Cost of hustling: How revised service fee squeeze Kenyans from birth to death

Kenyans seeking passports wait in long queues at the immigration department. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

They are in debt even before they have a name. Each of the more than 5,000 babies born across Kenya yesterday owes more than Sh200,000, courtesy of the country's public debt that recently hit Sh11 trillion.

In a few years, they will join their compatriots in paying off this collective debt through aggressive taxes. Their parents, equally in debt, have the immediate burden of securing them a birth certificate.

This will set them back Sh200, revised upwards from Sh50 as part of President William Ruto's revenue-raising measures.

In a country with nearly eight million people living in poverty, delays are bound to happen, and this bill will shoot to Sh500. By this time, the person in need will have their hands tied as they would need to secure a birth certificate to either sit the national examination, obtain an identity card, or secure a service with which the birth certificate is necessary.

Perhaps the greatest burden awaiting the parents is educating their children, especially through secondary school and university. Fees for those in boarding secondary schools are over Sh60,000 per year and more than Sh100,000 for university students per year, depending on one's course.

Until recently, those sitting the secondary school national examinations had to part with up to Sh8,000. In 2020, the government waived these fees for primary and secondary school children, a step the Education Ministry then said had improved enrolment.

But getting an ID card does not come free. The crucial document, issued without pay for decades, will cost Sh300 and replacing it will cost Sh1,000, up from Sh100. This means that the government could rake in Sh60 million from the nearly 200,000 Kenyans who apply for an ID monthly and more than Sh100 million from the more than 100,000 seeking ID replacements every month.

Many young poor Kenyans, bearing the brunt of unemployment will, undoubtedly, struggle to raise these amounts. Initial proposals floated last November would have seen higher costs than those recently implemented.

For instance, the cost of obtaining an ID for first-time applicants was proposed to be  at Sh1,000 and that of replacing one at Sh2,000.

The government revised these charges following a public backlash.

The government recently said it would waive the fees for those who can prove that they cannot raise the money.

These costs have not escaped Parliament, with the National Assembly's Delegated Legislation Committee seeking to summon Immigration Principal Secretary Paul Bitok over the new charges.

"We want him to come and explain to Parliament why he decided to increase these charges arbitrarily without involving Parliament," said the committee's chairperson Samuel Chepkonga of Ainabkoi.

Many of those who may not afford to secure an ID will miss out on many things, with constitutional lawyer Bobby Mkangi arguing the new changes could risk discriminating against many.

"The ID is the entry point into the political system as without it one cannot vote or access services. Many Kenyans will not get this vital instrument of citizenship and statehood and risk being alienated," said Mkangi, who said the document may soon be a luxury to many having to contend with harsh economic realities.

"It is a fact that that an extra five shillings makes a difference to many families... Maybe the government is doing the right thing by revising the costs and Kenyans will see an improvement in services but you have to choose the right time to do it, which is not when Kenyans are hurting," added Mkangi.

Saboti MP Caleb Amisi said it is wrong to ask Kenyans to pay for an ID, stating "it is supposed to be free because it is a statutory document".

"The more you charge them the more the situation will mirror that of colonial times. Corruption will also increase as many will seek to access documents through the back door," said Amisi, also pointing out the high cost of living has Kenyans "saving every coin they can get".

Indeed, many poor young Kenyans may lack the crucial chance to lift themselves out of poverty, as without an ID they may not land a job. Of course, such persons are locked out from securing a position in government, which has more restrictions.

For starters, they will be required to fork out Sh1,050 to acquire a Police Clearance Certificate, Sh2,200 for a clearance certificate from the Credit Referencing Bureau, and also obtain clearance from the Higher Education Loans Board (Helb).

On its website, Helb states that the service is free for non-beneficiaries, with those with out-of-date payments required to part with Sh4,500 to get a compliance certificate. Clearance by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, a service charged Sh500, is also required.

Then there are costs of acquiring such services, accessible on e-Citizen, which include internet fees. Many with a lack of ready access to the internet will spend entire days at cyber cafes seeking these documents and waiting longer to have them. It may be particularly challenging for those who have to travel long distances to have their fingerprints collected as part of securing the police's clearance.

A Kenyan in such a predicament could be forced to part with more than Sh8,000 to get a job in the formal sector. A 2022 amendment to the Employment Act, fronted by former lawmaker Gideon Keter, mandates employers to seek such documents only when they offer a job to a prospective employee. That means that many will be spared the agony of seeking the said documents without a guarantee that they will get the job.

Those seeking employment in the informal sector may have it easier, but there are sectors, such as hospitality, that require specific certifications. For instance, food handlers are required to have a health certificate that costs up to Sh1,000.

A prospective driver would need a driver's licence that costs Sh2,000, renewable annually at Sh650. That is in addition to a learner's licence charged at Sh1,500 and a testing fee of Sh3,000.

Since he assumed office in 2022, President Ruto has insisted that he intends to cut unemployment. Among his strategies is exporting labour to other countries. Indeed, many Kenyans have been seeking opportunities abroad, leaving en masse for greener pastures. They have had to contend with delays in securing passports and the high costs of the travel documents.

It only gets more expensive for many like them, who will now have to pay Sh7,500 for a 34-page passport, up from Sh4,500 and Sh9,500 for a 50-page document from a previous Sh6,000. Such heavy costs accompany one to their death, with this final certificate costing Sh200, up from Sh50.

Mkangi said the government should show that it was spending public funds prudently before seeking more through punitive means, arguing many Kenyans expected that life would get easier as Ruto he had promised during the campaigns.

"He should not be the father telling his children things are tough when they need a new pair of shoes and comes home with a new suit when he could not fix the patches on his children's shoes," he said.

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