Feature: Kenyan enterprises suffer amid prolonged school closure due to COVID-19

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A beautician (L) goes about her work outside a beauty parlour in Central Business District, Nairobi, capital of Kenya, June 7, 2020. (Xinhua/Allan Mutiso)
A beautician seeks customers amid shuttered storefronts in the Central Business District of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, June 7, 2020. (Xinhua/Allan Mutiso)

For the past four years, Caroline Nkatha has worked in a bookshop whose aisles were always thronged by students and parents either selecting a book or skimming through its pages.

But now the bookshop that is located on the eastern fringes of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi stands devoid of customers and precipitates a massive loss due to the termination of the school calendar amid COVID-19 risk.

“The last bulk sale was made in January when schools resumed after the December holiday, we are yet to receive an order surpassing that month. We are worried,” Nkatha told Xinhua on Saturday.

Kenyan enterprises dependent on the operations of schools are facing an uncertain future with the unprecedented closure of learning institutions.

Dealers in the production of school uniforms, textbooks and printing of exam papers are desperately trying to survive losses occasioned by the global pandemic.

“My employer has responded to the prevailing circumstance by reducing my salary. His decision is well informed but it has cast a dark spell on my future. I have had to cut back on a lot of expenses,” said Nkatha.

She confessed that she had never witnessed such a downturn in business since she started working in the bookstore.

Nkatha said that she had been forced to make adjustments to her lifestyle to bear the negative effects of COVID-19.

“I used to buy food from vendors within the premises but since the pandemic threw my life in chaos, I brought packed food from home to save some money,” said Nkatha.

“My self-care routine which encompassed putting makeup on has also taken a beating as I have shelved the purchase of beauty products and redirected the funds to serve other pressing needs,” she added.

Earlier this month the prospects of the revival of these businesses was shattered after the government announced the suspension of this year’s academic calendar, following soaring COVID-19 cases and the logistical stress of achieving social distancing in schools.

Nkatha’s colleague, Abigail Munyasya has countered her economic tribulations by sending her child to her ancestral village in order to maximize on the meager income she is now getting.

“It has proved to be expensive to sustain both of us with reduced cash flow. It is never easy being separated from your child but I had to do that to ensure continued supply of his basic needs,” said Munyasya.

At the moment, the bookshop is trying to subdue the economic pressure it is facing by selling revision books, storybooks and photocopying documents.

The two female employees hope revenues from the sales will sustain them until schools resume in January 2021.

Peter Gachoki, a self-taught tailor located in a busy market has been tailoring school uniforms since he left his rural home 30 years ago.

“I have been making uniforms long before permanent structures in this market took form, and in those years I have never been as broke as I am,” said Gachoki.

He admitted that he was choking in debts, unable to service loans that he secured to expand his business, adding that he sold one sewing machine to stay afloat.

“I have rolls of fabric I can use to make uniforms but even if I do make them, who will buy uniforms for children learning from home?” said Gachoki.

He is now mulling over closing his business and pursues alternative ventures that might provide him with sustainable revenue.

The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) in May predicted at least 75 percent of small and medium-sized enterprises in the country stood the risk of closure by June due to cash flow challenges linked to COVID-19.

“There was a survey that was done at the end of April and that survey indicated that three quarters do not have cash beyond two months. That means by the end of June three quarters of small and medium-sized enterprises are already on the ropes and will be gone because they do not have any cash to keep the lights on,” said Patrick Njoroge, governor, Central Bank of Kenya.

Away from Nairobi and in Western Kenya, a couple dealing with the distribution of learning materials to schools is counting losses and on the brink of closing their business.

“We have been forced to send our employees on furlough and temporarily close our business premises. Letting go of long-serving employees is never easy, however there is absolutely nothing we can do to deal with the situation at hand,” said Emmy Barongo.

The couple said the preference given to electronic books in these times has further exacerbated their misfortune.

“As the learners and teachers utilize digital books instead of the traditional books for online learning, our business has experienced a downturn,” said Boston Barongo, Emmy’s husband.

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