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DIVIDENDS, DEFICITS, AND DEVELOPMENT: Can Kenyan Millennials Ride the Demographic Wave?

Falling fertility and mortality rates have put Kenya in line to reap the same demographic dividend that powered the rise of the Asian Tigers – but only if it gets its social and economic policies right. By PAUL GOLDSMITH

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DIVIDENDS, DEFICITS, AND DEVELOPMENT: Can Kenyan Millennials Ride The Demographic Wave?
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The population surge now taking place across sub-Saharan Africa is this continent’s equivalent of the Western post-war Baby Boom. The congruence with demographic transitions elsewhere suggests that in theory, Africa’s “Baby Boomer” millennials are well positioned to affect a radical transformation. The case for a generational social movement intersects Kenya’s potential for a demographic dividend similar to the one underpinning the rapid rise of the Asian Tigers.

Two thousand years ago, Africans comprised an estimated 12 to 15 per cent of the world’s population. Africa’s share had dropped to 9 per cent by 1500 AD. By the end of the 19th century, the export of African slaves to the Americas and environmental calamities contributed to its decline to 6 per cent. Initial conditions, including the continent’s low population densities, physical and spatial barriers to communication, and historical isolation from other world regions, made it vulnerable to European exploitation.

Africa’s population began catching up during the decades of colonial rule, and spiked after independence. The continent’s share of the world’s population reached 17 per cent in 2017, and Africa is projected to host over a quarter of the world’s people by 2050. Naturally, the exceptionally high growth rates of the past several decades pose some formidable developmental challenges for Kenya and for the many other African nations with similar demographics.

Fewer births each year results in a country’s young dependent population decreasing relative to the working-age population. With fewer people to support, a country has a window of opportunity for rapid economic growth, but only if it gets its social and economic policies right. The decline in fertility, albeit slower than was the case in Asia, should exert a similar effect on African countries.

Kenya’s population has been surging since independence, growing from 8 million in 1960 to 13 million in 1975, and doubling to 26 million in 1995. These numbers confirm the fact that all the generations of Kenyans alive today were “Baby Boomers” when they came of age. The result is a population pyramid that over time has more in common with Mt. Kenya than with Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Since the colonial era, Kenya’s lopsided population distribution, where over 80 per cent of the population is concentrated in the 23 per cent of high potential land, has combined with the threat of environmental degradation to provoke Malthusian predictions of impending calamity. During the 1990s, urbanisation and the numbers of new university graduates entering the economy provoked a new set of concerns.

Kenya’s population has been surging since independence, growing from 8 million in 1960 to 13 million in 1975, and doubling to 26 million in 1995. These numbers confirm the fact that all the generations of Kenyans alive today were “Baby Boomers” when they came of age. The result is a population pyramid that over time has more in common with Mt. Kenya than with Mt. Kilimanjaro.

In 1998, I reviewed an internal US State Department analysis of the problem that outlined three future scenarios for Kenya: economic take-off; collapse; and muddling through. Where the document highlighted the prospects for political instability in the future if the then Moi regime of public mismanagement and political corruption were to persist, I opined that Kenyans were a resilient people who would somehow manage as long as the rains were okay.

This proved to be true. The rise in annual GDP growth during the following years may have partially offset the spreading rot, but the large numbers of educated youth entering the work force exposed the unsatisfactory state of affairs, as the accounts of urban millennials published in The Elephant over the last two months have shown.

Demographic dividends and deficits

Population growth in the form of natural increase and mass migration is one of the primary forces of historical change. However, demographic structure is acknowledged to be the more important indicator for developmental policy. The latest population numbers for Kenya provide the quantitative parameters of the country’s shifting generational balance.

Kenya Population Structure, 2017

Kenya Population Structure, 2017

Source:  CIA World Factbook

The backlash against the elders highlighted in many of the Elephant’s Millennial Edition is tempered by their relative scarcity. The elderly – people over the age of 65 – now comprise only three per cent of Kenya’s 48 million population. The 25-54 age group’s current share of the population is now one-third larger than it was in 1975.

One notices the difference conveyed by these statistics as soon as you step off the plane almost anywhere in the northern hemisphere. America’s retiring Baby Boomers, for example, are 16 per cent of the U.S. population. In South Korea, so often cited to underscore the two countries’ diverging economic pathways over the past several decades, the figure is 13.5 per cent. The world’s estimated average is edging towards 10 per cent and growing; the trend will translate into a global reduction in household savings and returns on financial assets. This will reduce the growth of household wealth from the historical mean of 4.5 per cent to 1.3 per cent over the next two decades, according to research on global demographic trends.

These numbers qualify the demographic dividend David Ndii referred to in his contribution to the discourse. Formally defined, the demographic dividend is the accelerated economic growth assisted by a decline in a country’s mortality and fertility and the shift in the age structure of the population. This dividend can be activated when pro-human capital policies combined with a large working-age population create virtuous cycles of wealth creation.

The dividend accounted for an estimated two-fifths of the Asian economic miracle. Now it may be Africa’s turn. Population numbers are moving in this direction, but there are basic prerequisites that must be in place for it to happen. Flexible labour markets, quality education systems and health services, and outward-looking economic policies are conventional elements of the formula.

Kenya’s formal policy framework meets most of the criteria. Despite the slower than expected fertility rate decline, Kenya’s dependency ratio is hovering between 76 per cent and 80 per cent. This means one working individual currently supports up to four dependents, but the ratio will decline, bringing Kenya in the rank of countries expected to reap the dividend. But there is no guarantee that this will happen, as the dividend is time-bound. The equation has real and potential implications for millennials, especially considering that important economic indicators, such as investments and savings, are trending in the opposite direction.

The demographic surge raises the stakes for getting policy right. In the case of Latin America, weak governments and closed economies saw large areas forfeit their dividend during the years between 1965 and 1985. Comparative analysis indicates the interactive effect of policy and demography accounts for 50 per cent of the growth gap between Latin America and East Asia. The corresponding observations about demographic deficits, or the failure to maintain living standards due to population decline or other systemic inefficiencies, underscore the imperative of getting the long-term policy equation right.

The demographic surge raises the stakes for getting policy right. In the case of Latin America, weak governments and closed economies saw large areas forfeit their dividend during the years between 1965 and 1985.

