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EASY COME, EASY GO: The online borrowing craze among Kenyan youth

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EASY COME, EASY GO: The online borrowing craze among Kenyan youth
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In the past, opening a bank account in Kenya was an elaborate and tedious affair. It was akin to applying for a job: you presented your “curriculum vitae” to bank officials who would determine your fitness as a financially serviceable client. There were forms to be filled (in duplicate) that captured details such as date of birth, schools attended, employment history, reasons for choosing that particular bank and referees to vouch for your suitability. Some banks even asked whether you had spent nights in a police cell and whether you had a criminal record. It was like joining an exclusive members’ club – the odious scrutiny made it look like it was a privilege to be allowed to join the “banking club”.

The procedure for getting a loan was even more stringent and punitive: you would be asked to deposit a valuable item, such as a log book, jewellery or a title deed, as collateral. Money matters were serious business.

That was then. Today technology, particularly smartphones, has revolutionised the financial sector, so much so that traditional banks must be ruing the day smartphones became second nature to humanity. These days getting a personal loan online is easier and faster than calling your nearest bank or micro-finance lending facility. Thanks to mobile banking, a smartphone owner can borrow from as little as Sh500 to as much as Sh70,000 without breaking into a sweat. All he or she needs is to be social media savvy. Having a social media account, such as a Facebook account, is understood by both the online loan apps and the borrowers to be an unstated primary requirement for accessing a loan. There are at least 50 mobile phone lending apps operating in Kenya.

A FinAcess (financial access) survey done in 2016 by the Central Bank of Kenya, the Kenyan National of Bureau of Statistics, FSD-Kenya and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor found out that 77.5 per cent of Kenyans own a mobile phone. Out of this group, according to a 2018 digital credit survey, 35 per cent, or roughly six million people, have taken at least one digital loan. In essence, the survey found that digital credit had become a leading source of credit in Kenya. Using a sample size of 3,000 Kenyans, the survey showed that digital credit appeals to younger customers, out of which 55 per cent are male and from urban areas. The study also found that by far the most common reason for taking a loan is to meeting day-to-day needs. Financing education also drives use of credit while just over a quarter of users take loans to support their business and agricultural activities.

However, many of these borrowers struggle to pay back their loans. According to a survey by Microsave, a financial services consultancy, 2.7 million borrowers have been negatively listed by the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB) in the last three years, 15 percent of them for amounts of less than Sh200. (CRB is the body charged with the task of flagging or blacklisting all loan defaulters and ensuring that they are barred from borrowing from or transacting with any financial and legal entity, including the government.)

Eliud Njoroge, a financial risk management and private equity fund consultant, told me that mobile phone lending firms financed by venture capitalists were taking advantage of the vulnerability of impressionable youth. “The youth of today want instant gratification – they want it now and here. The notion of delayed gratification, that is, the idea of being patient and thinking through your financial needs, wants, opportunity costs and apparent risk considerations are alien concepts to them,” said Njoroge. “The ‘Java’ generation lives for the moment and developers of these digital apps are exploiting this social phenomenon in the epoch of social media, where the imagined reality of life is being played instantly.” (By Java generation the private equity fund manager, who himself is a millennial, was alluding to the Java restaurants in Nairobi that are popular among the city’s slick young urbanites.)

According to a survey by Microsave, a financial services consultancy, 2.7 million borrowers have been negatively listed by the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB) in the last three years, 15 percent of them for amounts of less than Sh200.

“The crux of the matter is that today the aggressive marketing gimmicks by the owners of these apps are singularly directed at the post-millennials – guys barely out of their teens and who have zilch idea of what constitutes a financial budget, leave alone a plan,” notes Njoroge. “Because they still solely rely on their parents, guardians, benefactors, relatives and friends for their upkeep, they have no qualms misusing and squandering money. Hence, the apps have specifically been developed largely with this group of people in mind. They are ready and willing to spend, but most importantly, borrow money to feed their peer-driven lifestyle habits.”

Njoroge’s opinion is based on his wide experience in advising multinational banks and international financial corporations and, more specifically, financial start-up companies that are being funded to loan cash to young people (read anybody below 33 years of age). Njoroge has worked as a financial risk management consultant in Ethiopia, Rwanda and the United Kingdom. Now based in Kenya, he currently works with start-up companies on the look-out for potential big and small loan risk takers. “I will tell you for free that these online apps will explicitly not come out to state that they are targeting these young adults, but I know it from experience and interactions with today’s bankers and venture capitalists that this is the case.”

However, the 2018 digital credit survey found that “digital borrowers are more likely than average to run their own business or be employed” and “less likely to be … dependent on family or government transfers”.

Njoroge says that the apps make young people believe that they can both save and borrow money, but this is not the case. “There is no saving. The apps exist solely for ensuring that you borrow endlessly.” He says another lie being perpetrated by these apps is that they promote small business enterprises. “A complete lie. These apps would like to masquerade as micro-finance entities. They like to market themselves as tools that reduce the cost of borrowing through technology. But I can tell you for a fact that micro-financing is a different financial ball game, technology or no technology. If indeed there are times when they will provide loans for micro-financing, it is because they must be seen to do so, and therefore, it will be incidental and not the primary intended goal.”

The tragedy of these apps, says the financial consultant, is that the cost of repaying these loans can be very punitive. “Firstly, their interest rates are way above the rates charged by banks. The Java generation is impervious to these high interest rates – they borrow and spend money that they have not sweated for. The developers of these apps figured this a long time ago.”

In addition, “if today you default, your name is immediately forwarded to the CRB. If that happens, trust me, you will not even be allowed to borrow from Okoa Jahazi (a platform for borrowing airtime from Safaricom, the biggest mobile network provider in Kenya).”

CRB has to date blacklisted half a million people, according to the Transunion Credit Bureau’s CEO, Billy Owino, Just three years ago, there were only 150,000 loan defaulters in Kenya. Woe unto you if you are ever blacklisted. You are not off the hook even after you have repaid your loan. CRB still considers you a credit risk for seven years. What this means is that for seven years financial institutions will be wary of you when you approach them for a loan. “Most of the borrowers don’t know that they got blacklisted. We get 200 calls daily from individuals in this category, asking how they ended up in the blacklist.”

