrating.
And this brings me to my final point. Kenyans have already re-opened the economy, especially in places like Nairobi. We have traffic jams each day. Hotels have opened. High-end ones have started dusting their receptions, ready to receive visitors. And every so often I get asked by members of my team whether it is illegal for them to come to the newsroom. It never was.
When I met a leading hotelier earlier this week, he explained to me why he never closed the establishment in the first place.
“Big hotels are like city lights,” he said. “You never switch off city lights. The rest of the world needs to see you when investors start travelling again.”
Were I to be asked to advise the President on what he should tell the country on Saturday, I would tell him this: “Open, Na Usiseme!”