Japan and Europe are now going through the decline phase of their demographic transition. Socio-economic change diminishing the role of extended families and other social mechanisms exacerbates the problem, requiring that the state enact effective social policies to bridge the gap. Although post-war Japan maximised its dividend, it is still having problems coping with a population that is shrinking and aging at the same time. Despite its sustained economic growth, almost half of South Korea’s citizens aged over 65 now live in relative poverty, defined in this case as earning 50 per cent or less of median household income. High levels of isolation and depression have led to a dramatic rise in suicide among the elderly, from 34 per 100,000 people in 2000 to 72 per 100,000 people in 2010.

The United States, in contrast, has traditionally relied on immigration to maintain its working-age population. This has countered the aging variable while sustaining a major source of socio-economic revitalisation in the form of new blood and cultural diversity. The noise from President Donald Trump and his base conflicts with the fact that the 75 per cent of Americans support immigration, and they report that the diversity of immigrants makes the country a better place. The country has systematically capitalised on this multicultural dividend to rejuvenate the population and refresh its economy throughout its history. Present controversies over uncontrolled immigration and refugee influxes camouflage the fact that Europe has lately been following a similar – though undeclared – policy pathway.

Demographic transitions typically involve a large jump in population followed by a steady decline as investment in fewer children replaces the risk-spreading and agricultural labour function of large families. In Kenya, where the fertility rate remained in the mid-3 per cent range until the last decade, perhaps the prolonged transition to “adulating” lamented in some of the millennials’ accounts may hasten the fertility rate to drop to the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman from the 2.7 of the past decade.

The employment numbers indicate that the process of reaping the dividend here is less linear and subject to the distinctive features of Kenya’s geography and domestic politically economy. The median age in Kenya is now 19, and Kenya’s 39 per cent overall unemployment rate translates into 22 per cent for youth. The numbers for neighbouring countries are much lower: 4.1 per cent for Uganda; 5.2 per cent for Tanzania; and 3.1 per cent for Rwanda. Even Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has a significantly-below-Kenya youth unemployment rate of 13 per cent.

Even though we should not accept all these economic numbers at face value (the less visible parallel economy that doesn’t show up in official statistics is an important source of informal sector livelihoods in Kenya), we may be facing the politically explosive demographic overload scenario that was detailed in the State Department study twenty years ago.

The median age in Kenya is now 19, and Kenya’s 39 per cent overall unemployment rate translates into 22 per cent for youth. The numbers for neighbouring countries are much lower: 4.1 per cent for Uganda; 5.2 per cent for Tanzania; and 3.1 per cent for Rwanda. Even Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has a significantly-below-Kenya youth unemployment rate of 13 per cent.

The demographic dividend has a finite window; it does not occur automatically. Both the policies and their timing are critical, which is why Kenya’s millennials are facing a two-pronged dilemma: unemployment is high yet some 47 per cent of the Kenyans sampled in a 2014 Pew Research Survey reported that aging is a major problem. The figures for populous Nigeria, crowded Egypt, and middle-income South Africa came in at 28 per cent, 23 per cent, and 39 per cent in comparison, respectively.

These factors raise the stakes for Kenya getting things right now. But there is more at the crux of the debate than economic policy and warm bodies. Technological innovation works with population increase to drive human adaptation, and developments are moving rapidly on this front.

The fast-moving advance of the fourth technological revolution suggests that Kenya and its neighbours in Rwanda and Ethiopia have the potential to jump the queue if they position themselves properly for the longer run. Negative implications of artificial intelligence for the future of work should not distract us from the benefits on the horizon. The technology sector and building the industrial Internet may serve the same role that manufacturing did in Asia, although the potential for the same demo-techno double dividend cannot be taken for granted.

Assessments of African economic trends now argue that Africa is not likely to transit through the phase of manufacturing and carbon-driven energy generation that powered the post-World War II rise of East Asia and other world regions. Fourth generation technologies, in contrast, can generate an equivalent rise in prosperity and economic growth. This will come about through their contribution to everyday economic domains like health care, resource management and precision agriculture. Digital platforms are already creating a new small-scale ecosystem for commodity marketing, financial inclusion, and women’s empowerment according to one Kenyan expert.

The potential for tech-driven growth will require more than the tech hubs being established in Africa’s tech-friendly countries. It requires the kind of unorthodox and often irreverent problem-solving mindset that the country’s education system is adept at quashing.

The dynamic relationships linking scientific research, applied technology, and venture capital are critical to contemporary processes of innovation. This requires an enabling cultural environment, as demonstrated by the rise of American tech hotspots in the San Francisco Bay area, North Carolina’s research triangle, and the northeastern corridor. These hotspots were not planned; rather, the presence of top research universities and a culture of critical thinking and entrepreneurial risk-taking enabled their rise to prominence over the past three decades.

Kenya’s economy was building towards a transformational tipping point before events saw the country drift into a nebulous purgatory of ethnic polarities and failed constitutionalism. Now deficit financing of infrastructural projects and massive corruption are continuing to remove from circulation critical resources that could be energising the younger generations’ pent-up human capital.

The future availability of such investment capital cannot be taken for granted. It may decline apace with the industrial world’s demographic deficit over coming decades. Then again, demographic trends and the historian John Illife’s treatise on The Emergence of African Capitalism suggest that the continent just may step into the gap. (This was in 1981.) The importance of this synergetic union of capital and labour happening now extend beyond the African continent due to the significance of Africa’s expanding share of the world’s economically active population for the world economy.

Kenya’s economy was building towards a transformational tipping point before events saw the country drift into a nebulous purgatory of ethnic polarities and failed constitutionalism. Now deficit financing of infrastructural projects and massive corruption are continuing to remove from circulation critical resources that could be energising the younger generations’ pent-up human capital.

Beyond demography and economic policy

The first thing that strikes me when I get off the plane back in Kenya is the high level of activity almost everywhere one looks. The country is bursting with energy, but some of it is misdirected and much of it is generating low per capita returns.

The former World Bank head for Kenya, Apurva Sanghi, attributes the mismatch between job requirements and the shortfall of skilled labour due to the poor quality of education. This mismatch clashes with the millennials’ claims about their high level of education. The dramatic growth in universities in Kenya saw quantity replacing quality and the acquisition of paper qualifications displacing the search for knowledge. The commercialisation of higher education has in effect been another drain on the economy that has deprived a large segment of the millennial generation of the skills commensurate with their degrees and diplomas.

The more one studies the data, the more muddled the already uncertain big picture becomes. Even so, the long-term fundamentals, including the country’s 5 per cent per annum growth rates, are at best just okay.

