• Some are stuck in town with no rural home to return to
Now in his late 50s, Robert Kingi should be looking forward to his old age. Having worked as a mason and carpenter for much of his life, Kingi should be at the peak of his trade.
Many of Kingi's age mates in building construction moved on to other ventures. Those still in construction grew to become foremen. Instead of digging trenches and pushing wheelbarrows, they have armies of much younger people doing the heavy lifting. When not supervising construction sites, Kingi's peers go to their farms in readiness for the wet season.
Kingi had such plans but they remain nothing more than a mirage in light of his current predicament. You see, Kingi is a homeless man on the streets of Voi town in the coastal region. Each night, he joins dozens of other homeless people spending the night at the ruins of what was meant to be a football stadium.
In the morning, he sets out to look for small-time construction jobs that will give him a bit of money for meals. In essence, Kingi is competing for casual jobs with people young enough to be his children.
The man has not always been homeless; it is a recent development. Kingi's belongings are in a single room he rented but the room was locked up by the landlord because Kingi had not paid rent for several months. To make matters worse, his tools of trade, which he has slowly accumulated over the years, are locked up in the room. "If only I could get my tools, I would let the landlord keep everything else," Kingi says.
Most men of Kingi's age would have retreated to their rural homes rather than sleep on the streets. Not so for Kingi. He has no rural home to return to.
"I was raised by my mother with her people," Kingi narrates. "When I came of age and asked my mother for a place to put up a home, she told me to go ask for land from my father. She gave me directions to where I could find him."
Armed with information about a father he did not know about, Kingi eventually located him. To his dismay, the encounter was hostile. "My father said he could not bring an adult man into his household. He refused to let me build there," Kingi says. That is how Kingi ended up without a rural home, rejected by both his parents.
That was then. His problem now is that he is getting too old for his type of work. Having been in the informal sector for much of his life, Kingi has neither a pension nor assets that could help him in old age.
Only 25 per cent of Kenyan workers are enrolled on the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) or any of the other pension schemes. This was revealed by the Retirement Benefits Authority last month.
Like Robert Kingi, 75 per cent of Kenyan workers do not contribute to NSSF or any pension scheme mostly because their pay is too low or their income is erratic. Most of the workers who contribute are employed in the formal sector, which makes up about 15 per cent of the country's labour force.
Ageing casual workers such as Kingi represent a growing population of elderly people permanently residing in urban areas. They have lost touch with their rural origins and have no plans to return. There also are people who were born in urban areas and have lived there all their lives. Unlike rural living, urban areas can be extremely lonely environments for anyone not in a job or running a business.
"The old people in Nairobi and many other big cities suffer from loneliness, abuse, poverty and mental health problems," reads part of a report, titled, "Living in Nairobi: Emerging insights from urban research to inform older activists."
Without an income, the urban elderly live in insecure, makeshift structures in the slums. Some — both men and women — take solace in alcohol to numb away the lonely days.
Even in rural areas, a growing number of elderly people find themselves alone on their farms because younger people are working far away from home.
In some cases, the aged are raising their grandchildren due to various factors, such as family breakups, relocation or death of the children's parents. The grandchildren provide the aged with much-needed company, but they can be a source of stress if the grandparents have to work to get school fees.
Unemployment among the youth is making it hard for young people to financially support their elderly relatives.
If anything, it is no longer surprising to find the elderly using the little they have to support their children. A survey conducted in 2020 by a joint team of Kenyan and UK researchers found that elderly persons receiving the Sh2,000 monthly stipend from the government (pesa ya wazee) were sharing it with relatives.
"Despite being the most vulnerable age group, these older people are still taking on responsibility for the younger generations and trying to secure their future as best they can," Prof Maria Evandrou of the University of Southampton explained.
The government's stipend targets elderly persons over the age of 70. People such as Robert Kingi, who is not yet 70, do not qualify for the money. While the cash can make a big difference to someone living on his or her own farm, Sh2,000 per month would be of little impact to an urban person who has to pay rent and buy every bit of food.
Kenya has a growing number of urban residents, currently estimated at 29 per cent of the national population. United Nations Habitat predicts that half of Kenyans will be living in urban areas by 2050. Many of them will remain in urban areas in old age.
Considering the low numbers of Kenyans currently enrolled in NSSF and the various pension schemes, there is a real danger that many of today's urban residents will end up destitute in old age.
While the government can provide a limited amount of assistance, it remains everyone's duty to plan for their future. Think about where you will live in old age and where your income will come from. Experts in retirement planning recommend making long-term investments in one's productive years so that the investment can provide an income during old age.
Joining a pension scheme is a great way to start investing in the future. Consult a competent financial adviser for information on the many investment options available to you.