This is a guest blog post aimed at featuring new perspectives on current events and research from the broader MIT GOV/LAB community. 

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to slow down economic activity around the world, governments have initiated interventions to help mitigate economic hardships to peoples’ livelihoods. Since June, I have been exploring the Kenyan Government’s Covid-19 policy approaches to the social welfare needs of Nairobi’s informal economy, making up 2.6 million of the city’s 4.4 million residents. Article 43 of Kenya’s Constitution states that “the State shall provide appropriate social security to persons who are unable to support themselves and their dependants.” Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the government, relatives and friends, religious institutions and private companies have all taken steps to help those in the informal economy. Based on my research, however, government cash assistance for the city’s poor has only reached about 7%, while assistance from NGOs has reached 12%. 

As a follow up to my summer research, I designed a research study implemented by Trends and Insights For Africa (TIFA), a Nairobi-based research firm, in September and October 2020. Using a quantitative approach, my study involved 550 respondents in Nairobi’s informal economy. I also administered 30 qualitative interviews spread across gender, age and different settlements within this group. Given the current public health protocols, respondents were interviewed by phone. TIFA has a database built from previous face-to-face household surveys conducted in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Probability proportional to size (PPS) sampling was used to ensure representation of various demographics. The 550 respondents represent an estimated 820,000 adults in Nairobi’s low-income areas, with a +/- 4.2% margin of error. 

This blog discusses three main findings from the survey and qualitative interviews: impacts on informal employment and housing; interventions by NGOs; and challenges with cash assistance.

Impacts on informal employment and housing

Households in Nairobi’s informal economy, in settlements like Mathare, Huruma, Kawangware, Kibera, Korogocho, Mowlem and Mukuru kwa Njenga, take many forms. In my sample, nearly all families in these communities pay rent in the range of KES 2,000 to 4,000 (USD $20-40) per month. Additionally, the average household size is four people, ranging between one and nine members comprising children, adults, and relatives. Household members engage in a variety of low-wage jobs and income activities such as ferrying luggage, washing clothes, hawking, transportation, providing security services, hoteling, selling second-hand clothes and charcoal, among others. 

These jobs and activities have been disrupted by public health protocols implemented due to the pandemic, including limited mobility and night curfews. Interviewees report observing tenants getting evicted by landlords due to unpaid rent. The recent six-month extension of the Nairobi City County Government’s April 2019 rent waiver for public housing does not apply to a majority of them because their housing is privately owned. One exception to the many people who rent privately-owned housing was a respondent who owns the house he has lived in for the last 62 years. Below are direct quotes from interviews:

“I am worried a lot because I have a family and I am the bread winner, so things are not easy. Business is doing so badly as my construction work is not a permanent type of job, so I end up searching for so many places before I get construction work.” — 32-year-old man from Mathare.

“In my household, there are seven people: two adults and five children. I have lived here for 15 years. I pay rent; KES 2,700 per month. I am unemployed, but I keep searching for casual jobs such as ferrying luggage. In this community, most people have lost their jobs. Landlords have been throwing out people’s stuff due to unpaid rent.”  — 43-year-old man from Mukuru Kwa Njenga.

Interventions by non-governmental organizations

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Communities), the Kenya Red Cross, the World Health Organization (WHO), unidentified social workers, churches, politicians and corporations have contributed cash and material assistance (such as small bottles (50ml) of sanitizer and bars of soap) to residents of informal settlements mainly between March and April 2020, according to those interviewed. Two respondents noted:

“With the WHO money, I paid August rent and bought food. I received the SHOFCO money four times, so it helped me for four months.” — 32-year-old man from Mathare

“SHOFCO gave help to the whole area. We don’t know about government help.” — 37-year-old man from Mlango Kubwa

Challenges for governmental cash assistance  

In addition to cash assistance from NGOs, the government of Kenya took a positive step by utilizing the policy response of cash assistance to those in need. Benefits of providing cash grants to the poor is consistent with new evidence from Rwanda showing that cash does more than job training to improve income and household wealth. This is because poor people are good at improving their own livespeople often know what’s best for themselves. During the pandemic, many countries have implemented cash transfer programs and the impacts of these efforts are still being understood. 

Based on my research, a large majority of Kenyans have been excluded from receiving assistance. From my quantitative analysis on access to cash assistance the government and NGOs have taken different approaches to deciding who is eligible. NGOs appear to have used structure and logic when it comes to cash disbursement. For example, older, less educated residents are more likely to get cash assistance from an NGO. Yet age and education don’t appear to have an effect on who receives the government’s cash payout.

According to interviewees, nepotism is a major obstacle to accessing the government’s cash assistance since the decision as to who is enrolled is made by local leaders, mainly the chiefs. Getting a cash grants depends on who you know, as two respondents noted:  

“In March, SHOFCO gave me a 50ml bottle of sanitizer and a bar of soap. I have received help from some of my neighbors, but nothing from the government. I know some people’s names were written down and were given money by the government, but it was through corruption since they are not willing to discuss this with me. [The] Government has employed those who are 30 years [old] and below in the Kazi Mtaani program to do casual work, yet they have no jobs for those of us above 40 years. Yet we are the ones with families, so the government should look into that.” — 43-year-old man from Mukuru Kwa Njenga.

“Government support has been most helpful to my household because I got a job with the Kazi Mtaani program.” — 22-year-old lady from Makina in Kibera.

The challenge of nepotism could have been counteracted if Kenya’s database infrastructure, Huduma Namba (National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) was functional as a centralized database of all Kenyans would provide a solution to more easily determine beneficiaries. However, it will not change the economic situations many poor Kenyans endure if NIIMS is not used properly. These three reasons that many citizens are excluded from assistance —age cutoff, nepotism, and lack of comprehensive data— call for a new approach to poverty mitigation.  

Even before Covid-19, workers in the informal economy struggled. The pandemic has worsened their living conditions. The Kazi Mtaani program, an urban youth employment program, has only created jobs for a select few. At a time when Kenya is debating a Constitutional referendum, economic inclusion is paramount in this conversation. 

Victor Rateng is 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. His research was supported by MIT GOV/LAB, the University of Michigan’s International Policy Center, and Rackham Graduate School. Contact: @Victor_Rateng /

Image of Kibera, Nairobi by Donwilson Odhiambo.