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The debt of Kenyan students

If I had known the message behind the ding! As my phone buzzed, I would have responded to it faster. But I figured it was just another notification of the thousands of social media updates, WhatsApp group texts that constantly flowed into my phone. What’s more my attention had been by seized Mombasa’s amazing delicacies, the “mshikakis” accompanied by spicy “viazi karai” which I was savoring to the last bite.

Having gnawed through the skewers, with grease spread on my mouth and my hands, I washed up and quickly dried my hands and was on my phone the first chance I got.

To my pleasant surprise, the notification was from the Higher Educations Loans Board (HELB), declaring my long awaited disbursement had just arrived. The text message informed me they had credited my account and I should check after my balance 24 hours.

If I had received that text message today, it may not have been a notification but the actual chums smooth straight to your M-PESA account courtesy of a partnership between Safaricom and Helb. Nice, easy and convenient, and almost a gateway drug into the future addicted to credit.

For many oldies, university education was completely free until the structural adjustments of the 1990s that saw the introduction of the cost sharing model. The government provided funding for universities and through Helb offered affordable loans and bursaries to Kenyan students seeking higher education. Since its inception the institution has helped over a million students disbursing over Kes113 billion to those in need.

For me Helb was like a school of finance offering very practical lessons on patience, the real value of money and how not to spend it. First I thought Helb was free money, easy money, campus handout. But after some inquires from my peers I learned that it was a loan with minimal requirements, no background checks and one that will have no pressure to service it, at least for the next five years and by then you’ll have probably landed a decent job.

It sounded too good, to some extent I thought it was too good to be true. Who gives out unsecured loans to individuals with  no sources of income? With minimal background checks? And why?

Personally, I hate debt in any form and I did my best to make sure at all times I owed no one but the possibility of being able to take out a loan for myself, by myself and not worry about repaying it till I was done with my studies seemed pretty ideal. I mean who doesn’t want money?

The idea grew on me especially after realizing it would take me at least six years to start repaying.

I had recently gotten my acceptance letter to a public university in Nairobi. After years under the care of my parents who were always there for me and provided what I needed, I was about to be thrust upon the world. I had to slowly start practicing to stand on my own feet and depend less on my parents. When I found out I was eligible for the student loan, I quickly searched for the application process and documents, you don’t waste time where money is involved.

Despite the fact that the loan is unsecured and has minimal requirements, the catch is in the gruesome process. The whole application and submission process for my first time application took me approximately 2-3 weeks, with the greater part being that of getting approvals from the authorities.  The process was taxing, it took so long from the time I applied, to the extent that I had even come to forget about it.

One thing they certainly don’t warn you about is the application and approval process. From the downloading of the forms, to searching for approval stamps from your area chief who is never in office and has no idea who you are, getting stamps from a magistrate or lawyer that will ask you to compensate their time for a simple stamp and even getting one from your local religious leaders who I don’t clearly get how they relate with loans.

I shudder to imagine that these characters will be the ones who will determine who will be getting Helb from this financial year. The government wants to classify university students into three ‘financial’ categories: vulnerable, less vulnerable and able. President William Ruto said local chiefs, priests, pastors and imams, in the case of Muslim students, will be the key to assessing the level of a student’s needs and placement in the funding categories.

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Besides the tiresome process that involves long queues; unexpected expenses tend to come up as well as a lot of rescheduling in all the different offices and takes days to finish. Once done with all that paperwork you’re required to head to Anniversary towers where you’ll  be part of a long queue yet again so you can drop off your approved documents and sign in a big seasoned book to indicate that you have dropped off the required documents with all the accompanying approval.

The time frame between dropping my approved loan papers and the time I actually got the loan credited to my account was something we were not adequately prepared for. The first month went by, the second came, the third, the fourth and so on till I lost count. “Najua ni pesa ya bure lakini kwani inakuja na reverse?” so I thought. After a long period of waiting, I forgot about the money and became more occupied with this new aspect of life as a freshman on campus.

