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Employment in Kenya

At a Glance:

  • Most of Kenya’s GDP is produced by the second and third sector, with tourism, banking, and IT key industries. Kenya might also have a future in oil production.
  • With the National Social Security Fund, a certain social security net exists; however, expats are often not included.
  • The cost of living in Kenya is not very high, but accommodation tends to be pricey.
  • When doing business in Kenya, it is important to take local etiquette into consideration, from the typically vertical office hierarchies to the importance of small talk.

By working in Kenya, you will contribute to one of East Africa’s bigger economies. The country has a Gross Domestic Product larger than that of Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda combined. In 2015, the Kenyan economy grew by a respectable 5.8% and it is expected to further grow by 6.2% in 2017.

The government is currently planning to transform the nation from its present status as a developing country and emerging market into a middle-income country within the next two decades. Such an increase in general economic growth, average income, and standard of living would benefit everyone living in Kenya. However, Kenya faces a number of obstacles to overcome if it wants to achieve this ambitious goal — but more on that below.

Kenya’s Economy: A Future in Oil?

When it comes to natural resources, Kenya’s assets are abundant wildlife and arable land. The Kenyan highlands in particular are a fertile agricultural region. In spring 2012, the Kenyan government announced that oil reserves had been discovered in northern Kenya. More recently, oil was also discovered offshore. So far, it remains unclear what effect these discoveries will have on the people living and working in Kenya, but the country could become an oil producing nation as early as 2017 — three years sooner than originally estimated by the IMF.

At last measure, the overwhelming majority of the Kenyan labor force was working in Kenya’s agricultural sector. Much of the work remains at subsistence level, but Kenya has a flourishing agribusiness as well. Farmers and cattle herders produce corn, wheat, sugarcane, and rice, as well as fruit, beef, dairy, hides, and skins. Above all, coffee, tea, and flowers are among Kenya’s most important international exports.

There Is Not Only Tourism and Agriculture in Kenya

Although many residents are currently employed in agriculture, the primary sector creates less than a third of the GDP. The remaining 70% is generated by the laborers and employees working in Kenya’s manufacturing industries and service sector.

In addition to vehicle assembly, cement production, and small-scale consumer goods (e.g. textiles, furniture, food and drinks), Kenya’s industrial activity also focuses on the petrochemical sector. Oil is imported, refined or used for petroleum-based products, which are then re-exported. However, in 2013, the Kenyan government announced that the only oil refinery in East Africa was too heavily subsidized and might have to close sooner rather than later.

In any case, manufacturing is not nearly as significant as the service sector. Kenya is the East African hub for finance, tourism, and communication technology. Due to its breathtakingly beautiful scenery, Kenya is a popular holiday destination for visitors from Europe (especially Germany, Italy, and the UK), India, other African states, North America, and increasingly the UAE and China.

In 2010, the number of tourists reached an all-time high, and in 2011 increased even more — a boon for everyone working in Kenya’s hospitality industry. Unfortunately, recent terror-attacks by the Somali Islamic extremist group Al-Shabab in 2013 and 2014 have shattered foreign confidence in the safety of Kenyan tourist destinations and put the tourism industry — which is responsible for about 10% of Kenya’s GDP — under threat. A reduction in the number of expats working in Kenya would also negatively affect the country.

Apart from tourism and banking, it is information and communication technology that will shape Kenya’s economic future. In 2010, an estimated four million Kenyans were online. Barely three years later, in early 2013, this number had increased to over 16 million, and over 30 million people had cell phone subscriptions as well. With the global rise of smartphones and the mobile internet, these figures predict a boom for those working in Kenya’s IT/CT business.

An Ambitious Plan for a Safer Future

To keep profiting from its strategic location in East Africa, its natural assets, and human resources, Kenya has to address several problems that hamper its economic development. Fortunately, the presidential elections in March 2013 did not threaten the internal peace again, in contrast to the violent unrest in 2007/2008.

Kenya has made some progress by beginning to change the entire nation’s administrative structure, breaking up seven provinces into 47 smaller ones. This project requires lots of time, energy, and red tape. Beyond such political challenges, the Kenyan government needs to combat inflation, help diversify Kenya’s exports, continue to support its well-developed private sector, increase transparency, decrease corruption, improve the national infrastructure, and encourage the education and employment of the Kenyan people.

