Cash is still King for the bouncing bellies of Camp Toyoyo
When I dream of playing football, I am happiest. The twisted view of the movement, the giddying roll of the ball in my dream as I twist with slight muscle for a move only Messi is capable of, I’m in heaven. And I always score a goal and double over a bellyful of laughter just like I used to, twenty-four years ago at Mayenje Primary school, rollicking in the grass feeling like Ronaldinho in his prime as king of football.
But I have not dreamt about playing football in such a long time. Anxiety can play games on anyone in this uncertain economy. Especially us journalists, whose business was already being disrupted even before the sweeping wave of the recession that threatens all businesses across the world.
Massive job culls have become almost routine over the last decade, the convergences that flow like viscosity back into silos; the digital-first, paywalls, subscriptions, google ads, and everything is in anxious flux. I had not dreamt about football for long, but I did recently. Maybe because I asked myself if I sell you stories such as this one for Sh20 will you spare me a mbao?
So when I told Nyar Sindo about the dream, she deciphered that maybe the cloud of anxiety had passed. As for me, I thought maybe it is time to take up a friend’s offer to join a team ya wazee For the Good FC, for weekend friendly matches at Camp Toyoyo in Nairobi’s Eastlands.
When I was suckling at the udders of the ‘bureau’ that was reassured of its immortality by time-tested models of news, I grew plump; hunched over the keyboard and steering wheel. Pockets of fat padded around my bones as I moved from couch to bed, to traffic to office, and repeat.
Surveillance capitalism that has been listening in to my intimate conversations, tracking my digital transactions and my sedentary routine to sell to businesses that want to sell me consumerism, was onto me. To date advertisements about gyms, shoes, gear, bicycles, and water bottles hound my time bingeing social media, but still, I wouldn’t be motivated to do something about my weight.
On account of the rate at which my belt had now gotten to the last hole, however, I might just be required to do something about it, even if it is making another hole, as I run out of ways to hold back my bulge.
I was determined to sit this weight thing out until the ‘bureau’ hired some consulting doctors in a bid to stymie the obvious physical and mental toll of restructuring; operating institutions with less and less workforce. I am not sure they were doctors but these lab-coat-clad guys, pocked, weighed, pricked, recorded, and scanned you in strange machines that were enough to convince you they knew what they were doing.
They would then transmit your data in the computer system straight to another ‘doctor’ in a lab coat to interpret your risk of falling over with a heart attack. I was warned, I was teetering towards some upper limit of BMI – Body Mass Index. But for someone always reporting about economic calamities such as collapsing currencies, inflation, and debt crises, I was barely moved.
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But it is the nutritionist that served me a gut punch when he said, and he said it laughing… “You have fat around the central adiposity which is associated with lower testosterone.” And he dropped into a feat of amused laughter telling me that it is not just the obesity I should be afraid of, but some unnamed impact on my family, strongly hinting at sexuality.
And he laughed amusedly at his metaphor. He recommended that I eat less carbs, more proteins, and ground nuts (again in unchecked laughter) to elevate testosterone production. I try his method, throwing in intermittent fasting but I gain a kilo instead!
Two of my friends, who like most middle-class young men of my generation have also padded around a bit only with simple comfortable jobs earned during the good years when interest rates were low and companies were still hiring. They, however, arrested the extra kilos by playing in this team ya wazee at Camp Toyoyo and had for a long time, years even, unsuccessfully tried to drag me there. I am out of the ‘bureau’ now, so I have no excuse, I decided to finally turn up.
“It is 8am at Camp Toyoyo,” my friend shoots me a message on the day prior. My text back does not convey the extent of my alarm, I can only repeat, ‘eight am!’ and I sense that he reads that to mean I will not turn up. My halfhearted reassurance, that I will still show up, is unconvincing.
I have changed my mind several times before. But I show up at 10am, with a leather strap bag, sauntering in like some star player with my old unused boots, which I had bought during one of the many previous times I swore I would come to this team ya wazee. The socks are ill fitting, the jersey is perched on my paunch and the training vest hugs my flabs of flesh as I ridiculously swaddle into the dusty pitch with a dumb grin at the 22 men who have been hankering in the sun and dust for the past two hours.
I run straight into one of my friends, Georgie, and right there, nutmeg, the ball goes through my legs. This is not one of my dreams where I make superstar moves, here some form of mental breakdown short circuits my intentions from transmitting to reality.