Twenty-year-old Charles, a University of Nairobi student, says that he took the trouble to compare the interest rates of the various online money lending apps. He eventually settled for KCB-M-Pesa because it had the best rates.” He says that on average he borrows between Sh2,000 and 3,000 twice a month.

“What do you borrow the money for?” I asked him. “I use the money to finance my Sport-Pesa (gambling) expeditions. I bet for big matches.” Although Charles is a college student, he has not yet outgrown indulging in play-station games. “Apart from betting, I also borrow money to afford my play-station games escapades.”

The digital credit survey found that only 3 per cent of borrowers get a loan in order to gamble. It is possible that this number is an underestimate given the finding that “digital borrowers are almost twice as likely to have tried mobile betting at least once in their lifetime”.

Sports betting

Sports betting has become big business in Kenya and ensnared an entire generation. A GeoPoll survey done in March 2017 found that 76 percent of young people in Kenya are into betting and that these youth spend more money on betting than their Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts. The survey also identified mobile phones as the preferred tool for sports betting among young people.

Read also: BETTING THEIR LIVES AWAY: How online gambling is ruining Kenyan youth

SportPesa, a sports gaming company that was established about five years ago, is today the biggest sports betting platform in Kenya. It is among the dozen or so sports gaming companies that have sprouted in the country recently. These sports gaming companies have developed an impassioned craze among millennials and zillennials (the post-millennial teenage youth born after 2000) who have taken to betting as a way of life. The GeoPoll survey found that Kenyans gambled more frequently than their fellow Africans, spending an average of Sh5,000 a month. Charles has yet to win big cash (most people have never won more than Sh5,000) but feels that he has to keep on feeding his craving, which started as a hobby.

A GeoPoll survey done in March 2017 found that 76 percent of young people in Kenya are into betting and that these youth spend more money on betting than their Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts. The survey also identified mobile phones as the preferred tool for sports betting among young people.

According to Banker Awards held in the UK in December 2017, Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) is the largest bank countrywide in terms of asset size and has 12 million customers registered for the KCB-M-Pesa mobile service. The KCB M-Pesa loan app, which started in 2015 as a savings account, charges between 4 per cent and 6 per cent interest rate. Its phone loan service rose from 35 per cent between January and March 2016 to 41 per cent in the same quarter in 2017. Because of the success of mobile money borrowing, financial transactions at the branch level fell to 20 per cent from 31 per cent previously. Said KCB Group CEO and Managing Director, Joshua Oigara, in an in-house 2017 KCB newsletter: “We’ve seen a sharp rise in loan requests on all our mobile loans following the decrease in interest rates.” The newsletter stated that the average value of loans per customer was Sh1,800.

Like Branch International Inc., an international online money lending consortium that has its headquarters in San Francisco in California, and which launched its services in Kenya in 2015, KCB M-Pesa, vigorously advertises on Classic FM’s most popular morning radio show. Its target audience, just like Branch’s, is post-millennial youth who have just turned 18, who are college-bound and who have just acquired a national identity card. Branch is giving loans of up to Sh70,000, and according to the radio promos, it claims to have up to a million Kenyan borrowers. “You do not need any collateral, any bank account or a referee, all you need to do is download the Android app and you will receive your loan in 10 seconds flat,” proclaims the ad.

The advertising language used to sell the online borrowing apps is deliberate and intentional, targeted at a generation that is just starting to discover itself and excited about owning a gadget that, to them, seems to unlock hitherto unimagined infinite possibilities. The one-minute radio promos of these online lending apps are couched in language that would appeal to young adults. “Unlocking your growth potential” and other slogans are targeted at a generation that had little or no financial knowledge.

Ken, like Charles, borrows to finance his gambling habits. “So I will borrow every time there are big matches being played on the English Premier League,” admitted Ken. “I bet on Sport-Pesa and I borrow between Sh1,500 to 3,000. He said his favourite app was Tala because, “it is very prompt when relaying the money. I wanted an app that does not waste time in giving me instant cash.”

Dates and other emergencies

The online app of choice for 19-year-old Steve, a Technical University of Nairobi student, is M-Shwari. “I opted to use M-Shwari because it is a solid brand that works together with KCB, another solid brand.” Steve said he borrows between Sh1,000 and 3,000 a month to finance his college lifestyle habits. “Cut a brother some slack,” he said. “I need to enjoy some good life while I’m a student.” Steve said he relies on his parents for pocket money “but can what they give me be enough? I oftentimes have to deal with emergencies, hence the need to have a channel where you can quickly run to for fast cash.” These “emergencies” include impressing and winning over impromptu dates.

Steve told me it is not just once that he did not have the cash to entertain some girl in a fancy restaurant. “On several occasions I have had hot dates, but trust me, I did not have a penny. But tell me, would you let slip a date you’ve been chasing like there’s no tomorrow just because you’re not liquid?”

Steve said he relies on his parents for pocket money “but can what they give me be enough? I oftentimes have to deal with emergencies, hence the need to have a channel where you can quickly run to for fast cash.” These “emergencies” include impressing and winning over impromptu dates.

Steve said he has walked confidently into a Java restaurant a couple of times with a “beautiful catch” with not a single penny in his pocket because he knows he can borrow money from M-Shwari “of course, without her knowledge”. The instant loan is deposited into his M-Pesa account, which he uses to settle his bill. Meanwhile, the Java generation belle will not have the slightest hint that her expensive lunch treat was financed by a loan and that the young man will have to figure out how to repay it later.

By 2017, the M-Shwari (shwari means to be calm or peaceful in Kiswahili) online loan portfolio had 420,000 applications every day; of that, 70,000 are processed daily for repayment every 30 days. It has more than 80,000 agents countrywide and processes US$20 million daily payments, according to a study done by Tamara Cook and Claudia McKay. M-Shwari is operated by Safaricom, the biggest mobile network operator in Kenya, and is considered to be the mother of mobile phone lending apps, largely because it was the first mobile phone loan application in Kenya.