As the latest World Bank overview for Kenya states, Kenya has the potential to be one of Africa’s success stories. All the country has to do is address “the challenges of poverty, inequality, governance, the skills gap between market requirements and the education curriculum, climate change, low investment and low firm productivity in order to achieve rapid, sustained growth rates that will transform lives of ordinary citizens.”

This is a very tall order and until this happens the country will continue to face the risk of stagnation and a creeping demographic deficit. The clock is ticking. In any event, the country needs more than the population-based dividend to drive its transformation. Assuming that demographic growth and the right policies do account for up to 40 cent of the Asian economic miracle, where did the other 60 per cent come from?

Japan and the Asian Tiger nations achieved their reputation through rapid growth compacted within the space of several decades. The demographic dividend is the central component in the developmental mantra explaining East Asia’s remarkable transition. The dividend was activated by policies that combined agricultural commercialisation, liberalisation and the relaxing of state controls, fostering a combination of domestic industry and export-led growth with favourable international economic conditions.

South Korea, the most popular exemplar for other developing countries, implemented deliberate population policies and pragmatic economic guidelines that helped create an age structure facilitating its rapid transition from an agrarian to an industrial society during the short interval between 1960 and 1990. The mutually reinforcing economic and population policies resulted in a basic shift at the household level, with changes in women’s roles and the rise of a middle class in place of the formerly dominant land-owning aristocracy.

The Asian exemplars counteracted the influence of Malthusian assumptions on post-independence developmental thinking, and now the Chinese model figures prominently in the calculations of many African political decision-makers. The Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) project is emblematic of the focus on large infrastructure projects, natural resource exports, and extractive industries. The proposed Konza Technology City is another worthy but flawed project representative of the central command approach. The coders, investors, nerds, and hackers are not thrilled about moving to a corporate complex in the hinterland in the tradition of sparsely inhabited cityscapes like Brasilia, Morogoro, and China’s Xiongan megacity.

Asia’s big blueprint approaches were consistent with the central planning tradition and Confucian ideologies of social harmony that justified past South Korean and present Chinese and North Korean dictatorships. But there was nothing particularly harmonious about the Asian developmental processes that grew out of the region’s intense internal and territorial struggles, all of which reflected the zero-sum stakes of the era’s ideological conflicts. The triumph of capitalism in that region was anointed with blood, napalm, and genocidal pogroms. The success of the Asian Tigers was the culmination of a long fight that began with imperialism and led to new policies midwifed by fierce competition within old societies sharing similar environmental settings and socio-economic constraints.

Africa’s distinctive features, however, contrast with the conditions underpinning the Asian developmental orthodoxy. In the case of Kenya, competition between communities and opposition to the state prevail whereas in Asia competition and conflict were over ideology and economic models. Growing local opposition to centrally-planned projects in places like Turkana, Isiolo, and Lamu is indicative of the kind of political and social obstacles now complicating the next phase of the proverbial way forward.

Milk, as the pastoralists’ blockade of the road to Lodwar indicates, is still thicker than oil in the Horn of Africa.

It is interesting that the Marxist planners of the superpower era in Eastern Europe saw artificial intelligence as the natural ally of socialist development. AI may still prove to be an antidote to the inequities promoted by neoliberal capitalism. Where Western advisors stressed population control, their socialist counterparts in Africa saw population growth as integral to the continent reclaiming its position on the world stage. The prospects of this happening over the next several decades reminds us that Marx was one of the few analysts to critique the natural laws of Malthus when he postulated that each society at each point in history has its own laws that determine the consequences of population growth.

In traditional African systems, these laws often reflected the dynamics of generational succession. The cultural emphasis on the wisdom of the elders supported their embedded cross-generational influence on decision-making. I witnessed negative examples of this tradition in my children’s schools, where on more than one occasion, I lost arguments with fellow parents over issues like setting up computer labs and Internet connections. Kenya’s fossilised education system is one of the culprits responsible for the under-35ers’ angst, and this is corroborated by another recent essay on the multidimensional crisis plaguing higher education, published in The Elephant.

Has the generational model of African development hit a wall? The unproductive transfer of generational assets that formerly sustained capital formation is undermining productivity in the highland areas that fueled Kenya’s post-independence prosperity. When parents die they bequeath their wealth to their children, and this powered economic growth and diversification in the past. This vector is now turning family farms into dead capital as the owners age and their children working outside the sector block the sale of family land. The widespread leasing of small acreages and the break-up of large farms into parcels for rent is one symptom of a malaise that impacts beyond the agricultural sector.

 

The economic planners that once fostered Kenya’s economic growth have morphed into bureaucrats trapped in the development administration contradiction Bernard Schaffer identified in 1969. Schaffer argued that the first imperative of state administrators is to conserve and protect their bureaucracies while “development” is essentially an entrepreneurial activity. Kenya’s cartels and tenderpreneurs offer proof of the term’s oxymoronic logic.

 

Everywhere the millennials look they see dead ends, or so it seems from the urban point of view. Ndii’s “Hustler Nation essay argues that multiple productivity enhancing interventions in rural areas will generate far more to youth employment and productivity than the mega project revenue vampires they have conjured up. The resources allocated to building a tech city, for example, would be better invested in interdisciplinary IT programmes hosted by universities across the country, and other nodes dedicated to addressing economic activities ripe for innovation.

Everywhere the millennials look they see dead ends, or so it seems from the urban point of view. Ndii’s “Hustler Nation” essay argues that multiple productivity enhancing interventions in rural areas will generate far more to youth employment and productivity than the mega project revenue vampires they have conjured up.

These are the kind of issues that the millennial generation intellectuals and activists would do well to explore and debate. Their future, if not present welfare, will likely depend on developing creative developmental formulae consistent with the region’s historical trajectory and distinctive socio-cultural variation. A shift in this direction is beginning to gather speed on the county level, where the stakeholders are much better situated to generate the adaptive policies needed to maximise the demographic dividend.

In any event, we now know that progress is more a function of trial and error than the strategic planning processes and interventions managed by actors who remain insulated from their failures and unintended consequences. Devolution generates local initiatives, like the Makueni County public health revolution, which can be replicated and tweaked to fit the conditions in other settings.

Considering the obsession with branding of almost every Kenyan enterprise, with its vision and mission statements, more expansive thinking on these issues is one area where The Elephant’s Millennial Edition articles came up short. But they are not, as David Ndii contended, “on their own”. In addition to their rural age-mates, there is a growing transnational movement out there that is beginning to coalesce into a mass generational movement.

