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How Green Energy and New Technologies Will Impact Kenya’s Power Sector

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The biggest question facing the power sector is this: How will it lower costs, compete and improve overall performance for a population promised 100 per cent electricity access in a global business environment where customers can increasingly generate their own power more efficiently than the power company.

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How Green Energy and New Technologies Will Impact Kenya’s Power Sector
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“The waste of scarce resources in Africa’s energy systems remains stark and disturbing. Current highly centralized energy systems often benefit the rich and bypass the poor and are underpowered, inefficient and unequal. Energy-sector bottlenecks and power shortages cost the region 2-4 per cent of GDP annually, undermining sustainable economic growth, jobs and investment. They also reinforce poverty, especially for women and people in rural areas. It is indefensible that Africa’s poorest people are paying among the world’s highest prices for energy.” ~ Excerpt from the Foreword by Kofi Annan in the AFRICA PROGRESS REPORT 2015

“… and all consumers know, when the producers name the tune, the consumer has to dance.” ~ Gil Scot Heron, B-Movie

 

The Kenya power sector is many things to many people. For some, it is a shining African example of a successful power sector while for others, it is a scandal-ridden den of thieves. For some, it is one of the world’s leaders in green energy and for others it is an unapologetic advocate of coal power. As with many countries, amidst the conflicting politically-driven narratives, it is often hard to separate truth from opinion. Tabled plans serve complicated and disguised agendas of both local and international interests.

Currently, Kenya has an installed capacity of about 2600 MW. This is about one-twentieth the size of South Africa’s grid and more than twice that of Uganda’s.

Despite the bad press, there is much in Kenya’s power sector to be upbeat about. Compared to others in the region, the sector has performed well. Kenya Power has a reputation as a credit-worthy off-taker. The sector is, to a large degree, privately owned, funded and operated. It is “open for business” and, eventually, it gets projects done. Much of the time (but not all) companies in Kenya’s power sector are profitable. By fortuitous accident of location and resource availability (geothermal, wind and hydro), the sector is mostly green. The sector has been able to innovate, complete projects and grow power generation with steady increases in supply and demand over 20 years. With donor support for the Last Mile Programme, it has managed a massive expansion, doubling its customer base in 10 years. Kenya Power, KenGen, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), parastatal agencies and independent power producers (IPPs) have talented staff who enjoy competitive salaries and benefits.

Currently, Kenya has an installed capacity of about 2600 MW. (Ministry of Energy online statistics do not include recent solar, wind and geothermal projects.) This is about one twentieth the size of South Africa’s grid and more than twice that of Uganda’s. Recent additions of wind (300 MW from Turkana) and solar (50 MW from Garissa) have ratcheted down fossil fuel-fired thermal generation and greatly increased capacity to meet peak demand, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Kenyan Electricity Global legal insights: Kenya Energy Situation

Table 1: Kenyan Electricity Global legal insights: Kenya Energy Situation

Whether the reputation is deserved or not, Kenya’s electricity sector is much-liked by African energy investors. With over 1100MW of power-producing wells, Kenya is in the global top ten of geothermal electricity producers. Turkana Wind is the single largest sub-Saharan wind power project on the continent. At 50MW, Garissa solar is the largest solar project in the East Africa region. Today, tabled investments in geothermal, wind and solar are under way that will double Kenya’s power output in 10 years and most of these are environmentally-friendly (the proposed Lamu coal plant notwithstanding). With 60 per cent of the population connected to the grid, Kenya has the highest electricity access in the region and a higher per capita electricity consumption than Nigeria.

Exceptionally expensive electricity

So, from the above, everything would seem to be satisfactory with the Kenya power sector. But not all is well. In a 2015 assessment, Power Africa lists major “bottlenecks”: inadequate early stage capital for project financing, land/right-of-way risks (i.e. for transmission projects) and IPP “procedural” and process issues. In addition, it points out that the inadequate transmission and distribution infrastructure prevents optimal deployment of the available power resource.

Kenyan industrialists put it more bluntly. For them, exceptionally expensive electricity is among the main causes of manufacturer and investor migration to neighbouring countries. Given the comparatively low-cost hydro and geothermal power in the system, they have long expected reduced power costs. And this is a something the government has long promised but been unable to deliver.

Although murky deals have much to do with the problem, two factors drive continued high consumer power prices. First, we can thank the unbundled power sector. In 1996, at the behest of the international community, Kenya unbundled its power sector. According to a logic pushed by the World Bank, separate companies would independently manage costs, raise finance and increase competition. They would build management efficiency and help to overcome corruption and debt accumulation. Separated entities would enable Kenya Power to place the burden of electricity costs firmly on the shoulders of consumers as there is no subsidy in the payment formulas used to calculate consumer bills.

The unbundling of the power sector and the incorporation of IPPs had a number of positive outcomes. But they did not put to rest the central problems facing the Kenya power sector, nor did they reduce energy costs.

Second, for high power prices, we can thank diesel-fueled thermal power generators. These generators, which are necessary to meet peak loads and supply power when drought reduces hydropower output, add disproportionate long-term costs to power supply. Though they usually supply less than 15 per cent of the overall supply capacity, their costs to consumers (via fuel cost charges) make up an outsized part of the monthly consumer bill.

Kenya Power: An ignoble history 

The unbundling of the power sector and the incorporation of IPPs had a number of positive outcomes. But they did not put to rest the central problems facing the Kenya power sector, nor did they reduce energy costs. To understand the situation today, it helps to review the sector’s past and how the donor-sanctioned unbundling of power altered its course.

At independence, East Africa Power Company Limited (EAPCL), a Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed company, included generation systems in Nairobi, Mombasa and the Tanganyika Electricity Supply Company (that became Tanesco). In 1954, the Kenya Power Company had built transmission lines to connect Kenya to Uganda’s Owen Falls Dam. In 1964, EAPCL sold its stake in Tanesco and it was much later renamed Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC). Initially, most of its power generation was from the Tana River Development Company and hydropower accounted for 72 per cent of the country’s electricity.

The development of Kenya’s vast geothermal potential began in 1981 when the European Investment Bank kick-started the drilling of the Olkaria wells. After the first successful geothermal projects, many other financiers followed.

