Kenyans are sending ever fewer letters, confirming the continuing impact of digital communications on postal services and the increasing popularity of courier, recently released government statistics show.
Data from the 2016 Statistical Abstract reviewed by Nation Newsplex shows that over the 13 years from 2003 to 2015 inclusive, the number of unregistered letters sent within Kenya dropped 34 per cent, from 102 million to 67 million. Unregistered letters are not insured and tracked and are by far the most frequently sent articles by the postal service.
Gathoni Kimondo runs the Kimbilio Trust, an organization that helps women facing domestic violence. She remembers that in high school, a big part receiving a letter was all about the waiting. “We used to wait to see if you’d received one,” she said of her time at Moi Girls Nairobi. “It was a big, big deal”
In addition to unregistered mail, Kenyans are sending less mail across a number of mail categories including registered letters, money orders and inland parcels. However the decline in use has not been steady.
From 2006 to 2010, the number of unregistered letters Kenyans sent actually rose 56 per cent, from 69 million to 108 million letters, before dropping 38 per cent to 67 million last year. It is not immediately clear why mail increased in 2010, the year Kenya’s new Constitution was promulgated.
“Social mail has been on the decline, not just in Kenya but globally,” Stephen Muriuki, the General Manager, Mail, for Posta Kenya says. “But the good thing is as the economy grows, e-commerce is also on the increase. People are ordering goods online and this generates business for the post office”.
The number of letters Kenyans sent outside the county dropped 62 per cent over ten years, from 14.8 million in 2006 to 5.6 million in 2015, while letters sent to Kenya from abroad fell 24 per cent over the same period, from 818,000 to 624,000. This reinforces conclusions about technology like email and online web forms reducing the need to mail documents abroad.
According to Mr Muriuki, schools remain one of the significant contributors to postal activity. “Recently, the City Square post office was packed with success cards and we had to mobilise everyone to sort them,” he says. The cards comprise the biggest chunk of their traffic. Occasions like Christmas and Easter, which spawn gifts and cards, also see a rise in traffic.
QUEUES OF BOYS
One person who understands well what receiving a letter used to mean is Mr Christopher Khaemba. Currently the County Executive Committee member for Lands and Housing in Nairobi County, he was the headmaster of Alliance High School from 1998 to 2007, and thousands of letters were posted and received during his time there.
“They meant a lot,” he says, laughing. “They meant a lot. They (the boys) would never have imagined the world without letters, first of all from their girlfriends, and second, their parents.”
He says a significant number of letters flowed between Alliance Boys and Alliance Girls, necessitating a special delivery system between the two schools. Recipients’ names were read out at lunch time in the dining hall before food was served. “The boys looked forward to it. One of the highlights of lunch break was letters, to know who had received a letter and who hadn’t” he said.
The number of letters from Alliance Girls decreased when telephone booths were introduced at Alliance Boys, with a similar arrangement created at the girls’ school “to just ensure things were flowing”. “We introduced about four booths, and one could see the queues of boys,” he said. Letters from the rest of the country, however, continued to arrive at the same volumes as before.
By the time Mr Khaemba left Alliance in 2007 to become the dean of the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, the school had not allowed mobile phones. “They were still expensive, so just a few boys would have had them. What you introduce then is a social divide, so we resisted that”.
The number of money orders has also decreased, and students remain major users. “Parents are still using them to send money to their children,” Mr Muriuki says.
In 2006, 1.6 million money orders were paid out, worth a total of Sh4.5bn that year, while in 2015 money orders paid plunged 69 per cent to 499,000 orders, worth Sh3.2 billion in 2015 money. That same year, mobile money services were used to transfer a total of Sh2.8 trillion across the country, more than 600 times the value of money orders.
Amidst this wider decline, the number of registered courier outlets and the number of private letter boxes rented have all recorded increases over the last 10 years. In 2015, Kenyans had rented out 382,000 private letter boxes, or 88 per cent of the 432,000 letter boxes available. Letter box rentals rose 18 per cent over the last ten years from 2006, when they numbered 323 000.