Hempstone Monari’s taxi business had just been launched when his future slipped away and a Kenyan bank auctioned off his car for non-payment of a $9,900 loan.
“They took my car when business was slow,” the 29-year-old told AFP, his eyes reddened by tear gas, on the sidelines of a protest that included clashes with police.
Now unemployed and struggling to feed his family of three, he joined hundreds of pro-opposition demonstrators in Nairobi this week to protest against the high cost of living. “Life has become difficult,” he says.
Kenya is an economic and political powerhouse in East Africa and has seen a host of infrastructure projects in recent years – but the problems are getting worse behind the facade.
Inflation hit 9.2% in February, according to the government.
The region’s record drought has left millions of people without resources and food, and the upcoming rainy season, between March and May, is expected to be the sixth consecutive year of water shortages.
The country’s currency, the Kenyan shilling, has fallen to an all-time low, losing nearly 4% of its value against the dollar in February, according to Oxford Economics Africa.
Although the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have contributed to the crisis, protesters like Hempstone Monari believe their government could do much more to alleviate their woes.
They are now prepared to hold demonstrations twice a week, posing a major challenge to the administration of President William Ruto six months after his election.
According to Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, the protests have already cost Kenya $15 million. On Wednesday, the Kenyan president sought to reassure investors, highlighting his commitment to ensuring a “safe and conducive environment on a sustainable basis” for the business community.
– He added that his government would “take strong measures (…) to demonstrate that no one is above the law by decisively fighting impunity, lawlessness and disorder”.
An ambitious young leader, William Ruto had campaigned on a promise to revive the economy and put money into the pockets of the oppressed. But his decision to lift subsidies on fuel and maize meal – a staple food – was met with anger and misunderstanding.
“Honestly, we don’t know what tomorrow or next week or next month is going to be like,” Jane Chege, 33, manager of an electronics shop that has seen its income more than halved in the past six months, told AFP.
“Just paying the rent is a chore. The cost of importing mobile phones will soon be unaffordable for small businesses like mine,” she says.
For economists, the future looks bleak.
“Our short-term outlook remains on the downside,” Shani Smit-Lengton of Oxford Economics told AFP. The country will continue to suffer from a lack of foreign exchange for the next 18 months, he predicted.
Drought is expected to further reduce agricultural prospects while the vital tourism industry, which accounts for nearly 10% of GDP, could be hit by the protests.
The weakening currency has also added to Kenya’s soaring loan repayment costs.
Until the government restructures the debt, the economic situation is unlikely to change, economist Reginald Kadzutu told AFP.
The International Monetary Fund is expected to review the country’s credit facilities in May and it is expected to receive a further loan disbursement in June.
“The problem is that we are moving towards excessive debt” because “we are borrowing to repay the debt”, notes Reginald Kadzutu.
The World Bank continues to forecast 5.2% growth for the Kenyan economy.
Hempstone Monari and other Kenyans say they are not about to give up the fight. “You can never get anything in this country unless you shout,” he believes.