Where Are the Jobs? Kenyans Demand Answers From Uhuru

Jobseekers queue on Wabera Street, Nairobi, as they wait to be interviewed by The Sarova Stanley on May 26, 2018.
Jobseekers queue on Wabera Street, Nairobi, as they wait to be interviewed by The Sarova Stanley on May 26, 2018.

"...We regret to inform you that your employment contract is terminated henceforth on account of redundancy..."

This exact bland statement has been replicated across thousands of samples available on the internet for any company looking for a quick template with which to relieve its workers from the payroll.

Yet, the simple statement, whether printed out on a single A4 sheet of paper, email or as we have come to see, on WhatsApp, is earth-shattering. It inevitably turns what began as a routine workday to a swirling vortex pulling the affected into an abyss.

People advertising their expertise in the streets in the hope of getting clients.
People advertising their expertise in the streets in the hope of getting clients.
Citizen Digital

This was the turn of fate that befell Munene Wachira. At 52, the company he had dedicated 15 years to, sent him home along with 400 members of its permanent staff.

Wachira, a father of five children, lost all the benefits that had come with the job in one swoop. As the IT manager at the now-defunct company, Wachira was provided with housing and his utilities including electricity and water were covered - for many, that is the dream employer.

{"preview_thumbnail":"/files/styles/video_embed_wysiwyg_preview/public/video_thumbnails/AVozFwDc4sM.jpg?itok=jDyJ5NUF","video_url":"","settings":{"responsive":1,"width":"854","height":"480","autoplay":0},"settings_summary":["Embedded Video (Responsive)."]}

Pushed to live by his wits, Wachira was forced to confront the uncertainties of those who lived without the safety net of a paycheck. As his savings dwindled away at alarming speeds, he was thrust into a panic wondering if he would  be able keep his kids in school.

That was in 2017. Since then many Kenyans have found themselves in Wachira's painful predicament, thrust through a few sentences into the uncertainties that joblessness brings.

Just a Statistic

There may be comfort in numbers, but in this case, those affected gain little in learning that they are collateral damage in a system that is steadily breaking down.

Figures from the year 2019 alone paint a harrowing picture of thousands left floundering in a sea of capsizing vessels. With nearly 10 nationally known companies announcing retrenchment, many Kenyans found themselves dangling after their foothold was kicked out from under them.

In the unforgiving world of numbers, one loss is a tragedy but the loss of a million is simply a statistic. Many of these people have become faceless, lost in the grand numbers that have erased their identity as mothers, sons, wives, brothers and daughters.

Driver Wilfred Muturi Japheth pictured on a road in Nairobi on August 6, 2020
Driver Wilfred Muturi Japheth pictured on a road in Nairobi on August 6, 2020

Imagine for an instance the lives of the 400 SportPesa employees who lost their jobs on October 2, 2019. Or Betin's 2,500 workers who were sent home on October 21, 2019 after the company closed its over 500 retail outlets. This is after the Jubilee government, that had promised to create a record new job opportunities in its second term, doubled the duty tax placed on sports bets to 20%.

Have you considered what became of Finlays 1,000 workers who were left jobless after the company decided to close down two of its farms? 

Yet even as the country grapples with the losses of 2019, the machinery of retrenchment has dragged its stench into 2020 leaving even more in the clutches of uncertainty.

Enter Covid-19

Covid-19, a grand unknown, was the quiet storm that snuck into the lives of billions worldwide and perfected a coup d'état on any preconceived notions of normalcy. In Kenya it did a little more than that, it transformed the problem of retrenchment into the disaster of retrenchment. 

And disaster it became. 

During the Labour Day celebrations on May 1, 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledged that more than half a million Kenyans would lose their jobs due to the pandemic.The prophecy would hold perhaps more truth than many dared to imagine.

In May 2020, Fairmont Hotels announced the indefinite closure of two of its luxurious hotels in the country including the iconic Norfolk Hotel, sending all its employees home.

As the pandemic settled into the routine of a people’s existence, the layoffs rained on. In June 2020, Mediamax Network Limited made announced an executive decision to fire its entire newsroom

In tandem with the grim theme of the year, July 2020 saw South-African retail giant, Shoprite, announce the closure of its Nyali, Mombasa branch, leaving 115 workers in the cold.

Grand Promises

The country has found itself in the grips of retrenchment, redundancy and job losses despite government's promises to create more jobs. The Kenya Population and Housing Census indicated that 5.3 million Kenyans out of the 13.7 million aged between 18-35 (30%) were jobless.

According to data from the World Bank in 2019, Kenya has the highest number of jobless youth in East Africa at a staggering 18.3%. This is in stark contrast to its counterparts Uganda at 2.7% and Tanzania 3.4%. 

The unemployment net drags on despite President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2017 promises that the Jubilee Party would create 1.5 million jobs annually if reelected.

A promise, that if kept would have seen the creation of at least 6.5 million jobs by the year 2022. Yet, even as the Kenya Bureau of Statistics points to the creation of 843, 900 jobs in 2019, Kenyans continue to cry foul.

The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) taskforce has suggested an economic revolution to deal with the pervasive problem of joblessness in the country.

The report states that the only way to improve the economic situation in Kenya is through a total transformation of how the economy operates.

Jobseekers wait to hand in their documents during recruitment at County Hall in Nairobi, 2019.
Jobseekers wait to hand in their documents during recruitment at County Hall in Nairobi, 2019.

In line with this, the BBI proposes to build the economy on the principles and practice of job creation. To achieve this, it proposes to concentrate on innovation and invention using intellectual property as well as the knowledge passed from generation to generation. 

It provides that a surge of entrepreneurship will be necessary for this. To promote it, the initiative suggests the setting up of widespread training as well as macro and micro-economic policies that favour startups and small businesses.

Even with these proposals, the citizenry remains sceptical. 

Economist David Ndii has joined the vast majority of citizens in  pointing fingers at the glaring failures of the government stating, "We are experiencing the consequences of Jubilee's financial delinquency, policy failures and mismanagement."

The most regrettable fact of the slew of layoffs is the numbing effect it has exercised on the national consciousness.

It has led us to overlook the bigger consequences of the state of affairs on the bare-threaded fabric of society. 

With rising disillusionment with their situation, many who have found themselves in the cold with no recourse from the heavens have created their salvation in the blissful forgetfulness of drugs, in the dark alleys of sex work or as ripe targets for recruitment by terror groups.

What is made manifest in this dangerously simmering cauldron are the bubbles that at times erupt in society, yet the unseen consequences remain just as real and equally as troubling.

File image of economist David Ndii
File image of economist David Ndii
The Standard

Structural Violence 

The effect of unemployment or retrenchment on the psyche of the person affected is perhaps one of the most unfortunate results of the exercise. Faced with a society that places individual achievement as the basis of worth, the loss of a job is seen as a personal failure with little acknowledgment of the structural violence that primes the outcome.

Even in the heart of a storm, the perceptible whisper of calm resides, and this case is no different. For those who find themselves wading through the tumultuous waters of unemployment and job loss, there still remains the possibility of living and even flourishing despite the circumstances.

Yet any progress shall be routed in a drastic overhaul of how we as a society see unemployment and how the individual views themselves even as they wade through the abyss. As analysts predict even darker times for youth entering the job market, it may just be time to hold our collective breath, duck down and go under the waves for a moment.

But even as we fight this reality, it remains our prerogative, and perhaps the highest of our patriotic duties to stand with those who are struggling to define themselves outside formal employment. To support them as they brave the currents and more importantly, to ask difficult questions of a government that has seemingly thrown its people under the bus. 

This article was co-authored with Noni Ireri

  • . . . . .