I hope it happens. Africa does need to regain its rightful place in the world, and someone needs to rescue the species from the Trumpian values of late capitalism.

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Mr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Politics

Fire and Chaos: Mathare’s Chang’aa Problem and the Optics of Policing

In the 1980s and 1990s parts of Mathare gradually became the epicenter of the large scale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa and a booming local economy emerged that has since become a major source of contestation between the police and the residents.

Fire and Chaos: Mathare’s Chang’aa Problem and the Optics of Policing
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On Tuesday 2 April 2019, social workers, youth group members, activists and friends, all residents of Mathare in Nairobi, hurdled together on the top floor of the Macharia building near the Olympic petrol station at Juja road as they watched in horror, as two schools were set alight by police. Thick, black smoke circled up and soon blanketed the entire valley. Alongside the two schools, another thirty or so houses quickly burned down to ashes in the raging fire. People raced to quell the fire with buckets of water, but were blocked by police in their tracks. Furious shouts filled the air as licking flames destroyed what residents had built over decades; businesses, schools and homes, all gone in minutes.

This criminal act of arson by police of a part of a Nairobi neighborhood took place on the third day of a raid against the local alcohol economy, spearheaded by the notorious ‘killer cop’ Rashid. This police officer gained notoriety after being filmed executing two teenagers on a busy street in Eastleigh in broad daylight on 31 March 2017. Ironically, the raid against the local alcohol economy in Mathare under his command started exactly two years later, on Sunday 31 March 2019. In between, Rashid has killed, maimed and harassed many people, especially young and poor men, in Mathare and beyond, and with absolute impunity.

Subsequently, Rashid was free to walk into Mathare on the aforementioned Sunday while guiding a troop of police officers down the valley where they barged into homes and bars to destroy alcohol and other belongings of local business owners and their employees. Shockingly, the Pangani OCS (Officer Commanding Police Station) and the Area Chief both claimed to ‘have had nothing to do with the raid’, despite eyewitnesses who stated that regular police and AP officers and equipment (such as a well-known land rover used by AP) were employed during the raid. Residents wondered how a full-blown war be waged on residents for days by police without the police officers in charge ‘having nothing to do with it’?

As early as 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa

That first Sunday night of fear chaos and gunshots transpired without dead bodies, but many had lost weeks of work and earnings, and others nursed bruises and deep cuts from trying to defend homes and properties from the pillaging police. One of us found his grandmother crying on Monday morning; a woman who has distilled and sold alcohol for more than four decades and has raised her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren while doing so. The police had poured her kangara, the distilling mixture, which had been almost ready for cooking. She lost 4000 shillings, her monthly earnings, and was left in deep debt. Thousands of small business owners and their employees and tens of thousands of their dependents suffered the same fate. On Monday, all the jiko’s (‘kitchens’) near the river remained closed; no one could work while the police patrolled in search of alcohol and production tools to destroy. This went on for yet another day and night, until on Tuesday tensions between angry residents and police culminated into protests by alcohol distillers.

History of the local alcohol economy

To understand the impact of this crackdown on people living and working in Mathare, a brief insight into the history of the alcohol economy is crucial. As early as 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa. This area was wedged in by several military and police bases, and the influx of soldiers during the war period (1940-45) attracted a growing number of women in search of work. These women were among the many young people who were forced to leave their homesteads in the colonial confinements of people called ‘Native Reserves’ in the rural areas following soil erosion, population pressures and the demand for ‘hut tax’ (which had to be paid in cash to the colonial government). Even if women comprised the majority of residents in Mathare from the onset, men increasingly migrated to live here—often after being chased from colonial settler farms when mechanization of farm work took hold during the late 1930s. Following these and other developments, Mathare became the nexus of urban resistance against the colonial government and formed an important node in the Kenya Land and Freedom Armies (KLFAs)—also known as ‘Mau Mau’.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that parts of Mathare (especially the following villages: Bondeni, Shantit and Mabatani) gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa. According to several bar owners we spoke with, the influx of rural-urban migrants during this period boosted the selling of chang’aa to unprecedented levels. Also, they soon found that the profit margins for chang’aa were much higher than for instance busaa, and soon multiple cooking sites emerged along the banks of the Mathare river. Profit margins have fallen significantly since the 1990s, following a convergence of rising food prices (especially a type of molasses called ngutu) and increasing demands for police bribes since the 2000s. Still, the local alcohol economy sustains thousands of people in Mathare directly and is fundamental to most other economic activities located here.

For example, a major shortage of firewood often plagues adjacent neighborhoods, but every other small business on Mau Mau Avenue in Bondeni, a neighborhood in Mathare, sells large quantities of this wood. These firewood sellers have arrangements with construction companies for frequent early morning deliveries. Old wood from scaffolding at construction sites is transported to the area in trucks so large they can barely enter the ghetto. Every day, these trucks drop off mountains of firewood intended to fuel the widespread and constant distillation of alcohol at the sites near the river. At the same time, young men in search of work hang around these businesses from sunrise to midday to help offload the bulks of firewood and chop them into smaller pieces in return for a small stipend. Suffice to say that thousands more depend indirectly on the alcohol economy in Mathare. All this provides some insight into the abrupt devastation to the livelihoods of thousands and thousands of people caused by frequent crackdowns on the local alcohol economy by police.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that parts of Mathare (especially the following villages: Bondeni, Shantit and Mabatani) gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa

After days without work and consequently food, alcohol distillers took to Juja road on Tuesday morning, 2 April 2019, to protest the illegal and violent raid by police. The few media outlets describing the protests squarely blamed ‘angry youth’ for starting the fire. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have spoken to many eyewitnesses who saw police officers deliberately setting the houses and schools alight. The so called ‘angry youth’ were alcohol distillers who had not earned a living for three days. These (mostly) men who make on a good day, Kshs 300 for 10 hours of backbreaking work, barely enough to provide for a family of four. These families do not have any savings to rely on when work is disrupted by state violence, and the illegal raid by police had left hundreds of families hungry for days. This provoked husbands, fathers and brothers to take to street and fight for their families, and they burned tires on the road to underscore their demand to work by blocking traffic.

