As Kenya’s lockdown bills skyrocket, the country is faced with a new era of austerity, government borrowing and tax hikes. By Zachary Ochieng in Nairobi.

Over 160,000 Kenyans signed an online petition in April to stop the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailing out the East African powerhouse.

Uhuru Kenyatta’s government had requested a $2.5 billion loan from the IMF to help pay for the country’s series of harsh Covid-19 lockdowns, estimated to have cost the National Treasury $8.95 billion between March and November 2020 alone.

Jefferson Murrey, who set up the Change.org petition, said previous loans to the Kenya government ‘have not been prudently utilised and have often resulted in mega corruption scandals’.

‘The scandals have not deterred the ruling regime from appetite for more loans, especially from China.

Right now, Kenyans are choking under the heavy burden of taxation, with the cost of basic commodities such as fuel skyrocketing, and nothing to show for the previous loans.’

It’s a view shared by many in Kenya, which has seen mass job losses and hunger as a result of the country’s lockdown measures.

Mwihaki Mwangi, a social media activist, called on the IMF to ‘stop lending money to the Kenyan government’, adding: ‘It ends up in few corrupt pockets. No change in living standards to the common citizens. We are becoming poorer and poorer. Heavy taxes levied on our meagre salaries. Reverse the loans. We don’t need it.’

But in a statement, the IMF defended Kenya’s continued borrowing. Its deputy managing director, Antoinette Sayeh, said: ‘The Kenyan authorities have demonstrated a strong commitment to fiscal reforms during this unprecedented global shock, and Kenya’s medium-term prospects remain positive.’

Despite its public show of support, the IMF made it clear that Kenya will have to introduce austerity measures in return for the bailout, warning the country faced even ‘sharper fiscal consolidation or much more expensive borrowing on commercial terms’ without its help.

Kenya’s public debt is expected to peak at 73 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2022-23.

As part of the loan agreement, the Kenyan government will be expected to discipline itself and raise more taxes, cut expenditure and narrow the deficit – moves unlikely to go down well with Kenyan voters.

In recent months, the government has already raised taxes on fuel, putting a strain on households’ pockets. In addition, public servants will now contribute to their pensions and loss-making government businesses will be privatised, merged or closed, which will impact jobs as well as the economy.

Musalia Mudavadi, leader of the opposition party Amani National Congress and Kenya’s one-time finance minister and vice president, said the regime that takes over from the ruling Jubilee administration after the 2022 General Election will face a herculean task in resuscitating an economy ravaged by huge public debts.

‘We are doomed as a country,’ said the presidential election contender. ‘It is the common man who will pay these debts. The cost of everything goes up and there will be more thieves as a result of unemployment.’

He added: ‘No government should force a nation to incur a debt for the purpose of funding corruption, theft, wastage or white elephants that have no economic or financial value. The economy is bleeding and unless the national treasury restructures and reschedules the national debt, the situation will worsen.’

Dr David Ndii, an economist and a harsh critic of the Kenyatta administration, concurred.

According to him, the IMF programme is a structural-adjustment loan, which will come with some pain.

‘It comes with austerity – tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing – to keep Kenya credit-worthy so that we continue borrowing and servicing debt. ‘IMF is not here for fun.’

The treasury cabinet secretary, Ukur Yatani, has argued that the amount is necessary to fight the Covid-19 pandemic and reduce debt vulnerabilities. According to him, access to vaccines is critical, and help from the international community is urgently required.

He has blamed the excessive borrowing by the Kenyatta administration on shrinking tax revenues in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Like the UK and South Africa, Kenya has been beset by corruption claims concerning its Covid-19 procurement processes.

Last year, a report by Auditor General Nancy Gathungu revealed how $71 million was lost in a scandal involving medical supplies at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA).

The Auditor General’s report also revealed so-called fly-by-night companies that were awarded tenders only a few months after registration and could not be deemed to have the necessary experience and capital to supply specialised medical equipment and products.

It did not help matters that President Kenyatta has admitted that his government loses $18.6 million to corruption every day, without mentioning what steps had been taken to recover the funds and prosecute those behind the theft.

Even after the anti-graft watchdog recommended the prosecution of those found culpable, no one has been convicted of corruption almost a year later.

Corruption aside, Kenyatta’s eight-year rule has been decried by opponents for its reliance on borrowing.

The size of the budget has been increasing while tax collected by the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) has stagnated, resulting in a deficit that has forced the country to go on a borrowing spree.

The Parliamentary Budget Office, which advises legislators on financial and budgetary matters, has already warned against unrealistic budgets.

‘The actual fiscal deficit including grants averaged 7.6 per cent in the period FY 2013/14 to FY 2019/20, compared to an average target of 4.0 per cent during the same period, representing a 3.6 per cent deviation,’ the office warned.

Even more worrying is the fact that debt accumulation, including from international capital markets (Eurobond), has seen Kenya commit more than half of taxes to loan repayments.

Despite falling tax revenues, the Kenyatta government plans to add over $9.1 billion to its public debt mountain in the 21/22 financial year, according to the 2020 Budget Review and Outlook Paper, as the government looks to fund infrastructure project such as new roads, a modern railway, bridges and electricity plants.

The country’s ballooning public debt is projected to reach 69.8 per cent of GDP by 2023, an increase of over 10 per cent on pre-lockdown levels.

Meanwhile, the amount the government has to repay in interest is expected to increase from 9.8 to 12.9 per cent of GDP between 2019 and 2023, severely reducing funds that are meant to improve service delivery to citizens.

In a desperate attempt to defend the high debt appetite, treasury mandarins have compared Kenya with other countries around the world whose public debt exceed their economic output, such as Japan, estimated to have a public debt to GDP ratio of 240 per cent.

After months of dilly-dallying, Kenya finally joined the G20 Debt Suspension Initiative (DSSI) in order to defer some of its external debts payments, amounting to $630 million. A further $545 million due within the first half of 2021 have been rescheduled.

Kenya’s appetite for debt, though, remains insatiable. The treasury has requested parliament increase the debt ceiling of nine trillion Kenya shillings (about $82 billion). It is also said to be considering tapping into the international capital markets with its fourth Eurobond issue in less than seven years to help offset part of its debt obligations in the next three months.

But with the country expected to cross the milestone one trillion shilling ($9.17 billion) in debt repayments by the end of 2021-22, and the country’s credit rating being recently downgraded by S&P, Fitch and Moody’s Investor Service alike, the days of reckless borrowing may be coming home to roost for Kenyatta sooner than he thought.

The enterprising young businesswoman turning Nairobi’s plastic waste into environmentally friendly building materials. By Zachary Ochieng in Nairobi.

Above the din of roaring factory machines, I am greeted with a cheery ‘karibu’ (welcome) by Nzambi Matee.

Wearing a blue overall, and with a disarming smile, the 29-year-old ushers me into her sweltering office in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, where Matee’s construction supplies firm, Gjenge Makers, is based.

An environmentalist at heart, Matee quit her job as a data analyst at an oil company in 2016, after growing increasingly disheartened about the amount of plastic rubbish in her hometown.

‘I saw a lot of plastic waste lying around and that got me worried. I decided to use my expertise to make a contribution towards eradicating this menace,’ said Matee.

Together with a few like-minded individuals, she founded a plastics collection company that would sort and sell plastic waste to other recycling companies.

The idea was buoyed by a competition sponsored by the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, which offered $750 to the company that collected the most plastic rubbish.

Matee and her group developed a mobile app that saw them collect tons of plastic waste and emerge winners, but they soon ran into headwinds.

With her team collecting the waste faster than local recycling companies could take it, she began thinking up alternative uses for the discarded drinks bottles and came up with a new idea: to make building material from plastic rubbish.

She spent the next year refining her idea, while studying social enterprise at the US-based Waston Institute, and upon her return to Nairobi in 2018, started research and development on the eco-friendly paving blocks and manhole covers.

Matee aims to promote recycling and upcycling in Kenya and Africa, and provide job opportunities for skilled and unskilled youth and women in Kenya’s bourgeoning engineering sector.

Nzambi, second left, with her colleagues in the factory.jpg

Her team collects waste plastics from the streets of Nairobi, processes them, and mixes the recycled plastic with sand to form a mixture, which is then molded into durable, lightweight paving blocks.

Gjenge’s bricks come in an array of colours, from traditional terracotta blocks to eye-catching blues and greens.

Tested to hold twice the weight of concrete blocks and up to 30 per cent cheaper, they’ve proved popular with residents and businesses in Kenya, with the company projected to break even later this year.

With four full-time and six part-time engineers, the company – which won last year’s UNEP Young Champions of the Earth Award – currently produces around 1,500 bricks per day. But it hopes to triple capacity this year to meet increased demand and create more jobs.

Plans are already afoot to sell recycled blocks in other countries within the East African Community, as well in Nigeria, where local suppliers have expressed interest in Gjenge’s products.

Matee has fostered partnerships with various organisations in order to help ramp up production, including the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, Alquity Investment Management, America’s Watson Institute, Make-IT in Africa, and the iLab research and development unit at Nairobi’s Strathmore University.

