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OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: The secret life of ASAL river basins

In this final part of a three-part series, PAUL GOLDSMITH traces the rise and fall of the lowland-coastal regions of East Africa and the Horn and examines why water management in these regions exemplifies the imbalance between the centre and the periphery. He argues that the Kenyan government’s failure to adopt indigenous knowledge and technological innovations has resulted in white elephant projects that have done little to solve the country’s water crisis.

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OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: The secret life of ASAL river basins
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Major river systems are intrinsic to the long economic histories of the regions they transect. However, although the Tana River basin covers 20 per cent of Kenya’s land mass, the river itself, in terms of water volume and vital economic functions, is not the kind of waterway one associates with the world’s famous rivers. This, however, does not diminish the Tana River’s historical importance, which is critical to understanding the larger background against which the High Grand Falls Dam project is being framed.

Insofar as the three major rivers spanning the eastern highland-lowland gradient share the same highland water catchments and are also linked within the Vision 2030 policy framework, the case of the Tana cannot be examined in isolation from the Athi-Galana and Waso Nyiro North systems. The Athi-Galana takes a route similar to the Tana, skirting the contours of Kenya’s eastern highland-lowland gradient, but is often only a trickle by the time it reaches Malindi. The flow has been further reduced following the establishment of the one-million-acre Galana irrigation scheme bordering Tsavo East National Park. For people depending on Malindi’s tourism sector, this is a positive development as the drop in volume reduces the siltation of local beaches, a problem that contributed to the rise of Watamu as an alternative beach holiday destination. Before the scheme started, tourism sector stakeholders were advocating a plan to reroute the river to an outlet north of Mambrui.

The historical evidence indicates that most of the seasonal streams of northern Kenya and the coastal hinterland were permanent rivers before Africa’s shift to the drier climatic regime that occurred around the middle of the 13th century. The Waso Nyiro was once this region’s mightiest river, judging by the large watercourses like the Malgis laga (Swahili for dry watercourse) descending from the highland areas of Samburu and Marsabit that fed into it and the channels it carved out north of Magogoni in Lamu. Both Magogoni and Dodori, both of which are next to the site of a proposed coal-powered plant, are much larger than the channel where the present-day Tana River meets the sea. This may also be due to the fact that some of the lower Tana’s waters disappear into the lakes and wetlands of the Tana Delta. The Delta is a uniquely varied ecosystem that supports a wide variety of habitats, including riverine forest, grassland, woodland, bushland, lakes, mangroves, dunes, beaches, estuaries and coastal waters.

The historical evidence indicates that most of the seasonal streams of northern Kenya and the coastal hinterland were permanent rivers before Africa’s shift to the drier climatic regime that occurred around the middle of the 13th century. The Waso Nyiro was once this region’s mightiest river…

The Waso Nyiro now terminates at the Lorian swamp near Modo Gashe, but this too has changed over the past three decades. Its water often fails to reach Lorian due to the expansion of commercial farms and small-scale irrigation upstream. During most years, it often ends at a small outpost called Gotu; during extended droughts the flow is so reduced that animals in Samburu, Shaba, and Buffalo Springs reserves upstream can be seen drinking from puddles along its banks. The 1000-kilometre-long Tana River’s greatest attribute, against this backdrop, may be that it continues as a permanent watercourse transecting a long stretch of semi-arid lowlands before reaching the coast.

The rise and fall of coastal settlements 

The current condition of the three rivers linking Kenya’s eastern gradient to the Indian Ocean and the current focus on exploiting them close to their highland sources distract both from their important role historically and equally critical contribution to the livelihoods of the diverse communities downstream.

A thousand years ago, the region these rivers bisect were connected to the Shungwaya economy, whose main hub was located at Bur Gao, now a small town across the Kenya-Somalia border. Although colonial historians described Shungwaya as a kingdom, later work established that it was actually a trade network that linked the early Swahili city-states to the African interior as far as Lake Turkana.

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

The volume of water these rivers carried was less important than their role as conveyors of people and their domestic animals, and trade. The Shungwaya economy catalysed the shift of coastal settlements to a maritime culture around a thousand years ago, when they became part of the growing Western Indian Ocean economy. All of this contributed to the process of creative syntheses giving rise to the Swahili language and culture, a distinctively African urban society characterised by its strong tradition of co-evolutionary interaction.

The decline of Shungwaya, attributed to the climatic shift mentioned above, coincided with the 13th century rise of the Ajuran Sultanate, a centralised state that exploited the Juba and Shebelle rivers to develop Africa’s only case of a hydraulic empire. The Ajuran presided over extensive irrigation works and constructed an extensive system of wells and cisterns that allowed them to control their nomadic Somali and Orma neighbours and a swathe of territory extending across much of southern Somalia to eastern Ethiopia. The Sultanate, whose capital was located at Afgoye, collapsed during the 17th century, but the system of agricultural production and taxation remained in place until the 19th century.

