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OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Why the High Grand Falls Dam project is a bad idea

In this second part of a three-part series, PAUL GOLDSMITH explains why, instead of being a solution to the problem of food insecurity, big dam projects and large-scale irrigation schemes in Kenya end up causing more problems than they solve due to a combination of mismanagement, corruption and a top-down approach that fails to take into consideration the environment and the livelihoods of local populations.

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OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy
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The various feasibility studies and state policy documents supporting the revival of the High Grand Falls Dam project on the Tana River conform to what economists refer to as path dependency – or how a set of decisions for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions made in the past, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant.

The QWERTY keyboard is the classic example of this pathway effect. It was designed to prevent typewriter keys from striking each other and sticking. A clever solution at the time, the un-ergonomic keyboard survives as the default for our computers and phone keypads decades after the demise of the typewriter because changing it would create greater problems.

Conceptually, path dependence interfaces with other properties of systems such as convergence, probabilities, and the jargonistic but useful property termed ergodicity. Economists define ergodicity as the ability to eventually shake free from the influence of a past state. Non-ergodic practices, in contrast, risk the problem of becoming locked in, as demonstrated by the rapid fall of Nokia when it dismissed touchscreens as a “gimmick” and lost out on the growing smartphone market.

The path dependency Illuminated by this particular case highlights a wide set of institutional practices and incentives that contribute to many of Kenya’s latest large infrastructure projects. The empirical evidence demonstrating that large infrastructure projects do not benefit the poor is not a concern in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big 4 policy environment. Rather, it’s a case of “the bigger the better” when it comes to Kenya’s administrative gatekeepers, tenderpreneurs, and decision makers. Endemic corruption and the ballooning national debt are consequences of this non-ergodic mindset.

Feasibility studies and invisible stakeholders

The upper Tana became the main provider of Kenya’s electricity after independence, a role that began with the construction of Sagana in 1956 and expanded by the commissioning of the Kindaruma (1968), Kamburu (1974), Masinga (1981), Kiambere (1988), and completion of the original Gitaru (1999) dams. None of these projects generated significant controversy at the time. Adding another electricity-generating station to the chain would appear to be a straightforward proposition, but it is not.

The 2016 Environmental and Social Impact Assessment of the High Grand Falls Dam project commissioned by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) confirms that the majority of people that will be negatively affected by the project live in areas historically neglected by the government. The report’s two-page summary of the project area’s socio-economic characteristics observes that the corresponding “low level engagement has left the communities to develop at their own pace. Some of the communities in the region are very conservative and continue with retrogressive practices that are inimical to development”.

The upper Tana became the main provider of Kenya’s electricity after independence, a role that began with the construction of Sagana in 1956 and expanded by the commissioning of the Kindaruma (1968), Kamburu (1974), Masinga (1981), Kiambere (1988), and completion of the original Gitaru (1999) dams. None of these projects generated significant controversy at the time. Adding another electricity-generating station to the chain would appear to be a straightforward proposition, but it is not.

The assessment document is rich in technical details but bypasses critical socio-economic and cultural issues. For the inhabitants of Kenya’s remote margins, it is the latest example of the dirigisme underpinning Kenya’s post-independence tradition of social exclusion.

Whether by design or omission, the negation of local histories and indigenous knowledge traditions effectively functions to render excluded minority communities invisible when it comes to development planning. Once an area is targeted for an external investment or development project, the commissioning of the feasibility study reinforces the established trajectory without exploring the negative social implications of the environmental impacts and other related factors.

The various feasibility studies commissioned in support of the Magogoni port and the Lamu Port South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor, the Roola Project Memorandum of Understanding with Kuwait that preceded it, and the study supporting the allocation of the Tana Delta land for sugar production all conformed to this model. The original Mutonga-Grand Falls feasibility study, to its credit, documented the negative environmental impacts downstream, but otherwise skirted the social and economic consequences for the local stakeholders.

OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy

Read also: OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy

There is much to be said for sticking to what works, but the opposite principle applies in the case of the government’s Expanded National Irrigation Programme (ENIP) goal of expanding the 165,833 hectares under irrigation in 2011 to 1.2 million hectares by the year 2030. Most of the land to be developed in order to meet this 600 per cent increase is located in the country’s Arid and Semi Arid Lands (ASAL) zones. The performance of Kenya’s large irrigation projects has not been impressive and several of them are very expensive white elephants.