The Kenyan businesswoman is confident that her team has what it takes, adding: ‘We are extremely excited to have recycled more than 2,000 tons of waste over the last two years and won five awards, while creating employment for the youth.’

Visit gjenge.co.ke.

Gjenge engineers at work.jpg

With the West imposing Covid-19 quarantine laws against travellers from Africa, the future of the continent’s lucrative safari industry hangs in the balance. And, as Britt Collins discovers, a collapse in tourist numbers not only risks pushing millions into poverty, it also threatens the long-term survival of Africa’s wildlife, forests and savannahs – increasing the likelihood of future pandemics in the process.

Big cats, elephants, rhinos and other animals are among the countless casualties of the post-lockdown collapse of Africa’s booming tourist industry.

Safaris, hotels and private wildlife preserves have all but vanished overnight.

Beyond the impact on various countries’ economies, tourism is vital to conservation, ranger patrols and most wildlife-protection projects.

Without these revenue streams and the absence of foreign travellers, people in rural communities are becoming desperate and hunting giraffes, zebras, monkeys and other wild animals to provide food for their families or to sell for their body parts and skins.  

Alongside the perils that face African wildlife — poaching, international crime syndicates, governmental and judicial corruption — bushmeat hunting poses another graver threat of future mass pandemics.  

harnas lion.jpg

According to the World Health Organization, more than 50 per cent of the new infectious diseases in humans are caused by pathogens originating from animals or animal products, of which 70 per cent have originated from wildlife. 

Other studies have indicated that the handling and consumption of bushmeat contributes to the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans. 

It’s an issue that concerns Angela Sheldrick, head of Kenya’s Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

‘We’ve seen a steady rise in bushmeat poaching over the years, and the economic pressures of the current crisis have only exacerbated the issue,’ said the Anglo-Kenyan conservationist. 

‘Bushmeat poaching is behind many of the most serious pandemics and epidemics in recent history, and if the practice continues unabated, I shudder to think of what it could trigger next.’ 

Such fears are shared by conservationists and park wardens across the continent.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority, for example, reported a more than two-fold increase in poaching in the first few months of the country’s harsh Covid-19 lockdown compared to the same period in 2019.

While rangers from the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (pictured below) confiscated more than 10,000 snares from one Kenyan park alone during 2020 – again more than twice the 2019 figures – as people in the heavily tourism-dependent region struggle to feed themselves and their families. 

Anti Poaching_Copyright The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Mia Collis (4).jpg

If 2020 was a bad year for Africa, 2021 looks set to be even worse, with the introduction of punitive quarantine rules for tourists returning to Europe from Africa.

In the UK, for instance, arrivals from 39 countries, including anyone arriving from all of Africa’s major tourist hotspots bar Uganda, will have to pay £1,750 (nearly $2,500) to self-isolate for 10 days in a government-approved hotel upon their return.

These draconian measures – and the exorbitant expense involved – are expected to discourage travellers from booking safaris, as Western tourists opt to holiday in countries that are not on the so-called ‘red list’, despite having much higher levels of Covid-19 cases and deaths. 

Such populist measures are not just restricted to the UK, where African nations account for more than half of the ‘red list’.

Restrictions against Africans and tourists returning from Africa are being rolled out across Europe, North America and Australia, quashing hopes of a safari recovery this year.

One Danish operator, Deep Forest Safaris, for instance, had to postpone more than 90 per cent of its bookings to 2022 as a result of increased restriction against returnees from Africa. 

It’s likely to have a devastating impact on the economies of countries like South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and Zimbabwe that are heavily reliant on tourist jobs and income. 

Some 70 million tourists flocked to Africa in 2019, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation. 

Tourism contributes nearly 10 percent to Africa’s economies and the sector employed 25 million people, with safaris worth more than $12.4 billion to East and Southern African economies alone, according to the UN. 

With travel at a standstill, conservationists and rangers fear the wild animals that draw millions to Africa and make it so magnetic are more vulnerable to poachers.

Tim Davenport, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, believes that as lockdown measures around the continent continue and the economic consequences of this and the tourism collapse intensify, massive poaching surges will increase.

‘With fewer people about, it is inevitable that illegal activities will occur.’ 

Nico Jacobs, a bush pilot and co-founder of South African charity Rhino 911, believes the poaching surge has reached crisis levels.

‘I’ve done this job for 15 years, and I’ve never been so busy,’ said Jacobs, whose charity rescues baby rhinos orphaned by poachers and provides a lifeline to wounded animals.

‘Last year we had calls to over 40 rhinos in a period of 72 hours. That’s how critical the situation is now.’  

Every year poaching accounts for the death of 1,600 rhinos killed for their horns – which are hawked as bogus cures for everything from cancer to impotence in China and Southeast Asia – leaving hundreds of orphans behind.

‘If poaching continued at its current staggering level, rhinos will soon be hunted to extinction,’ Jacobs explained. 

With poaching on the rise once more, a small team of vets, rangers and pilots have been scrambled into conducting emergency horn-trimming operations as a precaution.

South Africa has already dehorned dozens of rhinos in three popular game parks, to prevent the further threat of armed poachers taking advantage of the post-Covid-19 crash in tourism to kill them for their horns.

Across Africa, lodges, camps and conservancies are struggling.

Even popular safari hotspots, such as Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and South Africa – which has been the hardest hit by Covid on the continent – have had to lay off or furlough staff and stall or shelve conservation projects.

But those that survive this fallow period will likely bounce back once if and when things getting moving again.  

For wildlife sanctuaries and refuges that look after rescued animals and depend on volunteers and donations, the pandemic has been catastrophic. 

The lack of visitors has left many without much-needed revenue, facing mounting bills for food, medicine and general care.  

 Kaatje with Atheno.jpg

Harnas Wildlife Foundation, Namibia 

Tucked away amid the golden sands and grasslands of Namibia’s cattle country, Harnas is home to nearly 1,000 big cats, primates, antelopes and many other wild orphans, as well as rescued cats, dogs, sheep, goats, cows, horses and donkeys.

Since its founding in 1978, the sanctuary has taken in thousands of animals that have been abandoned or abused and can’t make it on their own in the wild. Much of its funding and workforce comes from volunteers, who fly in from abroad for weeks or months-long stints at the site set amongst the stark wilderness of the Kalahari Desert, a three-hour drive outside the capital Windhoek.  

‘You can’t imagine the devastation this is causing us. No visitors, no income and so many mouths to feed,’ said Marieta van der Merwe, who began Harnas with her late husband Nick after they persuaded a man on a dusty Namibian road to sell them a maltreated vervet monkey.

They started hand-raising wild babies in their home and gradually transformed their cattle ranch into a real-life Noah’s Ark. 

This family-run 20,000-acre refuge has since expanded to become southern Africa’s largest wildlife orphanage, offering visitors the chance to touch, walk, feed and tend lions, leopards, cheetahs, baboons, antelopes and all sorts of wild creatures.

Wildly successful, it had attracted such celebrity patrons as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, as well as flocks of volunteers who fall in love with the place for its offbeat charm and menagerie of tame and wild orphans, who all have names and heart-breaking stories.

Some were rescued as cubs, like the charity's newest arrival, Desert, who had been kept in a plastic drum with no shade or water.

Others, considered nuisance animals by farmers, are removed from farms and brought to Harnas to live out their lives peacefully.  

‘When you see the state of the rescues when they come here, it really hits you in the heart,’ said Kaatje Steenhoudt, a young Belgian accountant who’d been volunteering on and off for months since 2012 and is now unable to return to Namibia because of travel restrictions.  

Harnas sanctuary Namibia feeding giraffe.jpg

In this quirky, otherworldly environment, the property features several rustic stone cottages with copper baths and private porches, tucked in landscaped gardens, for guests who just want to come and enjoy the animals, silence and mesmerising views of the sweeping desert.  

Now the once-buzzing sanctuary is scrambling for survival. ‘It’s a very, very hard time,’ said Melanie van der Merwe, Harnas’s operations director and Marieta’s daughter-in-law.

She recently moved back on the farm with her two college-age daughters to help manage the workload.

‘Things are so dire, Marieta sold her private car, jewellery, anything and everything of value that she could sell or pawn. 

‘We don’t have the support structures or financial firepower in Africa as in Europe, so the pandemic has been far more damaging here, but we’re determined to keep our animals alive,' said Melanie van der Merwe. 'We’ve dipped into our reserves, but I don’t know how long this will be sustainable. From next month, we’ll be going into the red.’  

Harnas needs a minimum of $700,000 Namibian dollars (approximately $48,000 US dollars) per month to operate. 

‘With normal lodges or camps, they shut their doors and wait out the pandemic, but with a rescue centre you still have to provide for and care for the animals. We need volunteers to keep it afloat. So, when countries like Britain, Germany, France and Australia, where most of our volunteers and guests come from, close their borders or impose harsh travel restrictions, it affects us severely.’  

