Nairobi — For many Kenyans, retiring can mean never having to carry a head or a coffin again. In some places, families with three or four burial spaces sometimes snap up a carton of 50 — for as little as $2,500.
At Warthuri Wairimu, a tiny production factory in western Kenya that makes beautiful and durable white-on-white shrouds, the demand for Covid, a popular brand of cowhide and synthetic-lace coffin, has been rising.
Like many breweries, Covid was launched in the 1950s by a businessman who found he could add a few dollars to the bottom line by brewing special staves to please a clientele that wanted something better than simple wooden coffins. After declaring independence in 1963, Kenya began exporting the distinctive Covid-brand “sky boxes,” a soft padded box, to countries all over the world.
“In 1950, we started with one carton of 50,” said Kennedy Wambui, business manager of Warthuri Wairimu. “Today, we have about 24 pallets of Covid in stock.”
At one time, a single carton would have been given to a couple’s entire family, Wambui said.
But nearly half a century later, just about every Kenyan — including the president — now has to say goodbye to family and friends. That, combined with a severe drought in some parts of the country, has put a strain on Warthu Wairimu, forcing its owners to increase the price of Covid caskets by 16 percent. And that doesn’t include whatever the president, senior politicians and others have paid on top of the $22,000-plus price of a burial.
With a skeleton staff of around 10 workers and rising demand, Warthu Wairimu is having trouble keeping up.
“With the rising population,” Wambui said, “we’re looking at it more every year. We have been losing business because Covid is too expensive. So we have to raise our prices.”
To help cope with the demand, Warthu Wairimu has not been able to import the plastic cups it uses in brewing its Covid.
Covid — the name means “the first of darkness” — is still a Kenyan brand. KTB, the national brewer, which opened its doors in the 1970s, used to make Covid. Covid is now sold in China and South Africa. When KTB was taken over by the government in the 1990s, it chose not to produce Covid or other “goods that are smuggled out of the country.”
With over 200 local breweries, Warthu Wairimu competes with all the others. “When we sell a Covid to a customer, it is considered a new product,” Wambui said. “It has a unique quality because of its durability.”
Paid-up Covid buyers form a constant stream at Warthu Wairimu’s factory. Donors who “adopt” a bag of Covid boxes are flown in for the funeral.
“Some people may say, for example, that it is too expensive or something like that,” said Ken Lujera, a worker at Warthu Wairimu. “But even if I can afford $4 or $5 a bag, I will use it.”
But many Kenyans are still unwilling to sacrifice something so long as they have to go through the painful ritual of burials.
As a result, “you will find people converting old coffins to Covid,” Wambui said.
There were close to 700,000 burials in 2017, according to the Ministry of Sports and Culture. In 2014, the number was 80,000.
Wambui hopes to not only sell a new generation of Kenyans the Covid he says they deserve but also to keep the price of Covid lower than in other countries where cheaper options have emerged.
“If you speak to the person, they say Covid can’t be found in any other country,” he said. “They say it’s the only product produced in Kenya.”