Started in 2012, M-Shwari has to date 21 million customers in Kenya. The minimum threshold required of an M-Shwari borrower is to possess a Safaricom sim card and to be registered as an M-Pesa user. Therefore, technically speaking, anyone with an M-Pesa account qualifies to borrow from M-Shwari. The beauty with M-Shwari, its users tell me, is that you can borrow offline so long as you are on the M-Pesa platform. M-Shwari charges a one-time “service fee” of 7.5 per cent on all loans.

M-Shwari is actually a creation of a partnership between Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA) and Safaricom, who split the revenue accrued from the lucrative business. According to the How M-Shwari Works: The Story So Far report written by Tamara Cook and Claudia McKay in 2015, Safaricom provides access to customers and transactional data on mobile phone and mobile money usage. CBA, on the other hand, develops credit scoring algorithms that analyse the transactional data to make credit evaluation decisions. The actual lending is done by the bank. One of the single biggest reasons why the M-Shwari app is preferred is because money is promptly credited to your phone immediately. But just as you receive money on the spot, you must also pay it back on time. Deferment and delayed payment can be costly and punitive. “I have always endevoured to pay back on time,” said Steve.

According to a Safaricom manager, M-Shwari is busiest from 3am to 5am and from 8.30pm to 10.30pm, not because of the nocturnal spending habits of young men like Steve, but because of the business acumen of women vegetable hawkers (known as mama mboga). From as early as 3 in the morning, the women vegetable sellers begin to borrow money from M-Shwari because they need to go their respective markets to buy their wares, fresh and in good time. These women are experts in M-Shwari borrowing. By the evening, when they are reconciling their figures, they will begin repaying their loan, usually from between 8.30pm and 10.30pm, in preparation for the dawn borrowing. The women borrow anything from between Sh3,000 and Sh5,000 daily. On a good day, the mama mboga will repay her M-Shwari debt and still remain with a tidy sum as profit. However, these women, who are M-Shwari’s most loyal customers, are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to paying back their loans.

According to a Safaricom manager, M-Shwari is busiest from 3am to 5am and from 8.30pm to 10.30pm, not because of the nocturnal spending habits of young men like Steve, but because of the business acumen of women vegetable hawkers.

Chebet, a student at the University of Nairobi, does not even care to know the interest rates charged by these mobile phone apps. She told me that she borrows between Sh1,500 and Sh3,000 per month. And she was very forthright on why she borrows the money: “I borrow to satisfy my spendthrift behaviours. I am always buying shoes, bags and clothes that my meagre allowance that I am allowed by my parents cannot satiate.”

The 19-year-old said her favourite borrowing app is Tala. “I got used to Tala because it is advertised a lot on mobile smartphones. Tala is truly one of the money-lending apps that is advertised 24/7 on Android smartphones. The pop-ups are constantly in your face every time you navigate through the phone.” (Tala was previously known as Mkopo Rahisi, Kiswahili for “easy loan.” The app has devised a system where it rewards referrals: for every person you recommend Tala to, you are paid Sh200. Users of Tala, nonetheless, have to part with an additional charge in the form of M-Pesa transaction fees because the app uses a Pay Bill number. I asked her whether she paid her debts in time; she said she had defaulted a couple of times.

Tasha, like Chebet, has no clue how much interest rate she is charged by Tala. Blandly honest, the 20-year-old student told me she told me she borrows “to buy myself make-ups.” Hence, every three months she will borrow between Sh1,500 and Sh3,000 from Tala.

Tala, which was started in March 2014 by Shivani Siroya, a former United Nations employee, began by dishing out Sh10,000 loans in Kenya; today it gives loans worth up to Sh50,000. The app has the highest interest rate among its competitors – between 11 per cent and 15 per cent. (Branch charges 8.4 per cent.) Tala charges 11 per cent if you pay your loan weekly and 15 per cent if you choose to pay monthly.

Tala has also come up with a system that can detect when customers change their mobile phone number. It has a default message that reads: “Your account is linked to another device.” It is a polite warning from Tala that it would be improper and risky to run away with their money, for example, thinking that by changing your sim card, you will be off the hook insofar as repaying your loan is concerned. Chebet, in not too many words, confirmed to me Tala’s tightening of its lending procedures: “You can run, but you cannot escape.”

Mariam, another 19-year-old, is hooked to Tala. Although not a spendthrift like Chebet, she nevertheless said a good thing will not pass her simply because she cannot afford it. “That’s why these apps came about; to be rescuing some of us when we are stuck.” Getting stuck often means not being able to do things, like going to concerts with your peers, because you don’t have the money. “The first time I borrowed money from my phone was when there was a big music show in town and I just could not afford to miss it. All my friends were going there. How could I be left behind?” Mariam uploaded the Tala app and in the blink of an eye she had money in her M-Pesa account. “I resorted to Tala because it’s really advertised on the phone, plus my friends invited me to use it.” Mariam says Tala’s interest rates are high, yet she opted to stick and continue using the app because she finds it convenient. She borrows between Sh1,000 and 2000 every month.

In an interview she had with the Business Daily in January, Siroya said that Tala’s association with the M-Pesa platform had given her company access to 27 million users. Worldwide Tala has given out 4.5 million loans worth Sh25 billion to clients in the Philippines, Mexico, Kenya and Tanzania. Ninety-five per cent of her clients are repeat customers.

George, 20, a student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT), was as candid as a college student can be. “What do you borrow the money for?” I asked. “To finance dates at fancy restaurants that I know very well I can hardly afford with my own meagre cash.” George also said he borrows to patronise expensive pubs, which ordinarily he would not afford. “How often do you borrow?” Often enough was his curt answer. “Which app do you usually use?” The student said he does not have a specific app and therefore did not also care to find out their respective interest rates. “I will use any as long as it gets the job done. But I have noticed, by and large, I tend to rely mostly on Tala and M-Shwari.” I also asked him whether he repays the loans, if at all. “I do, although I am always falling behind schedule.”