With no income coming in, they have had to take other desperate measures, laying off half of the staff and shooting wild game outside the sanctuary to feed the big cats and rare African painted dogs living at the reserve.

‘Luckily we’ve had rains so everything is lush and green and there’s a lot of game around.’ 

Before the pandemic, Harnas had a steady stream of guests and 50 to 60 volunteers at a time, international travellers who booked several months ahead. At the moment, the animals are being cared for by a skeleton staff, seven European volunteers who managed to get into the country, alongside Marieta and her family and their long-time San staff.  

As well as preserving Namibia’s wildlife, the van der Merwes have a long history of supporting the nomadic San bushmen.

They maintain a free school and health clinic for a small community who live on and around the sanctuary grounds.

‘We’re providing for 60 San families, the most marginalised people in Namibia, putting 80 children through school,’ said Melanie van der Merwe.

‘Marieta’s trying to keep the people, because if they lose their jobs now, they’ll starve and start hunting wild animals, which is happening all over Africa at the moment.’  

Harnas expects the ramifications of the pandemic will affect it for many months, if not years.

'If you’re going through hell, keep going,’ Melanie added, quoting Winston Churchill.

‘Marieta is 71 and working like a trojan. She won’t stop caring for her animals until she takes her last breath. We’re grinding non-stop to get the work done and keep our heads above water.’  

 Chimps in Sierra Leone.jpg

Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Sierra Leone  

Chimpanzees were destined to play an important role in Sierra Leone’s economic revival, when the critically endangered great apes were made the country’s new national animal just two short years ago. The government had plans to make the country a growing eco-tourism destination, building on the growing success of sanctuaries like the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, cocooned amid misty hills within a rainforest near the capital Freetown.

The once-popular tourist stop-off on the edge of the Western Area Peninsula Park, shelters hundreds of orphans saved from wildlife trafficking or bushmeat poaching in sprawling semi-forested enclosures.

It was founded by Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila in 1995, seven years after they came across a sick baby chimp tied to a tree by the roadside. The Sri Lankan couple had bought the chimp, named Bruno, for $30 and nursed him back to health in their home in Freetown.

Soon, people started dropping off their unwanted pets once they became unmanageable and they found themselves caring for seven chimps in a make-shift sanctuary in the garden. 

In need of space, Amarasekaran set up the reserve on a 100-acre patch of pristine rainforest in the national park, with the help of the government and international donors.  

Tacugama endured through many tough times, including the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, military coups and Sierra Leone’s brutal decade-long civil war.

Rebels raided the sanctuary several times, looting food and medical supplies, and nearly destroyed it as they seized areas around Freetown. Amarasekaran and his small staff avoided the rebel roadblocks by carrying supplies by night through the forest.

Even as the conflict raged on around them, they managed to keep the chimps safe. 

Now, once again, they are facing difficult choices. 

The reserve was shut for over nine months, starving it of vital tourist dollars.  

‘We had to make close to 10 staff members redundant,’ explained Aram Kazandjian, the sanctuary’s development manager. Around half the sanctuary’s revenue comes from foreign visitors. 

‘The staff and volunteers had been in total lockdown, not seeing their family or friends to keep the primates safe from Covid,’ Kazandjian added.

‘Even as the world has come to a standstill, we’re still taking in baby orphans at a shocking rate.’  

While habitat destruction and the exotic pet trade has left many chimps orphaned, bushmeat hunting remains the greatest danger. 

‘Poachers go after the mother for more meat, leaving the baby orphaned. They arrive very traumatised, having lost their mothers, and some come in with wounds. 

'We’ve just taken in three infants, all victims of bushmeat hunting.’ 

Chimpanzee bushmeat trade victim.jpg

One recent arrival, a three-year-old infant named Jean, was rescued near the park with gunshot wounds on the head and chest. It is thought he was hit by stray bullets aimed at his mother. Another was brought in with gruesome cuts to his wrists.

‘But the way he carried himself was astonishing,’ said Kazandjian.

‘Baby chimps, once they’re shown a little kindness, are really resilient. 

‘In the wild they’re dependent on their mums and aren’t weaned until about the age of three to four and remain with them for several years.  

‘We’ve got a surrogate mother, Mama Posseh, who provides reassurance, bottle feeds them, bathes them and puts them to bed very much like human babies, along with home-schooling and teaching them the basics, such as climbing trees and using of tools. We currently have 17 babies.’  

Before the lockdown, Tacugama had emerged as something of an eco-tourism success story in West Africa.

The sanctuary offered daily tours as well as overnight stays in six treehouse eco-lodges or traditional roundhouses with private decks overlooking a serene swathe of tropical rainforest.

Viewing platforms gave Western visitors a bird’s-eye view of the chimps as they fed, played and socialised.

There were also cinema nights, guided forest walks and other activities for tourists and locals. 

These days, the reserve is scraping by with a trickle of local visitors.

But Kazandjian remains optimistic and they are continuously finding new ways to adapt.

‘Since we’re not getting any foreign guests, we’re focusing on the expat market, encouraging them to visit the sanctuary. We had a yoga retreat, family days, hikes and bird watching, and that does generate a bit of money.

'We’re hosting a fundraiser at one of the hotels in Freetown. It costs about $2,000 per chimp to look after them. If you multiply that by 99 that’s about $200,000 a year just the animal portion of the budget.’  

Crucially, though, Tacugama doesn’t just care for its rescued residents.

They also safeguard the forest that Sierra Leone’s wild apes and other animals call home.

The area is constantly under threat as a result of poaching and plundering the rosewood trees by struggling communities. 

The sanctuary has taken on the additional mission of patrolling the national park.

‘It’s actually the government’s responsibility,’ Kazandjian explained.

‘Historically, they’ve done an appalling job, from corruption to mismanagement of funds to lack of training and equipment for the rangers. So, we’re working alongside the NPAA [National Protected Area Authority] and have also trained and hired 45 eco-guards from the local community to patrol the protected and unprotected areas for illicit activities.

'We’ve continued to pay the rangers’ salaries out of our reserves to keep the patrols going. Working with the communities, especially during the pandemic, we need to keep the momentum going.’ 

Chimps in Sierra Leone (1).jpg

Despite it’s almost-year-long closure, Tacugama has continued its conservation projects, planting 60,000 trees and creating the country’s first wildlife corridor.

‘What this does is restore the wild chimps’ natural habitat. It allows them safe passage and provides a source of food, while minimising human-wildlife conflict in the sense that they don’t need to raid farmers’ crops.’ 

Tacugama also has taken an active role in shaping the national policy, working with the Sierra Leone government to tighten laws on bushmeat hunting and revising the existing 1972 Wildlife Conservation Act, as well as Interpol to crush wildlife trafficking.

 ‘We’re doing a lot of advocacy and education programmes and done a successful job of almost bringing the pet trade to a halt in the country. Yet, despite our efforts, we’re still receiving orphaned infant chimps.’ 

Orphans Project_Copyright The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Mia Collis.jpg

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya 

Before the Covid-19 lockdowns, up to 500 tourists used to visit the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi each day, bringing in thousands of dollars in revenue to pay staff and fund anti-poaching patrols.

Founded in 1977 by the Kenyan environmentalist Daphne Sheldrick, the elephant and rhino orphanage rescues victims of poaching and human-wildlife conflict, reintroducing them to the wilds of Kenya. 

Famous in the West thanks to a BBC wildlife series, Elephant Diaries, that followed the late conservationist and the keepers’ work, tourist once flocked to the Nairobi orphanage for the chance to bottle-feed the calves.

‘The past 12 months have been tough,’ said Angela Sheldrick, CEO of her late mother’s charity. 

‘We rely on our public visits to raise vital funds. We’ve also lost the opportunity to connect with new supporters. But I’m extremely proud of how our team has risen to the challenge and humbled by our global supporter base, which has rallied around us during this difficult chapter.

‘The orphans, for their part, seem none the wiser that anything is amiss. Their routine remains unchanged and they continue to enjoy their days exploring Nairobi National Park under the watchful eyes of their beloved keepers.’ 

While the rest of the world is stilled, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, alongside the Kenya Wildlife Service, works across the entire country to protect animals.

‘Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve rescued all sorts of creatures, including zebras, buffalos, elands, oryxes, ostrich and, of course, elephants.’  

Among the recent rescues is an enchanting calf called Rama, found abandoned in Laikipia with a peculiar leg deformity that makes him appear bow-legged.

‘Rama was in a desperate state when he came to us, emaciated and riddled with parasites, but his transformation in a few short weeks has been striking. Now he’s going on long jaunts in the forest with the other orphans and putting on condition fast.’ 

Orphans Project_Copyright The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Mia Collis.jpg

Milk-dependent for the first three years of their life, orphaned baby elephants require around-the-clock care.

Their human attendants sleep in bunkbeds in the stables with them. 

They need constant comfort and endure long nights of screaming for their lost mothers they witnessed being shot or hacked to death by poachers. 

Many are so traumatized they lose their will to live.