Kenya has been having a challenge funding the education sector something that has threatened the survival of the 36 public universities sinking with the stone of Kes60 billion debt in workers’ pensions, income tax deductions and other statutory staff remittances. The government has also run out of funds for student loans with HELB Chief Executive Charles Ringera informing a parliamentary committee the need for Kes5.7 billion or they will be unable to fund the education of 140,000 bright Kenyan students this year.

Although President Ruto announced an increase in funding with University education receiving Kes53 billion up from Kes44 billion and HELB getting Kes31.6 billion up from the initial KEes10 billion the state of government finances is in such a mess that the country has witnessed delays in disbursing money to counties and challenges in paying public service salaries as debt repayments suck out all the money from the economy.

As students these delays can be frustrating. Occasionally my peers and friends with whom we’d applied for the student loans would casually ask among ourselves “ Helb yako imeingia?” and most times we’d have the same answer “bado”. By the time the money hit our accounts, our priorities were upside down, or we had suffered from being broke so long, all we wanted was kupigia mwili pole.

In any case, today Helb is mostly a consumptive loan for recipients, long are the days when the oldies would invest their boom and actually start making money in university. For us, hounded by flashy lifestyles on the internet that we are unable to afford, all our plans were consumerist.

Our financially illiterate and naive selves would proceed to make unrealistic plans for the money which we didn’t have, like buying PlayStation 4’s which was the real deal back then, home theater systems and powerful phones off the loan money. Now when we look back at it, you can’t just help but laugh at how naive and dumb it was. Plus, of course the money was good, but it wasn’t PlayStation 4 standards good.

So eventually when the HELB money was credited to our accounts, you can only imagine the extent in which we misused our funds. For whatever reason, idle money finds ways to get used and 90 percent of the time it’s for recreational purposes that when you look back you’d have probably done differently had you known.

Take me for example, in Mombasa at the moment and just surprised by a notification I had long forgotten. My initial response was to taste all of Mombasa’s amazing street foods that I could get my hands on and of course why miss out on the Madafu.

True to my words, I went on to have the “mchuzis, biryanis, pilaus, kaimatis, countless mshikakis and so much more that I can’t put in one sentence. That was one notable night mainly because of two reasons, one is because I had reduced my balance by a good amount due to my impulsive spending and two because my stomach wasn’t quite happy when I made the decision to have all those different foods at once. To prove that point my stomach ensured I made at least two or more trips to the washroom in the space of an hour constantly for the rest of the night.

All the lessons I had learn about “ngeli ” or “fasihi” and “dondoo” did very little to prepare me for the complex financial decisions of adult life. It is a wonder our education system does very little to teach us about investments. Stuff like money market funds-MMF’s , stocks, short term and long term investing are missing out in the curriculum, yet we are expected to make sound money decisions. In essence after we learn how to eat Helb with a big spoon, all of a sudden multiple loan products are made available to us including Fuliza, Hustler Fund, Tala, Branch and MShwari which continue to fund a consumptive lifestyle learnt very early as students.

Students are getting into adult life with these huge debts we are finding very difficult to pay back especially as finding work becomes even more difficult. Of the HELB beneficiaries there are currently over 120,000 defaulters resulting to losses of approximately Kes8.5 billion.

As the new university fund shifts to a new model that expects students to take on loans for their education, the risk of piling unsustainable debt on a group of young people who do not understand its implications is worrying.

Under the old model, the government would settle 80 percent across all courses for all government sponsored students and let the household meet the remaining 20 percent through personal proceeds or Helb loans. However the loans were not directly linked to the fee payment since a part of the loans was for upkeep.

President William Ruto’s “student-centered” model will support students from needy and vulnerable backgrounds but the rest of the students will be required to cover up to half of their fees through loans.

Kenyans should be wary about piling too much debt burden on students lest we fall into the American student debt trap, where the education loan burden doubled over the last two decades to more than $1.6 trillion in federal student loans as of September 2022, owed by about forty-eight million U.S. students.

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