NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 14 – When Anthony Kimani* strolled into the Zain Kenya offices on the morning of March 30 and swiped his gate pass, not much was going through his mind. For the past five years he had been getting to work at 6am and was just thinking of the day ahead of him.
So when his access card was rejected at the Parkside Towers offices on Mombasa road, he wondered, confused, whether he had damaged it unintentionally. He removed it and swiped it again but the doors would not budge.
“I tried to signal the (security) guard on the other side of the room because at that time I did not know what was happening,” he says. Although he didn’t know all the guards in the building, he could recognize those who were positioned on their floor. But this one was new to him.
He watched in amazement as the mean-looking security officer slowly lifted himself from his seat and shuffled towards him, with a bored look on his face.
“Boss, I think there’s a problem with my card. Its not working,” Mr Kimani said through the glass door. But with the same bored expression, the guard delivered the message that jerked him into reality.
“Talk to the HR (Human Resource) Manager,” he said while pointing to the HR’s office.
Immediately, it occurred to him that he was one of the141 staff members who had been laid off.
To say he was shocked by the turn of events is to say the least and I’ll get to that later. But fortunately for him, he did manage to get a consulting job the following day with a medium sized manufacturer in one of the economic zones based in Nairobi’s Industrial area.
“How did you get so lucky?” I asked.
“Through networking and creating relationships,” he answered without hesitation.
He’s aware that nearly three weeks after they were sent away, many of his colleagues have not found another job.
But the secret according to Mr Kimani is to build a lot of relationships wherever you are, even if it means spending money to achieve your objective. And while he recommends being dedicated to your employer he says people, particularly those in employment, should not get too comfortable.
Mr Kimani feels that besides working hard at what you do and creating close relations, you should also have a wealth of information on your area of expertise.
“Having all these attributes enables you to pull strings very easily,” he reckons.
“Do not be disloyal (to your employer) but you need the networks if you are to make it in business or in life. The problem with most of us is that when we get to big firms we tend to think that we have arrived, until five years down the line when you are fired or something goes wrong. That’s where trouble begins,” he cautions.
Economist Dr Thomas Kibua concurs with Mr Kimani, but adds that Kenyans need to go further and engage in income generating activities during their free time as a way of surviving the hard economic times.
He says the ongoing global economic slump provides an opportunity for everybody to shift their focus and start working outside the normal schedule of 9 to 5.
“We need to do different kinds of jobs, work many hours such that you can work in the office for eight hours, give service to someone else for say three or four hours and incomes will go up,” Dr Kibua suggests.
To people like Mr Kimani who have recently been laid off and those facing the axe as the economy continues to contract, Dr Kibua advises them to pool their resources together and venture into entrepreneurship.
He says it is time the public stopped relying on the government and the private sector for formal employment.
“This is the lesson we learn from the theory cluster industries, that when people work in a large industry, they get skills, they get technology then they can move out start their own activities on a smaller scale but which can also grow,” he explains.
Back to the ‘black Monday’ at the mobile phone operator and Mr Kimani says that although they had heard rumours that the company would be retrenching some people, he never in his wildest dreams imagined he would be among them.
With a heavy heart, Mr Kimani headed to the HR where not much was said but he filled in a form, was later handed a certificate of service and a ‘consolation’ letter explaining that he had not been fired because of non-performance but because the company was adopting a new operations strategy.
Managing Director Rene Meza said the “right sizing exercise’ was meant to transform Zain Kenya into a more efficient organization that focuses more on their customers.
Together with 140 other staff, Mr Kimani also received a package that included a severance pay, current salary and salary for every year worked, transport, leave and travel allowances.
“The package was good for those who’ve worked for more than five years but for the people who have not worked for more than one year got a raw deal,” he says although he acknowledged that the company followed the Labour Laws to the letter.
Mr Kimani says the depth of what transpired that morning did not fully hit him until the following morning. For a man who was used to waking up at 5am every day for five years, it dawned on him that he didn’t have anywhere to go.
“The first day was not so bad because I was among a group of people. But when I got home and realized that tomorrow I am not going to work, that’s when I realized that my normal routine would be interfered with,” he says.
He says he was awake the whole night thinking of where to start looking for something to do and planning for the future that at this point in time was not looking bright.
“The following morning I started calling people asking them whether they knew of something I could do,” he explains but admits that this put him in an awkward situation.
Mr Kimani didn’t have to search further because later than day, he got a call asking him whether he could take up the consulting job in marketing and distribution for the manufacturer.
By the time I met him for the interview, he had worked for a couple of days and says he’s grateful because it provides an opportunity for him to get busy and also because he is his own boss.
He has not entirely given up on formal employment though and reveals that he’s gone for several interviews and is awaiting feedback.
They say once bitten twice shy and Mr Kimani understands this only too well. He says if he were to be employed again, he would not negotiate terms like salaries but they would have to work out revenue sharing or payments based on the value that he’s adding to the business.
He says with this he would be able to know that he’s contributing to the success of the company, unlike in some big companies where people just carry on with their assigned duties.
Is he angry that the company where he’s given his all for five years has let him go? Mr Kimani gives an emphatic no! He says the company did what needed to be done.
Was there a better way of dealing with the crisis instead of sending some people home? I asked him.
He replies in the affirmative saying retrenching people only compounds the joblessness in the country and because no prior warning or counselling was given to the ex-employees, many are likely to lose their benefits in bad and unplanned investments.
“Some colleagues are saying they will start importing cars, others want to open up bars but most of them don’t have the experience to do so. They don’t know the intricacies of running these businesses,” he worries.
For those in the same boat, Mr Kimani says “be focused and plan wisely before you invest your package.”
“Manage your money prudently and plan. If you want to start a business, start small and don’t be embarrassed. Don’t feel that this is not the kind of thing that a former senior manager like me should be engaged in,” he advises.
Planning Secretary Stephen Wainaina is of the opinion that the state should provide incentives for the private sector, particularly those establishments that are struggling.
He says retrenchment is not the way to go as it slows down the government’s efforts to get back into a quick economic recovery path.
The PS says that although the government does not have plans to come up with rescue packages for the business community, it is closely monitoring the situation.
While he appreciates that the companies that are carrying out this exercise are doing so to weather the storm, Mr Wainaina reckons that they should instead try to utilise their reserves and invest in human capital.
“The efforts should now be to ensure that we have a stimulus in the economy which means that you use the resources that you have. Human capital is one of the key resources that Kenya has so if we don’t make use of it then it means that we are not promoting our own productivity,” he argues.
But while everybody engages in the debate on whether or not laying people off is a viable solution, people like Mr Kimani are trying to think of ways to stay afloat.
He says he’s looking forward to becoming an employer in the near future. He is optimistic that maybe, just maybe, his tribulations are a silver lining. They are just preparing him for a better future.
* Anthony Kimani is not his real name.