Ideas & Debate

How Covid-19 has exposed our weak economic links


Friday marks eight weeks since Kenya’s first coronavirus case was officially announced. We’re coming to the end of our sixth week of a national dusk to dawn curfew, and we’ve just passed 30 days of partial lockdown with the news that selected areas in Nairobi and Mombasa are going into harder lockdown. In the past week, we’ve confirmed that community transmission is real, as the virus curve rises steeply. Then, just when increased testing suggests it’s getting worse, we all want to get out and about.

We’ve also learnt that the “curfew-breakers” that we are will no longer be detained in quarantine, or quarantined in detention; we’ll go straight to special “concentration camps”. Knowing full well our “two beers per sausage” proclivities, the police are making a killing, and occasionally killing people too.

This biblical Kenyan moment is nothing without floods. Over 200 dead in three weeks, and going to a million people displaced. Add a fresh swarm of locusts eyeing our “greens” in a third of our counties. It probably isn’t the best time to forcibly displace 5,000 people for a sewerage plant, but our government isn’t one that, to quote my favourite consulting adage, “listens, thinks and consults; (and then) acts”.

‘Out and about’? As many commentators predicted early on, we were never going to sustain social distancing and “shelter-in-place” without food on the table and social safety “nets and ropes”. 2020 might be the worst, or longest, year in our lifetimes, but we’ll go down fighting with and for our lives.

And, from what I see on the news, it seems that our leadership has promised to assemble an advisory team to “recover Kenya” once this pandemic is done. That’s probably the wrong way to look at it. Our lower middle income economy of low income tax collections was stuttering before Coronavirus.


Without the SGR, our real (ex-corona) GDP growth is back to normal, average levels. Private investment has waned for some time; with an economy increasingly reliant on debt-fuelled government spending. Businesses have collapsed, retrenched or relocated at the first sign of headwinds and crosswinds.

In our unequal country, growth bears little relation to human development outcomes, yet our leaders ask “why we are broke”. Our 1963 “poverty, ignorance and disease” condition looks terminal in 2020.

Maybe the task of this advisory team shouldn’t just be to “recover”, but to “remake” Kenya. I once suggested that Kenya’s economy, which former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga once referred to as a “bandit” economy, has three essential parts. At the top is a “casino economy” where politics and business interacts and intermingles as easily as Samson and Delilah, with often similar results.

At the bottom is our informal “kadogo (little) economy” of unitised, miniaturised trade and commerce that gives meaning to the term “daily bread’. In between is the “bubble economy” of our politically somnolent middle class; a car here, fancy “digs” there, mall close by, club even closer and it’s all good.

Well, guess what? Coronavirus has exposed the real truth of our “mkono-mdomo” (hand to mouth) economy. All the way from top to bottom, except for Safaricom, it’s lamentation galore. Many will be flat broke by the end of this month, yet we should expect to ride this tiger through 2021.

The human and humane Kenyan conversation for 2022 has begun, so here are a couple of thoughts.

New skills, anyone? I want to learn how to develop mobile apps that will probably refer you to other apps that link you to others; and get my teeth into data science and all that is great about ‘Big Data”. Simple example, but the fast looming “future of work’ makes this a great time for self-improvement.

On the business front, the conventional wisdom is that “high touch” is out and “low touch” is in for the foreseeable future. Digital will drive this transformation, but the true advantage will come from real answers to basic needs, like food, schooling, health, shelter and living conditions. It’s a great moment for business self-improvement that addresses humanity’s challenges, without pandering to its excesses.

And then there is government. The singular lesson from this pandemic is that a government “for the people” must be “close to the people”, literally and figuratively. A future in which counties drive our development, including agriculture, education, health, shelter, water, sanitation, industry, trade, commerce and services, culls reliance on a gluttonous national government that spends our taxes badly.

Here’s a rocket idea (the lawyers will slaughter me) in this time of self-improvement. Why don’t we postpone 2022 (elections and political noise), and use this and the next three years to “remake Kenya”?

And then there was silence.