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The Tech War between America and China and its Impact on Africa

8 min read. The United States’ ban on American companies from using Huawei technology has resulted in a global tech war that will have an impact on African countries, which are heavily dependent on Chinese telecommunications technology. Could African countries use this tech war to their advantage?

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The Tech War between America and China and its Impact on Africa
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Over the past few weeks, the trade war between the United States and China rapidly escalated when President Donald Trump’s administration took an extreme and unprecedented step against Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant. The US government declared a national emergency and issued an executive order banning American companies from using any technology that can pose a threat of espionage. The first foreign company that was included in this blacklist was Huawei, which was accused of acting on behalf of the Chinese government to undermine US national security.

Shortly after that, the American tech behemoth Google announced its decision to withhold its Android software from Huawei to prevent the Chinese company from exploiting vulnerabilities that could expose customers to serious cybersecurity and privacy risks. Other than just directly damaging Huawei’s smartphone business, this move set in motion the beginning of a technology Cold War that is quickly ramping up.

How is this global quarrel going to affect Africa?

Huawei is the largest cellphone provider in many African countries, such as South Africa, and has built at least 50 per cent of Africa’s 4G network, in addition to being a critical partner in many “smart city” projects. On the one hand, it’s in the best interest of African governments to maintain a good relationship with Google since this company is investing huge capital in developing Africa’s future artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. On the other hand, though, African countries’ dependence on China goes far beyond just telecommunications technology – today nearly 20 per cent of African governments’ external debt is owed to China, making this country the largest single creditor nation.

Huawei is the largest cellphone provider in many African countries, such as South Africa, and has built at least 50 per cent of Africa’s 4G network, in addition to being a critical partner in many “smart city” projects.

What does the future hold for Africa? Will this ongoing tech war force Africa to choose between the United States and China, or may it present an opportunity for this continent to play a relevant role in the global political scenario?

Trump’s trade war and the “national security threat” posed by Huawei

Why is Donald Trump barring US companies from engaging in telecommunications trade with Huawei and other foreign companies accused of jeopardising national security? And why did a global digital giant such as Google follow up by taking an even stronger position? There are a lot of reasons why the American president made such a bold and risky move, including curbing China’s apparently unstoppable technological advancement (especially in the AI field).

As Western societies, and America in particular, are facing a seemingly unstoppable cultural and political decline, it comes as no surprise that the global power balance is shifting in favour of the Russia/China axis. Many of the promises made by President Trump hold no substance so far, and many European forces see him as a threat to democracy and planetary stability. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, even went as far as comparing Trump’s language to that of “the fascists of the 20th century” just before the US president’s state visit to the United Kingdom. As the American giant is slowly crumbling under its own weight, Trump’s need for a new (real or perceived) enemy came in the form of a trade war against China, the only superpower that now threatens the US position as a global hegemon.

It all started in early 2018 when a team of government hackers from the Australian Signals Directorate had to evaluate the harmful potential of 5G. A powerful technology, 5G is able to allow users to move data up to 100 times faster than on current networks. It is a cornerstone of the upcoming Web 3.0 evolution that will integrate different devices, such as smart home appliance, driverless cars, and augmented reality (AR) devices.

However, all this new interconnectivity comes at a price: as the number of entry points in the network increases, the easier it is for a malicious group to gain access and conduct cyber warfare. Armed with all the offensive cyber tools they needed, the Australian cybersecurity forces had to test the damage they could inflict to a hypothetical target nation if they had access to malware and tools installed in the 5G network. The result was scary and unsurprising at the same time: exploiting 5G could expose the entire infrastructure of a country, providing a potential cybercriminal with countless opportunities for sabotage and espionage.

It all started in early 2018 when a team of government hackers from the Australian Signals Directorate had to evaluate the harmful potential of 5G. A powerful technology, 5G is able to allow users to move data up to 100 times faster than on current networks.

The former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shared this intelligence as well as his worries about the vulnerabilities of the 5G network with his country’s Five Eyes partners – New Zealand, the UK, Canada, and, obviously, the US. Among the members of this group, only the US one took this warning seriously enough, and decided to restrict the access the Chinese company Huawei, a world leader in 5G tech, had into their mobile networks. But President Trump took additional steps – at first, his administration threatened to withhold intelligence from any allied nation that allowed Huawei in. Later, on 15 May, the U.S. Department of Commerce blacklisted the Chinese telecommunications giant and other international firms. Now American companies need official permission before engaging in trade with them.