But the calves who recover after losing their families stitch together new ones. With their huge capacity for love and forgiveness, they bond deeply with their nursery companions and human caregivers who bottle-feed them, take them for walks and teach them to forage, put them to bed and soothe them when they cry at night.  

Alongside its rescue-and-rehabilitation work, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust runs 13 anti-poaching units and five mobile veterinary teams, carrying out water relief for wildlife during droughts, aerial surveillance, canine units and ground patrols for recovering deadly snares across an area that spans 10 million acres, to protect wild lives from harm.  

Mobile Vets_Copyright The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (2).jpg

Elephants have been persecuted by humans for generations, with the population decimated from 3.5 million in the late-70s to possibly less than 400,000 today.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 African elephants are killed each year for their tusks to feed the insatiable demand for ivory in China and southeast Asian, steering the species dangerously nearer extinction and Africa towards an unfolding ecological disaster in the process. 

Elephants are essential to the wellbeing of all other species.

‘Elephants are the gardeners of Eden,’ as the late Daphne Sheldrick said in a recent documentary about the orphanage.

‘They push down trees, which recycles nutrients locked in wood for other animals, create trails through the bush, seal the waterholes so they last longer into the dry season, trigger the cycles between the grasslands, which supports the grazing species, and the woodland, which supports the browsing species. Without these magnificent giants, a lot of other animals will go extinct.’ 

Given the current rising threat of the bushmeat crisis and poacher incursions, Daphne Sheldrick's daughter Angela said the charity has added two more anti-poaching teams and another mobile veterinary unit to ensure the wildlife survives and thrives.  

‘Raising orphaned wildlife is futile if they don’t have a protected wilderness to call home, so we take a 360-degree approach to conservation and all our projects are interconnected,’ explained the charity's CEO. 

‘In Kenya, national parks and other protected areas remain safe thanks to extensive anti-poaching initiatives. However, wildlife living outside of protected areas are highly vulnerable. In response to this, we’re looking into ambitious translocation projects to move species great and small from these “danger zones” into protected areas where they have a future. 

‘Without intervention, untold numbers of creatures will lose their lives.’

Zongoloni_Orphans Project_Copyright The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.jpg

To find out more about the charities mentioned, or to donate, see, sheldrickwildlifetrust.org, tacugama.com, harnas.org.

Africa’s cities may soon be less noisy and polluted, says Andrea Dijkstra, reporting on a new rent-to-buy electric motorbike taxi service in Nairobi.

Motorcycle taxis – known in Kenya as ‘bodabodas’ - are responsible for more than 50 per cent of CO2 emissions in the transport sector, explained Kimosop Chepkoit.

Chepkoit is the founder & CEO of Ecobodaa, a new start-up that offers professional riders the chance to swap their gas-guzzling motorbikes for affordable battery-powered alternatives.

He is passionate about cleaning up his capital city’s toxic air. ‘We think it’s better to start where we can have a maximum impact.

'Two-wheelers are also easy to electrify and don’t need such a capital expenditure [on] heavy infrastructure, compared to cars.’ 

While the electric motorbikes are more environmentally friendly, crucially they will also give bodaboda riders higher profits, according to the Kenyan entrepreneur.

That’s because users will have lower fuel expenses and will also save on servicing costs because electric motorbikes don’t require oil changes and are built with fewer moving parts.

This might lead to savings of as much as $3 per day, explained Chepkoit.

‘A saving of even $1 per day means a lot to the riders,’ he said. 

‘These are young people with families and dependents in rural areas.

'$1 is the difference between having milk for the kids and not be able to afford milk.’ 

The Kenyan company will start commercial activities this month when it launches its first 10 Ecobodaas in Kibera, the informal settlement in Nairobi where the start-up launches. 

Riders pay a deposit, which is 10 per cent of the base cost of the Ecobodaa.

Then, after paying an 18-month lease of $3.90 per day through the Kenyan electronic mobile money service M-Pesa, they become the registered owners of the motorcycle but not the batteries.

Motorbike leasing is a very common thing in East Africa, more so in Kenya and Uganda where more than 70 per cent of motorcycle sales are through the lease-to-own model.

Kenyan motorbike taxis go electric.jpg

The electric motorbikes will be among the first to compete with Nairobi’s 100,000-plus petrol-powered motorbike taxis. 

For $1, the bodaboda riders can swap the bike’s battery in less than two minutes for a fully charged one.

‘Right now, we have rented four locations in [Nairobi’s] Kibera and Kilimani areas, which we will use as swap stations once we launch. We plan to have 100 swap stations in Nairobi by end of 2021,’ explained the Ecobodaa CEO.

‘The prospected savings on fuel, oil and maintenance are definitely interesting,’ said 26-year-old bodaboda rider Jacob Sum about the Ecobodaa launch.

Sum has been working as a motortaxi rider for four years now and bought his own petrol-powered motorbike two years ago.

‘I often drive around 200 kilometres per day, which costs me around 530 Kenyan shillings [$4.80], while this would cost me with an Ecobodaa around three battery swaps of in total only $3.’

The bodaboda rider is a bit sceptical, though, about the battery range being only 60 to 75 kilometres.

‘Sometimes I bring clients from Nairobi to Naivasha which is 80kms go and 80kms back,’ he said.

‘I also use my bike to drive to my home village, which is 342km one way. For these rides, you need to swap your battery, but where?’

Based on GPS tracker information and interviews with 300 riders, Ecobodaa’s founder concluded that battery range wouldn’t be a problem for most drivers who, he said, tend to fuel up every 30km.

Ecobodaa is part of a growing number of electric motorbike start-ups that have sprung up across the region in the past two years.

They supply and manage the motorbike-taxi drivers who run the most common form of public transport in most cities.

Bodawerk and Zembo have started providing electric motorbikes in Uganda. Metro Africa Express (MAX) has launched electric motorcycles for the Nigerian market.

Ecobodaa and British start-up ARC Ride are active in Kenya.

While two companies, Ampersand and Safi, currently provide electric motorbikes in neighbouring Rwanda. 

When Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, announced last August that he wanted all of the country’s motorbikes to be electric as soon as possible, Ampersand’s waiting list exploded.

Rwanda’s first electric motorbike company now has about 7,000 drivers on a waiting list for its vehicles.

The problem is that it can deliver only 40 bikes by the end of March. 

In Kenya, Chepkoit noticed that there was a lack of electric motorcycles that would meet the tough riding conditions in Africa, and therefore designed one himself together with Steve Juma, his Ecobodaa co-founder and former classmate.

‘We manufacture in China and assemble in Nairobi,’ explained Chepkoit, who is an electrical and electronics engineer.

‘The Ecobodaa is designed for our African cities, and we intend to move into other East African cities after our successful launch in Nairobi.’ 

See, ecobodaa.bike

Campaigning for Kenya's 2022 presidential poll has already begun – and there are fears that the rifts that led to the 2007-08 electoral violence are resurfacing.

Kenyans famously follow politics like rest of the world does sports or reality TV. But even by Nairobi’s politically obsessed standards, the lead-up to the next presidential campaign is proving pretty unusual.

Despite being in the midst of a pandemic – Kenya recently announced tough new lockdown measures – campaigning is already under way for the August 2022 presidential poll.

The early start is because President Uhuru Kenyatta allegedly reneged on a 2013 pledge to back his deputy, William Ruto, as his successor when Kenyatta is forced to retire at the end of his second term.

Such a political bust-up is of grave concern to Kenyans, given its chilling echoes to the events that led up to the 2007-08 post-election violence, during which more than 1,500 Kenyans were murdered and 600,000 were forced from their homes.

That bloody poll followed a similarly trashed agreement between former president Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga, who had come together five years earlier to dislodge the ruling party, Kanu, from power.

The pair had agreed in 2002 that Kibaki’s National Alliance Party of Kenya would share ministerial positions equally with Odinga’s Liberal Democratic Party, while Odinga would serve as Kibaki’s prime minister.

However, the agreement was never kept, and it sparked a bitter rivalry between the parties that erupted into violence at the subsequent 2007 ballot.

If the historical parallels weren’t worrying enough for Kenyans, of even greater concern is that President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto not only served under the 2007 rivals but were both accused of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their roles in the ethnic cleansing that followed the poll.

Dubbed the ‘Coalition of the Accused’, the former rivals teamed up during their trial at the Hague and went on to win the 2013 election against all odds.

However, talk of a Kenyatta-Ruto reckoning have been circulating ever since charges were dropped against the politicians.

In 2016, senior Jubilee Party officials, led by vice-chairman David Murathe, started issuing strong statements against Ruto’s likelihood of succeeding President Kenyatta when he is forced to retire at the end of his second term.

They have since vowed that Ruto would not receive the backing of the president, given his alleged involvement in corruption.

‘We don’t have [an agreement] with anyone to support them in 2022,’ said Murathe at a cultural festival in western Kenya.

‘If they negotiated that with President Kenyatta, that is their problem. Let us meet at the ballot.’

The president also told leaders from his central Kenya heartlands that his choice for 2022 would shock them, a clear indication that Ruto was not his preferred successor.

