Kenyans are sending ever fewer letters, confirming the continuing impact of digital communications on postal services and the increasing popularity of courier, recently released government statistics show.
Data from the 2016 Statistical Abstract reviewed by Nation Newsplex shows that over the 13 years from 2003 to 2015 inclusive, the number of unregistered letters sent within Kenya dropped 34 per cent, from 102 million to 67 million. Unregistered letters are not insured and tracked and are by far the most frequently sent articles by the postal service.
Gathoni Kimondo runs the Kimbilio Trust, an organization that helps women facing domestic violence. She remembers that in high school, a big part receiving a letter was all about the waiting. “We used to wait to see if you’d received one,” she said of her time at Moi Girls Nairobi. “It was a big, big deal”
In addition to unregistered mail, Kenyans are sending less mail across a number of mail categories including registered letters, money orders and inland parcels. However the decline in use has not been steady.
From 2006 to 2010, the number of unregistered letters Kenyans sent actually rose 56 per cent, from 69 million to 108 million letters, before dropping 38 per cent to 67 million last year. It is not immediately clear why mail increased in 2010, the year Kenya’s new Constitution was promulgated.
“Social mail has been on the decline, not just in Kenya but globally,” Stephen Muriuki, the General Manager, Mail, for Posta Kenya says. “But the good thing is as the economy grows, e-commerce is also on the increase. People are ordering goods online and this generates business for the post office”.
The number of letters Kenyans sent outside the county dropped 62 per cent over ten years, from 14.8 million in 2006 to 5.6 million in 2015, while letters sent to Kenya from abroad fell 24 per cent over the same period, from 818,000 to 624,000. This reinforces conclusions about technology like email and online web forms reducing the need to mail documents abroad.
According to Mr Muriuki, schools remain one of the significant contributors to postal activity. “Recently, the City Square post office was packed with success cards and we had to mobilise everyone to sort them,” he says. The cards comprise the biggest chunk of their traffic. Occasions like Christmas and Easter, which spawn gifts and cards, also see a rise in traffic.
QUEUES OF BOYS
One person who understands well what receiving a letter used to mean is Mr Christopher Khaemba. Currently the County Executive Committee member for Lands and Housing in Nairobi County, he was the headmaster of Alliance High School from 1998 to 2007, and thousands of letters were posted and received during his time there.
“They meant a lot,” he says, laughing. “They meant a lot. They (the boys) would never have imagined the world without letters, first of all from their girlfriends, and second, their parents.”
He says a significant number of letters flowed between Alliance Boys and Alliance Girls, necessitating a special delivery system between the two schools. Recipients’ names were read out at lunch time in the dining hall before food was served. “The boys looked forward to it. One of the highlights of lunch break was letters, to know who had received a letter and who hadn’t” he said.
The number of letters from Alliance Girls decreased when telephone booths were introduced at Alliance Boys, with a similar arrangement created at the girls’ school “to just ensure things were flowing”. “We introduced about four booths, and one could see the queues of boys,” he said. Letters from the rest of the country, however, continued to arrive at the same volumes as before.
By the time Mr Khaemba left Alliance in 2007 to become the dean of the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, the school had not allowed mobile phones. “They were still expensive, so just a few boys would have had them. What you introduce then is a social divide, so we resisted that”.
The number of money orders has also decreased, and students remain major users. “Parents are still using them to send money to their children,” Mr Muriuki says.
In 2006, 1.6 million money orders were paid out, worth a total of Sh4.5bn that year, while in 2015 money orders paid plunged 69 per cent to 499,000 orders, worth Sh3.2 billion in 2015 money. That same year, mobile money services were used to transfer a total of Sh2.8 trillion across the country, more than 600 times the value of money orders.
Amidst this wider decline, the number of registered courier outlets and the number of private letter boxes rented have all recorded increases over the last 10 years. In 2015, Kenyans had rented out 382,000 private letter boxes, or 88 per cent of the 432,000 letter boxes available. Letter box rentals rose 18 per cent over the last ten years from 2006, when they numbered 323 000.
Ian Mbugua, an actor and ardent supporter of the arts, still visits the post office regularly. “These days I go once every two weeks, and that is really to pick up anything that could be there.” And when was the last time he sent something? “Gosh, I cannot remember. I absolutely cannot remember,” he says.
As with letters and money orders, digital technology can also explain some decline in parcel activity. Updated inland figures show parcels posted by Posta Kenya dropped 20 per cent, while parcels delivered fell 18 per cent.
Part of the reason for that decline is companies like Sendy. The Kenya-based logistics company uses motorbikes and trucks to deliver packages for customers who use a mobile app to contact riders. In May this year, the BBC reported that the company had completed 20,000 deliveries since it was launched in 2014.
LAST MILE DELIVERY
Malaika Judd, the company’s COO, says the Posta service, which mostly delivers from post office box to post office box overlaps to some extent with their services. “Instead of Post office boxes, Sendy is working hard to build a model that optimises the vehicles already on the road to find an affordable, efficient, and cost effective way to make residential and last-mile deliveries possible,” she told Newsplex via email.
Mr Muriuki says the post office is working to be relevant in the digital era. One product they are betting on is Posta Registered Email, which provides proof of email delivery that is admissible in a court of law. “We have taken physical registered email to the digital platforms” he says.
Another product, M-Post, notifies a mail recipient of a delivery via mobile phone. It allows a user who does not have a private letter box to receive mail at a specific address or pick it at the post office. “This is giving Kenyans wider access. Remember we have more than 20 million subscribers, but physical boxes are only 400000,” he adds.
Registered mail has also seen a decline. Registered letters posted locally declined 59 per cent from 1.7 million in 2006 to 780,000 in 2016, while the number of registered letters delivered fell 52 per cent from 1.4 million to 683,000.
Kenyans generally post more registered letters than get delivered, both local and international. Part of the reason for the backlog, Mr Muriuki says, is a tendency for Kenyans who have no letter box of their own to use another address particularly that of a school, church or workplace.
“When a registered item is sent personally to you at an address that is not yours, the person at that address cannot prove your identity and receive it on your behalf, and if you’re not on friendly terms, he may not even tell you about it, he says.
Delivery can also fail if a receiver cannot afford the duty imposed on a parcel from abroad and abandons it, he says. Undelivered letters and parcels are handled based on postal rules and the sender’s intention. Some are returned to sender while others are destroyed, he says.
As the figure shows, the largest number of parcels delivered from abroad are, on average, more than twice the number Kenyans send abroad.
Currently, Kenya has 70,947 inhabitants per post office, ten times the recommended number of 7558 by the Universal Postal Union, but given modern day digital realities, and the current trends, that deficit is unlikely to be reduced.
From 2006 to 2015, the number of post offices also fell 18 per cent in the country, from 761 to 623. While post offices run by Posta Kenya fell from 498 to 477, there was a drop in agents who provide postal services, from 263 to 146.
As the post office deals with lessening traffic, courier is growing. Courier outlets increased by 300 per cent from 521 in 2006 to 2,177 in 2015.
Data from the Communications Authority of Kenya also shows that the fourth quarter of the 2015/2016 financial year was the strongest in seven years. That quarter, 1.4 million courier items were sent in Kenya, nearly eight times the 180000 sent in the last quarter of 2009/2010.
Mr Khaemba hardly gets a letter himself these days. “Probably the letter I get is one that has been scanned and sent by email. I have not written an individual letter to post, but I have done official ones. I go to the post office to collect my magazines,” he says.
Editor's note: The story has been updated to correctly state the value of mobile money transferred in 2015, which is Sh2.8 trillion.