Your Work Opportunities in Kenya

New infrastructure projects may also open up opportunities for international investors and expats interested in working in Kenya. To build roads and transport hubs, tap new energy sources, and create a better communications network, Kenya needs the expertise of its university graduates, as well as more foreign specialists working in Kenya.

Community development projects always require skilled expats and volunteers in areas such as: education, protection of African wildlife, management of international foreign aid and national government grants, and employment training of local Kenyans from impoverished communities in new work skills. Remember, though to volunteer or work in Kenya, most expats need a permit.

Many expatriates are employed by the community, regional, and continental headquarters of IGOs and NGOs (the UN, the World Bank, the Red Cross, etc.) or by the Nairobi branches of multi-nationals like BASF, Coca Cola, or PWC. With projected growth rates of five to six percent in the near future, there is going to be a demand for highly qualified people working in Kenya.

Kenya: Social Security and Cost of Living

The first social security legislation was introduced in Kenya when it was still a British colony, with a law insuring laborers against work injuries. Once Kenya became independent in 1963, the new government built a slightly more comprehensive social security framework, which culminated in the creation of the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) in 1965. As of 2014, the NSSF is not only a Provident Fund, but also a Pension Fund.

In Case of Work Injuries

Nowadays, most workers and employees in Kenya are insured against accidents and occupational diseases. Certain groups are exempt from coverage: casual workers, laborers in family businesses, the self-employed and non-manual employees earning more than 4,000 KES per month. The contributions for this insurance plan are all paid by the employer, and those affected by work injuries receive up to 240,000 KES in temporary or permanent benefits.

An Overview of Pensions and Sick Leave Regulations

All Kenyan employees are automatically part of the national plan for old-age pensions and disability benefits; self-employed persons, traders, and farmers may voluntarily register. There is an additional pension fund for civil servants and public-sector employees managed by the Ministry of Finance.

How much those insured with the NSSF have to pay depends on their monthly wages. It is usually five to six percent of the wage in social security contributions, and their employer adds another five to six percent. Voluntary contributions to the pension plan are possible. Members can top up their accounts with 200 KES to 140,000 KES as often as they like.

Once a Kenyan employee has reached the age of 60 and no longer has any sort of insured employment, he or she will receive an old-age pension. If they have paid at least three years of contributions, they will get a partial lump sum of these contributions plus interest, and an annuity for the remainder of their life.

In addition to accident compensation and old-age pension, Kenya has sickness and maternity benefits as well. People contributing to this scheme receive up to three months of their full earnings when they are on sick leave or maternity leave. Moreover, they profit from nearly 400,000 KES in annual refunds for medical treatment at public hospitals.

Different Regulations for Expats in Kenya

Expatriates should note that the abovementioned regulations either exclude them explicitly or that the benefits tend to be rather low. To provide for your own retirement, as well as for accidents or illnesses, you have to take care of it yourself. If you can prove such arrangements and are working in Kenya for less than three years, you, as an expat, are exempt from the social security program.

Nevertheless, you should check with your employer whether the company provides insurance for occupational health risks to the entire staff. Most employers also offer their foreign assignees a private health insurance plan as part of the job contract. Here it is important to read the small print and find out, for example, if your insurance policy covers pre-existing conditions, requires you to make co-payments, includes coverage for your dependent family members, etc.

Kenya does not have any bilateral social security agreements. So, even if you were indeed interested in drawing your (very meager) pension from your time in Kenya once you have returned home, this is legally not possible. In order to provide for your retirement years while working abroad, you should keep contributing to your national pension fund at home, have a private pension plan — or both. Get in touch with your bank and your social security office well before leaving for Kenya.

Cost of Living in Kenya

If you have to cover private healthcare yourself and/or want to lay aside some money for your pension fund, you should consider these factors in your budget calculations. Fortunately, Kenya is cheaper than most other African countries or expat hotspots on other continents. In the Mercer Cost of Living Survey 2015, Nairobi ranked as #104 out of 207 global destinations. As such, it is less expensive than, for example, Chicago or Vienna, but you have to take some local particularities into account.