The ENIP contribution to the proposed strategy is based on an in-depth study of the water resources available in the Tana and Athi river basins. A Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) overview of the strategy outlines the formidable technical challenges involved, such as the high level of water losses due to evapotranspiration in the reservoirs and in the channels proposed to convey water to other sites. Kenya currently uses over 69 per cent of its limited developed water resources on irrigation. The share of Kenya’s water diverted to irrigation will rise to 89 per cent with implementation of the ENIP-driven food security strategy, which does not factor in growing industrial and urban demand.

The High Grand Falls Dam project is the main engine of this plan that, among other things, aims to redirect water to the Galana River to ensure sufficient water for the dysfunctional Galana-Kulalu scheme that is scheduled to eventually cover a colossal 1.7 million acres. The NEMA assessment document also mentions the construction of another channel transferring water to the Waso Nyiro, but does not explain why.

The water problem is emblematic of the formidable challenges facing society across system scales. The high stakes posed by the global population-natural resource equation explain why the private sector and governments alike are extolling the virtues of innovation, disruption, and creative problem solving. The dam is, in contrast, a Red Ocean project predicated on the giganticism embraced by the Vision 2030 and LAPSSET agendas.

The larger problem with the High Grand Falls Dam Assessment Study is what is not reported, like the cutting-off of the Tana for 32 months and the consequences for the ecology and downstream communities. The study does refer to the increased incidence of human-crocodile conflict (their words, not mine) and includes a list of preventative measures that can be taken to reduce it, but otherwise lacks mention of any planned mitigations downstream, or the prospects for the intensifying resource conflicts that John Allen Namu documented in The End of the River series screened on NTV.

The study does, however, pay lip service to the impact on the residents of Tharaka, who were the only grassroots stakeholders consulted. The study team convened five meetings in Tharaka attended by 857 local participants. According to the document, “there is a general acceptance of the project by the majority of the communities living in the area”.

The larger problem with the High Grand Falls Dam Assessment Study is what is not reported, like the cutting-off of the Tana for 32 months and the consequences for the ecology and downstream communities. The study…lacks mention of any planned mitigations downstream, or the prospects for the intensifying resource conflicts…

One can question the extent of the information communicated in these briefings; summaries of the discussion include miscellaneous details, like an announcement that title deeds are ready for Kamanyaki, an area that will be under water if the project goes forward. There is also no reference in the document to consultation with other communities; it renders the stakeholders in Garissa, Tana River, and Lamu counties invisible. My contacts downstream, including a local MP, verify the lack of consultation and report a general perception of confusion over the dam project.

Spatially, Tharaka is one of the most remote areas of Kenya. Its remoteness is not a function of distance, but of the area’s isolation. The roads are challenging and it is not on the way to anywhere else. So the only reason you will find yourself in towns like Marimanti, Chiakariga, or Gatunga is because you have an important reason for visiting. As the Assessment Study observes, the locals have been developing at their own pace; what it does not say is that the residents of Tharaka seem to be okay with this, and are keen on finding their own solutions, like the modified female rites of passage based on piercing the ears of young girls in place of the “retrogressive” tradition of female circumcision.

Once upon a time I conducted a survey on the state of education, health, and access to water that took me to every sub-location of Tharaka. The residents at that time were highly independent and probably the most land-paranoid community in the country. The area can prosper with greater exploitation of the local rivers for irrigation, but this has been slow coming due to internal social factors linked to the use of communal resources. The High Grand Falls Dam blueprint, in contrast, requires the relocation of 4,500-plus displaced households to a large-scale irrigation scheme outside their home county.

I find it very difficult to see the residents assenting to the planned mitigations, especially without monetary compensation, which according to recent reports in the press has been scrapped due to inflated claims and other problems common to projects that require resettlement and compensation.

Maybe the lack of attention to these issues does not matter. In a study entitled Watered Down? A review of social and environmental safeguards for large dam projects, the authors of one of the studies report that “the implementation of systematic procedures to reveal social priorities is still very unusual in developing countries” and that “it has been estimated that environmental and social safeguard processes derived from public consultations have been implemented in only 10–15% of new hydropower projects around the world”.

A case of too much electricity?