The consequences of the embargo and the beginning of the tech Cold War

After the sanctions were announced, Google responded by stopping all business activities with Huawei that involved the transfer of proprietary software, hardware, and services. The American digital company blocked Huawei’s access to Android, its Play Store, and other functions such as Maps, Search, and Gmail. Then Intel announced that it could no longer provide processors for Huawei laptops and for Qualcomm, the company that manufactures the wireless modems used in smartphones. Finally, it was the turn of ARM, a British chip designer that provides 95 per cent of the processors used in mobile devices in the world, who had to adhere to the embargo since it had many subsidiary companies based in the US.

It’s easy to understand how all these actions look and feel like a boycott that targets Huawei’s smartphone and laptop businesses directly rather than the alleged “national security risk” since 5G is completely irrelevant here. What’s the real game then? Global commercial dominance may be the reason behind these moves, since Huawei is one of the few global companies that have the numbers to compete, and even win, the technology race against the American hegemons Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. Boycotting it now may serve a simple purpose: to save the planetary dominance of the US hyperpower by crushing its sole rival before it grows too strong. One way or the other, Google-less Huawei smartphones now represent the symbol of the new technology war between the two world giants – America and China.

Huawei replied that “restricting Huawei from doing business in the U.S. will not make the U.S. more secure or stronger”, explaining that this move is only forcing “customers in the U.S. to [purchase] inferior and more expensive alternatives.” The Chinese company had anticipated it could be the target of American whiplash and built up massive stocks of components. They also plan to launch a new operating system that is going to substitute Android before spring 2020 – the (allegedly) faster and more efficient Hongmeng. The new system will be fully compatible with all Android apps and functions, which were already banned in China.

Meanwhile, it is a known fact that the Chinese 5G giant is backed by Beijing, and Trump’s ban will not come without consequences. When Australia enforced a similar ban last year, its coal exports to China experienced all kind of disruption, including unnecessary delays at Chinese customs. And right now, the situation is especially delicate, as the trade war caused by the increased tariffs imposed by Trump on Chinese imports is just escalating. The tension is growing even among members of the Five Eyes, since the UK government doesn’t seem keen to removing Huawei from its networks. On the other hand, America’s choice to ban Huawei for national security reasons rather than admitting that it’s a commercial move to put China’s economy under pressure is a diplomatically dishonest move that damages the United States’ credibility with its peers. And while these nations are busy with their own in-fighting, a new global threat is emerging in the form of a Cold War that is fought with apps and smartphones rather than with soldiers and bombs.

How the tech war will impact Africa

The relationship between Huawei and the West is strained at best for reasons other than just commercial competition or superpower rivalries. And the conflict started before Trump’s trade war against China. The US Justice Department has been investigating links between Huawei and Iran that involved none else than Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s founder and the company’s chief financial officer at least since 2012. In January this year, US officials requested the Canadian government to detain and extradite Wanzhou for a variety of crimes ranging from bank and wire fraud to stealing trade secrets, and conspiracy to defraud the US.

Meanwhile, it is a known fact that the Chinese 5G giant is backed by Beijing, and Trump’s ban will not come without consequences. When Australia enforced a similar ban last year, its coal exports to China experienced all kind of disruption…

Recently, a red flag that points to how Huawei (or China for that matter) may have a darker secret agenda was raised in Ethiopia. In January 2018, the African Union found the computer systems in its headquarters in Addis Ababa compromised by a security breach that had apparently lasted for years. Investigators found that the computers, which were installed by Huawei, sent data every night from midnight to 2 in the morning to some servers in Shanghai. Both the African Union and Chinese officials denied the allegations, but many still question the reasons behind such a generous gift from the Chinese telecommunications giant. Google’s ban is going to have a very limited effect on the US market, where it holds a minor position on the mobile devices market. But in Africa, the situation is very different. Huawei’s influence in Africa is enormous, given the fact that it built at least 50 per cent of this continent’s 4G network, and it undoubtedly is the lead competitor in rolling out the upcoming 5G network.

Recently, a red flag that points to how Huawei (or China for that matter) may have a darker secret agenda was raised in Ethiopia. In January 2018, the African Union found the computer systems in its headquarters in Addis Ababa compromised by a security breach that had apparently lasted for years.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A huge proportion of the African population is currently using Huawei smartphones, and the digital company has already provided the technology used for smart city projects, autonomous vehicles development, and research partnerships. For example, together with its partner Safaricom, Huawei signed a deal with the Kenyan government in April to build a $175 million data centre at the Konza technocity. China itself has provided well over 20 per cent of the total money lent to African governments between 2000 and 2017 ($143 billion of loans), and 80 per cent of this money came from the Chinese government rather than from private investors. But the bond between Africa and China does not just involve the past, but the future as well since the Chinese government has pledged to invest another $60 billion by the end of this year.