You’ll spend at least one third of your budget on upmarket accommodation, and you may want to hire an extra security service if that’s not already included in your rent. While local produce is really cheap, imported food and consumer products can be rather costly. For families with kids, tuition fees for international schools take the biggest chunk out of the budget. Sometimes, employers cover at least part of your children’s education expenses, but the days of the all-perks-included expat package are probably over. And don’t forget that all bonuses and benefits in kind (such as company housing) are subject to income tax under Kenyan law.

Business Etiquette in Kenya

Before you begin work in Kenya, you should know a bit about local etiquette. Of course, a few tips on polite behavior cannot replace thorough intercultural training. But, as with many places around the world, a little “thank you” and a friendly smile go a long way in Kenya. To make things run smoothly with your Kenyan colleagues and business contacts, here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind.

How to Make a Good First Impression

As you meet someone for the first time, take the time to greet everyone in the larger group individually, with the most senior person coming first. If you don’t shake hands with everybody, this could be perceived as stand-offish or rude. Men shaking hands often make sure that this greeting is extra firm and prolonged, while greetings between men and women are often more careful and reserved.

If you know some Kiswahili, this often serves as an ice-breaker. Jambo or hujambo is a generic hello, and the reply to “Habari gani?” (“How are you?”) should always be, “nzuri” (“fine”). Address all people with their full name or title at first. As soon as you know them better and the atmosphere becomes more informal, you may switch to a first-name basis. Failing to wait for such tacit permission, though, might come across as disrespectful or condescending.

Of Crucial Importance: Small Talk

Don’t be impatient if nobody jumps straight into business matters. Especially if you are new around here, small talk is expected. Enquire after your co-workers’ or business contacts’ families, their kids, their hometown, and be prepared to talk about your own relatives and home country.

However, you should avoid discussing Kenya’s ethnicities (particularly since the inter-ethnic tensions after the 2007 elections, this can be a sensitive topic). And don’t criticize Kenya or talk politics: if you are a mzungu (a white foreigner), this will probably dredge up unpleasant reminiscences of the colonial era.

“Kenyan” Time?

No matter what you have heard about “Kenyan time”, try to be punctual for appointments and business meetings. In the urban business world, particularly in the private sector, being punctual is more and more appreciated. In government offices and in the countryside, this might still be different.

In any case, you as an expatriate may be expected to be a stickler for punctuality — so don’t be late. In the workplace, it’s important to reserve some time for relationship-building and, for example, to invite your colleagues to dinner in order to get to know them better.

Understanding Your Role and Position in the Workplace

While office hierarchies in Kenya are often vertical, with clearly defined top-down decision-making, the general atmosphere is very cordial. People are generally friendly, and maintaining smooth relationships with everybody is of great importance. Education, professional experience, and expertise are highly valued, and you should also treat your elders — i.e. management or senior staff members — with due respect.

In Kenyan etiquette, it’s essential to remain mild-mannered and polite, and to avoid open conflict or airing dirty laundry in public. Raising your voice and losing your temper in an office environment will only lead to people losing respect for you. If you run into trouble with a co-worker, for instance, try to address your issues discreetly and indirectly, e.g. in a personal conversation over a shared meal.

Co-workers can be fairly close, a sort of “office family”. At times, they even collect harambee to help someone out. A harambee fund is supposed to support a relative or friend in need. Harambee can be roughly translated as “let’s all work together” and is Kenya’s national motto. While expensive business gifts are unusual, you shouldn’t hesitate to chip in with some harambee money. However, better try to stay out of issues like demands for preferential treatment or reciprocal benefits unless you know the working environment very well.

As far as gender is concerned, gender roles in Nairobi’s business world are far less rigid than in rural Kenya. Lots of Kenyan businesswomen make their way with astuteness, determination, and plenty of hard work. However, some older Kenyan men may still have difficulties accepting instructions from female managers or supervisors. If you are an expat women working in Kenya, you should take such aspects into account.

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  • Mario Rimardi

    Wish I had discovered InterNations before I relocated to Kenya. It's really helpful on both a private and a professional level.

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