This brings us to the objectives justifying the displacement of Tharaka households and the other social and ecological negatives that will be caused by the 32-month hiatus in the river’s flow. The benefits covered in the Assessment Study are the generation of 700 megawatts of electricity, the creation of a large 5.6 billion cubic metre reservoir that the project’s designers claim will be used to irrigate 200,000 hectares of cropland, and enhanced management of the river’s flow to control flooding. These plans represent the culmination of the pathway beginning with the development of the Tana’s hydroelectricity capacity that projected 11 dams in total. But things have changed since the project was first proposed in the mid-1990s.

Kenya’s national electricity strategy seeks to diversify the nation’s power sources. But hydroelectric generation already provides the greater portion of Kenya’s electricity, and is subject to increased uncertainty over the long run due to factors of climate change and degradation of the country’s water catchment areas.

Moreover, like the controversial coal-generated electricity plant proposed in Lamu, this latest energy investment comes at a time when the region’s electricity supply is outstripping demand. Several new power sources, such as the Lake Turkana Wind Farm, the three Gibe dams on the lower Omo River, and the Bujagali, Isimba, and Karuma dams in Uganda, will add to the region’s growing electricity surplus.

Kenya is blessed with an abundant but largely untapped capacity for wind and solar power, and costs have come down. The wind and solar projects now being planned or under construction at this early point in the sector’s development will add another 1,000 megawatts to the grid. In addition, Kenya is contracted to buy 400 megawatts of power from Ethiopia, but the government appears to be delaying the connection, ostensibly due to the problems of marketing the existing supply, even though in 2015 a contract to build supply lines was signed with a Chinese contractor.

The numerous problems of mismanagement and consumer exploitation that are endemic in Kenya’s state-controlled electricity sector highlight the real priority, which is the need to extend connections to the large numbers of Kenyan households that do not have access. This is being addressed through a mix of off-grid, mini-grids, and connections to conventional sources.

A history of failed irrigation projects

No one contests the need to enhance Kenya’s national food security. However, the prioritisation of large-scale irrigation schemes in order to justify the High Grand Falls Dam is considerably more problematic than the power generation that was the original Mutonga-High Falls project’s primary driver.

The record of Kenya’s large irrigation schemes ranges from poor to disastrous, sprinkled with a few qualified successes. The Perkerra, Kanu plains, Mwea-Tebere, Hola, Bura, and Galana schemes have all experienced serious problems. Even the one success story, the Mwea scheme, was on the brink of collapse by the early 1990s when it was managed by the National Irrigation Board. Militant protests by the scheme’s residents who fought and defeated the police trying to block a demonstration led to the liberalisation of the Board’s marketing monopsony. This was followed by the still ongoing and controversial privatisation of the scheme’s land holdings.

The record for sustained mismanagement belongs to the ill-fated Bura irrigation scheme. The world’s most expensive irrigation project at the time it was christened in 1977, it quickly turned into a black hole for the World Bank, the Government of Kenya, and the pastoralists-turned-farmers who settled there. Writing in 2008, three decades after its inception, one researcher described the conditions on the scheme as:

The area is now reminiscent of a ghost town. Huge water towers stand abandoned in the scrubby landscape; irrigation canals stretch across tens of miles, overgrown with thorny vegetation; and a fenced-in vehicle parking lot contains dozens of rusting Land Rovers and large farm machinery. Housing units built for mid-level project staff as well as the villas for the resident managers stand abandoned, dilapidated, and looted. Only people with nowhere left to go remain on the project site.

The former pastoralists who settled on the Bura scheme have survived as subsistence farmers assisted by famine relief provided by the World Food Programme. They draw their water from a murky irrigation pond they share with livestock. The award for the ultimate cosmic insult, however, goes to the nearby Hola Irrigation Scheme. During the mid-1990s the Tana changed course, leaving expensive industrial pumps beached next to the old riverbed.

The record of Kenya’s large irrigation schemes ranges from poor to disastrous, sprinkled with a few qualified successes. The Perkerra, Kanu plains, Mwea-Tebere, Hola, Bura, and Galana schemes have all experienced serious problems. Even the one success story, the Mwea scheme, was on the brink of collapse by the early 1990s.