The large volume of agricultural produce and other commodities supported the rise of Swahili port towns like Mogadishu, Merca, and Barawa on the Benadir coast. The inland networks that expanded through the influence of Shungwaya and the Ajuran Sultanate funneled a range of products to coastal towns that were exported to metropolitan hubs like Baghdad and Cairo; before long the commodities began reaching India, and eventually found their way to Venice and Lisbon. The codification of mercantile capitalism under Islam was an important enabling factor in both cases.

The wealth and reputation accompanying the growth of coastal settlements arising across the eastern Africa littoral between Mogadishu in the north and the Rovuma River in the south attracted the interest of the Chinese. The forty-ship fleets of large vessels commanded by the famous Admiral Zheng He, who led two expeditions between 1417 and 1422 to the region the Arabs dubbed the Land of Zinj, was significant even by today’s standards.

The large volume of agricultural produce and other commodities supported the rise of Swahili port towns like Mogadishu, Merca, and Barawa on the Benadir coast. The inland networks that expanded through the influence of Shungwaya and the Ajuran Sultanate funneled a range of products to coastal towns that were exported to metropolitan hubs like Baghdad and Cairo; before long the commodities began reaching India, and eventually found their way to Venice and Lisbon. The codification of mercantile capitalism under Islam was an important enabling factor in both cases.

The rivers also played a role in the migrations of the proto-Meru, who abandoned their settlement on Manda Island following the onset of Portuguese hegemony. Their migration up the Tana covering several generations, and the interactions en route and after their crossing of the Tana into what is now Tharaka, underpinned their own process of creative syntheses, leading to the development of what is arguably Africa’s most sophisticated agro-permaculture system based on a multigenerational concept of environmental resource management that predated the Western embrace of sustainability by over two hundred years.

In his insightful 1989 book, Identities on the Move, Gunter Schlee documents how similar dynamics influenced pastoralist clans and niche adaptations in northern Kenya. Herders in the Lake Turkana area established contacts with the coast centuries ago, and following a large environmental calamity overtaking present-day Marsabit County over five hundred years ago, a number of clans sought refuge on the coast. This interaction left an imprint on the indigenous orientation of coastal Islam, which in turn is reflected in the religious practices of the Gabra and Rendille, who integrated the five daily Islamic prayer cycle into their own monotheistic belief system. There are three Bajuni clans of northern Kenya origin, and the Bajuni sorio purification ritual is a variation of the Rendille ceremony known by the same name, even though there has been no contact between the two communities for several hundred years. By the same measure, when Meru miraa traders began showing up in Lamu after independence, the Bajuni welcomed them as watu wa Pwani in recognition of their coastal origins.

The false Kenya A-Kenya B dichotomy

The details of these historical interactions preserved in the traditions of these communities are indicative of the dynamic qualities of the cultural ecologies and pre-colonial political economy that developed in the river basins linking the coast to the mainland. The coast-mainland divide instilled during the colonial interlude is a false dichotomy in contrast, and these examples are also cited in order to posit that there is an alternative developmental model to the top-down planning imported by the colonial state.

The Tana River inscribes a long arc defining the border separating modern Kenya from the vast lowland expanses of “Kenya B” (a terminology used by the inhabitants living north of the river to describe themselves when making a distinction between them and “Kenya A” inhabitants south of the river). The region’s diverse cultural groups formed an economic mosaic that was beginning to enter a phase of proto-state formation during the late pre-colonial era. Similar developments were beginning to gather speed across much of what is modern day Kenya during the latter half of the 19th century. Imperial intervention short-circuited these processes, and with far-reaching ramifications for the inhabitants of Kenya B.

In the case of the coast and the lower Tana River hinterland, the unremarkable village of Kipini is emblematic of the lower Tana hinterland’s decline following the destruction of the Witu Sultanate and its satellite settlements in 1895 by a British expeditionary force. The population living within Witu’s fortified town walls was more than 50,000 at the time. The prosperous Sultanate welcomed slaves running away from the plantations run by the pro-Busaidi Lamu elite, and minted its own currency and postage stamps.

The irony of the Sultanate’s fall is that its demolition was triggered by the death of German loggers during an altercation that broke out after they racially abused their Swahili co-workers. The British were not happy that Witu had engaged their imperial competitors, but the killing of Europeans was a precedent they could not allow to go unpunished. Eliminating the Witu Sultanate solved two problems: it eliminated opposition to their imperial intrusion, while the agricultural collapse that followed allowed the British to annex the Lamu mainland as Crown Land.

