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Webuye town and COVID-19 in the absence of a source of income: Struggle for Survival by urban poor

Dennis Ochieng Otieno
p. 407-417

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Introduction

1This article is about Covid-19 and how it affected the urban poor living in Webuye town (West of Kenya) in the absence of Pan African Paper Mills also known as Pan Paper. Pan Paper for decades was the major source of livelihood for the residents of Webuye town. The factory was intertwined with the town’s growth. Before the global pandemic hit, Webuye town was dealing with its struggling economy. Coronavirus added more challenges onto the existing ones like loss of jobs. In curbing the spread of the pandemic, the government put in place measures like cessation of movement, dusk to dawn curfew among many other measures. With many industries closing down during the pandemic, the economy of country was greatly affected. Webuye was not an exception, it had its equal share of economic downturn. Street traders, cobblers, motorcycle operators and other casual workers who largely depended on the defunct Pan Paper and later on Rai Paper employees, and other employees from the various learning institutions had nothing to turn back to. On the other hand, employees from various sectors including the Rai Paper employees who were sent home on unpaid leave also had nothing to turn back to. Consequently, the affected groups had to opt for other options in order to earn a living. Street hawking characterized by long distance trekking, vending and bodaboda transport (motorcycle taxi) became the only convenient options left to be explored. Some bodaboda operators had to flout the Covid-19 protocols because the time that they had to operate was never enough to earn them enough money for their daily expenses. Working past curfew time became so lucrative to most of the bodaboda operators. Webuye town is in Bungoma County, it is located along the main railway from Mombasa to Uganda, on the western margin of Kenya, a few dozen kilometers from the Ugandan border. Webuye town has about 35000 inhabitants. It was initially a frontier town and, transformed into a bustling town in 1972 with the establishment of Pan African Paper Mills until 2009 when the factory collapsed. The article employed semi-structured interviews in order to gather the required data for the study. Key informants included street traders, county government officials, community members and the area leaders. Seventeen informants were sampled and included into the study. Face to face interviews were conducted with the participants, observing the protocols put in place by the ministry of health to curb the spread of the virus.

Workers of Rai Paper and workers of educational services sector living through COVID-19 crisis

2Pan African Paper Mills also known as Pan Paper which for many decades was the major source of livelihood in Webuye town struggled since 1992 due to the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), mismanagement of the factory as well as the ban on logging by the government of Kenya in 1999. This ban was imposed by the government to prevent unsustainable harvesting in plantation. Ultimately, the ban had negative impact on Pan Paper since trees were the factory’s major raw materials. The giant factory finally collapsed in 20091 Arguably, the collapse of Pan Paper marked the beginning of the unceasing poverty that has been biting the residents of Webuye town.

  • 2 Oral Interview, Wafula Alfred, 45 years old, 19 October 2020.

3Since Webuye town was the biggest economic hub in western region during the heydays of Pan Paper, the government decided to revive the factory to breathe life into the sleepy Webuye town through privatizing it in 2016. The revival of Pan Paper Mills which is currently under a new ownership has in the past few years played a significant role in rejuvenating the growth of Webuye town. The factory is now owned by the Tarlochan limited, a subsidiary of Rai Group of companies. The name then changed from Pan Paper to Rai Paper. The factory is operating on a lower scale and employs only 754 employees. Where only 136 employees are on permanent basis, 485 employees are on contract and 133 are casual labourers, unlike Pan Paper that employed over 3000 workers during its heydays. However, since the outbreak of covid-19 in Kenya on 13 March 2020 and its subsequent impacts on the economy, Alfred, the Human Resource manager at Rai Paper argues that, Rai Paper could not accommodate all the employees based on its struggling nature. Consequently, over 500 employees were sent home on unpaid leave2.

  • 3 Oral Interview, Wepukhulu Isaac, 48 years Old, 21 October 2020.