As has been witnessed by several people, during the ensuing fracas one officer carelessly threw one of the burning tires into a row of make-shift houses and carpentry workshops along Juja road, all constructed of highly flammable materials. Other eyewitnesses saw police officers violently dispersed people trying to stop the fire from reaching the labyrinth of homes, businesses and schools down the street leading into Mabatini, thus effectively enabling the fire to destroy several houses and properties. Teargas was lobbed at the crowds of people who had gathered with buckets of water trying to rescue their homes and belongings. The teargas canisters further ignited the fire as residents watched their schools and homes burn to the ground.

The current modes of chang’aa production in Mathare may occur without a license and may not adhere to regulations, but that does not warrant such a violent and criminal crackdown by police

Distraught, many slept outdoors in the cold on Tuesday night. The fire also destroyed the electricity supply line and the ensuing blackout increased insecurity. One resident recounted that, “For nights, gun shots have become our ringtone.” Another lamented, “We live in a war(zone), but nobody cares.” As Mathare endured this terror for three days and nights, residents watched in disbelief as the evening news headlines either ignored their plight and the criminal acts by police or apportioned the blame decidedly on them using the pejorative ‘angry youth’ frame. Mathare residents were profiled as criminals and the local alcohol economy as illicit and dangerous. Indeed, misconceptions about Mathare and local industries persist. For example, chang’aa was legalized in September 2010 and is not an ‘illicit brew’. The current modes of chang’aa production in Mathare may occur without a license and may not adhere to regulations, but that does not warrant such a violent and criminal crackdown by police. If the production is not up to standard, why not encourage or enable owners, distillers and sellers to obtain licenses and invest in improved production? The answer is simple: too many people high-up in police and government ‘eat’ from the industry as it is.

The Culture of Policing In Mathare

Everyone living and working in Mathare is familiar with the daily routine of police visiting the distilling sites and bars where alcohol is produced and sold to solicit bribes. For each drum of kangara, the police receive at least 200 KES. Let us assume that there are seven distilling sites (we don’t disclose any specific details for security reasons) which have the capacity to process seven drums simultaneously, meaning there are 7 fires operative at each site at all times. Each drum takes three rounds to cook and each round takes 1 hour (45 minutes to distill and 15 minutes to cool). So seven sites and seven fires operating for 24 hours can process 392 drums of distilling mixture per day. For each drum, police receive Kshs 200 and the figure adds up to an average of kshs 70 000 per day and in excess of Kshs 2 million per month. This is a conservative estimate since it does not include the bribes police take from bars and alcohol distributors, and it does not include police officers who run their own alcohol operations. And the number of drums along the riverside also vary immensely. Sometimes, a jiko can have 15 or 20 fires operating at once, while at other times only three or four. The above calculations, though based on thorough research, only serve to give an indication of police involvement and investment in the alcohol industry in Mathare. Considering this, why then does the police initiate a raid to clamp down on the very industry that ‘feeds’ them?

A first part of the answer pertains to internal divisions within police. Police does not entail a homogenous entity, and rumors have it that Rashid and his team were eventually stopped by other police officers in the course of the week because they saw their avenues to ‘easy money’ destroyed. That, at least to some measure, explains why on Thursday the raid was abruptly halted. What’s more, crackdowns on the alcohol economy are not uncommon, despite the entanglement of police in this business. In July 2015, Mathare residents lived through a similar period of police terror which left two people dead and thousands people without work for weeks. Many believe that such attacks are often triggered by a desire of particular police units or individual officers to show, as one resident put it to us, “the ‘higher ups’ that they are doing their ‘job’ and/or deserve promotion”. This time too, many residents believe the notorious Rashid went out of his way to impress in the incoming Inspector General Mutyambai. A resident shared with us that in his view Rashid demonstrated his exceptional cruelty during the course of the raid by forcing a customer of a local bar to drink bleach while he compared bleach to chang’aa. The young punter barely survived this ordeal.

The police officer mentioned here is not the only one. Similar notorious policemen who are known to execute and torture mainly young and poor men frequently patrol most informal urban settlements in Nairobi. According to several of our fellow activists, these plain cloth police officers, called ‘killer cops’ or maspiff by some, are not part of regular police units that are locally known to be connected to specific police stations and which patrol Mathare and surrounding neighborhoods on a daily basis. They told us that these police officers operate under the direct command of the County Criminal Investigations Officer (CCIO). Several (non-state) security groups in Mathare that work together with these police officers revealed to us that several of them also enjoy substantial support by influential business owners, for instance in Eastleigh. The exact operational and support structures of these ‘killer cops’ and how they collaborate with regular police units remain somewhat opaque to local activists and residents, but all agreed that these plain cloth police officers enjoy considerable power and are able to kill with impunity through their powerful back-up.

When considering the relative opacity of their operations, the public visibility of these police officers in Mathare (and other urban settlements) is indeed rather astounding. They are also not a recent phenomenon. Most Mathare residents above 25 years old can easily recall the cruel reign of different ‘killer cops’ as far back as the late 1990s, such as the ruthless Habel Mwareria a.k.a. ‘Tyson’ in early 2000s who was also popularly dubbed ‘the Ghost’ because he often seemed to materialize out of thin air when- and wherever problems occurred. He killed suspects without asking questions, in front of people and in broad daylight and would vanish as rapidly as he had appeared. He was later promoted to the ATPU ( Anti Terrorism Police Unit).

Nevertheless, the ‘killer cops’ gained new strength in popular discourse when in April and May 2017 alleged police officers calling themselves ‘Hessy’ became rapidly infamous by posting pictures on different Facebook pages, under this name, of suspected ‘thugs’ before and after they purportedly shot them. Speculations continue to the date about who or what ‘Hessy’ really is. Some people claim it started with an actual police officer who was shot in the leg and while he was recovering home in the month of April 2017 he started this network of ‘Hessy’s’ on Facebook. This is substantiated to some extent by the fact that there is an infamous police officer who is nicknamed Hessy and who is known to kill mostly young male crime suspects in Kayole. Others say that one officer or a group of police officers from different police stations in Eastlands chose this name because of the reputation of this particular police officer. Others state that the different ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages on Facebook were not created by one or more police officers, but by a team of bloggers working in collaboration with specific ‘killer cops’. The ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages (such as Nairobi Crime Free and Dandora Crime Free) soon gained a massive following online and continue to be a topic of intense debate offline, for instance among residents in Mathare.