The reduction of Witu’s population to just a few thousand people a century after its destruction is indicative of the malaise that spread across the larger region following the imposition of colonial rule. Decades of stasis became the basis for the region’s post-colonial marginalisation and social exclusion.

A similar trend overtook the ecologically and historically similar Juba River basin to the north in Somalia, with the exception of the commercial banana production that became Somalia’s only agricultural export industry. While traditional pastoralism dominated the large expanse between the Tana River and northern Somalia, these island ecologies contributed to the symbiotic relationships sustaining the livestock economy.

Prioritising dam building and state irrigation schemes over the livelihoods of communities long present in the region is a variation on the mono-culture developmental model Syad Barre attempted to implement in Somalia’s Juba River basin. Michael Maren elucidated the resulting conflicts in his book, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity, and things went further downhill after its publication in 1997.

The current highland-lowland division symbolised by the Kenya A-Kenya B dichotomy is an anomaly in regards to the socio-economic dynamics illuminating the historical record. It manifests in the problematic record of large-scale projects and other planned interventions across the region. The simple fact of the matter is that the larger lowland-coastal economic landscape discussed here once attracted settlers and refugees from across the seas rather than being an incubator for famines, clan warfare, and political turbulence. This explains one observer’s speculations that life in southern Somalia may have better four hundred years ago than it is now.

There are indications that the larger region bordering the Ethiopian and Kenyan highlands is recovering its mojo. However, many of the problems and historical injustices addressed by Kenya’s new constitution could have been avoided if the policy prioritising investment in high potential areas had been extended to the high potential economic sectors in Kenya’s neglected regions. But they were not, and if the Vision 2030 Big Water policy dominates the template for the area falling north of the Tana River, it may turn out to be a case of the worst is yet to come.

The current highland-lowland division symbolised by the Kenya A-Kenya B dichotomy is an anomaly in regards to the socio-economic dynamics illuminating the historical record…The simple fact of the matter is that the larger lowland-coastal economic landscape discussed here once attracted settlers and refugees from across the seas rather than being an incubator for famines, clan warfare, and political turbulence. This explains one observer’s speculations that life in southern Somalia may have better four hundred years ago than it is now.

We can only imagine the counterfactual scenarios that may have occurred if the local societies were in a position to manage the transition on their own terms.

Hydraulic states and rain-based social organisation

Water has been used as a mechanism of control since the rise of the earliest state systems. In a book called Oriental Despotism, Karl August Wittfogel developed the concept of hydraulic empires, which were expansionary states that flourished in the ancient world. Hydraulic states emerged in ancient Mespotamia, the Indus Valley, pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, and Egypt. These states’ power was based on their control of water. Hydraulic states gave rise to impressive public works and statuaries that remain up to this time, and transformed kings into demi-gods and pharaohs.

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

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

The hydraulic state is best understood as an ideal type based on environmental determinism. Debates generated by the concept led critics to argue that the hydraulic empires of antiquity were based on pre-existing central political organisation that enabled the rulers to expand their power through irrigation and water infrastructure. Marx and Engels’ Asiatic Mode of Production is another variation on the theme that emphasises a rigid and impersonal state’s monopoly of land ownership, political and military power, or control over irrigation systems.

Water has been used as a mechanism of control since the rise of the earliest state systems. In a book called Oriental Despotism, Karl August Wittfogel developed the concept of hydraulic empires, which were expansionary states that flourished in the ancient world. Hydraulic states emerged in ancient Mespotamia, the Indus Valley, pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, and Egypt. These states’ power was based on their control of water.

Regardless of the order of events, domination through the control of water is a recurring idea that has resurfaced in science fiction like the Dune series and post-Apocalypse scenarios like Mad Max: Fury Road and contributes to the growing genre of eco-disaster films and other works of fiction.

Areas dependent on rain, in contrast to these examples, tended to give rise to decentralised social structures based on clans, segmentary lineages, age-set organisation, local councils, and other horizontal structures. This kind of organisation supported mobility, resilience, and the sharing of risk-spreading and coping strategies across diverse communities. Range scientists have associated the problem of unpredictable rainfall and high levels of uncertainty with the opportunistic exploitation of natural resources—a proclivity that comes with an obligation to share and redistribute. While this opportunism is embedded in pastoralist societies, variations on the same “make hay while the sun is shining” meme, is also observable among their neighbours, and in discussions with civil servants and politicians.