Ever since the advent of multi-party politics in 1991, all but one presidential election in Kenya has resulted in violence.

In the run-up to the 1992 elections, for instance, the state instigated ethnic clashes that saw the killing and displacement of non-Kalenjin communities from the Rift Valley region.

The same scenario was replicated in 1997.

Bloodshed was also witnessed in 2017, when the Supreme Court, in an unprecedented ruling, nullified Kenyatta’s election win and ordered a repeat of the presidential poll.

The court said that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) had failed to provide the requested information on its IT system’s firewall configuration, leaving them with no choice but to accept opposition leader Raila Odinga’s petition.

IEBC’s IT manager Chris Msando was brutally murdered only three days before the vote. Police also killed several people in Odinga’s strongholds, including a six-month-old baby, Samantha Pendo.

The second poll, boycotted by Odinga, resulted in yet more deaths still.

This cycle of electoral violence is affecting foreign investment in the East African powerhouse, according to Nyeri Town MP Ngunjiri Wambugu.

‘Every five years when we have an election, investors remain jittery, not knowing whether the country would be stable or not after the election,’ said the close ally of President Kenyatta.

‘We should end this, and those sounding drums of war as we approach an election should be put behind bars.’

Kenyans struggling to make a living also dread every election year as violence either disrupts their businesses or results in loss of property.

‘In the 2017 post-poll chaos, my shop was looted only a week after I had restocked it with a bank loan,’ said Winnie Owino, who runs a beauty salon.

‘It pains me that I continue to repay the loan whose benefits I did not see.’

Despite the poll being nearly two years away, election-related violence is already claiming lives.

In October, two young men were killed in clashes pitting Kenyatta’s supporters against those of Ruto, who had been campaigning in the President’s backyard of Muranga County.

Electoral violence in Kenya usually begins during the party primaries.

In Odinga’s strongholds, getting nominated for his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) ticket almost guarantees a win at the main elections.

This means that the battle for the nominations is fierce and would-be candidates often resort to violence against their opponents.

Observers claim that the violence during and around election time is an indicator of underlying socioeconomic and political issues such as land injustices, marginalisation and disenfranchisement.

These issues were raised in the 2013 ‘Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Report’, which was compiled in response to the post-election violence of 2007-2008, however the recommendations have never been implemented.

The political scientist Paul Okongo, speaking in a 2017 article published in The Elephant, said the lack of electoral credibility was a major reason for the violence.

He said: ‘Until Kenya holds free and fair elections that adhere to the rule of law, Kenyans who rise up against injustice will continue to bleed.’

Three years on and fears abound that the IEBC will not be able to conduct a free and credible poll.

Of the seven IEBC commissioners in post at the 2017 elections, four have resigned, leaving only three. Roseleen Akombe, one of those who resigned, fled to the US, citing threats to her life and those of her family members.

Akombe, who fled shortly before the repeat presidential poll in October 2017, said that political interference had rendered IEBC so dysfunctional that it could not carry out credible elections as scheduled.

Various leaders have also declared their interest in the presidency besides Ruto.

They include former vice-presidents Musalia Mudavadi and Kalonzo Musyoka, Baringo senator Gideon Moi, and a number of governors.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga has not openly declared his interest, but those close to the politician say he will be on the ballot.

It is Deputy President Ruto, though, who has hit the campaign trail and cast the 2022 election as a contest between so-called ‘hustlers’ and ‘dynasties’.

Ruto, the son of a peasant, considers himself to have come from a poor background - in stark opposition to Kenyatta, whose father Jomo was Kenya’s first president, and his allies, Odinga and Moi, whose fathers also once occupied the country’s top leadership.

Though critics have warned him against introducing class dynamics to Kenya’s elections, the deputy president remains defiant, insisting that he is fighting for the poor who have suffered for so long.

The deputy president has been going around the country giving out wheelbarrows, sewing machines, water tanks and motor bikes to various youth and women’s groups – such vote buying is common in Kenya.

Ruto has also been hard-pressed to explain the origin of the millions of shillings he has donated to churches since campaigning began.

Critics accuse him of using his official residence for campaigns and vote buying while others, such as Raila Odinga, question his ‘hustler’ narrative, given Ruto’s unexplained wealth.

‘Ruto should not call us ‘dynasties’ because [Jomo] Kenyatta and my father Jaramogi also came from poor backgrounds and only got to their positions by virtue of hard work,’ said Odinga, whose father was once vice-president. ‘Let him first explain the source of his wealth before calling us dynasties.’

Class wars aside, there are fears the power vacuum created by Kenyatta’s departure could lead to trouble in the president’s Mt Kenya base, as various politicians jostle to inherit his rich vote block.

The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that the president is barred by the constitution from standing after 2022.

Another reason for heightened electioneering is the impending referendum on a raft of proposed new constitutional changes.

These include the introduction of a Prime Minister’s position, as well as two deputies and an official leader of the opposition role, like the UK parliament.

However, Ruto and his allies have already vowed to shoot down the changes to the constitution, setting the stage for another confrontation.

‘We will not allow the creation of more positions to benefit the dynasties,’ Ruto told a rally in the western county of Nyamira.

‘Instead, we will continue fighting for the poor Kenyans.’

With violence already overshadowing the primaries, though, Kenyans are worried such fighting talk might not just be all words.

There was no lockdown, no recession, and just 21 official deaths in Tanzania – which goes to the polls this month. But with the country’s main trading partners reeling from lockdown-induced job losses, Zachary Ochieng asks whether economic contagion might be the real threat. 

When the world went in to lockdown, Tanzanians went to church.

They were told to by their president, John Magufuli, who implored citizens to flock to churches and mosques to vanquish the ‘satanic’ virus.

Covid-19, insisted the devout Catholic, was nothing to be ‘afraid’ of, adding that the economy was ‘more important than the threat posed by coronavirus’.

So, while Tanzania’s neighbour Kenya introduced curfews, restricted travel, banned all gatherings, and closed all restaurants, bars and schools, life in East Africa’s second largest economy continued almost unchanged.

Schools and airports were briefly closed, and large, secular gatherings banned, but throughout the pandemic, Tanzanians have continued to go to work, travel on public transport, and shop, drink and eat in public pretty much as normal. 

It was a bold move on Magufuli’s part, especially with presidential elections slated for October 28 – but not an entirely novel one, prayer vigils aside. 

Tanzania’s pandemic response loosely mirrored that of Sweden, which did not shut down its economy, hoping that social distancing, home-working, and bans on large gatherings would mitigate the coronavirus’s spread and lead to some form of herd immunity being developed.

But while Sweden has emerged with fewer deaths than many European countries that locked down, including the UK, Spain and Belgium, Covid’s true toll in Tanzania is less clear.

At the height of the pandemic, videos of alleged secret night burials went viral on social media, leading to allegations of a cover-up by the Magufuli regime.

Zitto Kabwe, leader of the opposition ACT-Wazalendo party, claimed that the number of infections was as much as seven times higher than the official figure, which would have placed Tanzania among sub-Saharan Africa’s most affected countries at the time.

The government, through its chief spokesman Hassan Abbas, however, dismissed the night burial allegations as ‘nonsensical’.

Meanwhile, the unexplained deaths of three MPs who presented with symptoms, and the authorities’ subsequent decision to fine or close down media outlets that linked the legislators’ deaths to Covid-19, was seized on by Magufuli’s critics as proof that more than 21 people died with the virus. 

The president similarly trashed a US embassy warning that the hospitals in Dar es Salaam were overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients at the start of the pandemic, and instead claimed the rate of infections had been exaggerated and those who were found to have contracted the virus were actually false positives. (The government claimed to have secretly tested a papaya, a goat and a quail for Covid-19, with all results returning positive for the virus.) 

Whether Covid-19 has been eliminated in Tanzania, as the government insists, remains a subject of debate.

The possibility that Tanzania has developed some form of herd immunity after only a few months of spiking cases has been bandied around by some government insiders.

But with most of the Covid-19 testing centres now shut down, and people no longer going for tests, it is very difficult to assess the true Covid-19 situation in Tanzania.

A NewsAfrica insider – with access to Tanzania's ICU departments – reported that ICUs were indeed largely deserted when they visited hospitals recently.

And with ‘official’ death tolls across Africa way below that of Europe and the Americas – thanks in part to the continent’s youthfulness, but perhaps, also, undercounting across the board – Tanzania’s 21 deaths, from a country of 55 million, is not as unusual as it sounds.

Burundi, for instance, is claiming just one official death from Covid-19, despite their president allegedly dying with it.

Nigeria is claiming just over 1,100 deaths in a country of nearly 0.2 billion.

And Tanzania’s neighbours Uganda and Kenya have posted official death tolls of just 79 and 731 respectively, despite having large populations like Tanzania, and, in the case of Kenya, relatively high antibody levels, meaning the virus must have circulated widely despite the lockdown.

But as debates rage about Tanzania’s unconventional response to the pandemic, and whether its true death toll may be closer to Kenya’s, there are signs that Tanzania’s economy, at least, might not be as adversely affected as its lockdown-embracing neighbours.

