The imposition of lockdown measures shattered the dreams of millions of young Africans. Kenyan music producer Wachira Warukira recounts how he and many others have innovated in order to survive.
On 15 March 2020, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta’s issued directives to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. These included the closure of schools, clubs, hotels, churches, travel limitations and so on. In the same month, a nationwide curfew was imposed.
That evening, I had been working with three artists in the studio. One of them had just secured a gig to host a karaoke event at a club while she worked on her album, which was to be released in the coming months.
We did not know how to react to the news. We just looked at each other perplexed. One of the guys, an artist and a preacher at a church looked at me and said, “Tumeisha!” which is Swahili for “We are done for!”
One phrase kept ringing in my mind: “The pandemic is a test!” What was the test? Who would pass or fail it? I had started my music studio in July 2019. As with any other business, the first 5-6 months were awful, and I could barely break even. Like many other Kenyan young entrepreneurs, I was looking for loans, but nobody really supports a start-up.
With the new restrictions, which included the need to ‘work from home’, things changed quite rapidly. As a music producer, I had to have the artist in the studio physically. With the curfew laws, I lost all my clients.
I did not want to close my business. So, I booked an appointment with a lady at the government’s Youth Fund office. On 24 March I went to the office, only to be told it had been closed until further notice. Like a poor stray dog with its tail tucked between its legs, I walked back feeling heartbroken, worried and anxious, hopeless even. In my pocket, I had only Kshs35 ($0.32). I had not had any meal that day.
“Until further notice!” Those words still ring in my head. The little shreds of hope I had had were now fading. If the government offices that could help a young entrepreneur like me were closed, what was I supposed to do?
At that moment, even if I wanted to believe the government was acting in the best interest of the people, I felt it was at the expense of the livelihoods of the same people it was trying to protect. If one did not die from the pandemic, one could definitely die from hunger or develop stress-related complications.
I started regretting my decision to quit banking to pursue my dream as a music producer and singer.
At that point, about 15 cases of Covid-19 had been recorded in the country and everyone was panicking. People were being ordered to stay at home, lest they face charges. The police were using force and beating people mercilessly until the High Court intervened.
On the streets, I saw a woman selling fish by the roadside. There was a teenage girl selling smokies and fish next to her. How does the ‘Work from Home’ concept work for these ladies? What would a state curfew mean to them? What about that young man who was rolling chapatis, hoping to sell them to people on their way back from work or even those who worked at night?
It has been over one year now. We are still surviving. I remember when I shared the topic ‘How has Covid impacted your dreams and aspirations as a young person?” on my WhatsApp and other social media accounts, the responses were overwhelming.
Tabby, an aspiring motivational speaker and mentor, used to spend her weekends in schools, colleges or churches doing inspirational and mentorship talks.
“My brand was growing, and I was getting gigs to speak. I relied on the social gatherings. Then boom! Gatherings were prohibited. I had to find different ways of surviving, ” she told me.
I asked her if she had made any attempts to reach out to her clients virtually, since that was what most people were recommending. “I tried to reach out. However, it was not effective because schools, colleges and churches were already closed. And I could not reach students or congregants individually.”
The bounce back
Some people bounced back and found new ways of realising their dreams. Previously, social media was mainly used to share moments and memories and to connect. Young people started using their social media to market their products. While many businesses felt threatened by the restrictions, others changed their ways of delivering services and new businesses started as a result of the same restrictions.
‘Picnic’ by Njoki is one such business that began during the pandemic. “For me, starting during the Covid-19 period was such a huge blessing, especially due to the fact that clubs and restaurants were closed.” She saw an opportunity to provide people with flexible picnic experiences that could play within the social distancing rules.
I also talked to Eric Arwa, the business development manager of Bafunde. Bafunde is a learning portal that enables Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), to design and develop digital educational content for specific target audiences. This means that there is opportunity for trainers such as Tabby to reach out to their audience for a fee.
New initiatives were established during the pandemic to curb the extreme impacts – for instance, the Umoja Initiative which encourages collaborations between artists from different regions and countries in Africa. Also, I am currently mixing tracks by artists who are based in Uganda and other African countries. We had to find ways to make things work.
Swings and roundabouts
With every challenge, there are opportunities. With every test, there are three types of people: those who find solutions; those who have no clue but at least try; and then there are those who throw in the towel and give up. Most people have had to be innovative to survive. Others have seen opportunities to provide new experiences.
For a music producer like myself, I have had to learn how to do more than just music production. I offer Zoom lessons for playing instruments or production.
With the closure of schools, most students experienced delayed graduation. A lost year can never be recovered. “I closed down my business so that I could enrol for school and advance my skills. I really wanted to graduate by 2022 and develop my business but now I have to graduate in 2023,” said Onesmus, a first-year student at Meru Polytechnic. “Staying at home also caused a lot of conflicts with our parents. When I resumed classes in 2021, it felt different. It felt as if we were starting from scratch.”
Just as Onesmus said, the pandemic shattered the dreams of millions of other young people, especially girls. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, Kenya was still struggling with teenage pregnancies. So, you can imagine how the rate rose.
According to the news site New Humanitarian, Covid-19 made it worse because restrictions on movement made it harder for girls to access contraceptives and family planning services and worst of all, the mandatory curfews and lockdown trapped girls in homes with predatory family members and neighbours.
The New Humanitarian also added that research by Plan International shows that of pregnant teenagers who survive childbirth, nearly 98% drop out of school. Global Citizen published an article that reported how over three months in lockdown due to Covid-19, 152,000 Kenyan teenage girls became pregnant. Those are 152,000 known cases. What about the unreported ones? Now match this to the other statistic of 98% dropping out of school and see how many dreams were affected.
In a nutshell, the pandemic, as the President had said during that first press release, is truly a test. The virus has killed dreams without doubt – both literally and figuratively, but it has also offered the world with an opportunity to explore new ways of doing things.
Of course, it takes everyone a different amount of time to adjust but what matters is the ability to adjust eventually. For me, I almost shut down my studio. I even ditched my ‘artist look’, picked up a suit and started looking for work – but unfortunately, nobody is really looking for workers.
After a few months of applying for jobs and getting rejected, I went back to the drawing board and came up with a hybrid business plan that allows me to either work with artists on site or online. I am still working hard to sustain the business, but I can say one thing for sure: my dream did not die. It just got better, and I will keep looking for ways to survive in this new normal.
Read more from our special report African Youth Speaks.