During the Daniel arap Moi era, high-level cartels used the energy sector investments to build political power and business empires and to fund political campaigns. Between 1983 and 1992, the power sector was plagued by scandals that had repercussions on the rest of the economy and which affected relationships with donor partners and investors. Multiple shady deals from the period, such as the Turkwell Gorge and the Ewaso Ngiro dam feasibility (it was never built), are still debated. Whatever the reality of these still-disputed deals, an outcome of the mismanagement was the withdrawal of donor support for the power sector. Following the Turkwell Gorge saga, a consultative donors’ group meeting (which included the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) imposed an embargo on Kenya’s energy sector, which stalled international power project investments for almost a decade.

The World Bank and the donor community re-engaged with Kenya in 1996 with a plan to restructure the energy sector. The programme, which was part of global World Bank liberalisation initiatives, would pressure state-owned electricity companies to “unbundle” production, distribution, transmission and regulation. This resulted in the privatisation of power production to KenGen and independent power producers. KPLC was responsible for distribution and transmission and for creating an Energy Regulatory Commission to oversee the sector. The international community anticipated that unbundling would improve the overall management of the sector, increase transparency, expand opportunities for international investment in power projects, and lower prices.

Unlike other regional power sectors (e.g. South Africa, Tanzania, and Ethiopia), Kenya eagerly went along with unbundling, perhaps because it saw business prospects in this restructuring. However, under the new rules, the same cartels responsible for tarnished projects in the previous decade contrived new opportunities for themselves. Focusing on thermal power, insiders profited hugely from the entrance of new IPPs into the unbundled sector.

Contracts for thermal generation companies are attractive; it is almost impossible for IPP players to lose money. First, simply for being there, IPPs receive a “capacity charge”, paid according to the size of the generator. Whether or not they are deployed, contracts stipulate that the IPP is paid for being on standby and ready to supply power. Secondly, all thermal IPPs are paid per kilowatt-hours supplied at a fixed rate that is well above that paid for hydro or geothermal power providers. Thirdly, IPPs receive a “fuel pass-through payment” to cover the costs of fuel purchased. (Unsurprisingly, most thermal IPP companies come from the same business ecosystems as petroleum companies.)

From the very start, the processes of awarding thermal IPP contracts were contentious. There were conflicts of interest in ownership, unusual tendering procedures and allegations of insider trading. During poor rainfall periods in 1999 and 2000, diesel plants made money and consumers suffered. In 2000, while KPLC and KenGen flirted with insolvency, the government had to take an emergency $72 million loan to pay for fuel for generator IPPs. A 2003 parliamentary investigation committee blamed KPLC for mismanaging water from dams and creating artificial power shortages to boost thermal power generator sales.

Starting in 2008, and with the support of donor partners, the government introduced standard feed-in tariffs for wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and biogas, which would attract renewable IPPs. However, the feed-in tariffs did not fast track wind or solar. Instead, between 2008 and 2016, petroleum-fueled IPP and KenGen generation rose from 22 per cent to 35 per cent of the overall generation capacity, while by 2016 wind (from Ngong) amounted to less than 1 per cent of the installed capacity.

If the objectives of unbundling of the sector was to open up opportunities, in the 15 years that followed, it was mainly IPP thermal generation players that benefited from these opportunities. As noted earlier, geothermal power sources also increased significantly during this period, but consumers mostly were impacted by the costs of the long-term agreements signed with thermal IPPs that continue to haunt the sector until today.

Under pressure from the private sector to reduce prices and improve sector performance, the Jubilee administration has made some progress. Several new geothermal plants have been added, Turkana wind and Garissa solar are in place, and there is a considerable pipeline of projects on the way. But the litany of power sector maladministration continues. Sector agencies have been accused of procurement abuses on goods that range from poles to transformers, prepaid meters and drilling rigs. Employees set up “tenderpreneur” companies to do inside deals. On what seems like a daily basis, journalists report on the corruption and leakages in the sector.

From the very start, the processes of awarding thermal IPP contracts were contentious. There were conflicts of interest in ownership, unusual tendering procedures and allegations of insider trading.

So, even though power purchase agreements are being signed, capacity is being added and poles are being strung, the sector’s leaders have not brought down prices. Kenya’s power is still three times as expensive as power in Ethiopia and sector governance remains opaque and inefficient. Consumers are being warned by the regulator that prices are likely to rise.

Centralised or decentralised power: That is the question

The Kenyan government’s plan to address expensive power is to increase supply and to renegotiate unwieldy Power purchase agreements (PPA). However, in response to high prices and continued supply problems, and, in a trend that may foreshadow the future, local industry is exploring alternatives that allow them to control their own power supplies.

If the grid doubles in size in five years, Kenya Power will have to buy this power and sell it to consumers. With recent solar, wind and geothermal additions, and with another 400 MW from Ethiopia, the Kenya grid will have a growing oversupply of power.

Jubilee’s Big 4 industrial agenda requires low-cost electricity for urbanisation, population growth and economic development. Its political platform promised major power supply additions from the start, and its Least Cost Power Development Plan calls for 3000 MW additions that will double the current grid size by 2024. This includes scores of planned KenGen and IPP projects in wind (Kipeto, Ngong Phase III, Chania, Prunus, Meru), solar (Kopere, Alten Malindi, Quaint, Gitaru and others), geothermal (over 1000MW) and coal (Lamu). But even if all of the above power projects can be completed more cost-effectively and with less political influence than in the past, it is not clear that increased supply will reduce power costs. In 2019, current peak demand is just above 1800MW, compared to a healthy production capacity of about 2500MW.

If the grid doubles in size in five years, Kenya Power will have to buy this power and sell it to consumers. With recent solar, wind and geothermal additions, and with another 400 MW from Ethiopia, the Kenya grid will have a growing oversupply of power. Globally, few economies anywhere have expanded fast enough to double power demand in less than a decade and Kenya’s economy today is not poised for double-digit growth. An oversupply of power will create more, not less, problems for Kenya Power and its consumers. This comes at a time when Uganda and Ethiopia also have oversupplies and are looking to sell their surplus power. Common sense says that if the economy took 60 years to grow demand for a 2600MW grid, it will not be able to absorb an additional 3000MW in less than a decade.

Meanwhile, unhappy with expensive and often unreliable power, big customers have begun to produce power on site for their own needs at financed prices that are more attractive than Kenya Power rates. On the order of 25MW of embedded power has been installed in Kenya in the past five years, mostly in the form or solar PV but also from biogas and geothermal sources. In 2019, an additional 20 MW is likely be added. Malls, flower farms, factories, tea estates and universities are taking up embedded solar systems because they are reliable, they help control costs, they meet growing consumer demand for green power and they increase productivity. As shown in Table 2, companies are finding that they can manage their energy costs in ways that support their bottom line – at prices that are lower than Kenya Power rates.

