Combining new and traditional mechanisms in Northern Kenya to cope during COVID-19

September 9th, 2020

In mid-July we interviewed a subset of FSD Kenya/CARE’s Building Livelihoods programme beneficiaries in Northern Kenya to understand the extent to which resources built up through the programme are supporting resilience of beneficiary households during COVID-19, and how these compare and interact with traditional pastoralist coping mechanisms.

While the people of Northern Kenya are no stranger to shocks, COVID-19 poses some unique challenges that undermine traditional coping mechanisms. Some beneficiaries told us they could no longer travel to seek help from relatives because they had been told to limit movement beyond their homes. Casual labour jobs and money transfers from working family members became more limited due to business closures in the community and across the country. Livestock sales to support household needs were impeded by market closures, although the Merille livestock market had recently re-opened with the implementation of several COVID-19 prevention measures.

One beneficiary compared the challenges of COVID-19 to prior shocks, explaining, “Sometimes drought is better because there are no restrictions; you go to another place to ask for help. Drought cannot affect the transportation or bring about the lockdown.”

However, despite the impediments, most beneficiaries we spoke with were still able to borrow livestock, food or money from others nearby, as well as find ways to sell livestock if needed, although often at lower prices and in small volumes. They also consumed livestock milk or meat to meet their family food needs. Many beneficiaries attribute greater livestock herds to the Building Livelihoods programme.

While these traditional coping mechanisms continue to be relied on and have in some ways been enhanced through the programme, they have been augmented with new mechanisms, which have become increasingly important over time. The government Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP) bi-monthly cash transfer is cited as the most relied upon mechanism. This is not only because it provides stability in terms of money for basic needs, but also because it enables beneficiaries to access goods and medical services on credit, as well as working capital for their businesses. Some respondents explained that the HSNP enabled them to purchase goods in bulk before COVID-19 related price increases. Many have continued to use the HSNP to buy larger quantities of goods and pay for motorcycle drivers (boda bodas) to collect goods so they can limit trips to town.

Aside from the HSNP, beneficiaries emphasised that business is their most relied upon coping mechanism. They learned business skills through the programme, leading many to start or enhance businesses over the past three years. Through training and mentoring from Community-Based Facilitators (CBFs), they learned about business continuity as well as adaptation and diversification. As a result, beneficiaries are persisting with their businesses and finding ways to adapt to current challenges such as increased prices, reduced customers, and restricted movement. This includes reducing the number of goods for sale, shifting to non-perishable items that have longer shelf life, and buying livestock for trade while prices are low and waiting for markets to return to normal. In addition, several beneficiaries have diversified business goods to address new demands. For example, masks, handwashing soaps and jerrycans for proper sanitation, as well as petrol for boda bodas, which are increasingly being used for transport of goods during this time.

Beneficiaries also learned about and joined savings groups as part of the programme, which are continuing to meet in sub-groups of five members who practice social distancing during meetings. These groups have been an ongoing source of financial assistance during the pandemic through loans to group members, as well as an important source of information on COVID-19 prevention. During the meetings, the CBFs facilitate learning on how others are coping and maintaining their businesses during this time. We also learned that one of the groups applied for an interest-free government loan from the UWEZO Fund, which is targeted at women, youth, and persons with disabilities. This further demonstrates the value of the groups as platforms not only for accessing information and saving and loaning, but also for broader collective action to access additional resources.

Beyond group savings and loans, individual cash savings, a new practice also introduced through the programme, have also been an important coping mechanism. All the beneficiaries we spoke with saved money prior to COVID-19, and the majority were still holding some cash savings at the time of the interviews. Despite their present struggles, beneficiaries continue to think about the future and potential need for school fees, medical expenses, business continuity, and asset aspirations (e.g. plots, houses). All the beneficiaries we spoke with are still trying to save individually, often in metal savings boxes in their homes, but also in bank or mobile money (M-Pesa) accounts in some cases. As one beneficiary explained:

 “[I save because] I want to make myself prosper. I want to make my children reach where others have reached. And so that I don’t borrow from anyone else, so that I don’t depend on other people. I want a good life for my children as well. I just save in my house. I have a small box which I keep in the house.”

During the interviews we also explored the impact of Equity Bank loans, which was a key component of the programme. Only a handful of the beneficiaries we spoke with had taken a loan since they had been introduced. Most had borrowed last year before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in restricted lending by all the banks in the country. As a result, many did not associate the loans with their current capacity to cope. However, a couple respondents did explain how the loans they had previously taken have helped them during this time. For example, one beneficiary told us that prior to the pandemic, the loan helped her improve her business and increase her savings, which she used to maintain her business when prices increased due to COVID-19.

Overall, we were encouraged to find that the Building Livelihoods programme has helped build resilience of beneficiaries to weather this extreme and unique shock by both enhancing and supplementing traditional coping mechanisms. Several respondents did highlight that they are excluded from some COVID-19 related aid because they are beneficiaries of the programme. This is likely because organisations are seeking to help those most in need during this time. Despite this, respondents felt they are in a better position today because of the programme. The combination of a safety net provided by the government and the skills, agency, social capital and business networks developed through the programme has given beneficiaries a stronger asset base on which to survive (e.g. augmented herds and savings). It has also enabled them to leverage opportunities to earn income, even in the current restricted environment. Backed by these skills and resources, programme participants maintain a sense of optimism for the future and their ability to progress.

As we continue to analyse and augment our data we will further examine the interactions between new and traditional coping mechanisms and the net impact on beneficiary households and the broader community, as well as the key enablers for rebuilding post-COVID-19. Stay tuned for more updates!

Read part 1 of this blog series: Understanding the drivers of resilience in Northern Kenya in the time of COVID-19

Read blog on: Building livelihoods: Participants journeys and impact

Jody Delichte is a Research/programme consultant.

Jeremy Upane is a Research consultant.

Amrik Heyer is Senior research advisor at FSD Kenya.

Bernard Muthiani Mbithi is Graduation pilot project manager at CARE International in Kenya.

Felistus Mbole is Senior economic inclusion advisor at FSD Kenya.



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