Local Dynamics and the Future of Chang’aa

Police violence in Mathare, such as extra-judicial killings and illegal raids on people’s livelihoods, are enabled by a combination of factors. In contrast to the knee-jerk homogenization and criminalization of ghetto residents, for instance in mainstream media in Kenya, people inside Mathare are equally divided about the use of (criminal) violence by police. Police use such local divisions inside this neighborhood to push their own agenda. For instance, they work together with residents, popularly dubbed informers or watihaji, who are paid by police for information on people, business activities and other developments locally. This explains how police were able to find the entrance to the jiko’s at the river or the places where bars are located.

However, the incentives of informers to tell on their neighbors often go beyond merely monetary motivations or concerns about crime. Local competition or revenge plays a big role as well. Police also depend too much on such secondary and often faulty intelligence because the local turnover of police, following frequent transfers, is quite high thus limiting the time police have to understand local dynamics. As a result, local informer-networks have some power to manipulate police behavior towards their own agendas. To illustrate, sometimes ‘killer cops’ like Rashid parade a suspect throughout Mathare and when they receive calls from as little as three informers confirming the identity of the suspect, the suspect is taken to a backstreet and executed. Our fellow activists have documented several cases that follow this pattern.

Crackdowns briefly slow production but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depend on this economy bear the brunt for the simple reality that they cannot afford to miss a day of work.

The recent raid in Mathare on the local alcohol economy stopped as suddenly as it had started and without any outcome other than destroyed livelihoods, schools and homes and injured people. Slowly, alcohol distillers went back to work on Friday and gradually the local economy picked up again. Such crackdowns have never stopped the local alcohol industry and never will. If the government wants to make the local alcohol industry safer and bring it in line with regulations, it needs to work together with business owners and their employees to develop ways to improve production standards. If alcohol consumption is the problem, why not invest in rehabilitation programs and explore underlying factors that contribute to widespread cheap alcohol consumption, such as vast unemployment and extreme stress? If the government wants people to stop working in this industry all together why not develop alternatives together with them?

Crackdowns briefly slow production but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depend on this economy bear the brunt for the simple reality that they cannot afford to miss a day of work.

On Thursday 4 April 2019, one resident asked us: “Who is Rashid? How can he do all this, kill our young men for years, then come to destroy our work, huh? Who is he?”

“Why are there no people coming from Red Cross, or our government leaders, like when Dusit happens or Westgate? Are we not human beings?”

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Liberty for Whom? D-Day’s African Ghosts

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

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Three-quarters of a century ago, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in what was the start of a war to save Western Europe from Nazi occupation. American and European leaders gathered at the scene last week to memorialise and honour those who fell, including on the German side. The US President, Donald Trump, began his tribute to them thus: “On this day 75 years ago, 10,000 men shed their blood and thousands sacrificed their lives for their brothers, for their countries, and for the survival of liberty.”

Undoubtedly, much of that is true. From the perspective of those in occupied Europe, it was the beginning of their liberation and the defeat of fascist tyranny. It would inaugurate, for many, an era of democratic freedom and economic prosperity that was at the time unparalleled in history.

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

President Trump went on to state that “the GIs who boarded the landing craft that morning knew that they carried on their shoulders not just the pack of a soldier but the fate of the world.” This may be true, but the world is not just Western Europe; from the perspective of those on the African continent, the GIs were not there to shore up liberty and democracy, but rather to free countries that were themselves engaged in colonial plunder and occupation.

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

But there was little that was “good” about what these same countries were doing and would continue to do to the people in Africa whose land and resources they were continuing to steal and whose people they not only oppressed but also press-ganged into their wars. More than a million Africans fought in World War II – hundreds of thousands of them were sent to the front in Europe, others to India, Burma and the Pacific islands. Few understood why they were fighting, let alone why they volunteered to do it. Many died and survivors today receive nothing of the recognition and adulation bestowed on their European and American counterparts.

Now it is probably true that a world governed by the Nazis would have been much worse for Africans than the present one, so in that sense their defeat was good for the continent. But in that case, it could also be argued that the two World Wars, which exhausted the European powers and shattered the myth of white invincibility for the returning African veterans, were also good in that they paved the way for the end of colonialism. In either case, the uncontested fact would be that these were not wars to free all people but rather to determine who would be their overlords – despite the rhetoric, they were fought less for global liberation than for global domination.

David Frum, in his brilliant piece for The Atlantic, “The Ghosts of D-Day”, notes how the memory of D-Day and the liberation of Europe have been distorted in French and American imaginations. In truth, it is not just American memories that have “become more triumphalist and self-aggrandizing”. The memorials at Normandy are not so much about remembering history but rather spinning it. And within that spin, the tale of the Africans has no place – it muddies the moral waters to admit that the liberation the Allies sought did not include that of the black and brown peoples they were oppressing; that those on this continent had, and to a large extent still have, little share in the freedom that was heralded on that day.

However, what is today undeniable is that the Allies were guilty of committing, and would go on to commit, many of the same crimes that qualified the Nazis as evil – from implementing a racist occupation, to genocides, to interring entire communities in concentration camps, to jailing homosexuals, to looting cultural artefacts and art.

For Africans, the irony is that the tools for making concrete the memory of what the European nations were actually doing – the records and documents that tell the story of the occupation and the crimes that were committed against Africans – are, for the most part, either deliberately destroyed or safely hidden away in European vaults. Many were stolen at the end of the colonial occupation in an effort to maintain the fiction of its benevolence.

However, what is today undeniable is that the Allies were guilty of committing, and would go on to commit, many of the same crimes that qualified the Nazis as evil – from implementing a racist occupation, to genocides, to interring entire communities in concentration camps, to jailing homosexuals, to looting cultural artefacts and art. Yet, unlike the Germans, who have owned up to “the unforgettable rupture of civilization that [they] provoked in Europe” and to the fact that “the fallen German soldiers are resting in foreign soil not because they came as liberators to this country but as occupiers”, there has been no such admission from the Europeans with regard to their occupation of Africa. Today, they still repeat the lie that colonialism was about bringing civilization and the benefits of modernity to the primitive peoples of the continent rather than implementing a system of extraction that continues to bleed the continent to this very day.

In 2017, Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University, published the article, “The Case for Colonialism” (withdrawn after a public uproar and death threats), in which he argued that Western colonialism was both “objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate”. He further advocated for “colonial modes of governance; by recolonizing some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch”. While much of this has been debunked, he is hardly the only one to go public with such views. In the same year, the former leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, was removed from her leadership roles after she put out a series of tweets touting the benefits of colonialism.