Projections by the African Development Bank predict, for instance, that Tanzania’s economy will grow by five per cent this year, making it the best performing economy in the East African Community. 

‘The country’s decision to keep the economy open has offered a major relief to the private sector,’ said the East African Business Council’s executive director Peter Mathuki. 

Kenya, on the other hand, has seen more than 1.7 million people lose their jobs during the pandemic, with millions pushed into extreme poverty.

Only 47 per cent of Kenyans still have some form of regular income, according to research company FSD Kenya, while a worrying 17 per cent of Kenyans are now unable to meet basic living standards. 

The situation in Uganda, which had one of the harshest lockdowns on earth, is equally grim.

A report by the Development Initiatives in August estimated that ‘about 23 per cent of the urban poor could have lost 100 per cent of their daily income during and after the lockdown’, and concluded that ‘the socioeconomic consequences of [containing] Covid-19 currently outweigh the positive health impact of limiting its spread.’ 

But while Magufuli’s approach may have spared the country from the sort of mass unemployment seen elsewhere thus far – a big vote winner under normal circumstances – there have been rumblings about his laissez faire economic approach. 

Unlike Kenya, whose government injected an economic stimulus package to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, Tanzania did little to support businesses impacted by Covid-19, particularly those in the hard-hit tourism sector, which accounts for nearly a quarter of foreign exchange earnings. 

Tanzania’s lucrative mineral sector has also been badly damaged by the global economic downtown and disruptions to international supply chains. 

On the other hand, the agricultural sector, which contributed 27 per cent of Tanzania’s GDP in 2019 and employed about 67 per cent of the total workforce, has remained largely unaffected by the pandemic so far, with agricultural growth expected to decline slightly from an average of five per cent in 2019 to a still-healthy three per cent growth this year, according to a May 2020 report by Deloitte.

The levelling off has been blamed on a locust infestation that destroyed crops near Mt Kilimanjaro, coupled with decreased demand for export-focused cash crops, such as coffee, in lockdown-hit Europe and Asia.

In fact, there are signs that the global downturn might store up future problems for Tanzania, with the report warning that ‘the sector’s jobs remain in the balance,’ unless the export of key cash crops picks up again.

Meanwhile, the World Bank warned in June that growth slowdown in Tanzania’s main trading partners would lead to an increase in poverty in Tanzania too by default. 

It warned that an economic slowdown in Europe, Asia and other major trading partners had reduced demand and prices for Tanzania’s agricultural commodities and manufactured goods, and added that international travel bans and fear of contracting the virus are expected to inhibit the recovery of tourism, which had been one of the fastest-growing sectors in the economy before the pandemic.

‘Tanzania’s macroeconomic performance has been strong for the last decade, but the current crisis is an unprecedented shock that requires a sustained, targeted policy response’, the report added. 

It concluded that the volume of exports will shrink by around 10 per cent, as disruption pushes up the costs of imports and transportation, while the hit to tourism, export-oriented manufacturing and related services had already shrunk the disposable income of employees in those sectors and thus affected owners of small- and medium-sized businesses, which represent more than 70 per cent of total businesses. 

In short, the report implied that the decision by almost every other country in the world to lockdown is expected to lead to a global downturn that will act like a contagion, dragging down livelihoods and jobs in countries that didn’t lockdown, including Tanzania and export-reliant Sweden. 

But with tourism already recovering – despite critics claiming the rumours of unreported cases would dissuade tourists from returning to Tanzania’s beaches and game reserves – might talk of an impending economic downturn by contagion or otherwise be overblown? 

The International Growth Centre gave some credence to Magufuli’s economy-first approach, predicting the economic shock would be slightly lower in countries that didn’t lock down, and argued that governments in developing countries could not respond to Covid-19 as solely a health crisis, given the economic and political crises that had also emerged.

Whether Tanzanians at risk of losing their jobs will blame Magufuli for not offering more financial support, or foreign governments for causing a global downturn, remains to be seen.

But with a divided opposition, and the economy still largely intact, the president’s prayers, at least, look set to be answered on election day. 

With early antibody tests revealing the virus may have infected millions more Africans than first thought, Andrea Dijkstra speaks to some of the world’s leading experts and asks whether the fall in hospitalisations and deaths may mean herd immunity is well within reach. 

Early this year, experts estimated that the African continent would be especially hard hit by the pandemic, with high rates of transmission that could quickly overwhelm health care systems.

‘Between 300,000 and 3.3 million African people could die as a direct result of Covid-19,’ the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) predicted in April.

The organisation emphasised that sub-Saharan Africa would be particularly susceptible because 56 per cent of the urban population is concentrated in overcrowded and poorly serviced slum dwellings, and only 34 per cent of the households have access to basic hand-washing facilities.

‘When I heard that corona reached Kenya, I feared the worst,’ recalled ICU-nurse Francisca Mumbua, who works at the Covid-19 isolation facility of Machakos Referral Hospital in central Kenya.

‘On the TV, we saw people dying in large numbers in western countries like Italy. I thought that our continent would be hard hit with masses losing their lives, as most of our countries are poor and our healthcare systems are limited. We basically expected to be really overwhelmed.’ 

Nine months later, and Africa seems to have weathered the pandemic relatively well so far, with just one confirmed case for every thousand people and a little over 35,000 deaths – 3.5 per cent of the global total.

Even South Africa, the hardest-hit country on the continent, has seen a relatively ‘low’ number of deaths, with about 28 fatalities per 100,000 population, compared to 61 deaths per 100,000 in the United States, for example.

‘To our surprise, most of the people who suffered from Covid-19 had a very mild or asymptomatic form of the disease,’ said nurse Francisca Mumbea.

‘Other moderate cases were managed successfully despite the resource challenges faced by most of the African countries.’ 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 80 per cent of coronavirus cases in African countries were asymptomatic versus around 40 per cent in Europe.

‘There are simply not so many people in Africa dying from this virus as we see in, for example, Europe’, said Professor Yap Boum, an epidemiologist and microbiologist with Epicenter Africa, the research arm of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). 

Africa’s youthful demographics are definitely an important reason for the lower death rates, according to most experts.

The median population age in Africa is 19.7 versus 38.6 years in the US and 42.6 in Europe.

In Kenya, for example, half of the population is younger than 20, and only four per cent are 60 or above.

Meanwhile, in Italy, 29 per cent of people are aged 60 or over while only 18 per cent are aged under 20. 

Another difference is that coronavirus has also predominantly affected cities, which in Africa are home to younger people.

‘When people retire, they often go back to the village,’ explained Boum, who believed that this natural separation between generations might have helped to curb the virus in some African states. 

However, demographics cannot get all the credit for the continent’s successes. Africa’s youthfulness should have resulted in death rates being four times lower than Europe or the United States, according to a recent study called ‘Covid-19 in Africa: Dampening the storm?’.

The death rate is actually around 40 times lower than Europe and the US. 

Hospital bed.jpg

According to the Kenyan pathologist Anne Barasa, a difference in genetics between Caucasians and people of African descent could explain the discrepancy.

‘We could have some differences in some of the genes that are associated with either the expression of receptors that the virus uses to enter our cells, or genes associated with an immune response against the virus thereby giving us a better protective response,’ stated the scientist from the University of Nairobi.

In the United States, however, African-Americans were especially hard hit by the virus and accounted for a disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths.

This apparent discrepancy might be explained away by recent research from the Boston University School of Medicine, which discovered that patients living in predominantly African-American and Hispanic areas were more likely to be vitamin-D deficient, which put them at a higher risk of acquiring the infection. 

A growing number of experts also believe that another important factor is the types of pathogens – or viruses – that people are exposed to, which are often connected to the climate and the levels of hygiene.

‘One good example is malaria that you don’t find in Europe and the United States. In sub-Saharan Africa we are permanently exposed to malaria, typhoid, as well as other coronaviruses, which at some point might build our immunity,’ explained epidemiologist Yap Boum.

‘This might make us more equipped to respond to this new Covid-19 virus. And while people in Europe and the United States also have the flu and quite a number of viruses, many people live in more hygienic environments where they are less exposed to those pathogens.’

Such a view isn’t universally popular. Professor Salim Abdool Karim – widely seen as a leading voice on the pandemic response in South Africa – pointed to other areas of the world with similarly crowded slums that have been hard hit by Covid-19. ‘If this was the case, then why do we see such severe cases in India and Brazil?’ 

Potential underreporting of Covid-19–associated deaths has also been bandied around. However, to date, African countries have not reported acute health emergencies.

‘We haven’t really surveyed all deaths to determine whether or not there was possible Covid-involvement,’ said the Kenyan pathologist Anne Barasa, ‘although we haven’t had many unexplained deaths.’ 

Testing in South Africa.jpg

The WHO acknowledged that coronavirus deaths might be under-reported in the continent but didn’t suspect a huge gap.

‘Although cases are being missed,’ WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a virtual media briefing recently.