Just like her fellow college mate George, Barbara, 19, a student at the University of Nairobi, does not care about interest rates. “All that I care for is there is money coming my way.” She said she borrows “to get through to the end of the month, as well as to buy my writing books for assignments after squandering my allocated pocket that my parents give me for every month.” Barbara said she religiously borrows between Sh1,000 and Sh2,000 every month. “I use Tala simply because of peer influence – many of my friends use it and they recommended it to me.”

Perhaps it is because of his age that I found Joe’s reason for resorting to the online borrowing money apps reassuring. Joe is 21 and has almost completed his studies at JKUAT. He therefore is already thinking about what he will do after exiting college. He currently runs a mitumba (secondhand clothes) business, selling contemporary clothing to his fellow students. So when I asked him what he borrows the money for, he promptly told me that he borrows it to replenish his stock and to keep his business afloat,“because oftentimes, I’m not paid on time by my customers”. Every month he borrows a standard Sh2,000 from Tala, which he repays promptly.

Chomba, also a university student, borrowed just once because he had a real emergency. His sister’s child, who he was looking after when he was on recess, became sick and needed urgent treatment. “I had heard about KCB-M-Pesa and its reasonable interest rates, so I downloaded the app and borrowed Sh4,000. I later opened an account with KCB.”

Njoroge, the financial expert, pointed out to me that online loans are approved on the basis of the applicant’s reputation, “what they call reputational collateral”. Reputational collateral is dependent on such habits as how many times you make your calls and how often you transact on your M-Pesa account. “The apps’ engineers have developed algorithms that compile your personal data: your social media activities – the kind of Facebook messages you post, your type of friends, how many there are, the sites you like visiting, among other analytics.” He said all this was part of the data analytics that CRB also collects on individuals’ financial habits, which CRB uses to advise whoever requires the data.”

Danson Muchemi, CEO of Jambo Pay, the IT company that collects revenue on behalf of Nairobi County, especially revenue relating to parking charges, praises the online borrowing apps “because they brought down banking barriers. There is no more profiling. The technology has enabled the creation of ‘digital assets’ that approximates what type of a person you are. Armed with this information, the apps are able to sketch your character and identify your spending habits, needs and wants, even though there is a thin line that separates the two.”

“The apps’ engineers have developed algorithms that compile your personal data: your social media activities – the kind of Facebook messages you post, your type of friends, how many there are, the sites you like visiting, among other analytics.” He said all this was part of the data analytics that CRB also collects on individuals’ financial habits, which CRB uses to advise whoever requires the data.”

Unlike the banks, which depended on your “CV” to arrive at a decision about whether or not they will advance you a loan, the power of technology is such that it can, with near precision, detect whether or not you will be a defaulter. By analysing your social media profile, the apps can sum up your personality and your willingness or ability to pay back. “Technology, as opposed to traditional banking methods, which took ages deciding on whether you qualify for a bank loan or not, allows mobile banking financiers to make that decision fast and instantly.”

“Old habits die hard” is an English idiom that explains acquired habits that later become difficult to get rid of. When a loan is just a click away, it is not hard to imagine a future where online borrowing will become a habit, or maybe even a harmful addiction, among Kenyans.

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Politics

Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya

The fortress conservation model, created with support from some of the world’s biggest environmental groups and western donors, has led to land dispossession, militarization, and widespread human rights abuses.

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Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya
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With its vast expanses and diversity of wildlife, Kenya – Africa’s original safari destination – attracts over two million foreign visitors annually. The development of wildlife tourism and conservation, a major economic resource for the country, has however been at the cost of local communities who have been fenced off from their ancestral lands. Indigenous communities have been evicted from their territories and excluded from the tourist dollars that flow into high-end lodges and safari companies.

Protected areas with wildlife are patrolled and guarded by anti-poaching rangers and are accessible only to tourists who can afford to stay in the luxury safari lodges and resorts. This model of “fortress conservation” – one that militarizes and privatizes the commons – has come under severe criticism for its exclusionary practices and for being less effective than the models where local communities lead and manage conservation activities.

One such controversial model of conservation in Kenya is the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). Set up in 2004, the NRT’s stated goal is “changing the game” on conservation by supporting communities to govern their lands through the establishment of community conservancies.

Created by Ian Craig, whose family was part of the elite white minority during British colonialism, the NRT’s origins date back to the 1980s when his family-owned 62,000-acre cattle ranch was transformed into the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Since its founding, the NRT has set up 39 conservancies on 42,000 square kilometres (10,378,426 acres) of land in northern and coastal Kenya – nearly 8 per cent of the country’s total land area.

The communities that live on these lands are predominantly pastoralists who raise livestock for their livelihoods and have faced decades of marginalization by successive Kenyan governments. The NRT claims that its goal is to “transform people’s lives, secure peace and conserve natural resources.”

However, where the NRT is active, local communities allege that the organization has dispossessed them of their lands and deployed armed security units that have been responsible for serious human rights abuses. Whereas the NRT employs around 870 uniformed scouts, the organization’s anti-poaching mobile units, called ‘9’ teams, face allegations of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, among other abuses. These rangers are equipped with military weapons and receive paramilitary training from the Kenyan Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Academy and from 51 Degrees, a private security company run by Ian Craig’s son, Batian Craig, as well as from other private security firms. Whereas the mandate of NRT’s rangers is supposed to be anti-poaching, they are routinely involved in policing matters that go beyond that remit.

Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife.

Locals have alleged the NRT’s direct involvement in conflicts between different ethnic groups, related to territorial issues and/or cattle raids. Multiple sources within the impacted communities, including members of councils of community elders, informed the Oakland Institute that as many as 76 people were killed in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy during inter-ethnic clashes, allegedly with the involvement of the NRT. Interviews conducted by the Institute established that 11 people have been killed in circumstances involving the conservation body. Dozens more appear to have been killed by the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and other government agencies, which have been accused of abducting, disappearing, and torturing people in the name of conservation.