Rather than the selective and hagiographic portrayals we are treated to today, a better memorial for D-Day would be to return the colonial archives and to acknowledge the truth – the whole, unvarnished truth – about what was being defended on that day. For it surely was not the ideal of liberty for all. Importantly, this would include an acknowledgement and compensation for the Africans who were forced to fight and die in the wars that were not of their making.

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Another False Messiah: The Rise and Rise of Fin-tech in Africa

The rise of a global technology industry to support financial services, known as fin-tech, has grown enormously in Africa in the last decade. Across the continent, many commentators have proclaimed fin-tech as the solution to poverty and development. Examining the case of Kenya’s celebrated fin-tech model, M-Pesa, Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack and Nicholas Loubere reveal a flawed system that is not an answer to poverty, despite the wild claims of some academic commentators. Quite the contrary, fin-tech offers Africa a further case study of how contemporary capitalism continues to under-develop Africa.

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Another False Messiah: The Rise and Rise of Fin-tech in Africa
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In both the global investment community and the international development community one of the most talked-about issues today is fin-tech (financial technology). Defined as ‘computer programs and other technology used to support or enable banking and financial services’, the last decade or so has seen the rise of a new global fin-tech industry, a development that is widely regarded to be positively changing the world in a variety of ways. Thanks to almost daily reports of major new investments, especially in Africa, many investment professionals are of the opinion that something akin to a new ‘gold rush’ is clearly underway. At the same time, the fin-tech model is also touted as an innovation that will greatly benefit the global poor, with enthusiastic supporters claiming that a new golden age of ‘inclusive capitalism’ is upon us.

By far the most well-known example of the fin-tech model to date is Kenya’s M-Pesa – the agent-assisted, mobile-phone-based, person-to-person payment and money transfer system. M-Pesa is widely seen as the first fin-tech institution to conclusively demonstrate that it is possible to make a profit while also very meaningfully improving the lives of the poor. Taking inspiration from M-Pesa, many in the international development community now regard the fin-tech model as a potentially game-changing private sector-funded driver of development and poverty reduction in the Global South.

In both the global investment community and the international development community one of the most talked-about issues today is fin-tech (financial technology)

In the academic community the apparent combination of poverty reduction with profit generation proved to be a very seductive pro-capitalist narrative that many mainstream economists were only too willing to engage with. The most well-known academic economists examining the impact of M-Pesa are Tavneet Suri, based at MIT, and William Jack, based at Georgetown University. With extensive funding from Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) Kenya and the Gates Foundation, since 2010 Suri and Jack have produced a series of outputs extolling the benefits of M-Pesa. Suri and Jack’s generally positive findings have resulted in mainstream media attention and large numbers of citations. This has played an important part in galvanising the international development community into supporting the fin-tech model as a development and poverty reduction intervention.

In particular, their 2016 article published in the prestigious journal Science, entitled ‘The Long-run Poverty and Gender Impacts of Mobile Money’ has played a considerable role in sparking the imagination of the international development community. This is mainly because of its sensational claim that ‘access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty.’ According to this article, M-Pesa was not just making profits, but the evidence seemed to show it was also making an astonishing ‘bottom-up’ development and poverty reduction contribution. This poverty reduction claim, often cited in full in media articles, quickly became the centrepiece of the evidence used by many in the international development community to justify its increasingly strong support for, and investment in, the fin-tech model.

M-Pesa is widely seen as the first fin-tech institution to conclusively demonstrate that it is possible to make a profit while also very meaningfully improving the lives of the poor.

Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold. As we write in a Briefing just published in the ROAPE Suri and Jack’s hugely influential signature article actually contains a surprising number of errors, omissions, poor logic, and methodological flaws. Crucial labour market evaluation parameters, such as business failure (exit) and the impact of new businesses on existing ones (displacement), were entirely over-looked. The core issue of individual over-indebtedness, which in Kenya is now approaching crisis levels and which has a clear and direct link to the operation of M-Pesa, was not even mentioned as a possible downside of the fin-tech development model. For such an important and well-financed project, the methodology was also weak, diverging from many of the standard ‘best practices’ in the impact evaluation field. The important issue of causation was also raised, but in a way that we found to be questionable at best. In many ways, therefore, Suri and Jack’s analysis appears to misrepresent and vastly over-state the development impact of M-Pesa. 

Fin-tech represents a new form of resource extractivism

One of the most disturbing aspects of Suri and Jack’s flawed analysis, however, is that they completely bypass the crucial equity and distributional issues that arise from the operation of M-Pesa and other similar fin-tech corporations. This is inexcusable because there are clear warning signs today that the fin-tech model possesses the potential to extract immense value from the poorest communities in the Global South, with potentially calamitous long-term consequences. Like the gambling, sub-prime mortgage and payday loan industries in the United States and UK that before and after the financial crisis of 2008 were able to grow rich by expertly extracting massive amounts of value from the communities of the poor, one might argue that Kenya’s poorest communities are also being drained of much of their needed collective wealth.

M-Pesa has essentially perfected a form of ‘digital mining’ that captures and extracts a small tribute from each and every one of the growing number of tiny financial transactions made by the poor through the platform (which has become ubiquitous and very difficult to avoid). This includes microloans, money transfers, grant disbursement, credit card usage, pension payments, and so on. One simply cannot escape from the fin-tech ‘net’ that is gradually being lowered on to the poor. As more and more governments and elites are brought in as allies by the fin-tech industry, this value extraction process is only likely to speed up and intensify, with cash transactions being increasingly jettisoned and ever more transactions being mediated by fin-tech organisations.

M-Pesa has essentially perfected a form of ‘digital mining’ that captures and extracts a small tribute from each and every one of the growing number of tiny financial transactions made by the poor through the platform

By the same token, given the profit motive at play, it is inevitable that a range of services and products will end up being pushed on to the poor even though they largely do not need them, are not able to productively use them, or do not have any means to repay debt associated with them. The value realised through such ‘digital mining’ techniques is then extracted from the local community and deposited into the hands of the fin-tech entity’s owner(s). However, with so many fin-tech entities backed by foreign capital from the Global North, the chances are that a large proportion of this ‘digitally mined’ value will head abroad to the world’s leading investment locations.