Table 2: Selected Embedded Solar PV Projects in Kenya

Table 2: Selected Embedded Solar PV Projects in Kenya

Although thus far the tally of embedded solar power projects is relatively small, the trend should be of concern to power sector leaders. This is because the top 6,000 power consumers (i.e. those consuming 15,000 kWh/mo) account for about 60 per cent of Kenya Power revenues. These players are watching the early adopters and meeting with the financiers and installers of embedded power systems. Trends for self-production of power will not go away.

With the rapidly decreasing costs of solar, wind, biogas and energy storage technologies, producing one’s own power is increasingly viable. Globally, scores of companies are developing technologies and raising finance that can make consumers energy independent and enable them to sell excess power to the grid. Indeed, embedded solar and biogas and, increasingly, battery storage, are being actively promoted for industries, commercial establishments and households in developed countries. National power production profile curves in California, Germany and Australia now show impressive inputs from wind and solar power. A large portion of these are from household and commercial systems. As batteries get cheaper, more customers will opt to manage their own energy supply. As technology improves and costs go down, decisions will increasingly be driven by company (and household) bottom lines.

A Green New Deal for Kenya?

Although Kenya’s new Energy Act allows for net metering and distributed generation (i.e. self- production of power and sales of excess to the grid), the government and Kenya Power have been less enthusiastic about promoting embedded power. As elaborated above, the government’s focus is on centralised generation projects. This is unfortunate because it is clear that, globally, a tipping point is near. Lower-cost renewables and storage are changing things quickly, enabling large companies and developments to fully manage their own power production and, moreover, to remove part of the financing burden from the state and IPPs.

The biggest question facing the power sector is this: How will it lower costs, compete and improve overall performance for a population promised 100 per cent electricity access in a global business environment where customers can increasingly generate their own power more efficiently than the power company? To survive, the power sector must anticipate changing technologies and business models or it is likely to suffer some of the same consequences that land line telephones did when they were overwhelmed by cellular technology.

Globally, whether East Africa likes it or not, the world is entering the sunset stages of the fossil fuel age and power sector business environments are unfolding very differently than they were just a few years ago. They are moving toward distributed power technologies that can improve grid stability, create jobs and add economic value. In order to fight climate change and clean up the environment, international leaders are looking to green technologies, electric cars and renewably-powered smart and decentralised grids. The good news is that this is no longer science fiction – it is reality.

Rather than fight the inevitable, Kenya – which already has a reputation for having a “green power sector” – should become a regional leader for decentralised clean energy and plan for it. Just as was done with cellular phone networks, power sector planners should rethink their strategies so as to embrace the new realities.

First, power sector planners should move away from IPP-driven exclusively large-scale project approaches that are top-down, opaque and, increasingly outdated. Though economies of scale and stable power requirements demand that there will always be large-scale power suppliers, there is also a need to recognise the developing niches for smaller decentralised power providers and the ways in which they can help improve the overall grid.

Second, planners should give consumers a larger stake in the sector and encourage them to finance and produce their own energy. Large consumers using decentralised solar, geothermal and storage should be incentivised to supply their own power and to sell their excess power to the grid. Since such large consumers make up the bulk of Kenya Power’s demand, their decisions will increasingly affect the prices and power generation choices of millions of smaller commercial and household consumers.

Thirdly, by opening up the sector, and setting targets for smaller-scale decentralised and embedded solar, wind, biogas, geothermal and storage, planners will create jobs for the financiers, developers, manufacturers and installers of these technologies. In developed economies, decentralised solar players create far more jobs than large-scale power projects, jobs that are high quality and available for local small and medium enterprise players. Given the right policy environment, the Kenyan private sector is well-equipped to move into this space and to develop new efficient business models.

Fourth, the power sector should focus on its core business: efficiently distributing and transmitting power. Many recognise that unless considerable improvements are made in the country’s distribution and transmission infrastructure, generation capacity will be added in vain. Kenya Power – and the central investments in its infrastructure – need to be targeted at poorly performing parts of the distribution and transmission system. By allowing decentralised producers to add needed capacity, the power sector can simultaneously refocus its investments on Transmission and distribution improvements and reduce the need for expensive upgrades to sites where energy is self-produced.

Finally, Kenya should seek to be the hub for international electrification connections between Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and SADC markets. By building up the transmission connections between these countries, it will increase local electricity supplies, lower prices and increase income opportunities from the wheeling of electricity between countries. Lower priced electricity, especially from Ethiopia, will force down prices and enable local industry, and eventually stimulate the inevitable transition to electric transport.

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Mark Hankins is a writer, consultant and green energy engineer based in Nairobi Kenya.

Ideas

Let’s Keep Universities but Do Away With Degrees

If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society.

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Let's Keep Universities but Do Away With Degrees
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After two decades of the neoliberal gutting down of Kenyan universities, Kenya’s president has now gone for universities’ jugular. He has cut off the university as as a route for social advancement among the non-elite class. The slicing of the jugular came with the recent university admissions when the government announced that more than a half of them would be turned into technical programmes and institutions. At first, the government announced this move as a choice of the students themselves, but later on, it became evident that many students were caught by surprise.

Kenyan universities have maintained a semblance of independence from direct patronage by Kenya’s aristocracy. As long as universities have existed in Kenya, and especially after the expansion of university education by Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, a child from a village had a shot in the Kenyan imagination of becoming next in line to the presidency. (For the moment, the integrity of the process is not considered here.) Now that President Uhuru Kenyatta has ditched his deputy, he has got his bureaucratic robots to slice the jugular of Kenya’s schooling system and let it bleed to death.

As is to be expected, the Kenyan media has celebrated the event, thus becoming the conduit for fairly unbelievable stories that clothed Kenya’s feudal politics in the parlance of employment and The Market (as opposed to the regular markets that we all love). Like clockwork, the media published headlines such as “Are degrees no longer hot?”, wrote op-eds justifying technical and vocational education and training (TVET) as a better alternative to a regular university degree, or held town hall meetings that gave a semblance of public participation by fielding questions from youth who had clearly not understood that they are pawns in a system that just does not care about them. This move will not surprise anyone with knowledge of the aristocratic class system in Kenya and the neoliberal turn of the 1980s. It has been a long time coming.

