Not very long ago, Alvin Toffler who is an American writer said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” COVID19 caused entrepreneurs to rethink their engagements. One such entrepreneur who has had her company Swift Office Supplies re-strategize, is Jennifer Adal.” When COVID19 hit, all institutions we were making supplies to, closed.” These learning institutions included Secondary schools and universities.

Jennifer who has been running her business for 23 years explains that the change was sudden. “One day everything was normal. You come to the office and you have a calendar that has planned activities. You send staff out to go to the field while you think of which offices to visit and do some visibility for your company,” She says. Then suddenly, all was not okay.

In March 2020, when the pandemic was announced to have hit Kenya, President Uhuru went ahead and declared a cessation of movement in four counties which included Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale. “When the cessation of movement was declared by the President and we were asked us to practice social distancing among other things, then l knew l had to rethink my strategy because suddenly we could not visit offices to discuss partnerships.”

A lot of the women have been disproportionately affected by COVID19. According to Central Bank of Kenya Survey conducted in April 2020, many Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in Kenya saw their incomes disappear overnight because of COVID19. This was equally confirmed later in the year by the Kenya Private Sector Alliance,KEPSA in a survey they carried out in October 2020. It indicated that 64% of the MSMEs had experienced high or very high negative impact on their businesses from pandemic. This included loss of customers, liquidity challenges, high cost of operations, inability to pay salaries and reduced labor productivity.

It is that negative experience that Jennifer says she didn’t want her staff to experience. “I thought to myself; we must survive. Staff had to be paid and we couldn’t afford to close after 23 years.” She quickly retrained her staff and says about it, “I had to have them trained on doing business online since we were not visiting any institution.” She adds quietly, “COVID19 came with a lot of bad things, but it also brought blessings to us. We learned to work online.”

Elizabeth Sunday, who was the Chief Executive Officer of Kisemeti Oak Farm had to unlearn what she knew in order to learn new ways to do things. She worked in the horticulture sector which was adversely hit at the beginning of the pandemic. According to the STAR newspapers, the sector lost Kshs8billion ($75.4million) within a month of COVID19 being declared in Kenya.

Traders in Gikomba market selling second hand clothes. Photo by Mercy Mumo.

The sector experienced mass layoffs as planes to Europe were grounded. Elizabeth says she turned to agriculture and began growing local vegetables but there was a new challenge. “As l went in to sell my vegetables, l found that people who had lost their jobs turned to agriculture. The market was flooded.” It is however this challenge that caused her to learn how to use online tools for marketing. “I had to learn how to use Whatsapp to market my produce. Before l used to only use it for chats, now l was selling my produce using it.”

Marceline Nyambala, the Executive Director of Association of Media Women in Kenya, AMWIK, has heard these stories and many more as they began documenting experiences by women in MSMEs. “We began to document experiences so as to gather evidence which is being shared with different actors as policy recommendations.” She adds, “We wanted to provoke debates so that different actors can pick issues to deal with. If women need to reskill and retool, we are asking ‘where is this reskilling and retooling coming from?’”

AMWIK and her partners who held meetings with the business women included EASSI, The Eastern African Sub-Regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women, Friends Of Lake Turkana , FOLT, Tanzania Media Women’s Association (TAMWA), FEMME Forte, Plartform for Labor Action, Tanzania Gender Networking Programme, TGNP, were supported by Urgent Action Fund Africa.

Carol Werunga, the Grant making Coordinator at Urgent Action Fund, indicates that COVID19 give has given society an opportunity to strengthen, re-strategize, re-engage stakeholders and governments. On the project with her partners she shares, “Governments are responsible for policy making. We want to see women’s voices included in the policies.” She points out that it is only through policies that challenges facing women can be addressed.

In related projects, AMWIK in collaboration with World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers -WAN-IFRA, have so far given over 100 story grants to journalists to cover the stories on MSMEs and how they are handling the effects of COVID19. Additionally, more stories have been carried out on financial accountability and social justice. A project they did in partnership with Community Media Fund (CMF).

Having learned from all the documentation they have gathered, Marceline says, “In 2021, we will use the evidence we have gathered to work on partnerships that will promote recovery and building of resilience,” adding that, “We live in unprecedented times where we must be constantly learning, unlearning and relearning.”