Kenya: How Covid-19 Sank School Supply Businesses

Before coronavirus started running riot in the capital Nairobi, River Road and Kijabe Street were a beehive of activity, with hands exchanging cash for school supplies.

A majority of shops on these two streets were doing brisk business selling stationery, uniforms, lab equipment and kits for school games. But today, this section of the city notorious for human traffic and crowding bears all hallmarks of a ghost town-- closed shops, dusty doors, street children sniffing glue in verandahs and long faces of idle staff in the few premises that are still open.

Covid-19 did not only close schools but it set in motion a ripple effect that is claiming chains of businesses and threatening to cripple the multi-billion-shilling school supplies sector.

At School Outfitters in the central business district-- a business that supplied uniforms, stationery and other materials to more than 400 primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities-- fortunes have taken a southern turn.

BIG SALE

Business Manager Kaser Nazir says since March, they have hardly sold anything, and the business is unable to sustain employees' salaries. "We haven't made any big sale since March. We expected to make huge sales when schools were scheduled to open in May, but now that the pandemic has caused schools to remain shut, I am unable to sustain this business," he says.

At Kenya School Equipment Supplies, suppliers of lab equipment to schools and colleges, staff have been laid off. "There is zero business and we have nowhere to supply our equipment," says Robert Wanderi, the director.

Across the country, school suppliers are stuck with stock that they cannot move as others struggle to service bank loans. Some are on the verge of auction or being kicked out of premises after defaulting on rent payments.

"It is not easy for us because there is no business. Some booksellers have already closed shops because they could not sustain them," Mr Albert Kimani, Booksellers' Association, Nakuru chapter chairman told the Nation.

With the schools closed, the books business is technically grounded, with the deliveries made in first term largely unpaid for.

WON TENDERS

Mr Kimani says booksellers who won tenders in December took loans to supply books to schools in January and were only paid a fraction of the money.

He estimates that schools in Nakuru County owe booksellers more than Sh240 million for supplies of stationery, uniforms and games kits. He wants the government to release money to schools so they can in turn pay the suppliers.

In a bid to survive, he says he closed down one of his bookshops and laid off over 75 per cent of his workforce.

Mr Patrick Matindi, owner of the Patmat Bookshop in Nakuru is also facing a similar problem.

He says he delivered books to schools, but is yet to be paid. The payment had been scheduled for May before President Uhuru Kenyatta closed all learning institutions in March in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus.

He has since merged his school uniforms shop with the bookshop to reduce the rent he pays and other overheads. "Schools cannot survive without bookshops and the government needs to act urgently so we remain afloat. It is unfair for the government to try to push us out of business forgetting that just like other industries, we are employers and taxpayers in this country," he says. The investor faults the government's move to distribute textbooks to schools when they are closed instead of releasing capitation funds to the institutions to pay their debts.

NEW BOOKS

"Why would the government want to supply new books to the schools, which are closed? And who will guard these books now that they have refused to give schools money to pay security guards and clear bills? He poses.

Basic Education Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang issued a circular on July 15 informing county directors of education about the delivery of books to their respective counties. He asked them to make arrangements with head teachers to collect the books. Head teachers have also complained that they do not have money to pay for the transportation of the books.

Other bookshops such as Ereto in Nakuru town have scaled down their operations by closing some departments. "If the government can allocate money to artistes and other groups, why can't it consider business people like us who play a key role in the education sector?" Pauses the manager.

In Nyanza and western region, a number of school-supplies businesses have since closed shop.

Mr Peter Guya, the proprietor of Jao Garments in Mumias town, has switched from supplying school uniforms to interior design and selling bedding to keep his business running. "I had supplied uniforms to schools that were yet to be paid when the government closed schools. The going became so difficult that I had to device a new approach," he says.

FEED CHILDREN

Mr Boniface Nasitsi of Shibale Bookshop said the schools closed before he got paid for the supplies he had delivered.

"Even though we open our business premises, it is like we are not in operation. No one asks for a book except a few who ask for pens, notebooks and Manila paper. Parents have concentrated on foodstuffs to feed their children, who are at home," says Nasitsi.

Other bookshops such as Vaghela in Mumias town have closed doors.

Mr Willis Oduor of Ogina Park Limited, a stationary seller in Homa Bay, laments that business has never been the same since schools closed.

"Our money is stuck in schools. We used to supply stationery, uniforms, and do branding for institutions," he says.

At Jared Otieno's bookshop in Migori town, stocks are gathering dust. "For the last two months, I haven't sold and books are gathering dust on the shelves. Things are looking very bad for us," he says.

Ms Doreen Dunga of DonMark Bookshop in Siaya town says she is struggling to pay salaries for her employees, rent and a bank loan she took to supply books to schools.

SUPPLYING MEAT

"Schools owe me millions of shillings from the tenders that I supplied in January and others from last year, and they can't pay us because the government hasn't sent them money," she says.

But it is not just booksellers who have affected. Mr Joel Mukidanyi, a butchery owner in Vihiga County, has lost the steady income he used to earn for supplying meat to four schools. He used to deliver 107.5kgs of meat to the four schools every week, earning him Sh58,050.

"This is a great loss and yet we had won the tenders. Our business is now relying heavily on other customers who buy irregularly," says Mukidanyi.

The situation is not different for Mr Erick Mwachi, a newspaper vendor at Mudete, who has a tender to supply daily newspapers to four secondary schools. He would make Sh27,000 monthly.

In Kisii, traders who had been contracted by various schools have been forced to sell agricultural produce, mostly vegetables, at throwaway prices due to lack of market.

By Joseph Openda, Faith Nyamai, Shaban Makokha, Elizabeth Ojina, Derick Luvega, George Odiwuor, Ian Byron, Dickens Wasonga and Benson Ayienda

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