Missionaries, colonial settlers and the colonial state

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil, dubbing, for example, herbal medicine as “witchcraft,” and all the while shipping indigenous knowledge and crafts to London.

When formal British education was introduced to Kenya, there was tension between the competing interests of the missionaries, the colonial settlers and the colonial state. The missionaries were primarily interested in converts, and so reading was essential to their education. The settlers, however, were interested only in manual labour, and were frustrated that the colonial government was not forcing Africans to work on the huge tracts of land that had been dispossessed from Africans. They were therefore hostile to schooling beyond trade schools, and accepted formal education for Africans only on the promise that the inclusion of Christian religious education would ensure that Africans remained compliant with the colonial interests.

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil…

It is from the colonial settlers that Kenya inherited the narrative that education would make Africans unable to do manual work (or what today is called “useful” or “relevant to the market”), because all the African would acquire from education is big ideas and a desire for the status of the Europeans. And, from a certain perspective, the settlers were not wrong. In a stratified system such as colonial society, being at the bottom of the hierarchy, as Africans were, meant a cruel life of dispossession, forced labour and taxes. Africans could not be enticed to go to school if there was no carrot in the form of exemption from this oppressive life. And once that door was opened, it would only be a matter of time before Africans demanded, as Frantz Fanon famously said in The Wretched of the Earth, “to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible.”

There was a second element of truth to the settlers’ fears. The settlers were familiar with the fact that even in the belly of the empire, aristocratic education had the effect of paralysing one’s thoughts and sense of reality. In Victorian England, the industrialists complained that aristocratic education from prestigious public schools and Oxbridge had rendered their children incapable of running the companies their parents expected the children to inherit.

The settlers did not need to point to London to see the truth of this: the bulk of the colonial administration was made up of graduates of elite British schools, and even the settlers called their own colonial administration stifling and suffocating. The list of complaints by the British settlers are depressingly similar to the complaints that a Kenyan today would make: the government borrowing loans at high interest rates, failing to address the economic depression, moribund, “dependent on an uninstructed electorate situated 6000 miles away, and characterised by a continuous epidemic of public meetings, which produce much eloquence, heady talk and little practical benefit to the [white settler] community as a whole”.

The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst.

The aristocratic values which the settlers were wary of would return to Kenya in the 1980s when the World Bank proposed to African Vice-Chancellors to eliminate universities, since African countries needed basic education, not higher education. The audacity of the proposal notwithstanding, it is hardly surprising that the university administrators would not comply and phase themselves out of a job. But later, as Ayesha Imam and Amina Mama report in their book chapter, “The role of intellectuals in limiting and expanding academic freedom”, the World Bank got their wish by starving African universities of money and going to the extreme of demanding that purchases of books and journals be first approved by the Bank.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

To see that the complaint of “useless” and elitist graduates has not changed a century later gives us food for thought. But it is not as disturbing as the fact that Kenyan citizens today are strange bedfellows with colonial settlers and British industrialists, sharing the same complaints about the Kenyan ex-colonial state and its aristocratic schooling system. When communities of different geographies, cultures and political inclinations have the same complaint about university graduates, it is time for academics to abandon the old strategy of accusing society of not understanding what university education is for. We need to either concede that society is right, or we explain the truth.

I choose the latter.

Justifying why Kenyans don’t need university education

To explain the mess of the system that is now receiving its last kick from the president, I will address three justifications for the bizarre turn of events in university education:

  1. People shouldn’t get degrees because there is no employment.
  2. Degrees make graduates become employment seekers rather than employers.
  3. Degrees do not give Kenyans skills which are “useful” or “relevant” to The Market, such as entrepreneurial skills for business or technical skills for building infrastructure.

The lack of employment justification

This justification should be fairly easy to explain by pointing out that the availability of employment is an economic, rather than an educational, function. In Kenya, however, this argument routinely falls on deaf ears for psychological and ideological reasons.

Psychologically, tackling the economy is too daunting for simple minds fed on the Anglo-American logic of easy and instant solutions to complex and long-term problems. It would require addressing the political economy, being an active citizen and making certain demands politically.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In contrast, blaming schools for unemployment is comforting. The majority of the school population is made up of minors who cannot speak back, and of teachers who are fairly powerless in terms of employment conditions and even the syllabus, especially in these neoliberal times when teaching has been transformed into slavery by managerial and regulatory regimes of accountability.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market. Unfortunately, the trade union movement has been too paralysed to come up with an effective counter-argument, and those who are still in permanent employment have failed to establish worker solidarity with their colleagues suffering on gig terms.

In any case, there is an argument to be made against using educational accomplishment for employment. The reliance of employers on academic certificates is a form of discrimination, since those who are employed will always be those with the resources to get an education. Reliance on academic achievement also makes the school system subsidise employers by sparing them the cost of equipping their employees with the requisite skills.

Any country that has a backbone should tell businesses to shut up and train their own employees at their own cost. But in this era of state capture, that is unlikely to happen.

The education for employment justification

It is important to clarify that employment was never the immediate goal of the British-oriented university education system that Kenya inherited. In Victorian England, university education and admission through the examination system were primarily a tool of assimilation for the rising middle classes into the aristocracy. It was through the university system that members of the middle class gained access to the social and symbolic power of European aristocracy, which remains the source of cultural legitimation in today’s world. In turn, the middle classes were offered an opportunity to become part of the burgeoning British Empire. As a consequence, most of the colonial administrators were graduates of public schools and Oxbridge, and even now, the rising inequality in Britain has been attributed to the fact that this same cohort still dominates British politics and institutions.

Similarly, university education in Kenya was an opportunity to be assimilated into the colonial state. The first university graduates were the children of Chief Koinange, a colonial collaborator. One of his children, Mbiyu, received education from elite schools in three continents: Alliance High School in Kenya, London School of Economics in the UK and Columbia University in the US. He was also a Rhodes scholar at the University of Cambridge. He later became the brother-in-law of the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and was in the president’s core cabinet for most of his life in independent Kenya.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market.

With the outbreak of the Mau Mau war in the 1950s, and with the rise of the United States as a global power, the British government jacked up the availability of university education to raise a Kikuyu middle class that would provide the civil servants for the colonial state. After independence, the first president saw the university as fulfilling precisely the same role, and as Mwenda Kithinji argues in his brilliant book, The State and the University Experience in East Africa: Colonial Foundations and Postcolonial Transformations in Kenya, the first president had no intention to expand university education since he had the Kikuyu elites that he needed. The second president, a member of a minority ethnic group, then expanded university education in order to widen the Kenyan middle class to include people from other ethnic groups. It is therefore wishful thinking, if not delusion, for Kenyans to believe that the government schooling system was ever about employment. The schools have always been about class status and power.

