In Nairobi, Kenya, eight out of ten respondents stated that their lives had changed “a great deal”, due to Covid-19 in a recent survey by Trends and Insights For Africa (TIFA). Among individuals reporting hardships, nine out of ten cited reduced income from loss of employment or casual work. The survey focused on informal economy residents, who make up three-fifths of Nairobi’s population of 4.4 million, and includes many individuals and families who remain trapped in poverty.

In May 2020, the Kenyan Government unveiled fiscal, monetary and macro-financial policies in response to the economic slowdown. Most of these interventions responded to the formal sector’s needs, which nationally comprises 17% of Kenya’s labor force. It is yet to be fully established how helpful these policies have been to Kenyans. Even before Covid-19, Kenya’s National Safety Net Programme (NSNP) strived to tackle the economic burden of vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, those with disabilities, and those with severe food insecurity.

According to TIFA, within Nairobi’s vulnerable groups, 66% report having been out of work before Covid-19, and seven out of ten (70%) households report a combined monthly household income below KES 20,000 (USD $200). For Nairobi’s majority poor population, Covid-19 containment measures such as night curfews and closure of schools and bars, have increased their vulnerabilities. Worsening job loss and income instability necessitated the government’s expansion of cash assistance programs that operate via the mobile money platform M-Pesa, to help with money for food and other basic needs.

Kenya Informal Economy Statistics. Data sources: Trends and Insights For Africa (TIFA) and Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).

How is the expanded cash assistance program faring?

As part of my summer internship with MIT GOV/LAB, I am exploring the Kenya Government’s Covid-19 policy approaches to the social welfare needs of people in the informal economy in Nairobi. This research includes analysis of quantitative data on citizens’ perceptions, and qualitative interviews with various policy influencers in Kenya —those leading efforts to help the vulnerable, policy experts, researchers, and senior journalists.

Overall, initial analysis of interviews demonstrate mixed views about the efficacy of these policy responses. While most interviewees acknowledge that the government initiated social welfare projects, they also say these were delayed, unstructured, and uninformed. The key challenge is identification of cash assistance program’s beneficiaries, a difficulty attributed to the government having no centralized database to rely on to quickly activate the stimulus package. One interviewee, a community organizer, stated:

“There have been complaints about bias in the way the beneficiaries were or are selected. The government may have used the wrong or inefficient channels to recruit beneficiaries. Some people said they relied on the August 2019 census database, in which case, certain people may have changed their phone numbers.”

Because of the database hurdle, and with Covid-19’s hardships, citizens in the informal economy find themselves further left behind. In 2019, the government spent KES 7.7 billion (USD $72 million) on Huduma Namba, a National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) whose aim was to create and manage a central master population database. NIIMS was challenged in court due to lack of data privacy protection laws. The Principal Secretary for Information, Communications and Technology (ICT), Innovation and Youth Affairs, Jorome Ochieng, cited the judicial proceedings as an impediment to the database’s use. 

Chiefs, tasked with providing community members’ names and phone numbers to the national government, ushered in additional challenges. Several interviewees believe that some chiefs failed to provide an inclusive list because they lack an updated database of residents. Instead, the chiefs turned to community organizations. These chiefs are deemed to have favored certain locals, as well as undeserving relatives and friends residing outside their locations. Some of the chiefs are also said to be less familiar with their administrative boundaries due to job transfers. In the neighborhood of Mathare, a community leader said that:

“I have heard people say that the local chiefs provided the names based on their knowledge and database. Some of these chiefs are old, and their databases may have expired. My database of [slightly over two thousand] of families is actually updated. The process was also rushed. This intervention also came too late. We felt very neglected.”

Even as questions regarding the beneficiary enrollment criteria linger, there are also concerns with the variation in amounts being disbursed, which have been reported as ranging from KES 1,000 to 2,500 (USD $10 to $25). Despite some explanations, it appears the government’s clarification has not been adequate, raising suspicions further that payments are being distributed unfairly.

Data privacy conundrum

Kazi Mtaani, meaning “employment in the neighborhood”, is a National Hygiene Program designed to cushion the most vulnerable but able-bodied citizens (mostly youth) living in informal settlements from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic through wage employment. In my research, one community leader noted that:

“Aside from providing the list, non-state actors’ support besides cash has been so effective the government relaxed, they [government] would have been overstretched. This has enabled them [government] to focus on the health aspect [mass testing and containment]. The government should be grateful. However, these problems have spilled over to the Kazi Mtaani project.”

Had the government successfully rolled out the Huduma Namba program, most of these data privacy challenges could have been avoided. In the shortterm, collaboration with community-based organizations is essential to improve the cash assistance program to reach all deserving citizens. For an already left behind community, sowing inequality seeds among the unequal is inevitable if the cash transfer challenges are not addressed. Will the Kenyan government use the Covid-19 cash transfer program to demonstrate commitment to Huduma Bora (Better Services) now and in the future, and build citizens’ trust? This will depend on the willingness of civil society and the government to strike a balance between data privacy protection and the urgent need to improve the social welfare of the informal economy.

This work was featured on Voice of America, Nightline Africa. Give it a listen, Victor’s work is featured starting at 12:57. 

Victor Rateng a second year master of public policy candidate in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He specializes in international policy. Before the Ford School, Victor worked as a public affairs researcher in Kenya in both nonprofit and for-profit sectors. He has over a decade’s experience in public affairs research in East Africa. His summer research was supported by MIT GOV/LAB, the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, Business+Impact (Ross School of Business), the African Studies Center and Rackham Graduate School. Contact:

(Photo: Erastus Osino. Nairobi’s Mukuru kwa Njenga settlement in Nairobi’s Eastlands area).