Why hustling is here to stay

It can’t be a ‘glorified’ misery yet it fills jobs gap even as it’s politicised

In Summary

• While the jury is out on how to define hustling, reality is it’s a lifeline to most Kenyans

• There aren’t enough formal jobs for the ever-growing number of graduates each year

Vegetable vendor Christopher Kimani organises his stall at the City Park Market on July 25
Vegetable vendor Christopher Kimani organises his stall at the City Park Market on July 25

Eliza Samba, a widow and mother of three, has spent the past four years working as a shopkeeper, house help, waitress and laundrywoman since losing her husband. She often goes for several days without an income because she can’t find work every day.

“Paying the rent is difficult. I feel blessed to have come this far,” Samba says. She gets help from friends whenever she does not find work but paying school fees is an uphill struggle. Her biggest wish is to make enough money to gain financial independence.

Despite the uncertainties of the informal sector, more Kenyans are headed in that direction. Not only is there a shortage of formal jobs; the government, industries and corporations are shedding off jobs made irrelevant by technology. Offices, for example, do not need messengers and typists because every employee has a computer to prepare and send documents.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that jobs such as data entry, accounting and administrative support will decline by the year 2030. Companies are adopting digital technologies for such tasks. “In contrast to previous years, job creation is now slowing while job destruction is accelerating,” WEF says in a report titled, “The Future of Jobs.”

With most Kenyans unable to get jobs in the formal sector, many are taking matters into their own hands. They are hustling their way through the informal sector as casual workers, self-employed traders and as craftsmen. Nothing new there because “jua kali” has long been a way of life in Kenya. 

The 2021 Economic Survey published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that just 2.9 million Kenyans are employed in the formal sector. These are jobs with permanent or long-term contracts, where employees contribute to a retirement benefits scheme, have some sort of health cover and the job provides opportunities for career growth. Formal sector jobs are in government, state-owned corporations, large private companies and NGOs.

The vast majority of Kenya’s labour force – almost 15 million people – work in the informal sector. The work is not regular because there are no signed contracts between employer and employee. The pay is often inadequate despite long working hours. Workers in the informal sector do not have health cover and neither will they get retirement benefits when they are too old to work.


The discussion on hustling has been politicised after it was adopted by Deputy President William Ruto in his campaigns for the 2022 general elections. Two opposing camps consisting of pro- and anti-hustler are competing to win the hearts and minds of voters. 

The word itself is controversial as the dictionary definition of the word is mostly negative. But this is muddying the waters for those whose understanding of it is simply trying to make ends meet. A task they have been at long before Ruto exploited the narrative. 

In reality, 83 per cent of the country’s labour force is hustling for a living in the informal sector. This is not about to change any time soon. There aren’t enough formal jobs for the growing number of Kenyans looking for work and, from the look of things, the trend will continue.

So rather than bemoan the academic frustrations that lead even PhD holders to hustling, it is better to embrace it as a solution to unemployment and empower those involved in it to improve their earnings. Government initiatives such as the Youth Fund, Uwezo Fund and Women Fund all aim to empower hustlers.

While few hustlers become millionaires, wealth is not what dignifies it. Even in employment, few ever reach that level. So politics and rags-to-riches stories aside, hustling is simply a means to survival.

Swapping the dreams of an office job for a blue-collar one should thus not be seen as a glorified misery but an innovative way out of a quagmire. Hustling is the future not just in Kenya but also across the world.

Edited by T Jalio

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