However, the popular belief in education for employment is understandable, because the expansion of the control of the (ex)colonial state and global capital by the British and Kenyan elite was experienced by ordinary Kenyans as employment.

But almost 60 years after independence, there is no longer a need for the Kenyan elite to provide Kenyans with university education. In the 1960s, when there were not enough British-educated Kenyans to run the civil service, the Kenyan elites were the first generation in their families to go to British schools. . Today, however, there are enough British-educated Kenyans to run the ex-colonial state. The children of the elite are in power, and they also have children and grandchildren whom they want to ascend to power. Moreover, the inequality in Kenya’s education system necessarily means that those who perform well are children of middle-class parents who can afford private school education and can take over the bureaucracy and civil service through patronage, rather than through academic achievement.

The elites of Kenya, whom the current education system serves, have enough of their children and relatives to work in government, and enough of second-generation middle-class children to do their work. With families of a minimum of four wives and dozens of children, the elites have enough personnel.

Moreover, the elites cannot afford an educated Kenyan population outside of government. The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst. The goal of the government education system in Kenya has never been employment. Employment was simply a side effect. And employment seekers were not supposed to be ordinary Kenyans; they were supposed to be the elites entering top government posts through family ties and club networks.

The “useful” and “relevant” skills justification

Given this history of the imperial education system, it is almost laughable that university scholars have sought to justify themselves as providing skills that are useful for graduates in The Market. That said, it is a lie to which I dedicated a significant part of my career, until I realised that studying the arts can never be “marketable” in an anti-human economic and political system.

That aside, the fantasy of making university education appear “relevant” has been a public relations exercise in which even the British academy was engaged in the 19th century after industrialists complained that universities were not training their sons to take over the family industries from their fathers. In fact, John Brown argued in 1970 that the British elite university could not find a strong enough argument to defend the imperial education based on the Roman and Greek classics. However, it won over the industrialists by what he calls “the parlance of advertising” and an “imaginative sales effort”. Rather than argue for university education on its own merit, the universities assimilated the critique about their lack of “practical skills”, and claimed that elite class manners were a skill in and of themselves.

To put it simply, the universities told the business elite that they needed knowledge and habits of aristocrats for them to be “successful”. It was not enough to make money; one had to be sophisticated and convincing, able to talk across cultures and social class.

Before my road to Damascus conversion, I made this same laughable argument myself. Now when I think of it, this defence of university education belongs to the same whatsapp group as the products of business coaches and motivational speakers who promise “soft skills”, like how to speak convincingly, how to make an elevator pitch, how to dress to look presentable, and all other forms of self-improvement for The Market. We academics making those arguments are no different from those who give tutorials on how to have English “afternoon tea the correct way”.

We should do away with universities – as they are now

If universities, as they currently stand, are useful only to the elites, it should come as no surprise that the elites are now destroying them. After all, the universities are theirs.

But rather than fight for universities to remain public institutions in their current form, we the people need to fight for them to become truly public by removing degree programmes and turning them into a space for knowledge and culture. We should break down the walls of admissions and examinations. We should diversify and increase opportunities for people to learn through cultural centres, festivals and public libraries. We should make public engagement, like dialogues under a tree, and visits to what Odero Oruka called “sage philosophers” a part of formal education. For skills training, we could resort to apprenticeships as a way to enter a profession and facilitate peer review as a way to improve services.

Two things must definitely be removed from the university as an institution: 1) certification; and 2) the interference and regulation in university education by the state. Both have reduced university education to a cynical process of gaining papers to access elite status and titles, and of measuring outcomes and indicators like a balance sheet.

Most of all, we must remove the institution of the imperial elite, which is made up of people who gain wealth and power through their manipulation and control of the commons – land, natural resources, labour and knowledge.

​Africa may not always have offered degrees, but it has had universities for millennia. We can do away with degrees and retain universities. If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society. Right now, universities are hardly different from members-only clubs for those who survive the hazing ritual of examinations and gain the right to become snobs who undermine democracy and social justice for the rest of their lives.

​But to scuttle such fundamental and dynamic reforms to education, the economy and politics, the president has now sacrificed the dreams of an entire generation of Kenyan youth – however contradictory those dreams may be – in order to sustain the exploitative social status of his family and the ruling elite. This situation is not only unjust; it is also untenable.

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Reimagining Home in a Time of COVID

COVID-19 has compelled us to think about the home as an enclosed political economy. The pandemic has placed an additional strain on the caregiving role and labour of women, who have been disproportionally affected by domestic and other forms of violence. What might a just home in a post-COVID future look like?

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Reimagining Home in a Time of COVID
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One of the contradictions of the past few weeks is that while we have become isolated within our own borders, neighbourhoods and homes, we have also become joined globally in the incantation of new words: social distancing; lockdown; quarantine; curfew; shielding. To this list of what the Welsh Marxist theorist Raymond Williams might call our COVID keywords, we must also insist on adding evictions, demolitions, and forced internal migrations, all of which have unfolded before our eyes in the first pandemic to occur in the age of social media.

At a recent webinar on Africa and the Pandemic, ROAPE’s Heike Becker described African governments as being more intent on flattening houses than on flattening the curve. I was provoked by this to revisit the literature on domicide, a word used to describe the deliberate destruction of homes and the suffering of those who dwell in them. In this pandemic, there has been an under-theorisation of the meaning of home. Instrumentally, instructions to stay at home were not made on the basis of careful knowledge of how homes function as what Kathleen Lynch, John Baker and Maureen Lyons have described as enclosed places or political economies.

Feminists have long argued that affective relations and the conditions under which reproductive labour is provided are neglected and under-researched. This failure risks making the attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19 not just instrumentally unworkable but also unjust.

Olu Timehin Adegbeye has written that the World Health Organization (WHO) is “promoting social distancing as an essential response to this pandemic, forgetting that there are many parts of the world where this single solution is contextually inadequate or even dangerous”. As Tshepo Mdlingozi pointed out when he wrote in relation to South Africa, “spatial colonialism makes it impossible and inhumane to enforce a lockdown in shack settlements”.