4Isaac, one of the staff who was sent home by Rai Paper, informed the study that when Rai Paper employed him in 2018, he saw it as a life changing moment and he was certain that his future was secured. However, the outbreak of the virus in Kenya shattered his illusions. He emotionally told how hard life was for the five months following being sent home on unpaid leave. According to him, he had to venture into motorcycle (bodaboda) business in order to earn a living. The factory later began to recall some few employees in August 2020 after the relaxation of some measures. Isaac observes that he was among the few staff who had so far been recalled. According to him, he could comfortably meet the basic needs for his family but the situation was still not easy as before since he was still working on half salary. Isaac, who was also a former employee of Pan Paper, and still living in the factory’s rentals without paying any rent, regretted his decisions of being rigid and refusing to look for job in other places. He argued that, since he lost his job at Pan Paper in 2009, their arrears were never settled so he had no choice but to use the factory’s house that he was given as an employee. He observes that, staying in Webuye town waiting for more than ten years hoping for the revival of Pan Paper was the biggest mistake he ever made. He went ahead to explain that maybe if he had settled elsewhere, things would have been different3.

  • 4 Oral Interview, Miyungu Violet, 52 years Old, 13 October 2020.

5Violet, secretary at Rai Paper observes that the revival of the factory was on course though on a low scale, but also concurred with Isaac’s observation. She argues that 90 percent of the employees that Rai Paper had employed were the former Pan Paper employees. According to her, most of them, due to frustration caused by the collapse of the factory and its subsequent closure refused to leave town to find employment elsewhere. Instead, they insisted in maintaining the houses that the factory gave them where they were not paying rent. According to her, this move caused a lot of relaxation among the former factory’s employees. As a way of illuminating their hopes, Rai Paper recalled a few of them. Later, there was an outbreak of the virus which resulted in the laying off of staff and sending them home on unpaid leave. Most of those employees regretted their decisions of refusing to look for other jobs elsewhere, she further explained4.

  • 5 R. H. Wong, 2006, “The Urban Functions of Educational Institutions” in J. A. Lauways and D. G. Scan (...)
  • 6 F. Harbison and C. A. Myers, 1964, Education, manpower and Economic Growth New York: Mcgraw-Hill, p (...)

6Moreover, the cessation of operations and closure of education institutions often have tremendous negative effect on towns in the areas of economic activities, education and culture. Wong (2006) argues that education institutions influence the development of a town in various ways since they ultimately become integral parts of the town. He further observed that they not only increase the intellectual and cultural activities of the town, but also contribute to its physical growth. Additionally, the institutions not only strengthen the economic base of the town, but also diversify it. Moreover, the institutions enrich the town culturally, especially through their cosmopolitan nature. The town’s management is intimately connected to the institutions through the provision of services5. The town provides services to the institutions. This creates a symbiotic relationship between the two sites. To provide educational services adequately, a number of agencies spring up near the institutions, including stationery and bookshops, laundries, tea and coffee houses, hostels and grocery shops of which contribute greatly to the commercial growth of the town6.

  • 7 Ministry for Devolution and Planning, Bungoma East District Development Plan, 2013 Nairobi: Governm (...)
  • 8 Ibid.

7Webuye town has a number of academic institutions, most of which were established far back as 1989 and the year 2005. In total, Webuye town has seventeen primary schools, twelve secondary schools and two post-secondary colleges7. These institutions admit pupils and students from all over the county and the country at large, and though some are day schools, most schools have boarding facilities. The numerous educational institutions in the town pervade both economic and social life. The Kenya Medical and Training College (KMTC) campus, was for instance, established in 2005. Since the establishment of the college, the economy of the town was closely linked with educational institutions. For example, many medium-size businesses in the town catered for the educational needs, including bookshops, stationery shops, school uniform shops, laboratory chemicals and equipment outlets as well as mass printing businesses. The institutions, especially those with boarding facilities, were the main consumers of farm produce. Farmers engaging in agri-business activities supplied their produce from their farms to different educational institutions. Rental premises are currently being constructed especially near the colleges, college students, teaching and non-teaching staff are the main consumers of these facilities8.

  • 9 R. H. Wong, 2006, “The Urban Functions of Educational Institutions” in J. A. Lauways and D. G. Scan (...)