Over the years, conflicts over land and resources in Kenya have been exacerbated by the establishment of large ranches and conservation areas. For instance, 40 per cent of Laikipia County’s land is occupied by large ranches, controlled by just 48 individuals – most of them white landowners who own tens of thousands of acres for ranching or wildlife conservancies, which attract tourism business as well as conservation funding from international organizations.

Similarly, several game reserves and conservancies occupy over a million acres of land in the nearby Isiolo County. Land pressure was especially evident in 2017 when clashes broke out between private, mostly white ranchers, and Samburu and Pokot herders over pasture during a particularly dry spell.

But as demonstrated in the Oakland Institute’s report Stealth Game, the events of 2017 highlighted a situation that has been rampant for many years. Local communities report paying a high price for the NRT’s privatized, neo-colonial conservation model in Kenya. The loss of grazing land for pastoralists is a major challenge caused by the creation of community conservancies. Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife in the name of community conservancies, and to subsequently lease it to set up tourist facilities.

Although terms like “community-driven”, “participatory”, and “local empowerment” are extensively used by the NRT and its partners, the conservancies have been allegedly set up by outside parties rather than the pastoralists themselves, who have a very limited role in negotiating the terms of these partnerships. According to several testimonies, leverage over communities occurs through corruption and co-optation of local leaders and personalities as well as the local administration.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel. Furthermore, the NRT is involved not just in conservation but also in security, management of pastureland, and livestock marketing, which according to the local communities, gives it a level of control over the region that surpasses even that of the Kenyan government. The NRT claims that these activities support communities, development projects, and help build sustainable economies, but its role is criticized by local communities and leaders.

In recent years, hundreds of locals have held protests and signed petitions against the presence of the NRT. The Turkana County Government expelled the NRT from Turkana in 2016; Isiolo’s Borana Council of Elders (BCE) and communities in Isiolo County and in Chari Ward in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy continue to challenge the NRT. In January 2021, the community of Gafarsa protested the NRT’s expansion into the Gafarsa rangelands of Garbatulla sub-county. And in April 2021, the Samburu Council of Elders Association, a registered institution representing the Samburu Community in four counties (Isiolo, Laikipia, Marsabit and Samburu), wrote to international NGOs and donors asking them to cease further funding and to audit the NRT’s donor-funded programmes.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel.

At the time of the writing of the report, the Oakland Institute reported that protests against the NRT were growing across the region. The organization works closely with the KWS, a state corporation under the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism whose mandate is to conserve and manage wildlife in Kenya. In July 2018, Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, appointed Ian Craig and Jochen Zeitz to the KWS Board of Trustees. The inclusion of Zeitz and Craig, who actively lobby for the privatization of wildlife reserves, has been met with consternation by local environmentalists. In the case of the NRT, the relationship is mutually beneficial – several high-ranking members of the KWS have served on the NRT’s Board of Trustees.

Both the NRT and the KWS receive substantial funding from donors such as USAID, the European Union, and other Western agencies, and champion corporate partnerships in conservation. The KWS and the NRT also partner with some of the largest environmental NGOs, including The Nature Conservancy (TNC), whose corporate associates have included major polluters and firms known for their negative human rights and environmental records, such as Shell, Ford, BP, and Monsanto among others. In turn, TNC’s Regional Managing Director for Africa, Matt Brown, enjoys a seat at the table of the NRT’s Board of Directors.

Stealth Game also reveals how the NRT has allegedly participated in the exploitation of fossil fuels in Kenya. In 2015, the NRT formed a five-year, US$12 million agreement with two oil companies active in the country – British Tullow Oil and Canadian Africa Oil Corp – to establish and operate six community conservancies in Turkana and West Pokot Counties.

The NRT’s stated goal was to “help communities to understand and benefit” from the “commercialisation of oil resources”. Local communities allege that it put a positive spin on the activities of these companies to mask concerns and outstanding questions over their environmental and human rights records.

The NRT, in collaboration with big environmental organizations, epitomizes a Western-led approach to conservation that creates a profitable business but marginalizes local communities who have lived on these lands for centuries.

Despite its claims to the contrary, the NRT is yet another example of how fortress conservation, under the guise of “community-based conservation”, is dispossessing the very pastoralist communities it claims to be helping – destroying their traditional grazing patterns, their autonomy, and their lives.

The  Constitution of Kenyan  2010 and the 2016 Community Land Act recognize community land as a category of land holding and pastoralism as a legitimate livelihood system. The Act enables communities to legally register, own, and manage their communal lands. For the first three years, however, not a single community in Kenya was able to apply to have their land rights legally recognized. On 24 July 2019, over 50 representatives from 11 communities in Isiolo, Kajiado, Laikipia, Tana River, and Turkana counties were the first to attempt to register their land with the government on the basis of the Community Land Act. The communities were promised by the Ministry of Land that their applications would be processed within four months. In late 2020, the Ministry of Lands registered the land titles of II Ngwesi and Musul communities in Laikipia.

The others are still waiting to have their land registered. In October 2020, the Lands Cabinet Secretary was reported saying that only 12 counties have submitted inventories of their respective unregistered community lands in readiness for the registration process as enshrined in the law.

Community members interviewed by the Oakland Institute in the course of its research repeatedly asked for justice after years of being ignored by the Kenyan government and by the police when reporting human rights abuses and even killings of family members. The findings reported in Stealth Game require an independent investigation into the land-related grievances around all of the NRT’s community conservancies, the allegations of involvement of the NRT’s rapid response units in inter-ethnic conflict, as well as the alleged abuses and extrajudicial killings.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along. While this report focuses on the plight of the Indigenous communities in Northern Kenya, it is a reality that is all too familiar to indigenous communities the world over. In far too many places, national governments, private corporations, and large conservation groups collude in the name of conservation, not just to force Indigenous groups off their land, but to force them out of existence altogether.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along.