Indigenous production systems developed important social risk-spreading strategies and cultural resilience for coping with climatic uncertainty and periodic but unpredictable extreme environmental events – an orientation that most developmental interventions lack. The Japan-supported Tana Delta Rice Production scheme, for example, started well but went belly up after the 1998 El Nino rains destroyed the main canals. Power surges disabled the large German-built milling complex. Rice production continued on a reduced scale and the problems could have been fixed, but the government withdrew its funding in 2001 due to massive corruption.

The last time I visited the scheme, monkeys were roaming the impressive but incapacitated processing plant while an old smoke-belching mill next to it laboured to turn the small harvest of mpunga into mchele. A number of local and international agribusiness organisations stepped into the gap by lobbying the government in order to establish sugar and jatropha plantations. A large area was allocated to a British firm to implement a biofuel scheme, but like the plans for sugar, it failed to take off due to widespread local opposition.

As one report declared, “The Tana Delta could house a museum featuring failed projects”. The report traced the poor record of top-down projects in the Tana Delta to the failure to take the local people and the environment into account. Research undertaken by Nature Kenya established that the value generated by local agricultural and livestock producers considerably exceeds projected returns to sugar monoculture and the other capital-intensive ventures.

Environmental impact on the Tana Delta

In 2012 the Tana Delta became a Ramsar site, which recognised its status as one of the world’s important wetlands. A case study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that the dam’s impact on the Delta will result in the reduction in the area and composition of floodplain grasslands, lowered surface and groundwater sources, loss of fertile riverbank sediment depositions, reduction in swamps, ox-bow lakes and seasonal water bodies, the deterioration of riverine forest areas due to senescence, and the degradation of the mangroves that include two species unique to the Tana Delta environment. The ecosystem hosts many other rare and endangered species, but the main casualty may be the over one million people who depend on the river’s flooding regime for their livelihoods and the 2.5 million head of livestock who depend on the water and pasture. The project will also jeopardise the growing number of riverside farms in Garissa that use the river for irrigation, who will lose out when the project redirects Tana River water to the Athi-Galana in order to support the government’s latest water grabbing experiment – the US$3 billion Galana-Kulalu project.

A case study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that the dam’s impact on the Delta will result in the reduction in the area and composition of floodplain grasslands, lowered surface and groundwater sources, loss of fertile riverbank sediment depositions, reduction in swamps, ox-bow lakes and seasonal water bodies, the deterioration of riverine forest areas due to senescence, and the degradation of the mangroves that include two species unique to the Tana Delta environment.

The Tana Delta and riverine zones are crucial dry season reserves that attract other herders from as far as Wajir and southern Somalia during drought years. Over 100,000 Pokomo depend on recession agriculture, and there are 50,000 freshwater fishermen working in the Delta. However, none of these facts have stopped the authors of the High Grand Falls Dam Assessment Study from claiming that the project is necessary for securing the productivity of land in the Tana Delta.

The record of flawed interventions on the coast, including the nearby Magarini settlement scheme, did not augur well for the government’s one-million-acre Galana-Kulalu irrigation scheme. Observers questioned the prospects for the proposed public-private partnership when it was launched in 2014. The scheme did not disappoint. Production has been dismal, funds have vanished, and in 2016 a group of parliamentarians called for the suspension of the scheme, citing mismanagement and inflated costs. In September of 2018, the press reported that the National Cereals and Produce Board received maize valued at Sh35 million from the scheme, a paltry return to an enterprise that four years after its launch has spent Sh7.3 billion to bring only 5,000 acres under cultivation.

Analysis of the technical, administrative, and tenure-related issues besetting Magarini and other schemes in Kwale and Lamu show that they have neither alleviated the coast’s land problems nor have they advanced Kenya’s agricultural development. The Galana-Kulalu scheme is the latest contribution to a policy pathway littered with numerous such developmental disasters. Massive amounts of funds have evaporated under the hot African sun; and in an area inhabited by minority communities, these disasters have been a recipe for political tensions, conflict, and corruption.

Irrigation launched Kenya’s lucrative horticultural export industry. Private farms are perhaps the best example of irrigation’s commercial potential, but most of the produce is exported. Irrigation will also have to make a growing contribution to food security over time and prospects for expanded medium- and small-scale irrigation based on water user associations are positive. But at this point, farmers using the common jua kali overhead sprinklers and appropriate technologies like the ApproTec treadle-pedal pump have probably made a greater contribution to domestic food security.

