How pandemic is choking life out of SMEs, livelihoods

A trader in Nairobi waits for customers. Coronavirus has threatened survival of businesses across the world. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

It is painful and unfathomable. It is threatening to end the very sources of livelihood for billions of humans around the world as 2.7 billion people are now on total lockdown.

In a world dominated by capitalism, it is more exasperating for the poor, who are used to leaving their homes to get the next meal.

The agony, anguish and distress of the direct effects of the coronavirus on small businesses in Kenya is quite tormenting, sending fearful afflictions into the souls of millions of entrepreneurs as the virus brings their ventures into a sudden halt, uncertain on how long it will last.

For the past two weeks, Fatuma Mohamed has struggled to afford basic needs. She has had to grapple with the rough economic period with her two children who need to be fed thrice a day.

It has been a tough week for the Uthiru resident, who before March 12, ran a successful cloth business, moving new men's wares around the estate every day.


"Everything was fine until the first coronavirus case was reported in Kenya. I could make enough money to feed my family and save for school fees. In the last two weeks, I have only sold two trousers. I have exhausted my savings," the 38-year-old told Enterprise, adding that it has been the same for all itinerant traders.

For Agnes Maua, a greengrocer who enjoyed a spike in the number of buyers of fruits and vegetables in the first week of the Covid-19 scare when people began working from home, she may be forced to close down this week as most vegetable markets get closed, with a curfew now in place.

"I used to stock from Kangemi and Kawangware, but the wholesale traders in the markets are closing every day. I used to make the highest sales between 6pm and 8pm but now we have a curfew. Am disillusioned," laments the 20-year-old who has been in the business for two years.

Her worry remains how families will survive if these supplies totally run out as the government keeps preaching the tenets of social distancing with most matatu companies now grounding their fleet.

"Kales, cabbages, spinach, tomatoes and fruits are not items you can order online and get them fresh. These are perishable goods which we supply on demand," says Ms Maua, revealing that she has had to sell at half price as most families have exhausted the cash they had, and now shop less frequently, exposing her grocery to more perishability.

Construction workers, who braved the first week of Covid-19 petrification, were forced to stay at home during the second, and now lack a source of income to support their families.

"It is now more difficult than ever. On normal days, I would be sure of making at least Sh500 per day but now I make nothing. My family depends on me entirely," says Ben Oluoch, a Kibra resident father of three.

During weekends, there is no more entertainment, especially from English Premier League (EPL) matches, which would draw many youths into football viewing joints in most Nairobi slum areas.

"I used to make at least Sh10,000 every weekend from showing EPL matches. On weekdays, I would make Sh5,000 from UEFA Champions League matches. Now I make nothing, and it is difficult to accept that this trend will continue for several months," says Edward Ondieki, who owns a soccer viewing joint in Uthiru.

For those who make a living from selling cooked food, the impact is similar, especially those who were based at Nairobi's CBD.

They have had to close the business altogether, as fewer Nairobians now flock the city in a bid to reduce new infections.

"I have to stay at home now, doing nothing. There is hardly anyone to sell my food in the city. Am just hoping that this will not last long," says Vivian Mcharia, a Kikuyu resident who was used to raking Sh6,000 daily at her Moi Avenue food joint in the CBD.

Even after President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a zero-tax policy on those earning below Sh24,000 a month, that has not come as a relief to many employees whose services had to be discontinued, as employers cited a dip in sales, and could no longer afford to pay staff.

"I had worked for only 15 days in March. We were told to stop reporting to work. The manager explained that the company will make huge losses in coming months. So they paid us our dues and promised to call us back once business resumes," says Emmanuel Musyoki who worked as a marketing agent for a local beauty firm.

He adds that the notice shocked him because it came too sudden, and has to provide for his wife and four children. "I don't even know where I will get money for rent. I have already informed my landlord that I will be delaying to pay him in the coming months."

Martha Achieng, who had worked as a house help for seven years in Lavington, was relieved of her duties last Thursday. Her employers, who now both work from home, cited a lack of necessity to pay for services they can do themselves.

"We can save what we paid her for shopping," they told her, adding that they had to drop her to her Busia rural home, fearing she could get infected by the virus in public transport buses which now charge double fold.

As the coronavirus keeps spreading, it lays bare an existential force of our time — economic inequality — pushing the nastiest effects to low income families, who, according to research, are more vulnerable to any economic or health shocks.

The poor stand a higher chance of dying from the virus, and even for those who remain healthy, they are more likely to suffer loss of income, consequently lacking food and dying from malnutrition or hunger on a sweeping scale.