The latest threat comes from the so-called “30×30 initiative”, a plan under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity that calls for 30 per cent of the planet to be placed in protected areas – or for other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) –  by 2030.

The Oakland Institute’s report, Stealth Game, makes it clear that fortress conservation must be replaced by Indigenous-led conservation efforts in order to preserve the remaining biodiversity of the planet while respecting the interests, rights, and dignity of the local communities.

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Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference

Before Nashulai, Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling off their rights to live and work on their land, becoming “conservation refugees”.

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The Sekenani River underwent a mammoth cleanup in May 2020, undertaken by over 100 women living in the Nashulai Conservancy area. Ten of the 18 kilometres of fresh water were cleaned of plastic waste, clothing, organic material and other rubbish that presented a real threat to the health of this life source for the community and wildlife. The river forms part of the Mara Basin and goes on to flow into Lake Victoria, which in turn feeds the River Nile.

The initiative was spearheaded by the Nashulai Conservancy — the first community-owned conservancy in the Maasai Mara that was founded in 2015 — which also provided a daily stipend to all participants and introduced them to better waste management and regeneration practices. After the cleanup, bamboo trees were planted along the banks of the river to curb soil erosion.

You could call it a classic case of “nature healing” that only the forced stillness caused by a global pandemic could bring about. Livelihoods dependent on tourism and raising cattle had all but come to a standstill and people now had the time to ponder how unpredictable life can be.

“I worry that when tourism picks up again many people will forget about all the conservation efforts of the past year,” says project officer Evelyn Kamau. “That’s why we put a focus on working with the youth in the community on the various projects and education. They’ll be the key to continuation.”

Continuation in the broader sense is what Nashulai and several other community-focused projects in Kenya are working towards — a shift away from conservation practices that push indigenous people further and further out of their homelands for profit in the name of protecting and celebrating the very nature for which these communities have provided stewardship over generations.

A reckoning

Given the past year’s global and regional conversations about racial injustice, and the pandemic that has left tourism everywhere on its knees, ordinary people in countries like Kenya have had the chance to learn, to speak out and to act on changes.

Players in the tourism industry in the country that have in the past privileged foreign visitors over Kenyans have been challenged. In mid-2020, a poorly worded social media post stating that a bucket-list boutique hotel in Nairobi was “now open to Kenyans” set off a backlash from fed-up Kenyans online.

The post referred to the easing of COVID-19 regulations that allowed the hotel to re-open to anyone already in the country. Although the hotel tried to undertake damage control, the harm was already done and the wounds reopened. Kenyans recounted stories of discrimination experienced at this particular hotel including multiple instances of the booking office responding to enquiries from Kenyan guests that rooms were fully booked, only for their European or American companions to call minutes later and miraculously find there were in fact vacancies. Many observed how rare it was to see non-white faces in the marketing of certain establishments, except in service roles.

Another conversation that has gained traction is the question of who is really benefiting from the conservation business and why the beneficiaries are generally not the local communities.

Kenyan conservationist and author Dr Mordecai Ogada has been vocal about this issue, both in his work and on social media, frequently calling out institutions and individuals who perpetuate the profit-driven system that has proven to be detrimental to local communities. In The Big Conservation Lie, his searing 2016 book co-authored with conservation journalist John Mbaria, Ogada observes, “The importance of wildlife to Kenya and the communities here has been reduced to the dollar value that foreign tourists will pay to see it.” Ogada details the use of coercion tactics to push communities to divide up or vacate their lands and abandon their identities and lifestyles for little more than donor subsidies that are not always paid in full or within the agreed time.

A colonial hangover

It is important to note that these attitudes, organizations and by extension the structure of safari tourism, did not spring up out of nowhere. At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty and the odd American president or Hollywood actor.

Theodore Roosevelt’s year-long hunting expedition in 1909 resulted in over 500 animals being shot by his party in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, many of which were taken back to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute and in various other natural history museums across the US. Roosevelt later recounted his experiences in a book and a series of lectures, not without mentioning the “savage” native people he had encountered and expressing support for the European colonization project throughout Africa.

Much of this private entertaining was made possible through “gifts” of large parcels of Kenyan land by the colonial power to high-ranking military officials for their service in the other British colonies, without much regard as to the ancestral ownership of the confiscated lands.

At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty.

On the foundation of national parks in the country by the colonial government in the 1940s, Ogada points out the similarities with the Yellowstone National Park, “which was created by violence and disenfranchisement, but is still used as a template for fortress conservation over a century later.” In the case of Kenya, just add trophy hunting to the original model.

Today, when it isn’t the descendants of those settlers who own and run the many private nature reserves in the country, it is a party with much economic or political power tying local communities down with unfair leases and sectioning them off from their ancestral land, harsh penalties being applied when they graze their cattle on the confiscated land.

This history must be acknowledged and the facts recognised so that the real work of establishing a sustainable future for the affected communities can begin. A future that does not disenfranchise entire communities and exclude them or leave their economies dangerously dependent on tourism.

The work it will take to achieve this in both the conservation and the wider travel industry involves everyone, from the service providers to the media to the very people deciding where and how to spend their tourism money and their time.

Here’s who’s doing the work

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation and to secure a future in which these communities are not excluded. Some, like Dr Ogada, spread the word about the holes in the model adopted by the global conservation industry. Others are training and educating tourism businesses in sustainable practices.

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation.

The Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, or STTA, is a leading Kenyan-owned consultancy that works with tourism businesses and associations to provide training and strategies for sustainability in the sector in East Africa and beyond. Team leader Judy Kepher Gona expresses her optimism in the organization’s position as the local experts in the field, evidenced by the industry players’ uptake of the STTA’s training programmes and services to learn how best to manage their tourism businesses responsibly.

Gona notes, “Today there are almost 100 community-owned private conservancies in Kenya which has increased the inclusion of communities in conservation and in tourism” — which is a step in the right direction.

