In Summary
  • Indeed, there is an emerging international consensus that the current Kenyan industry development model is no longer sustainable.
  • With more people working from home, companies are being forced to finally build a culture that allows work flexibility and work-life balance.

Every child in every Kenyan household was ingrained with the desire to achieve more.

You were to do well in school, get a good job, make a lot of money, build a home, and provide an above average lifestyle for your family.

At the turn of the century, there was a buzz about ‘Africa Rising’, and with it a thriving middle class. Theirs was a spending power that would drive the continent forward.

Last year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released a report that confirmed what a lot of us had long suspected - that in order to maintain their lifestyles, the so called growing middle class was sinking into debt.

“The cost of the middle class lifestyle has increased faster than household median income, with more than one-in-five households spending more than they earn,” the OECD report said.

“Over indebtedness is higher for middle-income than for both low and high-income households. As a result, the middle class looks increasingly like a boat in rocky waters.”

In a report published by Microsave Consultancy, more than 2.7 million Kenyans have been blacklisted by credit reference bureaus for failing to pay existing mobile loans.

OVERWORKED

It may be startling to note that even though this class spends an average of 12 per cent of their income on recreation and culture, they are nonetheless an inherently unhappy lot.

Last year, I was researching an article on what sociologists refer to as the ‘paradox of declining female happiness’ - or why the millennial woman, even with all her freedoms, is not only unhappy, but also unhappier than the women of previous generations.

It turned out that most of the women I talked to were feeling overworked and overwhelmed by the roles they have to shoulder at work and at home.

“How do I cope?” Daphine Ndunge, a then-new mum and marketing manager in an international PR firm based in Nairobi, replied to a query I floated on a WhatsApp group.

“Well, I cope with wine and tears.” “Have I hidden in my bedroom and just cried from exhaustion?” Mercy Nderi, a pharmaceutical sales rep replied to Daphine “…the answer is yes”.

In an interview about working from home, Loise Wambui, now a self-employed insurance agent, told me she quit her previous job as a marketing manager because she felt ‘there had to be an alternative to being stuck in traffic for four hours and eating greasy drive-through food everyday’.

During the 2019 Mental Health Conference held at the KICC, it was announced that Kenyan companies are losing out due to an overworked workforce, with 36 per cent of work related illnesses blamed to burnout.

CLIMATE CHANGE

It’s not only our health that is burning out. The world’s trillion-dollar consumer economy is powered by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests and in turn polluting the air, soil and water with industrial waste and emissions.

Yet talk of ecological degradation and climate change often feels like an ‘outside issue’ to Kenyans.

But a 2017 paper co-authored by United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and the Green Climate Fund brings the issue home in fine detail.

It explains why and how the government's Vision 2030 roadmap (to increase manufacturing, jobs, exports and foreign investment) will see our CO2 emission jump from 59 million tonnes in 2010 to 102 million tonnes in 2030.

So far “…rainfall has become irregular and unpredictable,” the report says. “Some regions experience drought during traditionally long rainy season while others experience severe floods during the short rain period.”

Other ecological threats that the average Kenyan can relate to include reduced water supply, invasion of locusts, increased water tariffs, toxic wastes in rivers, interruptions in electricity supply and an unavailability of agricultural raw materials because of drought.

Indeed, there is an emerging international consensus that the current Kenyan industry development model is no longer sustainable.

“Such linear models are wasteful in the sense that they entail mining of raw materials, value adding on them, consuming the resultant products, and discarding the resultant wastes into a landfill,” the paper states.

LIVING IN BALANCE

If our lifestyles and industries are threatening ours and the planet’s well-being, could the current slowdown in travel industry, work, shopping and social events be a wake-up call, a chance to rethink how we relate to ourselves, to others, to material and to the environment?

Could this be the reset button that forces humanity to consume less and conserve more?

“We have been pushing the envelope with everything - with our bodies, with what we are consuming, with how production is influencing how we are treating the environment and other animals,” says Nadeem Omar, a 47-year-old general manager in a tour company that operates in the Maasai Mara, who practices what is called a minimalist lifestyle.

“I feel as if, especially with this corona thing, we have steam-rolled ourselves into a crisis where the only thing that matters is that each of us start living in balance with everything.”

Nadeem speaks about ‘living in balance with everything’, with an extra pinch of confidence because he prescribes to minimalism, a lifestyle that is about living with less/not accumulating excessive material stuff.

Minimalists live deliberately, with every possession serving a purpose, every activity adding value to life.

“From a very young age, I always needed things to be symmetrical, to be in the right order,” Nadeem tells me.

