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The Corona Virus pandemic, also known as COVID-19, has been growing exponentially in some parts of Africa, especially in recent weeks, with the region’s total rising to 29,463 cases and 1,079 deaths, for the week ending May 3, according to official reports.

The African governments’ response to the threat of COVID-19 has been a swift implementation of various measures, such as lockdowns or curfew, to contain its spread, which have engendered loss of livelihoods for many people, particularly in the informal sector. Some 85.5% of workers across Africa are in the informal sector.

Needless to say, studies show that the crisis deeply impacts women, men, girls, boys and other genders differently. While men make up the majority of those who have died from the virus, women and girls bear the brunt of disproportionate care burdens, disruptions in income and education, poor access to health and other essential services, greater risk of being dispossessed of land and property, and gender digital and pay gaps.

To cushion the impact of this crisis in the formal and informal economies, and shield vulnerable households from income and food shortages, many African governments are taking a range of social protection steps, to support local economies and vulnerable households.

In an exclusive interview with the Amazons Watch magazine, Dr. Esther Muchemi, a Kenyan author and businesswoman, opined that one sure way for businesses and individuals to survive in this unprecedented season is to adapt to the new circumstances by focusing more on developing strategies and mining opportunities or face the severe consequences. She also discussed the impact of this pandemic on her businesses, and some of her coping strategies in this period of crisis. Excerpt:

Please, briefly introduce yourself to our readers.

My name is Dr. Esther Muchemi, Group CEO, Samchi Group of companies. I am an entrepreneur, leader and author of a book, “Give Me My Mountain”, and a mother of 2. I am a career auditor, turned entrepreneur and have been running my businesses for the last 20 years.

Samchi Group is a conglomerate with over a dozen companies in various sectors including Telecommunications, Technology, Financial services, Hospitality, Logistics, Marketing, Media, Entertainment and Events and recently Agribusiness and Health. I have employed about 700 employees directly supporting about 5,000 households across the ecosystem of my value chains.

The series of sweeping measures announced by the Kenyan Government to slow the spread of COVID-19 are expected to bring additional economic hardship in a country where only 17.9 percent of households have an internet connection and informal laborers account for 83.6 per cent of the total workforce. Many workers have either been let go or sent on unpaid leave as nearly all sectors of the economy – including tourism and flower and horticultural exports, Kenya’s key foreign exchange earners – have taken a beating. As a businesswoman in Kenya, how has this pandemic impacted your business? 

As mentioned, I am in various sectors of the economy. Each sector has been affected on a different degree.

My most affected has been the hospitality- hotel and food business. Due to the ban on social gathering and international travelled coupled with partial lockdown in the city of Nairobi where I operate in. The hotel business is operating at below 10% of its potential while the restaurant food business has totally shut down. Telecommunication has been less affected as there are many channels of selling in both mobile money and credit that doesn’t involve physical contact.

Due to the interconnectivity of the ecosystem, the closure of other business has affected almost all our other business. This has meant reduced or no sales, our debtors inability to honor their obligations and redundancy of our human resources. We therefore have made a decision to send majority of our customer facing staff and non-essential providers on leave until the situation normalizes.

My company runs on the values of Care and Concern for the staff and partners we work with. We have been intentional to reduce the negative effect of this pandemic on our partners to the extent we can cushion them especially the staff. To this end, our staff on voluntary pay-cuts to enable sustainable management of the wage bill in the season of no revenues.

According to recent studies, women and girls will mostly bear the brunt of disruptions in income and education, arising from the COVID-19 crisis. The impacts can be a shock to the overall economic stability of women already living in poverty and impede their ability to purchase critical necessities, such as medicine and food. What are your thoughts on this and your coping strategies in this crisis?

In any crisis, the people who are most vulnerable are women and children. These are generally because they are much more exposed and are the caregivers and bread winners in poorest households. But due to the global nature of this pandemic, all demographics have been adversely affected. No gender has been spared. The approach must therefore be holistic and all encompassing. All solutions must be made for the long-term and very sustainable and strategic.

This crisis needs to be managed at a macro level due to the magnitude. It has to be strategically handled as it has major spiral effects on the whole economy. The governments who are the providers of essential services must do more to mitigate and reduce suffering. By providing free medicine and ensuring they reduce the cost of trade on the food value chain to reduce the final cost of food stuff. Some governments like Kenya have introduced cash transfer programs for the vulnerable and old. This is however a quick fix but may not necessarily be sustainable. This is very reactive and we cannot afford to be. All solutions must be proactive and shouldn’t discriminate on gender. Interestingly, the highest number of casualties have been men.

In my opinion, what will make the difference is the leadership. Acknowledging the challenges, looking at the opportunities this crisis creates both now and in the future and how to prepare for them.

Peter W Chacha, World Bank Senior Economist recently said that supporting small businesses and protecting jobs to cope with the negative effects of COVID-19 crisis is particularly critical at this time. As an employer of labor, what are some of the strategies Africa can put in place to protect jobs and livelihoods?

As mentioned earlier, we have ensured our employees have partial salary to enable them cater for their basic needs. The working hours have also been flexible to enable them commute safely to their homes. The composition of my staff is about 45% men and 55% women.

We cannot afford to be reactive. We have to be proactive. This will give us the energy for the long term. The fact that business is low, I cannot guarantee that all staff can retain their jobs on the medium term. My reserves can easily get depleted and thus can’t support the staff costs. Some of my businesses have models that can be scaled up to the online and digital market platforms. Those are quickly adapting to still reach to the clients. The challenge has been the traditional businesses which require physical interaction. However, I have not laid off any employees and hope that that point will never reach. 

Personally, I believe in the spirit of the entrepreneurship. I am encouraging my team and associates to look at the silver linings and opportunities within their businesses and innovate around it. This dispels negative energy and idleness during this time.

We must take care of the mental and emotional health of our staff and those we lead. It possible for them to be overcome by fear and get depressed by what’s going around. As leader, we must rise above that.

Re-examine our expenditure and costs as companies and individuals. Audit your lifestyle and habit. Ensure we are spending on the absolute essentials as we don’t know how long this crisis will last. 

Re-look at your business model and see what elements can still operate digitally using online platforms. Technology will need to be enhanced and fully optimized.

Adapt or die. We must adjust to new circumstances or we perish. This is especially on our mindsets and or hearts. Eradicate the self-defeating patterns and bad attitude of negativity. Some people will fail not because of COVID but because of our attitude.

As a leader, I would like to encourage my fellow leaders and associates to retain a positive outlook. Look at the hard facts but also maintain a clear picture of what we must do. Everything rises and falls with leadership.

Finally, I believe in God above all as the ultimate provider. He will give us the wisdom and power to create more wealth and jobs in the new season and dispensation.

Editor’s Note: This interview forms part of the Amazons Watch Magazine’s special editorial coverage, tagged: “A Gender Lens on COVID-19: Assessing the Risk Perception, Economic Impact, and Coping strategies of Global Women Leaders”, which is essentially aimed at exploring the socio-economic and health impacts of COVID-19 on women, outlining gender-friendly priority measures to accompany both the immediate response and longer-term recovery efforts, and showcasing the socio-economic contributions of women leaders in the fight against Covid-19.