This story first appeared in the Star newspaper.
Monika Muema, 73, sits at home weaving baskets in the single-room makeshift house she shares with her granddaughter Alice, 13, in Kajiado town. There is a bed on one side of the room and a sofa on the other. A bag of maize flour on the floor provides the main source of food. Monika’s gnarled fingers move in and out of the strings with surprising dexterity, adding neat rows of red, black and white. Afterwards, she packs up four completed baskets and walks slowly to the main road, where she sets up a roadside stall on a corner opposite a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) stop.
An old man in a traditional Maasai robe sits on a stool, spare tyres hang from a tree and a motorbike pulls up with a bleating goat tied to the back. Before long, customers also arrive and start looking at the baskets, testing the strength of the handles or admiring the colours. If Monika can make a sale, it will help her family through the next week.
Monika is a beneficiary of the orphan and vulnerable child cash transfer programme – one of a number of schemes that form the National Safety Net Programme, which the Government of Kenya is implementing with support from UNICEF. In Kajiado County, this is providing cash transfers to 12,880 vulnerable families. They each receive 2,000 Kenya shillings [US $17] per month and can decide for themselves what to spend this on.
In 2014, Monika’s family was one of the first to join the scheme. She was chosen because she was living in poverty and bringing up five children, including Alice. The children’s mother was still alive but disabled and unable to look after them. Despite her age and lack of education, Monika showed a strong entrepreneurial streak. She used most of the money for food and housing but saved some to start up a weaving business, using the money she earned to put her grandchildren through school.
“My life was bad before I got this money,” Monika says. “I used to carry my grandson Jacob with me to go and do domestic work. I had to come back quickly because his mother is deaf and has mental health issues. She got sick when she was very young and never recovered. It was a very emotional time for me. After I started getting the 2,000 shillings, things got much better, and I began weaving baskets.”
“I am very happy to be in this programme and I hope that more families with troubles like mine can also join, including those living on the streets,” she adds.
Impact of COVID
Families like these have been living in poverty for some time in Kajiado, but the situation deteriorated further during COVID-19. A trading centre close to the border with Tanzania, Kajiado town was hit hard by travel restrictions at the height of the pandemic. This pushed more families into poverty.
“In Kajiado town, the main drivers of poverty are limited employment opportunities,” Children County Coordinator for Kajiado Samuel Masese explains. “Most people are unemployed and live in slum areas. This was made worse during COVID-19 and we are yet to recover from the impact. Supply chains were disrupted and the cost of food has gone up. Drought and climate change are also driving poverty, with pastoralists in rural areas over dependent on livestock.”
Advocating for children
UNICEF is advocating for the next Government of Kenya to prioritise social protection, including cash transfers, as a cost-effective way of reducing child poverty, while also strengthening families’ economic resilience.
Living in poverty fundamentally undermines children’s futures, often with lifelong consequences. It impacts their opportunity to access services and realise their full potential. Children who are deprived of proper nutrition, health or education do not get a fair chance in life. Worse still, they can get stuck in a cycle of poverty that persists down through the generations. This is because poor children often remain in poverty as adults, and then bring up another generation of poor children.
Social protection, including cash transfers, is an effective way to tackle child poverty and break this vicious cycle. It is also a smart investment – households receiving cash transfers spend and produce more, putting additional money into local economies.
“Here in Kenya, 1.4 million households are currently enrolled in the National Safety Net programme,” UNICEF Kenya Social Policy Specialist Susan Momanyi explains. “However, that leaves out approximately 12 million children who are in need of support and are not receiving it. That’s why UNICEF is calling on the next Government of Kenya to increase spending on social protection programmes to 1.7 percent of GDP, which is equivalent to other lower middle-income countries.”
“This will allow more families to benefit from social protection, moving towards a system where every child benefits,” she concludes.
Breaking the cycle
Monika’s family history clearly shows the potential of cash transfers to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty. Her grandchildren are now all doing well in life. The older ones have been through school and college and set up businesses of their own. Jacob – the infant that Monika used to carry to work – now runs a successful mechanic shop down the road from where she sells her baskets. Her youngest grandchild, Alice, is doing well at school.
At the nearby Samwell Academy, it’s the last lesson of term. Alice, 13, sits with her friends in the Grade 7 classroom while her teacher, Mark Ochieng, writes maths equations on the board. He asks the children to solve them. Alice walks up to the front of the class, takes a piece of chalk, and writes 52 on the board. It’s the right answer and the other students clap. After class, Mark presents Alice with her end-of-year report, and she goes outside to play hopscotch with her friends.
“Alice is a very disciplined girl,” Mark says afterwards. “Her scores are average, but she is always punctual and cooperates well with others. She has friends and is active in sports. From the effort that she is showing, I believe that she will finish school and do well in the future.”
Elizabeth Muthoni, a child protection volunteer who works with Monika’s family, also believes that their future is bright. “There have been a lot of changes from when they started receiving the cash transfer to where they are now,” she says. “Monika is very active and makes good use of the money. She has tried very hard to educate her grandchildren. Some of them have now got jobs and homes and are helping her with the others. Her children are very proud of her – and so am I.”