When hustling fails: The impact of coronavirus mitigation efforts on ordinary people’s livelihoods

April 6, 2020 - 6 mins read
When Hustling Fails Kenya COVID-19 case studies

Originally posted on the FSD Kenya Website, April 6, 2020

Unlike many Kenyans, Esther in rural Makueni is not yet too worried about the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on her livelihood.  A few years ago, her diabetic husband retired to the farm.  They now help each other raising local chickens and tending two dairy cows.  At home, his health has also improved.  For now, they still have a market for both the chickens and the milk, and they have a store of dried grains from a bumper harvest last year.  “We are doing just fine,” she says, “But things are going to be tough for those who are more vulnerable and those who live in cities and don’t have permanent employment.  Most people will not die from corona, but from hunger.”

Trying to understand the impact of coronavirus on ordinary Kenyans, BFA Global and FSD Kenya have been working together to interview former Kenya Financial Diaries participants over the phone and see how they are navigating the crisis.  Our relationships with respondents go back to 2012, providing us a basis for in-depth research without being physically present.

Our first 40 interviews are already providing powerful insights into how Kenyans are adapting economically to health fears, social distancing, curfews, and a significant drop in business sales and wage work.  Eighty-eight percent of our respondents so far have already experienced significant drops in household incomes.  The drops span a wide range of livelihood types, but seem to be hitting urban people hardest, making some rural families worried about the potential emerging need to care for urban kin, who may return to their rural homes empty-handed when remittances are needed most.  They might also return infected with the virus itself, making matters even worse.

A hit against most livelihoods

Kenyans are renowned for their enterprising hustle, patching together an income tapestry from multiple, simultaneous sources. In the Kenya Financial Diaries, households had a median of five different income sources over the course of a year.  Among those respondents we’ve already reached in our latest round of phone calls, the median household was earning about KES 12,000 ($120) per month in 2015.  But what happens when holes get torn in that income tapestry as social distancing forces some businesses to close, as people staying home stop using services, and as many people try their best not to spend money they may need as the crisis worsens?  Very few people have the option of “working from home,” particularly under these conditions.

Regular employment


Casual work

Agricultural livelihoods

Uncertain social changes

But, those rural families who are doing okay for now, worry about the impact of role reversals with the husbands, children, and other relatives who had been working in cities in town.  Rather than the rural families depending on urban remitters, city relatives may need help from their rural kin.  This generates questions about how people’s social lives may change.  Will they come home and create new burdens?  Will they come home infected with the virus?  Will they be stuck in cities and towns unable to meet their basic food needs?

The shifts of who is able to get an income and who has resources to draw from are rearranging some families already.  One woman who lost her business in Nairobi and whose daughters can no longer help her out is thinking of going to her ex-husband’s rural home, that is, if her former sisters in law will have her.  For other families, long lost husbands are coming home to the village strainingthe independent lives their wives have built without them.  And some men, unable to earn a living, are questioning their own masculinity.  “It’s not right for me to depend on my wife.  It’s bad manners.  She must be thinking, ‘This man is too much!’  It’s not in our African culture for things to be this way.”

Hopes for survival

For most, things are already tough, and most are bracing for things to get even worse.  While work is getting put on hold, the resilient spirit of Kenyans persists.  We have seen worse, they tell us.  “I remember back in 1984,” Michelle in Eldoret says, “There wasn’t even food in the shops.  This is nothing compared to then.”  If we get in a tight spot, another respondent says, we’ll just eat porridge, like in the ‘80s.

“This is just a passing cloud,” says Lucy in Nairobi.  “Soon things will be back to normal.  We have faith.”

This is part of a series of rapidly-produced blogs on how low-income Kenyans are coping with the changes in their lives induced by the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).  Read more about the Kenya Financial Diaries project here.  We will continue checking in with Diaries participants throughout the crisis.  For the latest news and insights from this work, follow @FSDKe and @BFAGlobal on Twitter, as well as hashtags #Covid19DiariesKenya and #KomeshaCorona.  

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