Looking ahead: how will COVID-19 shape the future of work in Kenya?

July 16, 2020

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on jobs and livelihoods in Kenya has been nothing less than drastic.  Less than two months after the first reported domestic case of COVID-19, a report from the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) indicated that 133,657 people, mainly in the formal sector, had already been rendered jobless across the country; these figures are now likely much higher. Many more within the informal sector, typically afforded less social protection than those in the formal sector, have also been impacted.

The UNDP Accelerator Lab in Kenya has recently been exploring different themes related to the impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods in Kenya, such as advocating for a focus on digital inclusion as a response and analyzing the impact on informal traders. We believe that Kenya’s culture of innovation, as shown during the pandemic through locally made ventilators and hands-free hand-washing stations, can and should be a key strategic part of developing sustainable livelihoods moving forwards.

With this in mind, in May 2020 we collaborated with Konza Technopolis on the Great COVID-19 Innovation Challenge, an event bringing together innovators from across the country which yielded insights on how innovations responding to the pandemic are disrupting the present and shaping the future of work. The Challenge, culminating in a national hackathon where 40 initiatives emerged as finalists, was a rich source of future-thinking related to the focus areas of Health Systems, Food Systems and Decent Work; we've identified 7 key themes from this below which we believe as the most pertinent disruptive influences.

1.      Remote working as the norm

Many businesses have opted for mass work-from-home policies for their staff during the pandemic, which has introduced new dynamics to traditional employee engagement and management. Tools such as Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams have become a staple for many, and Gumzo, the first video conferencing platform made in Africa, was recently launched in Kenya. Brainverse Technologies – winner of the Great COVID-19 Innovation Challenge – has developed Startup Suite, a platform which offers holistic, digitized operations mechanisms for business which is built to emulate people, processes and systems.

According to Brian Nyagol, CEO of Brainverse Technologies: “the future of work is remote, and companies will consistently need to innovate around their business operations like project management, people management (staff & clients) to reduce costs including digitising their business processes.”

2.      Reimagining the workspace

The societal shift towards ‘social distancing’ in Kenya extends to the work environment: many organizations are having to consider how to execute these measures within offices and business spaces, with proposed solutions including telecommuting and rotational schedules. One of the Innovation Challenge finalists has developed Quantum Eye, a novel solution to this challenge which is a control movement software that supports businesses to reopen while avoiding congestion by managing appointments online.

According to Nassir Alwy the founder, “this solution creates confidence for people to resume their normal life and improve their standard of living”. 

3.      Contactless payments and transactions

One of the Government’s response to the pandemic has been a call to the public to embrace cashless payments such as online banking, mobile wallet and card payment to reduce the risk of transmission. Kenya’s strong mobile money infrastructure, combined with the spread of digital banking platforms, may result in job losses for cashiers, bank tellers, as we move closer to more self-checkout systems. One Innovation Challenge finalist developed LipaFare a mobile app that allows payment of bus, matatu and train fares through mobile money by use of QR codes thus reducing contact with physical money.

Andrew Karanja the founder says, “A well-known fact is that money is one of the most exchanged physical items that it is known to contain all kinds of germs. One way to prevent this is by providing a contactless alternative and that is where LipaFare comes in.”

4.      Rise of the on-demand economy

Many businesses (that can do so) have now introduced delivery services to their customers, greatly accelerating an existing trend to the ‘on-demand economy’. Services companies, however, whose offerings are dependent on customer-client interaction, have been greatly impacted by a loss of customers. One Innovation Challenge finalist is looking to address this by facilitating a shift to an on-demand platform: Nywele Nyumbani is a web and mobile app that links clients to hair and beauty stylists who will visit them at home.

Mercy Kiptui, the founder was originally inspired to find a solution that minimized start-up costs for youth and women stylists, democratizing access to the industry. She adds that in light of the pandemic, “this innovation provides clients with a safer way, health-wise, of doing their hair by eliminating interaction with other customers, as would be found in salons.

5.      Increased importance of digital branding

One interesting feature of the Nywele Nyumbani app is that it allows a client to rate their service provider thus promoting their work. Self-branding and customer service will be a critical aspect in the future of work. Just like with on-demand platforms like Uber and Fundis, digital markets will play a key role for job seekers’ to highlight their skills and connect them to meet the customer’s needs. The internet offers a powerful branding opportunity for individuals, which could eliminate the need for business cards, and points to increased demand for digital marketing experts, image consultants and brand managers.  

6.      Big data and user insights

Contact tracing has emerged as a key component in managing the risk of transmission of COVID-19, with local innovations coming up to address this gap. Broadly, the shift to more and more digital platforms means that more people are generating a digital footprint, leaving behind a wealth of data in their path. 4IR technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning will likely become more prominent in the future of work as the public and private sector leverage data for better understanding of human behaviors and attitudes. Beyond increasing opportunities for data analysts and scientists, this will open up new fields of important work such data ethics and digital policy.

7.      E-learning using digital platforms

Technology is one of the ways in which learning is becoming democratized: e-learning is easily scaleable, complements ‘traditional learning methods’ and facilitates exchange of ideas and skills from non-traditional sources. In Kenya, digital learning solutions for children such as Ubongo Kids, Mlugha, and Kytabu have been developed, and more generally there is an increasing trend of young people graduating from “YouTube University” – i.e. building knowledge from watching videos which can kickstart diverse careers from programming to photography and from cooking to carpentry.

Where does this leave us?

The future of work is already here with us and at the UNDP Accelerator Lab we are adopting a futures thinking mindset towards our focus area of addressing Kenya's persistently high youth unemployment. It’s also important to remember that digital inclusion is a necessary prerequisite for access to these future-facing technologies, strengthening the case for ‘digital inclusion for all’. We invite you to reach out [acceleratorlab.ke@undp.org] if you would be interested in engaging further on these themes are we all look towards the future of work.

Authored by Caroline Kiarie- Kimondo Head of Exploration and Lillian Njoro, Head of Experimentation UNDP Accelerator Lab.