I recover from my embarrassment just as soon as the ball is kicked my way. “Ni three touches na usiingie D,” someone offers the rules of the game as I stop the ball, I still have that touch, I think to myself. But now I have two touches left and someone is on to me. I am looking for any teammate in a blue vest before I am dispossessed and ruin everything. It is a lousy pass, one that Mabele, my childhood coach at Bulanda Primary would call “pass ya kutoa lawama”.
My new teamate has to stretch out into a fifty-fifty challenge and the ball races toward the line. And the opponent, who was on to me, makes a run for it. But I had seen him, I had anticipated his move and I could cut his run. I make for it, but all these super moves only happen in my head.
After a few steps, I am suddenly seized with shortness of breath. I have to stop to catch it. My heart is beating so hard I can see tremors on my jersey, my mouth is crust dry and if I do not drink water, I will fall right here and die.
Increasingly, the sun is getting too hot, and the field too dusty. I keep getting off the pitch for water, and now I am afraid I will catch a stitch. That damned thing, I will not risk it for anything. I spend the next one-and-a-half-hours pacing around the defence line, huffing and puffing. My arms are on my back, supporting my backbone from snapping, then on my knees catching my breath.
A ball is coming my way and I am afraid I cannot summon the will to run after it, and if I do not, the opponent will catch it and score, so one, two, and I lurch at it fearing I would miss. I get it, I still have it in me, I think again. I look down and my boots have given way. I hardly ever wore them.
Now I cannot wait for the match to be over. I want to call it quits but remember I came in late. I look around at the middle-aged men with potbellies, some out rightly fat, and some fit who have braved the sun since 8am, and I soldier on. I can only imagine the pains of muscle tear, groin pains, ankle twists, and muscle aches I will wake up to. My friend tells me encouragingly not to worry as if he can read my mind. He tells me I just need to come out three weeks, jog around once a week and I will be fit as a fiddle.
The game concludes with my team having suffered seven-goal drubbing, two of which it was all my fault. But it is an easy game where the slightest skill earns you nicknames such as Elanga, Kanoute and Oliseh, and opponents apologise to each other for shoving too hard and disputed goals are decided by majority acclamation.
Friends who last saw each other at 3am the previous night at the locals catch up spitting fumes and sweating out the beers. My friend reminds the tired but happy men that everyone has to contribute Kes50 for washing the training kits and booking venues.
I give him an old fifty-bob note as he passes by collecting them like a matatu tout, folded in two and tucked into each other across the spine. “I will send you,” one of my new teammates says.
“Hii kitu ya kulipa transaction fees ukituma dough, mimi imenirudisha kwa cash, serikali inakutax ukipilpwa mshahara na tena wanataka kutax the same mshahara ukitransfer kwa simu,” another one jumps in.
At the outbreak of Covid-19, the Central Bank of Kenya announced that all mobile money transactions below Kes1000 would be free. The regulator also announced transactions between bank accounts and mobile wallets would be free of charge.
The moratorium was supposed to last 90 days but the Governor Dr Patrick Njoroge extended it despite cries from banks and telcos that they were bleeding billions of shillings. Banks watched helplessly as mobile transactions of less than Kes1,000 each, rose 83 percent to Kes1.98 billion daily at the height of the pandemic as some customers split their transactions to multiples of Kes1000 to avoid transfer fees.
The lenders argued that they should be allowed to charge customers since the service was a cost to the business and for shareholders to endorse spending money on digital innovation and security they needed a return.
When the fees were finally re-introduced on mobile money transactions below Kes1000 in December 2020, it became apparent why the regulator had taken so long to allow the charges. The cost.
For example leading telco Safaricom charged Kes11, more than 10 percent to send a dollar while the largest bank by assets, KCB, was charging Kes54 for a band from a dollar to Kes10. It was obvious that it was too expensive to send money and it fell upon Dr Njoroge to referee this obvious foul.
It was not lost to the payment service providers where the CBK governor’s philosophy lay. In his two terms in office, Dr Njoroge has overseen official and unofficial rate caps, matron level of discipline in the forex market and double-speak as he patted bank owners on the back even as they were being compelled to surrender billion shilling licences for a bob.
The regulator would release the draft national payments system regulations in the same month it allowed the telcos to reinstate the charges, signaling tighter controls over the price of transferring money. Dr Njoroge succeeded on his push to have Safaricom cut fees for low value transactions by up to 45 percent to Kes6.
Initially banks failed to lobby CBK to lift the freeze on transaction fees between accounts and mobile wallets. Mobile banking had been a cash cow for lenders who had been limited from earning on interest rates and had resorted to pushing customers away from the banking hall counters to mobile phones which increased the number of transactions and hence fees and commissions.
