"From today, when asked, don’t say you are a watchman. Say you're a security officer."
These simple words of affirmation came from President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2016 during a State House meeting with over 4,000 private security guards.
The year marked a watershed moment for the crucial lucrative but largely overlooked industry. In May that year, the Private Security Industry Regulation Bill seeking to streamline the sector had come into law.
The guards had also finally got the ear of the Head of State to discuss their welfare after numerous attempts.
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“For many years, we had been looked down upon like we never went to school or never succeeded in life… yet the industry employs thousands,” Kenya National Private Security Workers’ Union (KNPSWU) Secretary General Isaac Andabwa told Financial Standard.
According to the union boss, there are about 700,000 private security guards in the country and some 2,000 private security firms. Private security has become central to Kenyans’ lives, with personnel being deployed to guard homes, learning institutions, social places and strategic installations.
They also play a bigger role in detecting terrorism threats and now handle crucial data on millions of visitors who visit the many buildings they man.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen security guards doubled up as "triage" handlers in checking temperatures, enforcing handwashing measures at mall entrances, hospitals, banks and office blocks while playing their primary role of providing security. However, the guards have long suffered from poor pay, a bad working environment and even rights abuse.
One of the things that the President and the regulations championed was the payment of a minimum wage, even ordering the closure of security firms that underpaid guards.
Securex Chief Executive Tony Sahni said people are learning to appreciate guards, noting that his firm now refers to its workers as security officers rather than askaris.
"I don’t think they get the respect they should; they are doing a very important job, and the industry itself employs a lot of people,” he added.
Securex is a 50-year-old family business started by his father who was a policeman and is one of the biggest indigenous private security firms in the country in a field dominated by multinationals.
It now has a staff of 7,000 across the region. Mr Sahni said employee welfare, customer obsession and innovation have driven this growth.
He observed that in the old days, guards were known as "gatekeepers."
He said, for example, guards working in residential areas, would clean cars, garden and even play football with area children.
But now a modern guard’s tasks have completely evolved, especially enforcing health protocols such as temperature checks in the wake of Covid-19.
Guards are now tech handlers dealing with multiple equipment, including radios and x-ray machines and have to be tech-savvy.
He noted that the industry needs stronger regulations to streamline rogue security firms, for example, those that don’t enforce minimum wage payment.
As part of diversification, security firms have also increasingly become ICT security solution providers, bagging contracts to install things like CCTV surveillance systems and access control solutions, including biometric and iris scanners as well as proximity card readers. Sahni said Securex’s next frontier in tech includes things such as remote monitoring from their own control rooms, advanced vehicle tracking solutions and a security app.
Enforcement of regulations has also been a cause of concern for players protesting the slow operationalisation of the 2016 Act. The Act provides a framework in which private security firms can cooperate with national security organs.
The Act saw the setting up of the Private Security Regulatory Authority tasked with setting standards and improve guard welfare.