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10 issues troubling Kenyans ahead of election day

Maize flour on display at a supermarket in Kisumu on July 21, 2022. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

The magic number that will propel either Deputy President William Ruto or former Prime Minister Raila Odinga to State House is “50 plus one.”

Either of the two leading presidential candidates needs to garner more than half of the votes cast on Tuesday.

And then what?

The truth is that 22 million voters are not just statistics or voting machines whose usefulness ends after leaving the polling station. Most of them are voting for a reason. Real reasons.

The Weekend Business has prepared a list of issues at the back of the minds of the Kenyans as they cast their vote on Tuesday.

  1. High cost of living

The topmost issue in the minds of many Kenyans as they head to election day is the high cost of living. Prices of basic commodities such as maize flour, wheat flour, fuel, rice, vegetables, and cooking oil have skyrocketed, with many families having to dig deeper into their pockets.

The two leading presidential candidates have prioritised lowering the cost of living in their manifestos.

The outgoing administration of President Uhuru Kenyatta has attempted to bring down the cost of unga by implementing a maize flour subsidy programme that brought down the retail price of a 2kg packet of the staple to Sh100.

Unfortunately, the subsidised flour has not been available in retail stores, with many people engaging in panic-buying, according to government officials. The high prices of commodities have been blamed on drought and the ongoing war in Ukraine, resulting in a depressed supply of such inputs as fuel, wheat, and fertiliser.

But analysts insist that a little preparedness could have cushioned Kenyans from both shocks. If the country had invested heavily in agriculture by providing farmers with inputs such as cheap seeds and fertiliser and shifting to irrigation, a lot of Kenyans could have been spared the current scourge of hunger that has devastated close to three million people.

Data shows that over a third of Kenyans - about 17.2 million people - are poor. They cannot afford to put food on the table. Poor people in rural areas spend less than Sh3,252 per month, while those in towns like Nairobi spend less than Sh5,995.

Both Mr Odinga of Azimio La Umoja One Kenya Alliance and Dr Ruto of Kenya Kwanza have promised to address the issue of the high cost of living should they form the next government.

  1. Lack of decent jobs

Unemployment - going by the strict definition of those actively looking for work - has remained at below 10 per cent and by the end of 2020, it had reached a low of 5.4 per cent, official data shows. However, these numbers can be misleading, according to economist Dr Joy Kiiru.

“That kind of averaging, summing up, and all that masks real people,” said Dr Kiiru, who until recently, was a lecturer at the University of Nairobi. According to Dr Kiiru, whereas a large cross-section of Kenyans can afford food, education or healthcare, the quality of these goods and services is wanting. “Very few Kenyans can afford a balanced diet,” she told Weekend Business.

This problem is acute in places like Turkana, Kenya’s poorest county. Here, four in every five individuals earn less than Sh108 a day, on average.

This low income compromises the quality of goods and services such people can afford. A lot of Kenyans will be keen to see the kind of policies the leading presidential candidates will implement to provide them with quality jobs that can enable them to live well.

So far, most Kenyans eke a living in informal jobs, where earnings are dismal and erratic. In the last 10 years, the economy has consistently churned out an average of over 800,000 jobs annually. The employment numbers look impressive, but a substantial chunk of those employed work in the informal sector or are subsistence farmers.

Attempts to boost the quality of jobs by encouraging value addition by the outgoing government have barely borne fruits. For example, the contribution of the manufacturing sector to the gross domestic product (GDP), or the total value of all goods and services produced in the economy, was to go up to 15 per cent. But by the end of last year, it was still under eight per cent.

  1. High taxes

High taxes have discouraged investments in Kenya. Many Kenyans are not paying their fair share of taxes. Out of around 20 million people eligible to pay tax, only 3.7 million are tax compliant.

Some of those who are not paying taxes see it as an irritating cost that does not have any returns. This speaks of misuse of public funds, with most of the cash collected as taxes being misused rather than being used to improve the lives of the taxpayers.

However, a lot of Kenyans do not have enough income to pay taxes, while others feel they are heavily taxed.

Voters will want to see taxes go down and everyone pay their fair share of taxes. Businesses have also been wary of an aggressive tax authority, with the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) at some point being described as an undertaker for closing businesses.

  1. High public debt

One of the most contentious issues that have been hitting headlines in the last 10 years is high public debt.

This issue has also found its way into the campaign trail, with both candidates vowing to reduce the country’s debt, which stood at Sh8.56 trillion by end of May. The problem has been Kenya’s huge fraction of expensive commercial loans, which has been growing steadily.

In 2013, commercial loans only took up about 2.2 per cent of the total external loans. Expensive loans have meant that much of the taxes go into paying debt, crowding out other critical public services such as security, paying doctors and teachers.

By the time President Uhuru came to power in 2013, for every Sh100 that KRA collected, only Sh15 was used to repay interest on debts.

But this has since more than doubled to Sh32 as of the end of June 2022, data from the National Treasury shows. Interest payments are paid regularly, twice a year, and have grown from Sh121.1 billion to Sh687.9 billion by the current financial year.

  1. Healthcare and sanitation

Both Presidential candidates have promised to implement universal healthcare (UHC) to ensure that every Kenyan has access to basic medical care. Diseases are one of the major causes of poverty. And with a majority of Kenyans paying for their healthcare out of pocket, they are just one hospitalisation away from poverty.