After three years of waiting, the regulator finally agreed to allow lenders to charge bank to mobile transactions from January this year. And just like the telcos, CBK announced that charges imposed by banks for bank-to-mobile money transactions will be reduced by 45 percent.
However, by that time nearly all Kenyans were using mobile money like it was currency paying for vegetables, boda boda rides, bus fare and hotel meals. By October 2020 Central Bank data showed that there were up to 113 million transactions worth Kes800 billion monthly as Kenyans transacted over half the value of the economy on mobile phones.
I ask Georgie if more teammates gave him the Kes50 in cash or via their phones. Georgie is named Zakayo the tax collector after the nickname given to President William Ruto, who is keen on taxing Kenya out of its financial crisis.
But Georgie has taken the name for his after-game pontification about paying the Kes50. He complains about defaults wondering why people deceive him they will send the money and then fail all the time. How is it that they cannot afford Kes50 and when they see the boiled egg seller they are there buying eggs.
Georgie says, more teammates still pay via mobile phones, and he prefers this mode because of records, he can update the group later on Thursday, of who paid and who didn’t and it is easier if he has records.
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“Simu ni convenient,” Elanga says as we left Camp Toyoyo after the game, “Niliwacha kubeba cash, kama ni kubuy ice ya ten bob ama njugu, hakuna story ya change, unalipa tu,” he said.
For banks this was an opportunity to cash out after three years of waiting in the cold with estimation that they could make upwards of Kes3 billion annually in fees. The lenders brushed off legal challenges, ignored customer cries, to demonstrate to shareholders that this revenue stream had a lot going.
Over the three years that lenders were not able to charge bank to mobile transactions they have increased their footprint especially among retailers and merchants through bank paybills competing directly with Safaricom which was charging on its Till options.
They have convinced small traders to trade with paybill numbers bringing the competition for merchants to Safaricom. They also increased transactions to over 90 percent, so that any charge levied here would be a gold mine.
EFG Hermes Director, Sub-Saharan Banks Ronak Gadhia said transactions jumped over tenfold, which meant more money for the banks if they charged the transactions changing their fortunes and more than anything how their shareholders will look at them and the work they have been doing behind the scenes.
“Transaction volumes have grown quite significantly. However, as you may have noticed since the reintroduction of these fees, the commission rates set by the banks and Safaricom are much lower than that they used to be before 2020. So the expectation is that the growth in volumes will more than offset the reduced commission rates and so the overall revenue from this channel could be much higher than the Kes2-3 billion that some of these banks were earning before 2020,” Mr Gadhia said.
He, however, said that re-introducing the charges was short sighted noting that we had already seen one of the banks (I&M) eliminate the fees on transfers made from their banks account to M-PESA.
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He said I&M is seeking to benefit from this in two ways: ensuring clients maintain their savings within their bank accounts for as long as possible, thus allowing I&M to generate revenue from the float, and gaining market share from banks that charge for these type of transactions.
“If I&M is successful, I can see other banks responding similarly. In my opinion, I think banks were short-sighted in reintroducing these fees and they should have actually been lobbying the CBK to permanently eliminate these fees. This is because when the fees had been removed between 2020-2022, every Safaricom agent effectively became an agent for banks, that is, bank customers could deposit their savings at any Safaricom agent and transfer that free of charge to their bank accounts,” Mr Gadhia said.
“Thus every Safaricom agent became a quasi-banking agent and this would have made it easier for banks to increase their penetration rates amongst the underbanked population and also increase their service offering for existing clients. Thus, by re-introducing the fees, I think banks have scored a big ‘own goal’,” he said.
And he might be right if my anecdotal sample from Camp Toyoyo is to be taken seriously, or better still, what is happening at freewheeling Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Somali capital where every merchant would have you withdraw cash rather than pay over mobile. Kenyans have become very sensitive to prices especially during these inflationary times and a lot of people are reconsidering use of mobile money due to their cost.
Cost of living has shot up in Kenya over a cocktail of factors including high food prices due to failed rains, increased cost of imports of oil, wheat and edible oil amid depreciating national currencies, new taxes and pass-on effect on the increased cost of business. Official data shows that inflation edged up to 9.2 percent in February from 9.0 percent reported in January.
And if lenders doubt the level of penny pinching the country has gotten to they could ask the woman we went to buy mangoes from, for juice after the long hot day in the sun. As we were paying with M-PESA she was lamenting how a previous customer had paid her, then reversed the money just minutes after leaving her kiosk.
“Imagine ten bob tu, akareverse baada ya kulipa, lakini watu, sasa ten bob itamsaidia na nini,” she said, sad and disappointed.
Yes, we’ll spare 20 bob for such effortlessly written pieces