News report | | 24/04/2020 | ±2 minutes reading time

For years, the Kenyan economy has relied on informal workforces without a steady contract. Until now, this didn’t lead to many problems. But with the outbreak of the coronavirus, the weaknesses of this system are being exposed.

Informal workforces in Africa

Kenya is not the only country in Africa where the job market largely consists of informal workers. In the entire African continent, 85.8 percent of the job market consists of informal employees. In comparison: on the American continent this is 40 percent. The majority of this type of informal workers is female. They are often utilized as cleaners or nannies, without a steady contract. The reason why this is particularly popular in Africa is largely due to both demand and offer, according to the Brookings Institution. Many, primarily younger, workers do not have the opportunity to get a training or education, making it less likely they will receive a steady contract. At the same time, companies are always on the lookout for the cheapest workforces.

The numbers in Kenya show this: almost 15 million Kenyans work in the informal sector, compared to almost 3 million in the formal sector. These are the people that help around the household, cleaners, street salesmen and many other workers. They keep the Kenyan economy standing. At the same time they enjoy very little protection; no severance payment, no safety rules and no social security. They are entirely dependent on themselves if things go wrong.

Coronavirus exposes weaknesses of the system

The problems such a system brings with it have been mercilessly exposed by the current coronavirus crisis. The first case of infection with the coronavirus was confirmed on 13 March. The government in Kenya quickly took concrete steps and closed schools, nightlife venues, and instituted a complete travel ban. Foreign workers are no longer allowed into the country, even if they have a valid visa for Kenya. Domestic employees are asked to work from home, with the exception of people that have “critical or essential jobs”.

The problem this causes is that all of the informal work, of which a large part of the Kenyan population is dependent, is being shut down. Street salesmen have to close down their stores, cleaners have to stay at home, and many other workers are no longer welcome at their jobs or can no longer perform them. They also do not receive any kind of benefits because they were working without a contract. They’re on their own now. Many feel forced to break the quarantine rules to get food on the table. Social scientists say that the main victims of this are women, as they performed the majority of the informal work.

Tourist sector shut down

Another part of the Kenyan economy that suffered serious blows is the tourist sector. Now that no foreign travellers are allowed into the country anymore, this is where most of the blows are falling. Kenya is a relatively popular country on the African continent, in part due to its modern visa system. Western travellers in particular benefit from this; they can apply for the Kenya e-visa online. The visa system itself is still running, but issued visas currently cannot be used. How long this travel ban will last is currently unknown.