Africa and the war between Google and Huawei

The most obvious and immediate consequence for the many African Huawei smartphone owners is that they will end up with an expensive device that has lost many of its key functions. The Chinese company is also one of the principal global partners of Android, which has substantially contributed to the development and growth of the popular operating system. If they develop a new system, the online world will be eventually split in two – a Chinese-led Internet on one side, and a non-Chinese one on the other side led by US companies. Once again, a huge technological barrier will be raised, and since Africa will stand in the middle, it’s hard to imagine that it will be able to stay neutral. The IT economy of way too many African countries requires them to work with Chinese companies and Huawei may exploit the current situation to change the game in its favour.

The African tech market is quite large, and if Huawei decides, it can be used to turn the tables against the Americans. The most likely scenario will see China and the US facing a potential battle for the control of global telecommunications. Africa can provide both of them with all the human, technological, and market resources to gain the edge they need against each other. If this wave is ridden correctly, the whole continent may attract the investments required to reduce the current digital divide.

African governments, however, must understand how to stand their grounds against the exploitation of the unsustainable burden of debt. They need to know how to exploit the added value Africa can provide to these two sides without becoming a pawn in this global war. But if the Africans play their cards correctly, this scary Cold War scenario may become a huge opportunity to bridge the gap with the Western world.

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Dr. Claudio Butticè, Pharm.D., has written on topics such as medicine, technology, world poverty and science. Many of his articles have been published in magazines such as Cracked, Techopedia, Digital Journal and Business Insider. Dr. Butticè has also published pharmacology and psychology papers in several clinical journals, and works as a medical consultant and advisor for many companies across the globe.

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Experimental Neoliberalism and Refugee Survival in Kenya

7 min read. ALI BHAGAT situates refugees as a new population for neoliberal experimentation as refugee camps are transformed into spaces of untapped profit.

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Experimental Neoliberalism and Refugee Survival in Kenya
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Refugee survival in Kenya is inseparable from the dynamics of inequality, finance, and debt embedded in capitalism. This article draws much inspiration from Kevin Sieff’s excellent article in The Washington Post that looks at how debt-ridden refugees are being forced to return to a war zone in Somalia.

I am most interested in the ways that capital – in its money form – supercedes, intervenes, and invades the humanitarian sector. At the site of the refugee camps and in cities like Nairobi, capital claims to free the refugee from the passivity of shelter and assistance through entrepreneurialism. This article explores neoliberal experimentation in the context of refugee survival in Kenya. I argue that refugees represent an experimental population. Their various sites of survival are opened up to financial penetration – a last ditch and piecemeal market-led solution to alleviate poverty.

Kenya hosts approximately half a million refugees in its camps and urban areas and has done this for nearly three decades. Dadaab and Kakuma, two of the world’s largest refugee camps, have become sites of increased xenophobia and structural violence where the Kenyan government continues to threaten their closure in the face of diminished global aid.

Contrastingly, these camps are also sites of finance, debt, and neoliberal-led forms of experimentation. Neoliberalism – the ideological and material power of private interest through the dismantling of state-led solutions for welfare – is highlighted here as a way to understand a global stance and policy focus on self-reliance. In so doing, I situate refugees as a new population for experimentation.

Experimentation is a market-oriented solution to alleviate refugee poverty. It is hinged on self-reliance and propagates the financial interests of the private sector. The intentions of capital accumulation are hidden under the guise of choice and liberty where refugees can use credit to escape poverty and transform themselves into entrepreneurs. Self-reliance is a façade.

Mastercard and the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a public-private coalition to transform refugee settlements into digital communities in 2018. This strategy seeks to “bring together technology, solutions, and experience from multiple sectors to transform refugee settlements into digitally-connected communities’, thereby providing infrastructure-based innovations in terms of mobile phone and internet access vis-à-vis key dimensions of survival such as safety, food, shelter, and water”.

Experimentation is a market-oriented solution to alleviate refugee poverty. It is hinged on self-reliance and propagates the financial interests of the private sector.

Mastercard, along with Western Union, announced a new digital infrastructure model hinged on mobile money, digital vouchers, and card-based solutions that promote refugee “self-reliance”Digitising the refugee camp, and thereby transforming it from an arena of passive aid and shelter to a marketplace allows refugees to access formal financial services. This form of neoliberal experimentation also transforms the refugee camp – previously understood in the logic of the development industry as a forgotten barren space – into one of untapped profit.