8A general premise states that a town that relies on only one economic activity can easily crumble. The academic institutions play a vital role in diversifying the economy of Webuye Town. Though they are not the major drivers of the town’s development, they complement the major drivers by providing a stable economic base. The total number of pupils and students in these institutions is well over 6,000. The schools attract a substantial number of both teaching and non-teaching staff who form part of the town residents9. In other words, academic institutions not only led to an increase in the population of Webuye town but also in the creation of employment for the residents. The closure and cessation of operations of learning institutions have had negative impacts on the town economically.

  • 10 Oral Interview, Makasi Peter, 58 years Old, 12 October 2020.

9Peter, a former Pan Paper employee and currently a farmer observes that, he used to supply various schools in Webuye town with cereals including the two colleges and Rai Paper. According to him, the closure of these institution as a result of the outbreak of Covid-19 greatly affected him. Peter argues that farming had for years been his only source of livelihood and he really depended on those learning institutions and the factory. Rai Paper purchased cereals from him to feed its employees. With the outbreak of the pandemic, the factory stopped buying cereals from him because its big population had been sent home and the learning institution were also closed down. In order to earn a living after the closure of these entities, he opted to sell his maize cereals to some (posho) mill operators on a small-scale. He argues that this could not even help him settle his bills. He further observes probably that when normalcy return, he would return to his business of supplying schools with cereals as before, but for the mean time he had to make do with the little he had10.

  • 11 Oral Interview, Naliaka Mary, 32 years Old, 16 October 2020.

10Mary, who owns a stationary shop in Webuye town equally had the same observation as Peter, she observes that since schools were closed, her business crumbled, Mary whose customers were majorly students explains that the landlord almost closed her shop because she could not settle the monthly rent. According to her, students and the teaching staffs were her key customers, she observes that students from the higher learning institutions within the town had the highest purchasing power. When the learning institutions were closed, she argues that she indeed felt the impact of the economic crunch. After the relaxation of the protocols and the subsequent phase reopening of learning institutions, she observes that she could at least settle her rent but business was yet to stabilize11.

Weak workers of Webuye town in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • 12 Oral Interview, Mirengo Lennah, 17 years old and Wafula Freizzy, 12 years Old, 12 October 2020.

11The weak workers in Webuye town that the study focused on were those in the informal sector, a large part of which were street vendors. These were the most vulnerable group that was seriously affected by the pandemic. In the absence of any aid from both governments, struggle for survival had to continue. Lennah, a form three student at Malaha Secondary school and her sister Freizzy, a class five pupil at Matulo Primary school informed the study that since the outbreak of covid-19 and the subsequent closure of schools, they ventured into street hawking in order to support their single mother who had lost her job at Rai Paper in March 2020. Lennah argues that they trekked over 10km with her sister daily to look for customers to buy their bananas. She further observes that stationing themselves in Webuye town was not working well for them since there was inadequate money in circulation within the town. That was why they decided to traverse the neighbouring settlements including Matisi, Milo and Lugulu, that was when they could make around ksh 500 daily (almost 4 euros). The duo concludes by observing that they were not sure of going back to school when schools reopens in January 2021. According to them, stigmatization would be their biggest threat since they interacted with many of their peers on the streets going to school as they were hawking12.

Figure1 - Photographs showing children hawking at kwa Dinnah and Sango in Webuye town

Figure1 - Photographs showing children hawking at kwa Dinnah and Sango in Webuye town

Source: Photo taken by the author on 13 October 2020

  • 13 Oral Interview, Frankline Matasi, 66 years Old, 13 October 2020.

12The two represented the many children of school going age who were also involved in street hawking. Street hawking in Webuye town during the pandemic was dominated by children of school going age. Most of these children walked long distances to the neighbouring settlements to look for customers. In other words, the pandemic reduced most of the Webuye town children to the level of street hawking instead of studying. This was a clear indication that poverty and inequality was real during the pandemic. As some children were busy with their online studies, some children were walking the streets of Webuye town hawking in order to support their families. Matasi, a former architecture, only wondered how this inequality that had been exiting but worsened by the pandemic would be bridged among the students13.