‘We are not seeing evidence of excess mortality due to Covid-19 or missing deaths.’ 

Crucially, small antibody surveys suggest far more Africans might have already been infected with the coronavirus than official infection rates suggest, which makes the lower death rates even more striking.

Immunologists from the Wellcome Trust Research Programme at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) in Kilifi, for example, tested 3,174 blood donors from around the country between the end of April and the middle of June, and found that 5.6 per cent of all the donors and 9.5 per cent of those based in Nairobi had Covid-19 antibodies  –  proteins the body makes when the infection occurs.

‘The results suggest [that] about one in 20 people aged 15-64 years have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, which is in sharp contrast with the very small numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths reported during the same period,’ wrote the authors of the paper, which has not yet gone through peer review and was published as a pre-print in July. 

If the survey’s results accurately reflected Kenya’s overall infection rate, then 2.5 million Kenyans would have had coronavirus in that period.

Such a high number of infections should have resulted in around 12,500 deaths using the World Health Organization’s conservative estimate of a 0.5 per cent morbidity rate. And yet, by midway through the survey, Kenya had only reported 71 deaths from coronavirus - far lower than the number of deaths reported globally in countries with similar levels of antibodies. Even by the end of September the country had reported only 700 deaths from Covid-19.

Other antibody studies in Africa have shown similarly surprising findings.

Two recent surveys done by the National Health Institute in Mozambique on around 10,000 people from the north-eastern cities of Nampula and Pemba found antibodies to the virus in five per cent and 2.5 per cent of participants respectively.

Mozambique has recorded just 58 Covid-19 related deaths. 

Researchers in neighbouring Malawi – where a lockdown was ruled unconstitutional, and the virus thus spread largely unchecked – found similar results.

They tested 500 asymptomatic health care workers in the southern city of Blantyre and concluded that 12.3 per cent of them had been exposed to the coronavirus. 

Immunologist Kondwani Jambo, of the Malawi-Liverpool Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme, who conducted the study, said: ‘Although health care workers are at higher risk to be infected, the outcomes do tell us that more people have been infected than estimated and the trajectory of the epidemic [in Malawi] is different from Europe, China and the Americas.’ 

Such a hypothesis might go some way to explaining a study among people who visited public health facilities for antenatal care and routine HIV tests in the Cape Town area. It found that 40 per cent of respondents had antibodies against Covid-19.

The researchers stressed that the results are preliminary and based on a skewed sample of 2,700 people, who aren’t representative of the overall population.

Still, the South African study suggested that ‘especially in poorer communities, a relatively high proportion of people has been exposed to and infected with Covid-19,’ according to Mary-Ann Davies, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Research at the University of Cape Town.

Blood transfusion.jpg

Professor Yap Boum said that he also found a high prevalence of Covid-19 antibodies in people from Cameroon. ‘During mobile screenings in [the capital] Yaoundé, we tested 3,000 random people and around 16 per cent already had antibodies.’

The regional representative for Epicenter Africa said that we have to be very careful with these smaller, not peer reviewed test cases, but added: ‘The results definitely tell us that more people have already had the virus than we found through regular Covid-19 testing. We have missed a large group of people, probably because they were not sick.’ 

Meanwhile, more and more experts have argued that these antibody studies are undercounting the number of people who have had the virus.

A team led by the Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge University’s School of Clinical Medicine argued, for example, that many of the antibody tests used in studies miss out mild cases where people have overcome the disease by producing low levels of antibodies.

Most of the surveys only look for two types of dominant antibodies – Immunoglobulin G (IgG) and Immunoglobulin M (IgM) – but fail to look out for another antibody, IgA, which often acts as the body’s first line of defence against viruses and bacteria. 

A study in Luxembourg, for example, discovered more than five times as many people had IgA antibodies than IgG antibodies.

While researchers in the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl found that a staggering 42.4 per cent of the population tested positive for antibodies when they added IgA testing to the mix.

In June, a paper by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute suggested another way in which antibody tests may have been undercounting the number of people who have had the virus.

They found that many people showed an immunological response to Covid-19 in their so-called ‘T-cells’ – another part of the body’s immune system – without necessarily showing antibodies in their blood. 

‘No single test can identify all individuals that have been infected by SARS-CoV-2,’ the immunologist Jambo acknowledged.

‘The IgG-based tests, like any other single test, underestimate the true proportion of the population that has had Covid-19, but they give you a minimum estimate useful for tracking the trajectory of the epidemic.’ 

Sunetra Gupta, a professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University in the UK, acknowledged that some of these tests might have seriously underestimated the number of people who have been exposed to the virus.

She said: ‘Therefore, IgA tests in saliva are now being trialled. However, it’s very difficult and expensive to test for T-cells.’ 

In even more positive news, some scientists are even starting to argue that the fall in hospitalisations and deaths across the continent might be because Africa is already nearing ‘herd immunity’ – the idea that so many people have already caught the virus that there are not enough uninfected people for them to pass it on to, causing the virus to largely die out. 

‘In a few important case studies – Kenya, for example – what seems to be happening is the epidemic may be peaking earlier than our naive models predicted,’ Professor Francesco Checchi, a specialist in epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Guardian.

He said a similar pattern had emerged in Yemen, where little was done to control Covid-19 because of the ongoing conflict there.

‘Yemen is one of the few countries where, to my knowledge, there is almost no prevention of Covid transmission,’ Checchi told the British newspaper.

‘The anecdotal reports we’re getting inside Yemen are pretty consistent that the epidemic has [...] passed. There was a peak in May, June across Yemen, where hospitalisation facilities were being overwhelmed.’ 

He added that this is no longer the case and concluded that, ‘it was possible that the population had accrued some sort of ‘herd immunity’, at least temporarily.’ 

Some experts argue that something similar is happening in parts of Africa where falling case numbers are not because the lockdowns were so successful, but rather they were so unsuccessful the virus spread like wildfire.

In many areas, like urban slums, lockdowns proved almost impossible to enforce, meaning large number of people might have already been exposed. 

‘I won’t say that a full country already managed to reach herd immunity,’ Yap Boum told NewsAfrica.

‘But in some specific clusters, 60 per cent of the people might have been already exposed [to the virus].’

The epidemiologist singled out Kenya as an example, where about 56 per cent of the population lives in urban slums.

‘Although the Kenyan government imposed a lockdown, over half of Kenyans didn’t have the possibility to lockdown as they are living in overcrowded informal settlements. 

‘They are sharing one toilet with hundreds of people, they live with many family members in a single bedroom house, have to move around through narrow alleys, and often don’t wear facemasks as they don’t feel the burden of the disease so much.’ 

He added the seroprevalence – or antibody results – will definitely be ‘high in these areas’, and said that he believed this might be the reason that infection rates are going down in Kenya. 

He continued: ‘In Cameroon, where we were not having any lockdown, and only bars were closed, infection cases are going down probably because many people already got the virus.’ 

However, some experts believe that the drop in Covid-19 cases in countries like Kenya and Cameroon should be treated with great caution as they might be connected to a decline in people getting tests.

In Kenya, for example, the number of tests performed per 10,000 people halved between August and September.

‘This decline closely mirrors trends for Nairobi and Mombasa counties but potentially may mask the national picture, as other counties are experiencing increasing case numbers,’ the WHO stated recently. 

A change in testing policy in South Africa could also have had an effect on the numbers of new cases, according to the WHO.

‘The country’s current policy of testing only those who present with symptoms makes full interpretation of case numbers difficult.’ 

More antibody surveys may help show the full picture. South Africa has recently initiated a national seroprevalence survey among over 30,000 people.

Meanwhile, a French-funded study is currently testing thousands for antibodies in Benin, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Guinea and Senegal.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has also started administering coronavirus antibody tests in Cameroon, Morocco, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

And 13 labs in 11 African countries are participating in a global antibody survey coordinated by the WHO.

Government scientists often claim herd immunity will only be achieved when 60 per cent of a population have been infected, however many top immunologists dispute these widely reported claims. 

It is more likely, a team from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine argued, that the true figure lies between 10 and 20 per cent.

The 60 per cent figure is based on the idea that we are all equally likely to contract the virus. In reality, according to the team’s leader, Gabriela Gomes, there is a wide variation in an individual’s susceptibility to becoming infected.

This view was echoed by Dr Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, who told the New York Times: ‘Herd immunity could vary from group to group, and subpopulation to subpopulation, and even by postal codes.’ 

The virus is thought to spread slowly in suburban and rural areas, where people live far apart, but rips through cities and households thick with people.

This became clear when researchers conducted a random antibody survey among households in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay).

They found a startling disparity between the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and its more affluent enclaves. Between 51 and 58 per cent of residents in poor areas had antibodies, versus 11 to 17 per cent elsewhere in the city. 

Furthermore, a neighbourhood of older people may have little contact with others but succumb to the virus quickly when they encounter it, whereas teenagers may bequeath the virus to dozens of friends and yet stay healthy themselves.

In the antibody study in Mozambique, the researchers noted a huge differentiation between people with different professions.