“If you have pair of shoes, you wear it until it can no longer be worn. And then you got another one. The idea of having multiple or excess items never made sense to me. I don’t need much; I could do with nothing. Hoarders keep things in fear that they may need them tomorrow.

I live a day at a time, a moment at a time. Frankly, if I feel that I can’t do without something, it is the first thing I get rid of. I don’t want to be enslaved by attachment.”

SOCIAL DISRUPTION

By forcing us to retreat into our homes, the coronavirus will also be forcing us to adopt to doing less, to travelling less, to shopping less, to socialising less, to even consuming less, well apart from food, which we hope our choices now are towards a healthy diet.

“This pandemic is not a short term social disruption. It is going to take months before our lives go back to normal,” says Githinji Gitahi, CEO of Amref Health Africa.

“My advice would be that you learn from animals that hibernate in harsh times, remaining inactive, even slowing their metabolism for months,” writes Gitahi on a widely circulated tweet.

“Hibernation in human terms means stay indoors, take it slow, conserve the little cash you have, stop capital expenditure and support each other,” he conferred.

Millicent Achieng, a 34-year-old accountant and mother of two boys, 10 and six, tells me she didn’t realise how much she was attached to the idea of having everything, until she almost drove herself crazy trying to get everything.

“Someone posted a comprehensive list of things you need to stock for in case of a lockdown,” she explains.

“Even though I had already shopped for what I knew I needed, seeing items on that list that I didn’t have made me panic! Then I thought, the reality of the majority of Kenyans is that they are trying to get food just for the day. Yet here I am; I have stock for three months and I still feel like I don’t have enough!”

BACK TO BASICS

Going back to basics is not only about learning to live with less and conserving the little that we have.

But also, with seemingly more time to spare, a lot of people have been talking about being forced into moments of self-reflection.

Additionally, one of coronavirus’ unexpected outcomes is that, with more people working from home, companies are being forced to finally build a culture that allows work flexibility and work-life balance.

“The first days of isolation were crazy,” Wangui Kabwe admits. “I had never felt so single and alone as I did in the last week of March. But things have shifted now. I am beginning to appreciate the solitude and lack of distractions.

The other day, I realised that I need to stop coping by escaping into mindless TV series. I need to confront and feel my feelings, however uncomfortable they are. I have even started meditating.”

Duncan Kimani, a 30-year web developer and father of one, says that for him, social isolation has brought his most important relationships into focus.

“I didn’t realise it until now as I am talking to you. But a lot of the fair weather relationships seem to have dropped by the way side.”

ROAD TO SUSTAINABILITY

Without minimising the fact that corona is a debilitating crisis that has cost human life, people have nevertheless not shied from remarking that since humanity has slowed down, cities around the world are reporting lowered pollution levels.

Whether this is a trend that will continue long after the corona crisis remains to be seen.

“I believe that we (humans) are a tiny speck on the back of this planet so we don’t have the ability to destroy it,” says Nadeem, who is speaking to me from Maasai Mara, where, following 100 per cent cancellations from tourists, he is part of a skeleton team that has been left to guard the camp.

“But if we stay unconscious, if we keep relating to animals the way we are (especially since the coronavirus outbreak is said to have originated from a wet animal market in China), we are, instead, going to destroy ourselves.”

Nandi Kegode is an emotional intelligence coach. She is also an equestrian athlete who uses her love for horses and promotes a connection to nature to build on mental and emotional health.

“We hear about conservation,” she says, “but when you are living in the city, and you are worried about traffic, or bills, you may think, yeah, poaching is sad but there’s more immediate needs for me to worry about. But the human condition is so dependent on nature.

A population such as ours that is urbanising at such a rapid rate must be deliberate about seeking connections with and protecting nature.”

CONSCIOUS CONSUMER

Call it ‘minimalism’ or ‘sustainability’ - either terms can be used to describe any efforts we take in order to have minimal negative impact or have most positive effect on the environment and on humanity.

Wangari Nyanjui is one fashionista who believes and preaches sustainable fashion.

While interviewing her about sustainable fashion in Kenya, the founder of Peperuka - the apparel brand popular for paying homage to everyday Kenyan lingo ('Me I love Nairobi'), told me that being a conscious consumer means that you can hold the brands you love accountable to their production process.

“Ask them who makes and how are their products are made? How are they treating their workers? As a producer or entrepreneur, does your team know, consciously, that they are supposed to switch off the lights? How much water does your operation consume in a day?

Wangari is the country coordinator of Fashion Revolution, a worldwide movement that works to positively influence how clothes are sourced, produced and consumed.

“The problem is that Kenyans still think about sustainability as something for ‘other’ people.

But if you think about all the different elements, those things are human! People care about people. The question is, do they care enough as to shift their habits?”