  • 14 M-Pesa is a mobile phone based money transfer service, payments and micro-financing, launched in 20 (...)
  • 15 Oral Interview, Kwatenge Pamela, 60 years Old, 14 October 2020.

13A fruit and vegetables vendor in Webuye town named Pamela observes that the impact of covid-19 was real and she felt it. She explains that the collapse of Pan Paper was much better since she only lost potential buyers but she could still get other buyers. Pamela argues that the 7:00 pm curfew which became effective from 27 March 2020 almost brought her business down on its knees. According to her, her business normally could pick from 7:00 pm when most families could buy vegetables and other groceries for supper. Since everyone was supposed to be indoors by 7:00 pm, Pamela had no choice but to close for fear of being found on the wrong side of the law and this greatly affected her business she explains. She further argues that, some buyers also stole from her through M-PESA14 by reversing the transactions, but the struggle had to continue15.

  • 16 Oral Interview, Kwanzwi David, 52 years Old, 16 October 2020.

14The risks of vending along the main highways notwithstanding, many vendors like Pamela opted to vend along the main roads in town. This resulted in a massive exodus of vendors from there designated place of vending. David, a county revenue collector supervisor observed that their attempts to create order by returning vendors to their designated place were thwarted. He further asserted that since the county government was also collecting taxes from the vendors, they had to let them be. According to him, while the move created disorganization within the town, but it was a win-win situation for both the county government and the traders during the hard times. He acknowledged that the pandemic caused too much suffering to residents of the town and struggle for survival was inevitable16.

Figure 2 - Photographs showing the newly created vending site along the main highway and the abandoned main market in Webuye town

Figure 2 - Photographs showing the newly created vending site along the main highway and the abandoned main market in Webuye town

Source: Photos taken by the author on 17 October 2020

  • 17 Ibid.

15David, further argues that when the pandemic hit, they had to close the open-air market to avoid overcrowding and that move greatly affected the second-hand clothes dealers within the town. He equally echoed on the point that Webuye town’s economic growth depended much on the outsiders after the collapse of Pan Paper. According to him, Wednesdays were always the major market days at Webuye town. Every Wednesday, traders came from far and wide to sell and buy goods. He posited that, covid-19 protocols on the cessation of movement and social distancing made such activities impossible, and that greatly affected the economic growth of a small town that was already struggling with its growth17.

  • 18 Oral Interview, Wamalwa John, 69 years Old, 13 October 2020.

16Apart from street traders, cobbling activities in Webuye town were not spared either by the effects of the pandemic either. John, a cobbler at Nyange Street in Webuye town observes that his business was doing very well even in the absence of Pan Paper. According to him, besides repairing foot wears, he had also established his own shop where he could sell second hand shoes. Unfortunately, the pandemic resulted in the collapse of his shop. He argues that since there was cessation of movement and lockdown and above all the fear of contracting the virus because of his age, he found it unnecessary to be travelling to Busia where he used to buy his goods, that was how his business collapsed. John turned to a hopeless cobbler who lived on the mercies of passerby and his neighbours whom he depended on for his daily bread. According to him the only thing that kept him in Webuye town was the fact that it is his home. He further argues that the pandemic reduced him to a beggar18. John’s argument explains why most of the town’s residents are wallowing in poverty since the collapse of Pan Paper and yet they are still hanging on. Webuye town is home to many of them, so according to John, they could not run away from home because of problems but instead, they had to face the challenges.

Transport sector in Webuye town and COVID-19 pandemic

  • 19 Oral Interview, Reuben John, 48 years Old, 12 October 2020.

17In Webuye town, the main mode of public transport is the public vehicles (Matatus) operating within and outside the town. Within the township, the major mode of transport is the matatu plying routes such as Lugulu, Matisi and Matulo areas. Another major form of transport is buses. Buses like modern coast have their booking offices within the town, the bus ferries passengers from Mombasa to Webuye then back to Mombasa. The operation of the matatus and hooting starts at 5:00 am in the morning, operating up to 9:00 pm. Motorbikes which are commonly referred to as bodaboda are also used as a mode of transport. Motorbikes are commonly used because of their efficiency in time consumption and their nature of flexibility19. When the global pandemic hit, transport sector was the only busy sector in the town that was on its way to becoming a ghost town after the collapse of Pan Paper.