Economies conditioned by rainfall dominated across most of eastern Africa and the Horn, the exception being the secondary states represented by the intra-lacustrine kingdoms. The configuration of small states in present-day Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi were the product of agro-pastoralist syntheses that, consistent with our discussion, were enabled by stable environmental conditions and plentiful water.

Areas dependent on rain..tended to give rise to decentralised social structures based on clans, segmentary lineages, age-set organisation, local councils, and other horizontal structures. This kind of organisation supported mobility, resilience, and the sharing of risk-spreading and coping strategies across diverse communities.

Such variations highlight the influence of environmental forces and shared social orientations on regional political economies. Hard-nosed planners and developmental experts will dismiss the narrative presented here as a historical fairy tale with no relevance for the present. There are, however, multiple examples of how the forces of nature and historical pathways reassert themselves during periods of system transitions, and there are multiple signs from all over the region that the region’s periphery is entering a phase transition that will render many of their plans and projects irrelevant.

Gunnar Myrdal released his influential book, Economic Theory and Under-developed Regions, around the same time Wittfogel published Oriental Despotism. In his analysis, the same elements of resource control central to hydraulic empire also guided Europe’s colonisation of much of the global South. Colonies were resource-rich areas located on the periphery, and the imperial project focused on the extraction and control of these resources. This was accomplished through a type of agro-managerial despotism that parallels the example of hydraulic empires.

The post-colonial states in this part of the world have become vehicles for a maladaptive combination of the opportunism embedded in rain-fed systems and the rigidity of hydraulic states. Kenya’s water management is symptomatic of the larger imbalance between the center and the periphery. This helps explain the militarisation of northern Kenya and why the Tana Delta became one of the primary incubators for the Mombasa Republican Council’s secessionist agenda.

Following the present state-based pathway is likely to lead to more of the same – not a good idea when alternatives exist.

Post-colonial water hangover

During the late 1970s, the Government of Kenya announced that it was committed to delivering potable water to every Kenyan household by the year 2000. This goal proved elusive and the target date passed without comment or controversy. The task appeared simpler than it actually was, and acknowledgement of this now comes with the awareness that management of water from above can also be a source of disease, death, and regime change.

The designation of water as a basic human right guaranteed by Article 43(1) of Kenya’s 2010 Constitution replaced that ambitious technocratic objective with a lofty principle but one that will not be attained because the operationalisation of water rights is a function of four factors: availability of the resource; investment in delivery and distribution systems; technological innovation; and the policy and planning process.

During the late 1970s, the Government of Kenya announced that it was committed to delivering potable water to every Kenyan household by the year 2000. This goal proved elusive and the target date passed without comment or controversy. The task appeared simpler than it actually was, and acknowledgement of this now comes with the awareness that management of water from above can also be a source of disease, death, and regime change.

Nailing the process should be the easy part, but this has not been the case as the first two installments of this series documented. Lessons learned for developing water resources cited in one USAID case study highlight the importance of exposing decision makers to alternative institutional arrangements and successful models of service delivery involving local stakeholders, embedding frameworks for mediating conflicts, and devolving management to local institutions.

The Kenya government’s US$25-billion LAPSSET corridor scheme, whose objectives include the transformation of the lower Tana River basin, is a product of the exact opposite mentality. The problem is not the roads and the infrastructure, but the hegemonic policies that have long treated the larger region as an unproductive expanse requiring developmental planning from both without and above.

The High Grand Falls Dams project on the Tana River reinforces this assumption by minimising the import of the project’s impact on the communities downstream, and failing to acknowledge the value of livelihood strategies fine-tuned to the region’s environmental and infrastructural conditions. The lack of consultation with minority communities appears to be standard procedure, even for non-controversial projects, like the expansion of geothermal electricity generation at Ol Karia.

Unlike electricity, water cannot be generated, only conserved. In the case of Kenya, the water is there. Developing the delivery and distribution infrastructure and maintenance is the hard part. Constructing local dams where appropriate is obviously an important option; to this end, the government identified a number of Arid and Semi Arid (ASAL) sites for water storage development.

Marsabit is an important highland island in the middle of a large desert. Residents suffer from protracted water shortages aggravated by degradation of the mountain’s cloud forest. The Badassa Dam was initiated in 2009 to alleviate the problem. It is an example of a worthy project that enjoyed the full support of the local community, especially after some 1,000 goats keeled over and died after drinking water from an old well. Like in the recent case where eleven rhinos died after being moved to the Tsavo, the problem was due to seasonally high concentrations of minerals, according to subsequent analyses. The dam became another case study of how badly things can go wrong.