Irrigation presently consumes 69 per cent of Kenya’s water. An analysis of scale, control and success in Kenyan irrigation attributes the problems of schemes to bureaucratic control, and found that state mismanagement is a more important factor than scale. Expanding the unexploited potential for land under irrigation will depend upon sorting out a matrix of technological, social, and environmental issues influencing agricultural output and efficiency. The High Grand Falls project and documents supporting it do not provide answers.

The elephants in the room

There are two elephants in this room. The first is the nexus between climate change and the availability of water. A hydrological analysis of the impact of climate change on the Tana Basin indicates that levels of rainfall across the basin will increase, but so will the variation and episodes of extreme precipitation and drought. Its impact will also vary across the region’s ecological zones, increasing the problematic consequences for ASAL areas. Despite the overall increase in rainfall, the authors underscore that the real challenge will be the need for those managing water resources to adapt to the new climate regime with its extremes of drought and flooding. This is a serious game changer.

The other elephant is the state. The record of mismanagement, graft, and poorly designed interventions make it easy to critique the Kenya state’s record of bungling and impunity in this sector. But the fact remains, for the bureaucrats who harvest the extra allowances and other perks these projects generate, Big Water is a magic bullet that will resolve Kenya’s food security equation. For the political decision makers at the top of the food chain, it is a convenient source of patronage and rents.

Although the case for expanded water storage requires a sustained long-term strategy, it is hard to take projects like the High Grand Falls Dam seriously when a Permanent Secretary goes on record to justify the project by stating the dam will form ”a small lake, introducing fishing to the communities around it, and tourism”. He clearly did not read the reviews on TripAdvisor about the state of the Masinga dam resort. A fraction of the dam’s price tag would go a long way towards improving water security across Kenya’s water-stressed regions by creating many “small lakes” where rainfall collects.

There are many other alternatives to centralised water storage. According to the author of an Oxford University Business School study of large dam projects, “Many smaller, more flexible projects that can be built and go online quicker, and are more easily adapted to social and environmental concerns, are preferable to high-risk dinosaur projects like conventional mega-dams.”

Big Water is just another variation on Big Infrastructure, but with much greater potential for blowback in this case due to the number of Kenyans facing lost livelihoods and displacement. The cash-strapped Jubilee government is clearly locked into a dead-end developmental pathway that is damming up its citizens’ problem-solving energies and capacity for developing social and technological solutions.

An analysis of pathway dependency offers two pieces of advice about escaping the “entrapment basin” like the one luring state policymakers and planners into the cul- de-sac reviewed here. The first is that those managing the system require external agency to change. The second is that instead of making choices that often turn out to be wrong, policy makers should improve the informational basis for choices that can be made by private parties and government agencies.

Big Water is just another variation on Big Infrastructure, but with much greater potential for blowback in this case due to the number of Kenyans facing lost livelihoods and displacement.

Unlike the case in the 1990s, there is now a large base of information and analysis on the issues interfacing with the High Grand Falls project, but the dam state will need a push if it is to play a role in rationalising the process.

In 1988, opposition to Hungary’s Nagyramos Dam provoked citizens to defy their Communist government for the first time, triggering the succession of events leading to the collapse of the Eastern Block governments in 1989. Maybe the High Grand Falls project will be the tipping point catalysing a coalition of local and external forces, like India’s Save Narmada Movement, that will lead to a more viable policy framework for managing the Tana Basin’s waters and the larger region they support.

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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 Wednesday 3 April 2019, social workers, youth group members, activists and friends, all residents of Mathare, huddled together on the top floor of the Macharia building near the Olympic petrol station off Juja road in Nairobi, as they watched in horror, as two schools were engulfed in a fire. 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 police blocked their paths. Angry shouts filled the air as licking flames destroyed businesses, schools and homes in a matter of minutes.

This act of arson by police of a part of the Mathare neighborhood took place on the fourth day of a raid against the local alcohol economy, spearheaded by the notorious ‘killer cop’ known simply as Rashid. A public execution of two teenagers in Eastleigh on 31 March 2017 caught on amateur video that went viral established Ahmed Rashid’s notoriety. Ironically, the raid under his command, targeting the local alcohol economy in Mathare, started on Sunday 31 March 2019—exactly two years since that public execution. Over that period of two years, Rashid has killed, maimed and harassed many people, particularly young poor men from Mathare, and with absolute impunity.