Ten per cent of the market vendors in Nampula had antibodies in their blood, while this was only the case with three per cent of bus and minibus drivers.

Once such real-world variations in density and demographics are accounted for, the estimates for herd immunity might fall. 

Other scientists warn that you cannot talk about herd immunity unless you’re 100 per cent sure that someone who has had the disease is going to be protected from contracting it again.

Recently, there were at least four separate cases of people who were re-infected with Covid-19 after they had earlier been infected, in Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States.

‘Until we confirm that exposure to SARS-CoV-2 measured by antibodies is protective, we can’t really claim to be close to achieving herd immunity,’ the Malawian immunologist Jambo cautioned.

Other experts warned that cases in Africa might start to rise again, as many countries have only just started to loosen strict protective measures.

‘It’s too early to tell whether we are heading towards herd immunity, at least in Kenya, as we haven’t opened up completely,’ said the Kenyan pathologist Anne Barasa.

Her view was echoed by Professor Salim Abdool Karim, who said: ‘If we look at the data, close to 120 countries worldwide have completed their first wave of the pandemic, over half of them have also had a second wave.’ 

Such a pessimistic outlook, however, isn’t shared across the board.

Many scientists point to countries like Sweden, which unlike the rest of Europe didn’t lock down, and now isn’t experiencing a large so-called ‘second wave’, like the rest of the continent. The virus there peaked without a lockdown, and the country has experienced few hospitalisations and deaths in recent months. 

Cameroonian epidemiologist Yap Boum admitted that it’s extremely hard to predict if Africa will suffer from a second wave. 

He said: ‘While being cautious, I do think that if tens of millions of Africans have already been infected, this raises the questions of whether the continent should try for herd immunity.’ 

He pointed out that it will take time before a vaccine against Covid-19 will become available – assuming one is ever developed – and said African countries would not be the first to get it.

Meanwhile, measures to control the pandemic, like lockdowns, have crippled economies and could harm public health more in the long run.

In a recent WHO survey of 41 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 22 per cent of countries reported that only emergency inpatient care for chronic conditions was available, while 37 per cent of countries reported that outpatient care was limited due to the pandemic.

With economies in ruins, and herd immunity potentially much closer than first thought, Yap Boum thinks Africa needs to stop mimicking the West. 

‘We need to be careful,’ concluded the epidemiologist.

‘But we also might need to be courageous.’ 

Update - August 2021: What is causing Africa's increase in cases post vaccination? Click to read.

Almost 10 per cent of Africa’s economy relies on the tourism industry, which was shuttered by Covid-19. But, as travel editor and TV tourism expert Jill Starley-Grainger reports, for the millions employed by the safari industry, there is confidence that the good times – and the tourists – will return. 

In a typical year, thousands of tourists visit Africa to spot lions, zebras and elephants – and to lounge on the continent’s white-sand beaches.

It’s a vitally important industry that employs 25 million people directly or indirectly, including a large number in well-paying jobs, such as rangers and guides.

But Africa’s safari industry has been particularly badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with the impact devastating businesses, communities and conservation efforts alike.

Africa as a whole has suffered a 57 per cent loss in international arrivals due to the pandemic, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, and safari business are particularly reliant on an international clientele, most of whom have been unable to travel to Africa since March.

This has led to a significant reduction in customers and the temporary – and potentially permanent – closure of many companies reliant on safari tourism.

A recent survey by SafariBookings.com found that safari tour operators have seen bookings decrease by three quarters or more over the last four months, compared to the same time last year.

And many have received no customers or bookings at all.

The human cost:

Travel operator Aardvark Safaris,, which works with lodges throughout Africa, has seen the devastating human impact of this sudden loss of tourists.

‘We support over 1,000 camps and lodges throughout sub-Saharan Africa,’ said co-owner Alice Gully.

‘And they are all looking at a year with limited or no income. Not only does this affect jobs, but it affects the dependants on these employees.

In Kenya, for example, seven million people are employed in tourism - a third of the country’s workforce - and they each have approximately seven dependants.’

In Botswana, Desert & Delta Safaris managed to maintain all of its staff, albeit on reduced incomes, said Andrew Flat, Desert & Delta Safaris’ marketing manager.

‘High-value, low-volume destinations like Botswana have faced incalculable losses. Botswana is roughly the size of France, but with a population of just over two million people, and around 40 per cent of the country consists of protected parks and reserves.’

With so few visitors to such a vast region, even a small dip in numbers can have devastating consequences for communities.

Some safari businesses have managed to fare a little better, such as Go Places Africa DMC.

It arranges safaris in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia, and has managed to maintain all staff.

'Management and directors took salary cuts to make sure that we were able to pay our staff without any cuts as they rely on their salaries for their livelihood, and some of them are the main bread earners in their families. We also set up internet services for our staff in their homes to ensure regular communication virtually with them as well as with our clients.’

In South Africa, meanwhile, hotels across the country have had virtually no income since March.

Royal Malewane was effectively closed for five months with zero revenue,’ said Ross Bowers, marketing manager of the luxury lodge in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park.

'The pandemic has been devastating for our industry, for our staff and for their many dependents. Government support for the industry has been extremely limited, but we fought hard to keep everyone employed.

He added: ‘Since we reopened, we have had very limited local business. We need international visitors to return as soon as possible. Recovery for the safari industry will be extremely slow, but we are optimistic that safaris, nature and wildlife will be highly sought after post-Covid experiences.’

Conservation crisis:

Covid-19’s economic impact is significant for conservation, too, with some reporting an increase in poaching activity.

‘With no game drives, there are fewer eyes on the ground to watch out for poachers,’ said Gully of Aardvark Safaris.

This is a real concern throughout the industry, added Luke Bailes, founder and executive chairman of Singita, which has 15 luxury eco-lodges in Rwanda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

‘If ecotourism stops funding the conservation work of non-profit conservation partners, the likelihood of illegal hunting and poaching increases,’ explained the Anglo-Kenyan businessman, whose family have been involved in the Kenyan safari industry since the 1920s.

'Laid-off workers could turn to poaching to make ends meet, and if anti-poaching efforts are not maintained, traffickers have easier access to the animals and will simply stockpile until they can transport to their end markets.’

Some governments have taken heed of the impact on their wildlife and landscapes, and have put plans in place to try to increase protection in some areas.

In South Africa, the government, conservation organisations and local communities recently announced a plan to create protection areas to safeguard rhinos from poachers.

But the funds available for this are limited, and until international visitors return in significant numbers, it’s likely that both the landscapes and the animals that conservation projects help will suffer.

Future bookings:

While some African countries have recently started allowing international visitors, more openings are planned in the coming months.

This has helped a little for 2020, but since much of Europe and North America – the two major markets for Africa’s wildlife experiences – are still in various forms of lockdown, most safari businesses are pinning their hopes on 2021.

Roar Africa, a luxury specialist operating in 13 countries in southern and eastern Africa, has seen a massive profit hit this year, but does have some bookings for next year.

‘We had over 300 trips booked for 2020, and have had to move 80 per cent of them,’ said Deborah Calmeyer, Roar Africa’s CEO and founder.

‘With the recent reopening of Kenya and Rwanda, we have seen more enquiries for travel to these destinations, but we have a long way to go to get to pre-Covid levels of tourism.’

‘We have seen a marked increase in enquiries since restrictions began to lift,’ noted Toby Pheasant, founder of Bonamy Travel, which operates in 15 countries in Africa.

‘There has been an increase of 320 per cent [in enquiries]. But while we would normally expect to convert between 60 and 70 per cent of these, [the number that result in sales] is significantly lower than we would expect, at around 10 per cent.’

It seems many customers are dreaming and planning, but still worried about the pandemic and travel restrictions, so less inclined to make a booking.

But some of the people who missed out on their 2020 safari trip are securing bookings early for next year.

African Bush Camps, which runs 15 luxury camps in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, has recently seen a noticeable increase in reservations, particularly for 2021, said its CEO and founder, Beks Ndlovu.

‘Bookings were up 400 per cent in mid-August for 2021 in comparison to 2019 bookings.’

This increase is no doubt helped by the company’s new policy of a 100 per cent refundable deposit – a clever strategy to ensure guests know they won’t be out of pocket if the crisis affects their travel plans.

South African tour operator Unearth Experience has seen a similar trend in forward bookings for its safari trips, which it arranges to destinations throughout Africa.

‘The majority of our clientele impacted by Covid-19 restrictions have opted to postpone their travel plans versus cancelling their trips.

This has allowed us to have a strong forward book for 2021,’ said Rory James Loader, managing director.

Nobody knows how the pandemic will play out, but many safari businesses are doing their best to prepare, and there are hope that many will be able to adapt to ensure the future of the industry.

‘Africa is tough, its people and wildlife are resilient,’ opined Flatt of Desert & Delta Safaris.

‘The silver lining is that we are still here, ready and waiting to welcome guests back to our lodges, and ready to prove that, post-pandemic, nothing beats the social distancing a Botswana safari offers.’