COVID has also thrown up critical existential questions about what we talk about when we talk about home. David Ndii has written that the Kenya authorities have an assumption that everyone has a true rural home. This has meant that working people and the urban poor are treated as temporary residents of the city who have no rights to the city – an assumption with deep colonial roots. In India, the authorities announced a lockdown that Arundhati Roy has described as “towns and megacities…extrud[ing] their working-class citizens — their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual”. (In contrast, India’s repatriation by air of its overseas citizens has been meticulously organised.)

Feminists have long argued that affective relations and the conditions under which reproductive labour is provided are neglected and under-researched. This failure risks making the attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19 not just instrumentally unworkable but also unjust.

When the stay-at-home orders were made, little thought was given to what it means to ask poor families to educate children from home in overcrowded conditions at a time when care work is itself risky, disproportionately exposing women to greater risks of the disease.

Our failure to imagine the homes of others is all the more striking because for those with access to technology, we are able to look into the homes of others for the first time. Virtual meetings challenge the notion of home as enclosed, private spaces.

Similarly, some of us have spoken frankly and sometimes for the first time about our family commitments and how our jobs are built on an unencumbered male breadwinner model now thrown into disarray. The instruction by our employers to “work from home” was striking: what do we imagine has been going on in homes other than work?

The pandemic has made responsibilities for care work more visible while increasing its quantity as women try to do their jobs whilst simultaneously looking after those in their home. The under-theorisation of what takes place in the home was evident in other ways, from the neglect of a shadow pandemic of domestic violence to the lack of awareness about the ways of life of multigenerational homes where shielding the elderly is not practical or where older people have long established roles in relation to care, quarantine and the dying.

Our failure to imagine the homes of others is all the more striking because for those with access to technology, we are able to look into the homes of others for the first time. Virtual meetings challenge the notion of home as enclosed, private spaces.

The pandemic should compel us to think more clearly about the home as a political economy. It has made visible and at the same time put under additional strain the work of social reproduction, that is, the socially necessary labour expended to provide food, clothing, and shelter. That little value is attached to this caregiving role is not natural but the outcome of political choices.

Caregiving and emotional labour are unequally distributed. They fall disproportionately on women and most of all on minority women, the poorly paid and the precarious. They subordinate women in society.

Women have, of course, struggled against that subordination. This is, for instance, richly evoked in Luise White’s study of early Nairobi, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi, which showed how women provided care labour for men in return for pay “in imitation of marriage” and then went on to use the proceeds of that labour to become independent property owners in a growing city. As one woman quoted in the book stated, “I built this house on my back.”

The gulf between the homes of the rich and the poor in the cities of the Global South has meant that whilst many cocoon at home in safety, with adequate food and access to plentiful resources, (purchases of luxury cars in Kenya have shot up since the beginning of the pandemic: the car too functions as enclosed space), in other parts of the city, women are caring for people without pay, taking care of loved ones, “provisioning supplies, and finding ways to offset the enormous economic and social burdens of this time’”.

At the same time, women have borne the brunt of the violence directed towards their homes. The pandemic has confirmed Patrick McAuslan assertion that the bulldozer is often “the principal tool of planning’”. Evictions in Kenya have taken place in defiance of court orders.

The militarisation of cities such as Nairobi and Johannesburg has led to an increase in rape and sexual violence. Women are safe neither from intimate partners nor from strangers in the form of police prowling the streets during curfews.

Central to a just response to COVID must be the work of reimagining what is needed to sustain a just home. Foremost amongst these is an economy that recognises, redistributes and compensates the labour that is essential to sustaining us. A better understanding of the labour needed to reproduce a home and ensure its survival during a pandemic must be carried forward into the future to ensure that the home thrives. A starting point is to recognise the differential impact of violence, repression, precarity, sickness and domicide on women in a time of COVID.

Central to a just response to COVID must be the work of reimagining what is needed to sustain a just home. Foremost amongst these is an economy that recognises, redistributes and compensates the labour that is essential to sustaining us.

Recovery should not mean a return to normal but should entail thinking about the ways in which the normal of others has been invisible to us, as Hannah Cross and Leo Zeilig remind us by asking: “Is not the experience of life with the Covid-19 outbreak, now being felt for the first time in many generations in the Global North, the common experience of life and death in the South?”

The Hawai’i state commission on the status of women, presenting its proposals for a feminist economic recovery from COVID-19, argues that we must speak “not only about response and recovery, but also of repair and revival: repair of historic harms and intergenerational trauma playing out as male domination, gender-based violence, economic insecurity, poor health and mass incarceration”.

What might a just home in a post-COVID future look like?

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy journal

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Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past. One outcome of this has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs. In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs.

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Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship
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In the last three decades, scholarly interest on entrepreneurship has exploded outside the traditional quantitative disciplines of economics and business studies. This is traceable to the global ascent of neoliberal capitalism, which has drawn remote corners of the world into global webs of capital and substituted self-help entrepreneurship with state-directed ameliorative economic projects. Humanists and qualitative social scientists have brought much-needed critical perspectives to bear on the study of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.

One of the legacies of this humanisation of entrepreneurship studies is the extension of the observational and analytical lens to the Global South, a region of the world simultaneously regarded as a place dominated by a poverty-incubating pre-capitalist economic ethos and as a fertile ground for recruiting new entrepreneurs. The emphasis on producing indigenous entrepreneurs emanates from an assumption that Africa lacks capitalism and capitalist relations of production, an assumption that Horman Chitonge debunks. There is also a need to deconstruct paradigmatic understandings of not just capitalism but also of entrepreneurship, the supposed means to capitalism in Africa.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty. The escalation of poverty in Africa from the 1980s, itself partly a product of neoliberal reforms, ironically opened the door to the neoliberal veneration of entrepreneurship as a remedy for mass poverty. Many anti-poverty interventions in Africa today seek to remake Africans into rural and urban entrepreneurs through instruments such as microfinance, revolving credit, and cooperative lending.

Economic messiahs

The proliferation of entrepreneurial projects in Africa in the neoliberal moment inspired unprecedented Africanist scholarly interest in entrepreneurship, enterprise, innovation, African capitalism (or Africapitalism) and the culture of self-help. As new groups of entrepreneurs emerged on the continent and engaged in a variety of capitalist, wealth-creating activities, Africanist scholars from a variety of fields began to develop new vocabularies and concepts to explain this entrepreneurial wave. This scholarly corpus has been illuminating, but it has also been plagued by conceptual imprecision and confusion.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty.