On Sunday in late March, Rashid walked into Mathare accompanied by a troop of police officers from different police squads down the valley where they barged into homes and bars to destroy alcohol and other belongings of local business owners and their employees. The Pangani OCS (Officer Commanding Police Station) and the Area Chief both claim to ‘have had nothing to do with the raid’, despite eyewitnesses sharing accounts of regular police and AP (Administrative Police) officers and equipment active during the raid. Mathare residents wondered how the police could conduct a full-scale police raid lasting a number of days without the consent of the authorities. That first night of the raid in Mathare was marked with fear, chaos and gunshots. Residents lost weeks of work and earnings, and others nursed bruises and deep cuts whilst defending homes and properties from the pillaging police. By Monday morning, that part of Mathare sunk into deep lamentation.

Kingi from the Social Justice Centers Working Group found his grandmother crying on Monday morning; Shosho Kingi 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. Subsequently, she had lost 4500 shillings, her monthly earnings, and was left seriously in 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 until on Wednesday, tensions between hungry and angry residents and police culminated into protests by alcohol distillers.

History of the local 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 the 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. The colonial capital Nairobi only allowed a limited number of ‘native’ bachelors living in designated housing facilities. This area was also wedged in by the Royal Airforce Eastleigh Base (currently known as Moi Air Base), an askari barrack, and a transit camp for the Kings African Rifles. Other police barracks and army bases further away from Mathare also had close ties to sex workers in Pumwani, Pangani and Mathare. The massive influx of soldiers and prisoners of war (Italian POWs) during 1940-45 further attracted a growing number of female sex workers who increasingly settled in Mathare where rent was cheaper than in Pumwani.

As early as the 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

These women were among the many young people who were forced to leave their increasingly overcrowded homesteads in the ‘Native Reserves’ in the pre-WWII colonial period in search of work for cash to pay for hut tax, among other things. Even if women comprised the majority of residents in Mathare from the onset, men also increasingly came to live here. During the late 1930s, many of the rural-urban migrants also came from other illegalized squatter communities in the Rift Valley, where former farm workers had been displaced from European farms as a result of the gradual mechanization of farm work. Following these and other developments, Mathare became the bedrock 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’. The colonial government detained large sections of what it considered to be the ‘Kikuyu’ population and transformed many ‘Native Reserves into ‘emergency villages’, which functioned as concentration camps during the ‘state of emergency’. Close to a million people were locked inside these camps, and tens of thousands of people, suspected of being freedom fighters, were imprisoned in makeshift prison camps scattered all over Kenya. Upon their release, many of these ex-detainees could not return to the ‘Native Reserves’, as most of these areas were by now seriously overpopulated, while other places had been confiscated by the different authorities that had collaborated with the colonial government, with local chiefs being an example. As a consequence, released from prison, these men and women had no choice but to join illegalized squatter communities in either rural or urban areas, including Mathare.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy in Mathare, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the late 1980s and early 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. Demographic records and academic estimates vary greatly but it is safe to say that the population in Mathare rose from a few thousand during the colonial era to many tens of thousands between the 1960s and 1980s. The trend of rapid urbanisation, especially in informal settlements, that took off after independence in 1963 accelerated during the 1990s. Population growth in Mathare only declined slightly during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when even more ghetto areas rose up to absorb the bulk of rural-urban migrants.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy in Mathare, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the late 1980s and early 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.

A government decree banned chang’aa and busaa production in 1983 but the incoming MP of Mathare at the time allowed the continuation of home-based chang’aa production in return for electoral support (interview with Shosho Kingi, 3 November 2005). It was easier to distill chang’aa at home (and later at the river) without police detection than busaa, and the profit margins for chang’aa were also much higher. Soon, the Mathare river saw multiple cooking sites along its banks. Unfortunately, these profit margins have fallen significantly since the late 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, shortage of firewood plagues adjacent neighborhoods, but not in Mathare. Every other small business on Mau Mau Avenue in Bondeni, one of the 13 ‘villages’ in Mathare sells large quantities of firewood. 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 large trucks. 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. 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.