  • 20 Ibid.
  • 21 Oral Interview, Murunga Jacob, 38 years Old, 13 October 2020.

18With the imposition of the stringent measures by the government to curb the spread of the virus which took effect from March 2020, further reduced the town to a ghost town. This was the case as COVID-19 continued to wreak havoc in the country until 7th July 2020. Transport sector within the town counted losses which resulted to the closure of so many booking offices and consequently, job losses. Bodaboda operators who were living on the hopes of visitors and tourists coming to town became hopeless20. Jacob M., a bodaboda operator told that before covid-19, his business was doing very well and they enjoyed 24-hour unrestricted movements and trade. However, when the pandemic hit, the stringent measures could not allow them do business as they used to do before. Jacob observed that he and others secretly helped passengers who were caught up in the curfew hours to cross police road blocks. He further asserts that, as natives of the area, they knew the terrains better than the police officers. That was the only way they could raise money to help their families during the hard times though very risky he further observed21.

  • 22 Oral Interview, Naliaka Yvonne, 33 years Old, 16 October 2020.
  • 23 Oral Interview, Wanyonyi Elijo, 41 years Old, 12 October 2020.

19Yvonne, who works for the Northways SACCO Webuye branch observes that since the government imposed the stringent measures to curb the spread of the virus, their SACCO was seriously affected. According to her, their SACCO relied majorly on passengers travelling to and from Nairobi, and since the new measures put in place by the government could not allow them travel to Nairobi or from Nairobi, the SACCO had no choice but to lay off its staffs22. Elijo, Northways driver concurs with Yvonne’s observation. He emotionally narrated how the job that he had done for years came to temporary halt all of a sudden. Elijo argues that, in order to overcome frustrations, he opted to become a bicycle taxi operator because he could not afford the demands of bodaboda owners who were demanding a return of ksh 300 daily. He observes that his bicycle did very little to sustain his family’s daily expenses but the struggle never stopped. Even as he returned to his driving job after the cessation of movement was lifted, Elijo argues that the effects of the pandemic left a permanent mark in his life23.

Figure 3 - Photographs showing bicycle transport operator and bodaboda operators in Webuye

Figure 3 - Photographs showing bicycle transport operator and bodaboda operators in Webuye

Source: Photos taken by the author on 21 October 2020

Conclusion

20Webuye town emerged as a rural town whose economic growth largely depended on Pan African Paper Mills. The town’s growth was so rapid that it could not be compared to small towns in Kenya during the heydays of the factory. However, when the factory collapsed in 2009, the town’s growth drastically declined and the town was on its way to becoming a ghost town. In other words, it could be deduced that that the town was living by the rhythm of Pan Paper. As the town was still struggling with its economic growth, there was an outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The virus added more challenges onto the existing ones like loss of jobs which further threatened the growth of the town. Poverty which the town was characterized with became worse as many of the town’s residents could barely feed themselves. Overreliance on the revival of Pan Paper was the major cause of the biting poverty that was witnessed in Webuye during the pandemic. Moving forward, the town may need to further diversify its economy as a precautionary measure against the closure or scaling down of operations in the town.

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Bibliographie

Abdi H. N, 2004. -“The influence of rural logistics and rural transport costs on farm income and poverty in Kenya: the case of Kisumu and Nyandarua Districts, Kenya”, World Bank Report.

Karekezi S., Kimani J and Onguru O., 2008 - Energy access among the urban poor in Kenya. Energy for Sustainable Development, 12(4), p. 38-48.

Makanji L. and Mochida H., 2004. “Logging Ban in Kenya: Convergence or Divergence from Forest Law and policy and impacts on Plantation Forestry.” Journal of Forest Planning, 10(1), p. 21-30.