Official data shows more than 25.36 million Kenyans are above 18 years, and the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) has 8.898 million members. Even worse, there are not enough doctors and better-equipped hospitals in the country.

By the end of 2021, there were 13,376 doctors in Kenya, translating into 27.1 for every 100,000 Kenyans, according to figures from the Ministry of Health.

This means that one doctor in Kenya serves 3,690 people, compared to the global average of one doctor for a population of 596, according to 2017 figures by the World Bank. There were 76,878 registered nurses in the country, translating into 155.9 registered nurses for a population of 100,000.

This means there is one registered nurse for a population of 641, against a global average of one nurse and midwife for every 252.4 as of 2017, World Bank data shows - an indication that many Kenyans have no access to quality healthcare.

Thanks to the Linda Mama initiative, birth registration has been on an upward trajectory since 2017 with more births occurring in health facilities according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data. But more Kenyans suffer from preventable diseases due to poor sanitation.

  1. Corruption and wastage

President Uhuru Kenyatta in January last year claimed that the country loses Sh2 billion every day, stolen by corrupt government officials, and aided by unscrupulous individuals and firms.

More recently in June, he warned his successor that the menace of corruption is still alive and well. “We cannot lie, the devil of corruption is still alive and well here in Kenya,” said President Kenyatta in his Madaraka Day speech.

The country was ranked 128 out of 180 in the Corruption Perception Index, 2021 published by Transparency International earlier in the year.

This was a poorer performance compared with 124 in 2020. The country had a score of 30 out of 100, with a score of zero being the most corrupt. Again, last year’s score was lower than the 31 that Kenya scored in 2020.

In the run-up to this year’s elections, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), recommended that 241 candidates be barred from running for office due to corruption-related cases.

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has, however, only disqualified five of the 241 politicians. Other than graft, there is a huge wastage of public resources by civil servants.

The Auditor General has perennially lamented how government officials spend money without accountability.

State officials have disregarded the law in their spending, while others have hidden their wasteful spending by failing to give the Auditor General access to their books of accounts.

  1. Tough operating environment for SMEs 

While they are key to providing employment today and would play a key role if the country was to industrialise, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) perhaps face the roughest conditions when doing business in the country.

Government data shows that SMEs constitute 98 per cent of all businesses in Kenya and create 30 per cent of the jobs annually. SMEs’ contribution to the GDP stands at three per cent. There is a consensus that SMEs are grossly underperforming and their contribution to the economy could even be bigger were it not for the numerous and multifaceted hurdles they face.

Other than the heavy tax burden that they have to bear, they are also subjected to various licences, fees, permits and cess which in the end, have a major impact on their finances.

They also have to deal with different government agencies for their licensing as well as the national and county governments.

Lack of compliance to these numerous requirements opens them up to harassment by authorities. They are also a low-hanging fruit for national and county officials looking for bribes, especially in instances where they fail to comply with the licensing.

Another major hurdle that SMEs face is difficulty in accessing credit. Banks have deemed SMEs as risky borrowers due to factors such as size, lower earnings and growth prospects compared to larger enterprises and lack of physical collateral.

  1. Education

Close to half of Kenyans have only a primary school certificate.

Another 3.4 million have no academic certificate at all. Yet, the structure of the economy is changing with more jobs being automated as the economy demands workers with skills, competencies and innovation.

These have become must-have tools for survival in the 21st-century workplace, making education a key driver of poverty reduction. Enrolment in primary schools, as well as transition to secondary schools, has increased over the last two decades after the government implemented the free primary education programme as well as made tuition free in secondary schools.

Analysts note that this must now translate into better quality, with eyes on the recently launched Competency Based Curriculum (CBC).

  1. Affordable housing

The lack of decent housing in the country has over the years been getting worse. Demand for houses stands at about 300,000 annually, while the real estate industry brings about 50,000 units to the market.

The few units that come into supply have ensured that housing prices are always on an upward trajectory. The government has been focusing on increasing supply, especially of the affordable units that would give Kenyans alternative and decent housing.

Affordable housing was one of the key pillars of the Jubilee administration’s Big Four agenda.

Since its launch in 2018, the government has constructed a few thousand units, far short of the 500,000 units it had promised. The State has since said the work of constructing houses would be in the hands of the private sector, while the government would only play a facilitative role. A mix of factors has, however, held back the private sector, including taxation and the lack of adequate tax incentives.

  1. Food security

 Three-quarters of Kenyans live in arid or semi-arid areas where rainfall is inadequate for most of the year. These areas receive 612.5mm of rainfall or less annually. Often, the rains come late or don’t come at all, leaving many farmers and herders at risk of starvation as their livestock dies from lack of pasture and crops wither on the farms due to poor rainfall.

Counties like Homa Bay and Migori have some of the highest potential agricultural lands behind Narok.

But about 28 per cent of families in the two counties do not engage in farming. This compromises their diets and denies them income from selling excess farm produce.

President Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda, which had food security as among its core pillars, has failed, with more than four million people in the country currently facing starvation.

Big projects such as the Galana Kulalu irrigation plan did not take off.

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