Kenya’s Philanthropic Tradition Tackles the COVID-19 Challenge

Access to adequate social protection in Kenya remains difficult, but a local community movement built on the country’s philanthropic tradition of harambee is growing.

Expert comment
Published 9 June 2020 Updated 26 August 2021 2 minute READ

Nkirote Laiboni

Former Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellow

Grafitti artists from Mathare Roots Youth Organisation with their mural helping curb the spread of coronavirus in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images.

Grafitti artists from Mathare Roots Youth Organisation with their mural helping curb the spread of coronavirus in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images.

Many Kenyans at home and in the diaspora are used to leveraging home-grown technological innovations to donate money in support of under-privileged families and other households affected by crisis. But with millions of Kenyans in need, the question remains whether community philanthropy can truly substitute formal social welfare in the face of coronavirus.

COVID-19 infection rates remain reasonably low and credit is due to Kenya’s government for its quick response. But, as in other African countries, the measures have brought other costs, with income insecurity top of the list.

Historically, Kenya’s informal sector workers are a hugely vulnerable group, but even those working in the formal economy now face lost wages. Companies are laying off staff or offering either unpaid leave or reduced salaries in a bid to remain afloat following the government’s stay-at-home directive.

For the self-employed and those working in the informal sector, small-scale entrepreneurs and factory workers on short-term contracts, COVID-19 restrictions mean a massive reduction in daily earnings, or their complete end. This could have a huge impact on food security and the physical and mental well-being of millions of Kenyans.

However, two months into the outbreak, the government has not yet met its promise to provide a weekly stipend to vulnerable households across the country. As Kenyans wait for their government to take effective action, social networks are proving an important source of social protection. Low-income city dwellers have found the only way to survive the economic consequences of COVID-19 is to rely on what leading economist David Ndii describes as Kenya’s ‘informal welfare system’ - the extended family.

For some, this means taking their children to their home village and returning to Nairobi in search of a supplementary source of income. The epidemic has motivated many Kenyan families - regardless of socio-economic status - to come together, share food and other resources, convey health information, care for children and the sick or elderly, and provide mental and emotional support.

This sharing among family members is characteristic of many Kenyan communities, where urban workers send regular remittances to extended families in rural areas, well-to-do individuals pay for their relatives’ children’s education, and family, friends and colleagues contribute to medical, funeral and wedding costs.

But it is also emblematic of Kenya’s harambee spirit, a culture of people uniting in times of need that goes all the way back to the country’s post-independence nation-building efforts.

Local online fundraising platforms such as MChanga and social media are playing a critical role in publicising the experiences of those most affected by the mitigation measures, and in mobilising resources to support them.

Community networks have been key in identifying vulnerable households and ensuring that those who need help access it easily, while community volunteers and activists are going door-to-door to make food donations, and linking poor households with families and individuals who are in a position to provide financial support.

Grassroots groups and faith-based organisations in informal settlements and other low-income areas are donating money, foodstuff and hand sanitisers, and carrying out information campaigns.

In recognition of the socio-economic consequences of coronavirus, President Uhuru Kenyatta recently launched the Emergency Response Fund aiming to boost government efforts to mitigate the impact of the epidemic. The government has mobilised local donations from individuals and the private sector as well as from international partners and, as of mid-April, the fund had raised KES 1 billion ($94 million).

In a country whose social welfare system is under-resourced and heavily reliant on donor funding, this fund could be key to supplementing existing government-run social assistance programmes that support older people and other groups at the most risk from contracting COVID-19, or hardest hit by the consequences of its mitigation measures.

But recent fraud allegations led to civil society calls for greater transparency in the administration and monitoring of the fund. As Kenyatta and his government work to expand social assistance to communities most affected by COVID-19 measures, it is important these interventions work in harmony with the vital contributions made by family, social and community networks.

As highlighted by development organisations, social protection policies and interventions in Africa need to recognise the central role that social networks play to economic life in many African countries.

Community initiatives cannot replace formal social welfare systems, but they do present Kenya’s government with a unique opportunity to leverage community knowledge and networks, strengthen social protection policies, and develop programmes steeped in local reality, which tap into the harambee spirit, and address the needs of the most affected.