What we have here, therefore, is a value extraction process that contains the potential to progressively undermine the development process in local communities in the Global South. It does this in two important ways: first, it denies the local community an extremely valuable aggregate amount of local spending power, which is instead appropriated by wealthy individuals and institutions, many of which are located abroad. This renders an important endogenous growth trajectory inactive, since it is rising local demand that often provides the initial impetus for local enterprises to emerge in order to meet this demand. Second, fin-tech institutions also starve the local (re)investment cycle by siphoning value out of the community, and thus make it more difficult for local businesses to access the meaningful amounts of capital needed to establish sustainable commercial operations. Experiences in Asia with local banking from 1945 onwards, for example, show that reinvesting/recycling the bulk of locally-generated value back into the local economy has significant potential to kick-start economic growth.

Fin-tech could, therefore, be seen as a revised version of the natural resource extraction paradigm that was largely responsible for under-developing Africa and other colonised countries over the last four centuries. The ‘resource’ increasingly being extracted from Africa today might no longer be a physical one – such as diamonds, gold, platinum, or silver -and the process might not require slavery, the employment of ultra-exploitative waged labour, or involve horrendous working conditions, but the eventual negative outcomes of ‘digital mining’ could very well be the extension and continuation of under-development.

M-Pesa thus provides us with a valuable case study of how contemporary platform capitalism operates in neoliberal Africa and how ‘digital mining’ might actually affect Kenya’s potential growth and development. In recent years, Safaricom (M-Pesa’s parent company) has become far and away Kenya’s largest company, now accounting for a massive 40% of the total stock market valuation on the Nairobi securities exchange. Safaricom is also famous for its spectacular profits. In 2019 it set a record by registering profits of around US$620 million, which would be an impressive result in even the richest countries of the Global North. To put this into perspective, this figure is slightly more than the Kenyan government spends on the entire healthcare system in the country. However, along with an additional bonus paid out in 2019 to shareholders amounting to around US$240 million, a large percentage of this US$620 million in profit was paid out as dividends to foreign shareholders. The main beneficiary was the majority shareholder (at 40%) of Safaricom, the UK multinational corporation Vodafone. Other beneficiaries are a variety of mainly foreign investors located in ‘tax-efficient’ locations (the Caribbean mainly) and who hold a 25% stake. The Kenyan government also holds a further 35% stake in Safaricom.

Fin-tech could, therefore, be seen as a revised version of the natural resource extraction paradigm that was largely responsible for under-developing Africa and other colonised countries over the last four centuries.

This demonstrates that significant value is being created by M-Pesa based on the tiny transactions of the poor, but most of it is spirited abroad via dividend payments to foreign shareholders. This helps explain why M-Pesa has become a beacon for global investors and financial institutions all seeking their own spectacular fortunes in Africa while framing their thirst for profits as altruism. Indeed, by embedding the fin-tech model in Kenya, the international development community is complicit in the establishment of a high-tech extractivist infrastructure similar to colonial-era equivalents.

‘Digital mining’ in Kenya and the foreign appropriation of the wealth generated by those languishing at the bottom of the pyramid is a less directly brutal undertaking than the value extraction process carried out in colonial times.  However, the extractivist logic, the wealth transfer, and the determination to accumulate on the back of the poor have a similar character to colonial-era economic regimes, and similar potential to seriously damage socioeconomic development in the long-term.

Furthermore, as in colonial times, a local elite has been allowed significant freedom to manage this ‘digital mining’ on behalf of the foreign owners. As with Capitec Bank in South Africa, it is no secret that the CEO and senior management at Safaricom have been able to use the company as a vehicle through which to extract fantastic rewards for themselves, enjoying Wall Street-style levels of remuneration in recent years and with several becoming multi-millionaires as a result. However, this also provides the obvious incentive to grow Safaricom as fast as possible because in that way the personal rewards attributable to those at the top are maximised. As a result, Safaricom’s CEO and other senior management have pushed growth to the limits and are now encountering problems in several areas on account of reckless over-expansion, including with regard to the company’s wilful engagement with gambling. In addition, in the early stages of M-Pesa’s growth, certain still unidentified members of the local Kenyan elite were able to secure for themselves a sizeable shareholding in Safaricom, which they later sold off for massive capital gains. Pointedly, the impact on inequality in Kenya arising from these narrow elite enrichment mechanisms has been very significant.

Despite the benefit that some individuals in poverty undoubtedly enjoy as a result of M-Pesa’s services, universal financial inclusion has come at a very high longer-term price for Kenya’s poor overall.

In short, an effective value extraction process involving ‘digital mining’ has been established in Kenya, which has been misleadingly framed by many in the international development community as contributing to ‘bottom-up’ development. This process has ensured the stratospheric enrichment of a narrow group of foreign investors, Safaricom’s own senior managers, and a section of the Kenyan elite. However, this value has effectively been appropriated from M-Pesa’s overwhelmingly poor clients via their growing bundle of tiny fin-tech-mediated financial transactions.

Despite the benefit that some individuals in poverty undoubtedly enjoy as a result of M-Pesa’s services, universal financial inclusion has come at a very high longer-term price for Kenya’s poor overall. Safaricom appears to have become a classic example of the ‘cathedral in the desert’ syndrome – a vastly profitable entity that exists only by ignoring the impoverishment it is helping to create in its wake. As fin-tech spreads across Africa, it is likely we will see similar deleterious extractionist scenarios emerging.

Might we not then consider M-Pesa to be the canary in the coalmine?

Parallels with the failed microfinance revolution?

Our analysis of Suri and Jack’s hugely influential 2016 article shows that it simply does not stand up to scrutiny. One might conjecture that this has something to do with the fact that much of the funding for their work over the past decade has come from FSD Kenya and the Gates Foundation, two of the world’s leading advocates for the fin-tech model.

In this context, it is interesting to recall how the now largely discredited microfinance movement got a game-changing boost back in the 1990s thanks to a study by two high-profile World Bank economists – Mark Pitt and Shahidur Khandker – claiming that microfinance in Bangladesh was generating major poverty reduction benefits for women Pitt and Khandker’s work was much later shown to contain many serious errors and its conclusions were unsound. Nevertheless, Pitt and Khandker’s work more than served its immediate purpose, which was to galvanise support within and around the international development community for an intervention that the World Bank desperately wanted to see go forward on ideological grounds. We might therefore pose the obvious question here with regard to the misrepresentation of M-Pesa’s impact: are Suri and Jack the new Pitt and Khandker?

 

Editors Note: This article was first posted in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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