BY ELIUD OWALO
The Corona virus and the Building Bridges Initiative(BBI) have in my considered view been Kenya’s most regrettable events of 2020, both conspiring to visit devastation and doom upon our lives and livelihoods in the year. Whereas the Corona Virus was largely unavoidable but regretable, the BBI has turned out to be a self-inflicted distraction eating away at our national resources at a time when they are needed to successfully fight the corona virus and its debilitating effects on Kenyans. The BBI has also turned out to be the divisive factor pulling us apart at a time when we need unity of purpose to fight our common enemy, the COVID-19 pandemic.
On a gap analysis, these two phenomena have contrived to make the year 2020 a lost one for Kenyans informed by projections for the year and where we have inadvertently ended up today. Allow me to explain;
In 2019, Kenya’s economic growth rate averaged 5.4% positioning Kenya as one of the fastest growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. Then COVID-19 happened. As with the global economy, the virus containment measures, the fear factor and depressed demand for and supply of goods and services impacted Kenya on multiple economic fronts with devastating effects. Among the worst-hit sectors in Kenya are those that provide livelihoods for upto 85% of the Kenyan population. These are the informal sector, tourism, agriculture, floriculture, retail, transport, manufacturing and trade.
For example, the Kenya tourism industry has been hard-hit by the pandemic. Tourism earnings in 2018 yielded approximately Ksh.157 Billion, employing 1.1 Million Kenyans directly and indirectly. The sector is projected to experience significant job and revenue losses necessitated by a 72% reduction in visitor arrivals from 1.72Million to 470,971 compared to the year 2019. The boda-boda sector which is estimated to comprise close to 500,000 motor bikes transporting an estimated 14.4 million people every day with earnings averaging about KSh400 million in a day [This is easily KSh.146 billion annually] has witnessed job losses that would potentially impact millions of Kenyans. This is not to mention farmers, fisherman, construction workers, water vendors and many others whose livelihoods will be affected by the COVID-19 Impact.
Worse still, the suspension of learning in Kenya’s approximately 50,000 learning institutions with a student enrolment level of about 18.5 Million and 350,000 Teachers and Lecturers will have long-lasting impact on the society. The education sector also supports millions of businesses that provide supplies to about 18.5 Million students, who now risk losing their livelihoods, over and above the obvious disruption to learning in our institutions.
The ugliest and most visible face of the pandemic is the daily loss of human lives. To-date, COVID-19 has infected in excess of 93,000 Kenyans resulting into over 1,600 deaths in a period of just 9 months. According to KEMRI, the situation could be even direr with suggestions that realistically, up to 2.6 million Kenyans could have been infected and at least 6,000 deaths recognized countrywide.
But the tragedy is that despite the fact that every sector of the Kenyan economy and every stratum of our society are hurting having endured the worst of the pandemic; a section of the political class appears to stubbornly and intransigently believe that BBI is the solution to all the ills that have befallen our country and have made BBI and a referendum before 2022 their national obsession, relegating the fight against COVID-19 to the periphery.
BBI appears to have become Kenya’s development blueprint ‘tupende tusipende’.This devil-may-care attitude is insensitive to the plight of striking doctors or frontline healthcare workers where an estimated 30 doctors have been killed by the Corona Virus in Kenya since march 2020,with 10 deaths reported in November alone. As if to emphasize the priority given to BBI, while ignoring the plight of the health workers and the Corona-impoverished Kenyans, treasury recently released Ksh.93 Million for BBI signature verifications and is envisaged to release a further Ksh.14 Billion to conduct the BBI referendum by mid-2021. Such funds, if prudently applied, is capable of reversing the effects of the corona virus.
The Kshs.14.2 Billion targeted for the BBI referendum can potentially buy 47.4 Million doses of the COVID-19 Gavi Alliance Vaccine at a cost of $3 per dose, sufficient to vaccinate the entire Kenyan population. The envisaged BBI funding can also employ about 8,000 additional medical doctors and pay their salaries at an average rate of Ksh.150,000 per month for one year. Equally, the BBI referendum budget can purchase upto 3 Million PPEs for health workers or finance SME loans at the rate of Ksh.200,000 per business for up to 71,200 businesses. But no, BBI is imperative!
With the G.O.K’s pre-occupation with BBI, it has also lost focus on the Big-4 Agenda. So far, only about 1% of the Big 4 Agenda items have been met. The Housing pillar for example planned construction of at least 500,000 housing units by 2022. Astoundingly,by 2020 the government has only received just the first batch of 228 complete housing units out of the 1,370 under construction at the Park Road Project in Nairobi.
On food security pillar the G.O.K. sought to deliver 100% food security and nutrition through increase in large scale production of staple foods by putting 700,000 new acres of maize, potatoes, and rice under cultivation by 2022. But recent official estimates show that over 10 million Kenyans are still food insecure with majority of them living on food relief while households are incurring huge food bills due to costly food prices. The spectacular failure of the Galana-Kulalu project is symptomatic of the floundering food security pillar.
On Universal healthcare the government set out to increase coverage from the current 36% to 100% by the year 2022. To-date the government has so far only rolled out the coverage in 4 out of 47 counties.
On manufacturing the plan was to enhance the local manufacturing industry to offer employment to Kenyans and reduce the trade deficit that the country is currently experiencing. A key objective was to raise manufacturing sector contribution to GDP from 8.5% to 15% by 2022. However, the manufacturing sector’s contribution to GDP has experienced a steady decline from 11% in 2018 to 8% in 2019 and 7.7% in 2020. It also aspired to create 1 million new jobs by 2022. However, the sector currently has only 307,592 workers in formal employment accounting for 11% of the total formal employment. One can therefore objectively discern that the Big 4 Agenda that could have generated a total of 3 Million new Jobs for ordinary Kenyans by 2022 has largely been discarded in favour of a BBI process that targets the creation of three jobs, namely the Prime Minister and two Deputy Prime Ministers- for three privileged people.
Based on the foregoing and from a now objectively verifiable position, my argument is that the obsession with BBI and the ravages of COVID-19 have been the greatest pains Kenyans have had to endure in 2020. In my well-considered opinion the government has its priorities wrong and must develop a perfect citizen-fit by aligning its programs and interventions to the needs and aspirations of the common citizen as opposed to the egocentric interests of the political class.
As we approach 2021,we should prioritize reconstruction of the economy and securing the lives and livelihoods of Kenyans. With schools set to re-open in January 2021,the focus should be on expanding the infrastructure and facilities in schools to accommodate social–distancing protocols, provision of masks, hand-washing facilities, sanitizers and employment of more teachers to cope with increased classrooms. The deficit of ICU beds, ventilators, PPEs and other facilities in our hospitals is yet another priority. This must be augmented with a safe and conducive working environment for doctors and other frontline health workers to effectively combat the corona virus. Another thematic area should be massive investment in ICT infrastructure to re-engineer our business processes across all sectors in view of the prevailing situation.The BBI funding should be re-directed to economic reconstruction and cushioning citizens from the effects of the Corona Virus. To me, Corona and BBI put together are the Siamese twins that have presented Kenyans with the most unpalatable economic menu since independence.
Eliud Owalo is a Management Consultant specializing in Strategy’ formulation, implementation and control.