The problem, as I want to show in this reflection, was that the Africanist entrepreneurial perspective that emerged had blind spots imposed by dominant formulations developed to understand entrepreneurial cultures in Euro-American contexts. There are two other inter-related problems. One is a failure to develop an analytical toolkit that accommodates the capacious and amorphous entrepreneurial lives of Africans who were pigeonholed into the new neoliberal category of the entrepreneur. The second is a failure to adequately critique the exuberant, self-assured discourse of entrepreneurs as economic messiahs and replacements for the economic responsibilities of the dysfunctional African state.

The first problem turns on the deployment of notions and definitions derived from the dominant Schumpeterian perspective on entrepreneurship. Joseph Schumpeter’s major contribution to the study of entrepreneurship lies in going beyond understanding the entrepreneur as one who had the skill to “combine the factors of production” and situating the entrepreneur in a more ambitious project of disrupting the process of value-creation. Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not just in personal terms but also in terms of corporate agency, of the aggregate transformative impact of multiple, simultaneous, or successive entrepreneurial initiatives. Unlike other theorists, Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not as a manager but as a catalyst, an innovator. Clearly, the empirical setting of Schumpeter’s theorisation is a European industrial one, giving his postulations a decidedly Eurocentric flavour.

The Schumpeterian paradigm applies to the innovatively disruptive capacities of some contemporary African industrial entrepreneurs. However, this explanatory model is problematic when called upon to illuminate the activities and priorities of other African entrepreneurs outside the capitalist industrial matrix. The Schumpeterian explanation does not know what to do with Africans whose enterprise consists not of the familiar portfolios of our modern capitalist imagination but rather of an eclectic corpus of holdings embracing the social, political, artisanal, and economic realms.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result. Our love of neat, hard categories and vocational identifiers have stifled our ability to appreciate the full range of African entrepreneurship. As a historian, my frame of reference is the African past and that is where I’d like to go to develop this contention.

Entrepreneurship in precolonial Africa

In precolonial Africa, entrepreneurship was not a narrow, bounded vocation. Instead, entrepreneurship manifested in particular ways of doing things, and in any organised activity that promised personal or communal rewards. In this capacious definitional universe, enterprising warriors were entrepreneurs. They transformed the art of warfare from a regimented, sporadic activity to one with its own routines and protocols. Historian Uyilawa Usualele’s chapter in my edited volume, Entrepreneurship in Africa, rightly argues for a recognition of the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Benin warlords, spiritual consultants, priests, and religious purveyors whose repertoire included the professionalisation and deft organisation of multiple social vocations. Their sophisticated endeavour, as Uyilawa demonstrates, entailed the adoption of business management principles that we today associate with entrepreneurs.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result.

Warrior guilds, whether in precolonial Ibadan, Asante, Dahomey, Buganda or Zulu, were sites of entrepreneurship. When systematised and conceptualised as a professional business venture, as it was in many precolonial African kingdoms, warring involved planning, management, delegation, tasks, goals, deliverables, compensation, the creation of value in the form of war spoils, the distribution of dividends, and reinvestment in processes that improved war making.

War making entailed post-operational accounting, the calculation of profits, and periodic stocktaking — in other words, elaborate formal and informal bookkeeping. It was a business, and the guilds, warrior cults, and military training programmes of precolonial African kingdoms were business schools of sorts. Many of today’s warlords are also conflict entrepreneurs, leveraging war as opportunities for profit.

I have chosen this unlikely example to illustrate my point that in Africa entrepreneurial pursuits were not and are still not wholly shaped by the narrow permutations of combining the forces of production — capital, labour, and knowledge — to produce a profit. The profit motive is not always central to entrepreneurial pursuits in the African context, although profit is an expected outcome of entrepreneurial acts. Furthermore, where present and clearly discernible as the primary catalyst in an enterprise, profit is articulated in less narrow terms than is posited in the economistic definitions of classical and neoliberal economic thought.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

Given this reality of multiple entrepreneurial trajectories and entwinements, it is perhaps more productive to speak of “entrepreneurial Africans” than of “African entrepreneurs”, a formulation at odds with the restrictive definitional criteria in normative capitalist thought. The term African entrepreneurs assumes a consistent, permanent occupational identity of people whose lives were consumed and defined solely by their entrepreneurial engagements. Entrepreneurial Africans advances a premise of entrepreneurial possibilities in multiple endeavours and professions.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

This complex picture is further compounded by the existence of several “non-capitalist” systems of production, as well as the prevalence of hybrid practices in which self-interested capitalist rationalities coexisted with an ethos of value and reward. If the Schumpeterian model and its derivatives are applied uncritically to African entrepreneurial formations, they raise the question of whether, for instance, entrepreneurs could emerge and thrive outside capitalist relations in a communal African economic setting and, if so, whether the relationship between capitalism and entrepreneurship, which we have long taken for granted, can be sustained in the African context. This question is important because it alerts Africanist scholars of personal and group economies to what they might lose, what analytical opportunities they might miss, and what complexities and realities they might occlude or misread when they accord overarching analytical finality to concepts developed in other places and circumstances and deployed to explain African conditions. Elisio Macamo insightfully makes a similar argument in regard to the concept of capitalism and its conceptual work in African social science scholarship.

The entrepreneurial independence that, even if only rhetorically, marked the evolution of capitalism in Europe, defined the Euro-American industrial experience, and catalysed the emergence of a distinct entrepreneurial class in that context contrasts with the African entrepreneurial historical landscape. In precolonial times, African entrepreneurs operated at the intersection of profit and power, commerce and culture. Profitmaking was coextensive with social obligations. Entrepreneurs were mindful of societal expectations on them. Society, in turn, recognised that entrepreneurs had special gifts that had to be nurtured and liberated from the sociopolitical routines of daily life. Entrepreneurial pursuits were for-profit endeavours for the most part but profits and service to society were coterminous, as chapters by Gloria ChukuMarta MussoMartin Shanguhyia, and Chambi Chachage in the aforementioned Entrepreneurship in Africa volume demonstrate.

Political power holders cultivated entrepreneurs and were entrepreneurs in their own right. Entrepreneurs, on their part, accessed the protective, logistical, and spiritual resources deposited in the political realm. Ultimately, the idea that individual profitmaking could and should coexist with the provision of societal benefit and that entrepreneurial projects should catalyse society’s economic potentials was an unwritten but well understood rule of commerce. Entrepreneurship, which was mobile and malleable, was the defining character of precolonial African political economy.