The community conservancy

Back to Nashulai, a strong example of a community-owned conservancy. Director and co-founder Nelson Ole Reiya who grew up in the area began to notice the rate at which Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling or leasing off their land and often their rights to live and work on it as they did before, becoming what he refers to as “conservation refugees”.

In 2016, Ole Reiya set out to bring together his community in an effort to eliminate poverty, regenerate the ecosystems and preserve the indigenous culture of the Maasai by employing a commons model on the 5,000 acres on which the conservancy sits. Families here could have sold their ancestral land and moved away, but they have instead come together and in a few short years have done away with the fencing separating their homesteads from the open savannah. They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route. Elephants have returned to an old elephant nursery site.

In contrast to many other nature reserves and conservancies that offer employment to the locals as hotel staff, safari guides or dancers and singers, Nashulai’s way of empowering the community goes further to diversify the economy by providing skills and education to the residents, as well as preserving the culture by passing on knowledge about environmental awareness. This can be seen in the bee-keeping project that is producing honey for sale, the kitchen gardens outside the family homes, a ranger training programme and even a storytelling project to record and preserve all the knowledge and history passed down by the elders.

They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route.

The conservancy only hires people from within the community for its various projects, and all plans must be submitted to a community liaison officer for discussion and a vote before any work can begin.

Tourism activities within the conservancy such as stays at Oldarpoi (the conservancy’s first tented camp; more are planned), game drives and day visits to the conservation and community projects are still an important part of the story. The revenue generated by tourists and the awareness created regarding this model of conservation are key in securing Nashulai’s future. Volunteer travellers are even welcomed to participate in the less technical projects such as tree planting and river clean-ups.

Expressing his hopes for a paradigm shift in the tourism industry, Ole Reiya stresses, “I would encourage visitors to go beyond the superficial and experience the nuances of a people beyond being seen as artefacts and naked children to be photographed, [but] rather as communities whose connection to the land and wildlife has been key to their survival over time.”

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Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo

In the context of the climate emergency and the need for renewable energy sources, competition over the supply of cobalt is growing. This competition is most intense in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nick Bernards argues that the scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overthrowing capitalism on a global scale.

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With growing attention to climate breakdown and the need for expanded use of renewable energy sources, the mineral resources needed to make batteries are emerging as a key site of conflict. In this context, cobalt – traditionally mined as a by-product of copper and nickel – has become a subject of major interest in its own right.

Competition over supplies of cobalt is intensifying. Some reports suggest that demand for cobalt is likely to exceed known reserves if projected shifts to renewable energy sources are realized. Much of this competition is playing out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The south-eastern regions of the DRC hold about half of proven global cobalt reserves, and account for an even higher proportion of global cobalt production (roughly 70 percent) because known reserves in the DRC are relatively shallow and easier to extract.

Recent high profile articles in outlets including the New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted a growing ‘battery arms race’ supposedly playing out between the West (mostly the US) and China over battery metals, especially cobalt.

These pieces suggest, with some alarm, that China is ‘winning’ this race. They highlight how Chinese dominance in battery supply chains might inhibit energy transitions in the West. They also link growing Chinese mining operations to a range of labour and environmental abuses in the DRC, where the vast majority of the world’s available cobalt reserves are located.

Both articles are right that the hazards and costs of the cobalt boom have been disproportionately borne by Congolese people and landscapes, while few of the benefits have reached them. But by subsuming these problems into narratives of geopolitical competition between the US and China and zooming in on the supposedly pernicious effects of Chinese-owned operations in particular, the ‘arms race’ narrative ultimately obscures more than it reveals.

There is unquestionably a scramble for cobalt going on. It is centered in the DRC but spans much of the globe, working through tangled transnational networks of production and finance that link mines in the South-Eastern DRC to refiners and battery manufacturers scattered across China’s industrializing cities, to financiers in London, Toronto, and Hong Kong, to vast transnational corporations ranging from mineral rentiers (Glencore), to automotive companies (Volkswagen, Ford), to electronics and tech firms (Apple). This loose network is governed primarily through an increasingly amorphous and uneven patchwork of public and private ‘sustainability’ standards. And, it plays out against the backdrop of both long-running depredations of imperialism and the more recent devastation of structural adjustment.

In a word, the scramble for cobalt is a thoroughly capitalist scramble.

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Chinese firms do unquestionably play a major role in global battery production in general and in cobalt extraction and refining in particular. Roughly 50 percent of global cobalt refining now takes place in China. The considerable majority of DRC cobalt exports do go to China, and Chinese firms have expanded interests in mining and trading ventures in the DRC.

However, although the Chinese state has certainly fostered the development of cobalt and other battery minerals, there is as much a scramble for control over cobalt going on within China as between China and the ‘west’. There has, notably, been a wave of concentration and consolidation among Chinese cobalt refiners since about 2010. The Chinese firms operating in the DRC are capitalist firms competing with each other in important ways. They often have radically different business models. Jinchuan Group Co. Ltd and China Molybdenum, for instance, are Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed firms with ownership shares in scattered global refining and mining operations. Jinchuan’s major mine holdings in the DRC were acquired from South African miner Metorex in 2012; China Molybdenum recently acquired the DRC mines owned by US-based Freeport-McMoRan (as the New York Times article linked above notes with concern). A significant portion of both Jinchuan Group and China Molybdenum’s revenues, though, come from speculative metals trading rather than from production. Yantai Cash, on the other hand, is a specialized refiner which does not own mining operations. Yantai is likely the destination for a good deal of ‘artisanal’ mined cobalt via an elaborate network of traders and brokers.

These large Chinese firms also are thoroughly plugged in to global networks of battery production ultimately destined, in many cases, for widely known consumer brands. They are also able to take advantage of links to global marketing and financing operations. The four largest Chinese refiners, for instance, are all listed brands on the London Metal Exchange (LME).