Muthike G. M., Shitanda D., Kanali C. L. and Muisu F. N., 2010 - Chainsaw milling in Kenya.

Wekesa C.T., Wawire N.H and Kosimbei G., “Effects of infrastructure development in Kenya”. Journal of Infrastructure Development, 8(2), p. 93-110.

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Notes

1 Oral Interview Ogange Timothy, 65 years Old, 12 October 2020; http://www.the-star.co.ke Accessed on 16 October 2020.

2 Oral Interview, Wafula Alfred, 45 years old, 19 October 2020.

3 Oral Interview, Wepukhulu Isaac, 48 years Old, 21 October 2020.

4 Oral Interview, Miyungu Violet, 52 years Old, 13 October 2020.

5 R. H. Wong, 2006, “The Urban Functions of Educational Institutions” in J. A. Lauways and D. G. Scanlon (eds), Education in Cities London: Routledge, p. 30-31.

6 F. Harbison and C. A. Myers, 1964, Education, manpower and Economic Growth New York: Mcgraw-Hill, p. 23.

7 Ministry for Devolution and Planning, Bungoma East District Development Plan, 2013 Nairobi: Government Printers, p. 9; Oral Interview, Anyira Caroline, 56 years Old, 22 October, 2020.

8 Ibid.

9 R. H. Wong, 2006, “The Urban Functions of Educational Institutions” in J. A. Lauways and D. G. Scanlon (eds), Education in Cities London: Routledge, p. 30-31.

10 Oral Interview, Makasi Peter, 58 years Old, 12 October 2020.

11 Oral Interview, Naliaka Mary, 32 years Old, 16 October 2020.

12 Oral Interview, Mirengo Lennah, 17 years old and Wafula Freizzy, 12 years Old, 12 October 2020.

13 Oral Interview, Frankline Matasi, 66 years Old, 13 October 2020.

14 M-Pesa is a mobile phone based money transfer service, payments and micro-financing, launched in 2007 in Kenya. The service has spread to East Africa (and beyond), with dozens of millions of users in East Africa.

15 Oral Interview, Kwatenge Pamela, 60 years Old, 14 October 2020.

16 Oral Interview, Kwanzwi David, 52 years Old, 16 October 2020.

17 Ibid.

18 Oral Interview, Wamalwa John, 69 years Old, 13 October 2020.

19 Oral Interview, Reuben John, 48 years Old, 12 October 2020.

20 Ibid.

21 Oral Interview, Murunga Jacob, 38 years Old, 13 October 2020.

22 Oral Interview, Naliaka Yvonne, 33 years Old, 16 October 2020.

23 Oral Interview, Wanyonyi Elijo, 41 years Old, 12 October 2020.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure1 - Photographs showing children hawking at kwa Dinnah and Sango in Webuye town
Crédits Source: Photo taken by the author on 13 October 2020
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/com/docannexe/image/12585/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 609k
Titre Figure 2 - Photographs showing the newly created vending site along the main highway and the abandoned main market in Webuye town
Crédits Source: Photos taken by the author on 17 October 2020
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/com/docannexe/image/12585/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 443k
Titre Figure 3 - Photographs showing bicycle transport operator and bodaboda operators in Webuye
Crédits Source: Photos taken by the author on 21 October 2020
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/com/docannexe/image/12585/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 528k
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Référence papier

Dennis Ochieng Otieno, « Webuye town and COVID-19 in the absence of a source of income: Struggle for Survival by urban poor »Les Cahiers d’Outre-Mer, 282 | 2020, 407-417.

Référence électronique

Dennis Ochieng Otieno, « Webuye town and COVID-19 in the absence of a source of income: Struggle for Survival by urban poor »Les Cahiers d’Outre-Mer [En ligne], 282 | Juillet-Décembre, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2023, consulté le 14 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/com/12585 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/com.12585

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Auteur

Dennis Ochieng Otieno

Department of Philosophy, History and Religious Studies, Egerton University, P.O Box 536, Egerton, Kenya. Email: akokodennis@gmail.com

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