Construction of the Badassa Dam, which is designed to hold 5 million cubic metres of water, stalled in 2011. Design flaws and the shoddy work of the government-appointed contractor led to a court case in 2013. Contrary to the ruling of one of several court cases, the wealthy Marsabit businessman who filed the suit ended up taking over the project. Things went badly again, resulting in major losses for the new contractor, who was forced to sell property in Nairobi to survive after being forced to go into hiding. In another stroke of irony reminiscent of the Tana River’s shift away from the Hola Irrigation Scheme, The Standard reported in 2014 that Badassa Dam’s source of water had dried up.

These finance-draining dam stories continue to pile up across the country. The Crocodile Jaws Dam in Isiolo presents another variation on the same theme. There’s no need to describe it – just watch the Oscar-winning animated film Rango. The movie shares the same water-grabbing plot line – the diversion of precious water away from the town to support the big money resort, or the LAPSSET tourist city in this case, but probably without the Hollywood-style ending.

Meanwhile, the flooding of the towns next to the Tana River earlier this year was not due to the heavy rains, but due to the siltation of the Masinga dam that has proceeded at a rate six times the level anticipated when the dam was built.

Smart technology and precision agriculture

The problem remains. A 2017 study reports the proportion of Kenyans with access to clean water is declining, in part due to population growth outstripping the government’s capacity to provide. This highlights the array of small-scale water catchment solutions now taking root in places like Makueni, Isiolo, Samburu, and even in Kusa along the shores of Lake Victoria that feature enhanced rocky outcrop water catchments, sand dams, and home water storage tanks and dams. Such scale- appropriate developments and growing pace of technological innovations across the world are revising path-dependent approaches to water.

The Slingshot water purifier can turn the water from Lake Turkana or the from the polluted Nairobi River into super purified medical quality water. The machine, which is the size of a crate of soda, can purify 1,000 litres per day and costs US $35. There are inexpensive nano filters for water bottles with pores small enough to catch viruses. This tech is the best bet for eliminating the ubiquitous plastic water bottles that actually do not guarantee safe water and are choking the oceans. Even the traditional toilet, a water wasting device that has not changed for 130 years, is being redesigned to recycle the water and to use the waste to recharge your mobile phone while sitting on the thrown.

Agriculture consumes 70 per cent of the world’s water. Experts predict a range of innovations from smart grids and self-repairing pipes to high-tech irrigation systems that will reduce the water used by over 30 per cent. These developments are fast tracking the growth of precision agriculture, an approach to production that utilises an array of components ranging from sensors to soil surveys and variable rate fertilization. The future of Kenya’s food security is precision agriculture, not large irrigation schemes. Large farms on the slopes of Mt Kenya are implementing precision agricultural methods, enabled by the growth of companies offering the requisite support services. Players in the contract-farming sector are introducing precision agricultural practices to medium-sized growers in the lower zones, and it is only a matter of time before this spreads to areas like the lower Tana River with its untapped potential for small- and medium-scale agro-pastoral development.

Agriculture consumes 70 per cent of the world’s water. Experts predict a range of innovations from smart grids and self-repairing pipes to high-tech irrigation systems that will reduce the water used by over 30 per cent. These developments are fast tracking the growth of precision agriculture, an approach to production that utilises an array of components ranging from sensors to soil surveys and variable rate fertilization.

Ari.Farm is an exemplar of developments of the new economy emerging in war-torn areas after decades of stasis and conflict. Using a very original business model based on subscriptions from the community, the firm is a magnet for diaspora capital that has established greenhouse farms and camel dairies in Somalia’s riverine area to supply Mogadishu. Ari.Farm also has a farm in Kenya that is delivering camel milk to Nairobi. The ubiquitous goat, which is resistant to capital-intensive mass production, is becoming the high-end animal protein of the future, and Ari.Farm just may turn out to be the dryland’s version of Eastleigh’s Garissa Lodge phenomenon.

Fourteen counties on Kenya’s periphery have come together to form The Frontier County Development Council, predicated on a “holistic and integrated approach to promote and strengthen inter-regional linkages”. The Council is one example of developments behind the region’s shifting system state. Human capital investment and provision of basic infrastructure in these high potential but historically marginalised zones, together with symbiotic linkages to pastoralist capital, can transform the larger region. The lower Tana and its invisible stakeholders should be given the chance to become part of the process leading over time to a new diversified river valley economy, and a sanctuary where all the bird watchers of the world will congregate.

This is only the beginning. The road will be difficult, but a dynamic confluence of capital, culture, and technology will see the influence of the post-post-colonial African mode of production in the former Shungwaya region become water under the bridge. This is the point in the process when the stakeholders can determine what form of upstream water management should be undertaken.

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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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