In the midst of increased concentration at the refining stage and concerns over supplies, several major end users including Apple, Volkswagen, and BMW have sought to establish long-term contracts directly with mining operations since early 2018. Tesla signed a major agreement with Glencore to supply cobalt for its new battery ‘gigafactories’ in 2020. Not unrelatedly, they have also developed integrated supply chain tracing systems, often dressed up in the language of ‘sustainability’ and transparency. One notable example is the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Initiative (RSBI). This initiative between the blockchain division of tech giant IBM, supply chain audit firm RCS Global, and several mining houses, mineral traders, and automotive end users of battery materials including Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen Group, and Fiat-Chrysler Automotive Group was announced in 2019. RSBI conducted a pilot test tracing 1.5 tons of Congolese cobalt across three different continents over five months of refinement.

Major end users including automotive and electronics brands have, in short, developed increasingly direct contacts extending across the whole battery production network.

There are also a range of financial actors trying to get in on the scramble (though, as both Jinchuan and China Molybdenum demonstrate, the line between ‘productive’ and ‘financial’ capital here can be blurry). Since 2010, benchmark cobalt prices are set through speculative trading on the LME. A number of specialized trading funds have been established in the last five years, seeking to profit from volatile prices for cobalt. One of the largest global stockpiles of cobalt in 2017, for instance, was held by Cobalt 27, a Canadian firm established expressly to buy and hold physical cobalt stocks. Cobalt 27 raised CAD 200 million through a public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange in June of 2017, and subsequently purchased 2160.9 metric tons of cobalt held in LME warehouses. There are also a growing number of exchange traded funds (ETF) targeting cobalt. Most of these ETFs seek ‘exposure’ to cobalt and battery components more generally, for instance, through holding shares in mining houses or what are called ‘royalty bearing interests’ in specific mining operations rather than trading in physical cobalt or futures. Indeed, by mid-2019, Cobalt-27 was forced to sell off its cobalt stockpile at a loss. It was subsequently bought out by its largest shareholder (a Swiss-registered investment firm) and restructured into ‘Conic’, an investment fund holding a portfolio of royalty-bearing interests in battery metals operations rather than physical metals.

Or, to put it another way, there is as much competition going on within ‘China’ and the ‘West’ between different firms to establish control over limited supplies of cobalt, and to capture a share of the profits, as between China and the ‘West’ as unitary entities.

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Thus far, workers and communities in the Congolese Copperbelt have suffered the consequences of this scramble. They have seen few of the benefits. Indeed, this is reflective of much longer-run processes, documented in ROAPE, wherein local capital formation and local development in Congolese mining have been systematically repressed on behalf of transnational capital for decades.

The current boom takes place against the backdrop of the collapse, and subsequent privatization, of the copper mining industry in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1988, state-owned copper mining firm Gécamines produced roughly 450 000 tons of copper, and employed 30 000 people, by 2003, production had fallen to 8 000 tons and workers were owed up to 36 months of back pay. As part of the restructuring and privatization of the company, more than 10 000 workers were offered severance payments financed by the World Bank, the company was privatized, and mining rights were increasingly marketized. By most measures, mining communities in the Congolese Copperbelt are marked by widespread poverty. A 2017 survey found mean and median monthly household incomes of $USD 34.50 and $USD 14, respectively, in the region.

In the context of widespread dispossession, the DRC’s relatively shallow cobalt deposits have been an important source of livelihood activities. Estimates based on survey research suggest that roughly 60 percent of households in the region derived some income from mining, of which 90 percent worked in some form of artisanal mining. Recent research has linked the rise of industrial mining installations owned by multinational conglomerates to deepening inequality, driven in no small part by those firms’ preference for expatriate workers in higher paid roles. Where Congolese workers are employed, this is often through abusive systems of outsourcing through labour brokers.

Cobalt mining has also been linked to substantial forms of social and ecological degradation in surrounding areas, including significant health risks from breathing dust (not only to miners but also to local communities), ecological disruption and pollution from acid, dust, and tailings, and violent displacement of local communities.

The limited benefits and high costs of the cobalt boom for local people in the Congolese copperbelt, in short, are linked to conditions of widespread dispossession predating the arrival of Chinese firms and are certainly not limited to Chinese firms.

To be clear, none of this is to deny that Chinese firms have been implicated in abuses of labour rights and ecologically destructive practices in the DRC, nor that the Chinese state has clearly made strategic priorities of cobalt mining, refining, and battery manufacturing. It does not excuse the very real abuses linked to Chinese firms that European-owned ones have done many of the same things. Nor does the fact that those Chinese firms are often ultimately vendors to major US and European auto and electronic brands.

However, all of this does suggest that any diagnosis of the developmental ills, violence, ecological damage and labour abuses surrounding cobalt in the DRC that focuses specifically on the character of Chinese firms or on inter-state competition is limited at best. It gets Glencore, Apple, Tesla, and myriad financial speculators, to say nothing of capitalist relations of production generally, off the hook.

If we want to get to grips with the unfolding scramble for cobalt and its consequences for the people in the south-east DRC, we need to keep in view how the present-day scramble reflects wider patterns of uneven development under capitalist relations of production.

We should note that such narratives of a ‘new scramble for Africa’ prompted by a rapacious Chinese appetite for natural resources are not new. As Alison Ayers argued nearly a decade ago of narratives about the role of China in a ‘new scramble for Africa’, a focus on Chinese abuses means that ‘the West’s relations with Africa are construed as essentially beneficent, in contrast to the putatively opportunistic, exploitative and deleterious role of the emerging powers, thereby obfuscating the West’s ongoing neocolonial relationship with Africa’. Likewise, such accounts neglect ‘profound changes in the global political economy within which the “new scramble for Africa” is to be more adequately located’. These interventions are profoundly political, providing important forms of ideological cover for both neoliberal capitalism and for longer-run structures of imperialism.

In short, the barrier to a just transition to sustainable energy sources is not a unitary ‘China’ bent on the domination of emerging industries as a means to global hegemony. It is capitalism. Or, more precisely, it is the fact that responses to the climate crisis have thus far worked through and exacerbated the contradictions of existing imperialism and capitalist relations of production. The scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and one of many signs that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overturning capitalism and imperialism on a global scale.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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