From corner office to food vendor: How Covid-19 is changing socio-economic dynamics in Kenya

Atula Owade
Jun 2, 2020 · 5 min read

Covid-19 has had a negative impact on all manner of industries in Kenya. Many shops have shut their doors. Usually crowded parking lots in office blocks are empty. Public service vehicles are parked. Industrial conveyor belts have halted. Once thriving flower farms that supplied Europe’s flower auctions on a daily basis are no more. Night clubs and concerts play no music. Leading hotel chains are closing shop. Supermarkets are working within limited hours.

It is, simply put, a terrible situation with no end in sight. This week, the Central Bank of Kenya announced that up to 75% of small businesses could collapse by the end of June. This grim message was underscored in the President’s Labor Day address, which further estimated that half million people may lose their jobs due to the effects of Covid-19.

Thousands have already lost their sources of income. These newly jobless individuals and their families are coping in different ways, largely dependent on their pre-Covid-19 socio-economic conditions. Those in slum areas are having the toughest time. The World Food Program reports that up to 70% of the urban poor it has surveyed eat less or no food. Some have moved to rural areas, but the majority are stuck in urban areas with no jobs, and no food.

Car boot food vendors along Nairobi’s Nothern Bypass (Source: ISAAA)

Another segment of Kenyans, middle-class white collar workers, has been coping in a different way. Some have switched to selling fresh produce from the boots of their cars. They include lawyers, civil servants, real estate developers, IT specialists, and accountants.

This ongoing phenomenon has elicited sharp reactions in Kenyan media. It has been a trending topic on both Twitter and Facebook. It has been the subject of a few memes shared on WhatsApp. Editorials have been written on the matter. Radio talk shows have dedicated entire segments to discuss white collar workers turned food vendors. Some of those attracting the most attention are the car boot sellers retailing along Nairobi’s Northern Bypass — close to some of the most exclusive neighborhoods, and the UN quarter — mainly because of their high-end cars.

The general view shared in this vibrant public debate is that anyone who owns a posh car should not be doing a “demeaning” job. Others have pointed out the flaw in this logic: The assumption that engaging in informal food vending, or other forms of small-scale agribusiness, is a poor man’s job.

Creating positive perceptions about farming

It is perhaps not surprising that many Kenyans, especially the youth, view agriculture negatively. It is a consequence of decades of social conditioning. Both the education system, as well at the media, have long portrayed agriculture as as a “last resort” economic activity for the least educated, and retirees. This perception is underscored by personal experience. Many Kenyans have relatives who have worked the farm their entire lives without creating any substantial wealth. As such, many fail to understand how these owners of posh cars with respectable day jobs are selling food.

I have an informed guess explaining the situation: It is highly likely that some of those car boot vendors already run agribusinesses as side hustles. There is a significant number of such “telephone” farmers in Kenya who work in the city, but maintain a rural farm. With their regular jobs disrupted, some have switched to supplying their own farm produce. This entrepreneurial mindset is therefore playing a role in meeting food demand by homebound urban dwellers, while also generating an income.

However, for Kenyan, and by extension African agriculture to really take off, it has to be viewed as much more than just a side hustle by those who invest in it. The wider public also has to view agribusiness as an agent of wealth creation instead of a poor man’s job. In this sense, the loud debate sparked by Covid-19 coping strategies may prove to be an important game changer in public attitudes.

But a rising interest in agriculture is not enough to ensure an economically vibrant, and sustainable agribusiness sector in the long term. In addition to rebranding agriculture, African countries need to put in place the requisite physical infrastructure, and economic incentives, to attract more people, especially the youth.

The rationale for investing in agriculture is clear. Despite having vast natural resources, Africa is still a net importer of food. Moreover, with the continental population rising fast, food demand is projected to hit US$1 trillion within this decade. With its growing youth segment, many of whom will be unable to find formal employment, the conditions are right to make it easier for young people to embrace agribusiness, to meet this growing demand.

Dr. Akinwumi Adesina

Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, has been at the forefront in these efforts to rebrand agriculture. He argues that agriculture “is a wealth sector and must be treated exactly like that.”

To put its money where its mouth is, the Bank has made a US$24 billion commitment towards transforming Africa’s agriculture into “a business that can create wealth and transform lives.” . In Adesina’s opinion, individuals too have to fully invest in agriculture to realize its potential.

The creativity shown in ordinary people’s’ response to Covid-19 disruption indicates that a window may have opened to enable African countries to make the most of its natural resources, to feed its people. While, of course, creating wealth along the way.

Written by Atula Owade

This article is part of Covid-19 Food/Future, an initiative under TMG ThinkTank for Sustainability’s SEWOH Lab project (https://www.tmg-thinktank.com/sewoh-lab). It aims at providing a unique and direct insight into the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on national and local food systems. Also follow @CovidFoodFuture, our Video Diaries From Nairobi, and @TMG_think on Twitter. Funding for this initiative is provided by BMZ, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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