To speak of a political economy of entrepreneurship or an entrepreneurial political economy is to signal a uniquely African iteration of entrepreneurship in which the political and mercantile realms were and are in conversation and cooperation. The case of the precolonial Wangara mercantile network in West Africa is an example of the entwinement of value creation and political power. There is clearly a contemporary continuity to this reality. The most consequential and successful African entrepreneurs of today, such as Aliko Dangote, Strive Masiyiwa, Patrice Motsepe, Tony Elumelu, and others have direct or indirect tentacles in the realm of power and politics. Their business empires relate with host governments and political formations in ways that would offend contrived, self-righteous, and hypocritical business sensibilities in the West. Text-bookish neoliberal Western formulations proclaim the autonomies of the business and political spheres, but these autonomous zones do not exist in the West, as many corporate and political corruption scandals have revealed. Although open to perversion and corruption, in their most productive manifestations, African entrepreneurial cultures that recognise the field of play between economics and politics stand in distinction from the neoliberal obsession with the idea of separating business and politics or protecting entrepreneurs from the alleged meddling and market distortions of political actors.

African scholars, businesspeople, and policymakers in search of an African business ethos will do well to consider this African historical partnership between profit and people.

Globalised capital that empowers and privileges

My second point concerns the limit of entrepreneurship, which needs to be stressed to counterbalance the narrative of multipurpose amelioration that has developed around African entrepreneurship. We live in a neoliberal moment in which entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs are celebrated as potent economic agents and catalysts for poverty reduction and economic growth. Whether entrepreneurs deserve this outsized reputation in our interconnected and interdependent economic ecosystem is a legitimate question. When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others. We are ignoring the ways that global capitalist configurations undercut and complicate entrepreneurial possibilities and opportunities in Africa.

The conceptual impact of Africa’s long encounter with neoliberalism on discourses of African entrepreneurship is profound. The nexus of neoliberalism and entrepreneurship is not far-fetched. The neoliberal economic regime imposed on African economies by the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s and 1990s dictated an economic paradigm shift for African countries, one that redefined the relationships, obligations, and responsibilities between states and their citizens. One of the most remarkable outcomes of this shift has been the increasing dominance of the figure of the entrepreneur. A corollary development has been the substitution of entrepreneurial self-help for redistributive, reconstructive, and structural economic reforms.

When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others.

This lionisation of the entrepreneur is a symptom of a deeper rhetorical, philosophical, and policy gesture in the direction of producing citizen-entrepreneurs who pursue thrift and profits, creatively take charge of their own welfare, innovatively add value to the economy, and thus relieving the state of financial obligations. Neoliberal attempts to engineer into existence ideal entrepreneurial citizens that are self-reliant and removed from the nodes of state obligation were authorised by a new fetish of personal economic responsibility. These interventions absolved the African state of its developmental responsibilities, demanding that poor Africans pull themselves out of poverty by their own entrepreneurial bootstraps.

Neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past as one in which Africans were pampered by states and as a result ceased to create value through entrepreneurial activity. In truth, there was never such a cessation of entrepreneurial ingenuity in African communities. Nor did states, despite their paternalistic rhetoric and claims, provide robust welfare protections to citizens. Neoliberal entrepreneurial initiatives were cast against a foundational ignorance of the fact that value creation in most African societies is an organic social endeavor and not the intensely individualised enterprise intelligible to neoclassical and neoliberal frames of analysis. Birthed in this original misunderstanding of Africa, the political economy of neoliberalism has entrenched the entrepreneurial figure venerated by International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policy documents as the discursive referent in studies of African economic revival. One outcome has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs and to withhold that designation from others.

The damage done by the neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship is both discursive and practical. Important as entrepreneurs are to the present and future of Africa, all Africans cannot become entrepreneurs, at least not in the neoliberal sense of the word. This sober recognition, which is missing from most external economic reform prescriptions, ought to be a serious preoccupation of Africanist scholars of entrepreneurship. It is the task of Africanists who study capitalism, business, and entrepreneurship in Africa to modulate and critique the exaggerated instrumentalities of African entrepreneurship. This task is necessary to balance the analytical books because we have created a zero sum analytical calculus in which talking more about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial catalysts results in less talk about structural inequalities inherent in the global capitalist system into which Africans, to varying degrees, have long been integrated.

I want to conclude this reflection with a proposal wrapped in a critique. There is a need to develop a new mode of African scholarship on business and enterprise. This proposed new field of qualitative African business and entrepreneurial studies must necessarily adopt a relaxed analytical framework capable of exploring complex economic lives in ways that traditional scholarship in African economic history – with its neat dichotomies between worker and merchant, king and commoner, bourgeoisie and peasant – is incapable of doing. This kind of study should be able to analyse African entrepreneurial lives that cross class divides and socioeconomic categories.

Traditional debates in the field of African economic history have rarely acknowledged, let alone theorised, the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Africans in a sustained way and in terms independent of other categories of analysis. This erasure is particularly common in the field of colonial economic history. Neoclassical and neoliberal scholars of modern African economic history overstate the instrumental agency of African entrepreneurs. On the opposite side, neo-Marxist and dependency theorists shun or dismiss entrepreneurs as a petit bourgeoisie class undermining the revolutionary struggles of workers and peasants. By lionising or diminishing the figure of the African entrepreneur, the dominant schools of African economic history orphaned the African entrepreneur into a strange category where s/he is either overburdened with the task of saving dysfunctional economies or tossed aside as an economic saboteur.

In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs. What is lacking are stories of African entrepreneurship told by entrepreneurs themselves. We need African entrepreneurial stories curated by the entrepreneurs themselves or at least informed by their perspectives, their self-representation, and their understanding of their own struggles, aspirations, and visions. These stories have to go beyond “How I Made It” memoirs and autobiographies of entrepreneurial success and hagiographic scholarly narratives of problem-solving, self-redeeming African entrepreneurs.

Finally, the question of how we are telling the African entrepreneurship story is as important as who is telling it. The current triumphalist and hyperbolic tone of the conversation has produced a restrictive exercise in navel-gazing. It has also led to an explosion of self-validating, self-fulfilling rhetoric, in which the concept of entrepreneurship is not only advanced as a fail-safe substitute for the idea of the African developmental state posited compellingly by the late Thandika Mkandawire and others but is also used as a stand-in for more substantive debates about external and internal structural constraints on African development.

This article was first published by Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE).

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