The culture of policing in Mathare

After days without work and food, alcohol distillers took to Juja road on Tuesday morning, 2 April 2019, to protest the illegal and violent raid by police. A few media outlets, such as Ghetto Radio, 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 make at most 300 Ksh a day for 10 hours of backbreaking work, barely enough to provide for a family of four. Hence, 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 if not thousands of families hungry for days. This led several 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 who violently blocked people to try and stop the fire of reaching the labyrinth of homes, businesses and schools down the street leading into Mabatini, thus effectively encouraging the fire to destroy as many houses and other properties as possible. Crowds of people who had gathered with buckets of water were violently dispersed with teargas while trying to rescue their homes and belongings. Sadly, the teargas only further ignited the fire as residents watched their schools and homes burn to ashes.

Distraught, many slept outside on Tuesday night. The fire had also destroyed the electricity supply line and the ensuing blackout increased overall insecurity. One resident recounted to us: “For nights, gunshots have become our ringtone.” Another one added: “We live in war, but nobody cares.” While living through this terror for four days and nights, Mathare residents watched the news at night that either ignored their plight and the criminal acts by police or put the blame decidedly on them. On top of the above mentioned pejorative ‘angry youth’ frame, Mathare residents were sweepingly cast as criminals and the local alcohol economy was without fail depicted as illicit and dangerous. Indeed, a lot of misconceptions about Mathare and local industries persist. For example, chang’aa is not an ‘illicit brew’ after being legalized in September 2010. 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 bosses, distillers and sellers to obtain licenses and invest in improved manufacturing? The answer is simple: too many people high-up in police and government ‘eat’ from the industry as it is. 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 collect bribes. A resident explained to us:

“Police eat a lot. For each drum on a fire at a jiko you pay 200 [Ksh] to 4 squads, so that is 800 [Ksh] for 12 hours. Before the raid there were uhm… like 7 jiko’s, so they operate 24/7. And on average there are 7 drums on the fires, at each jiko. At night it becomes more. For one day and night, together, these bribes can easily be something like 100k, for a month that is like, [calculates on mobile phone], wow, that is 3 million [KES]. Just for police. Wah!”

A lot of misconceptions about Mathare and local industries persist. For example, chang’aa is not an ‘illicit brew’ after being legalized in September 2010. 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.

This total is of course a conservative estimate because it does not include the bribes police take from bars and alcohol distributors, and it does not include police officers who produce their own alcohol. Most of all, the number of drums along the riverside vary immensely. Sometimes, a jiko can have 15 or 20 fires operating at once, while at other times only 3 or 4. The above calculations 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 are not 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 ‘killer cop’ Rashid went out to show the incoming Inspector General Mutyambai that he earned an upgrade of some kind. 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 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-Terror Police Unit).

Nevertheless, the ‘killer cop’ 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, carrying this name, of suspected ‘thugs’ before and after they purportedly shot them. Speculations continue to the date of writing this article 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. Again, others state that the different ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages on Facebook are not created by one or more police officers, but by a team of bloggers that works together 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 as Kenyans are elsewhere. 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 neighbours often go beyond merely monetary motivations or concerns about crime. Local competition or revenge play a big role as well. Police also depend too much on such secondary and often faulty intel 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 (see also Van Stapele 2016). Our fellow activists have documented several cases that follow this pattern (see also MSJC 2017).

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 as Kenyans are elsewhere.

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 5 April 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 more safe and bring it in line with regulations, why not work together with business owners and their employees to develop ways to make this affordable to them? 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 slow production for a little while but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depended on this economy bear the brunt given that they can’t 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?” Another one said: “Why are there no people coming from Red Cross, or our government leaders, like when Dusit happens or Westgate? Are we not human beings?”

An interesting shift has taken place since the raid. In the weeks following the raid, resentment against police culminated in two clashes between police and distillers because they refused to pay bribes to police. Several meetings between police and Mathare’s ‘Big Fish’, i.e. wealthy and influential bar owners and distributors, have tried to re-establish the collection of police bribes, but the ‘Small Fish’, small-time bar owners, have sided with the distillers in rejecting police presence at the jiko’s. One small-time bar owner explained: “We pay these bribes to cook chang’aa, but this raid put us back so much. We have not recovered so why pay bribes to police? We refuse, and we [the ‘small fish’ and the distillers combined] are the majority, we have strength in number.” However, his face turned sullen when he said: “But the police cannot ignore their money for long, we expect them to come in and attack us any day to claim their bribes again. In the end they have the guns.”

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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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