For example, as the Mastercard and Western Union report states: “…refugees are responsible for payment…For example, children can go to school, but the family must pay for uniforms and books. It becomes vital to access convenient, easy-to-use financial services. Foreign and domestic remittances received via Western Union or hawalas [a remittance channel that takes place outside of the banking system] are a major source of income.”

Interestingly, the logic of empowerment described in this report is equated to providing a wider array of financial service access – not actually addressing the fact that refugees have to pay for some essential survival services such as healthcare and basic goods.

Actors like Mastercard and Western Union, by diversifying access to financial services, are able to capitalise on financial transactions by providing cheaper rates for remittances in the name of “smart city” development. The same report goes on to highlight that Equity Bank holds 15,000 refugee accounts in their Kakuma branch and most remittances are either received through Western Union or hawala agents—needless to say, there is profit to be made if so-called passive aid recipients are transformed into entrepreneurs who are self-reliant actors.

The transformation of refugees into self-reliant entrepreneurs relies on the logic that these people are complex economic actors who need more diverse financial choices. Missing from this reasoning is the recognition that refugees receive little global attention and constantly face reductions in essential services, which pushes them to precarious forms of income-generation in order to survive.

Interventions by private sector actors fall into age-old neoliberal adages of efficiency, accountability, and freedom of choice. State and international human rights actors, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Kenyan government, in the face of global austerity, are more than happy to have private actors step in and take over responsibility for refugee survival.

The transformation of refugees into self-reliant entrepreneurs relies on the logic that these people are complex economic actors who need more diverse financial choices.

In contrast, the threats of closure of the camps by the Kenyan government, particularly in Dadaab, have not disappeared, and the camp sizes are slowly shrinking. In 2011, at the height of the famine in Somalia, Dadaab’s population rose to 421,000. This number had been reduced to 230,000 in 2018, partly because some refugees went back home voluntarily while others were encouraged to return to Somalia, as per a repatriation agreement between the Government of Kenya and UNHCR.

While Kakuma represents an experimental avenue for profit, Dadaab – home to predominantly Somali refugees – is framed by the Kenyan government as an unaffordable space both in terms of the security threat and the financial burden. The Kenyan government – which has often scapegoated Somali refugees as terrorists and the Dadaab camp as a safe haven for Al Shabaab – justifies the return of refugees by arguing that it will quell social disruption. 36.8 per cent of Kenya’s population lives on $1.90 a day, placing Kenya 8th on the list of top 10 African countries experiencing extreme poverty.

There are apparent tensions regarding refugee hosting. Many of the participants interviewed for my research suggest that the Kenyan government supports encampment because it absolves itself from welfare responsibilities. Looking at this more broadly, it was the forces of structural adjustment in the 1990s that coincided with refugee encampment that prevented the Kenyan state from developing long-term welfare capabilities in the first place.

Nevertheless, the new Comprehensive Refugee Programme (CRP) highlights that refugees should have adequate avenues for job creation, entrepreneurship, and integration in camps and urban settlements. This is a key divergence from previous strategies of encampment – refugees are now a new experimental population who must harness the forces of the market.

While self-reliance is the policy du jour, the militaristic arm of the state that seeks to prevent migration is also alive and well. Biometric Identity Management (BIM) through fingerprinting and iris scans are surveillance technologies indicative of state organisations (along with UNHCR) seeking to prevent new or circulatory migrants. For example, Somalis who are “voluntarily” repatriated, as Sieff points out, just to relieve their own state of indebtedness in Dadaab, seek return to Kenya as Somalia remains unstable. BIM prevents this from occurring thus attempting to make repatriation permanent.

Indeed, as one interview participant noted, if UNHCR and the government are claiming that refugees are able to return to Somalia, then – within this flawed logic – they should no longer accept Somali refugees. If they do, then they accept that Somalia is not a safe country for return. So both international and national actors are complicit in the violence that Somalis face in their struggle for survival.

Much attention is given to refugee survival in camps; however, with the constant threat of their closure, many refugees are permanently relocating to Nairobi and its environs – a move that is illegal without a permit. Since welfare programmes for urban refugees are virtually non-existent, these groups must rely on piecemeal forms of assistance from NGOs and their own communities in the form of cash grants, entrepreneurial training, and microfinance within the ambit of experimentation and self-reliance.

Self-reliance as a solution for assistance is hindered by xenophobia too. For example, many Somali refugees relocate to Eastleigh, which has become an area targeted by the police in light of terrorist attacks in Nairobi. Somalis are unfairly rounded up and sent back to camps or deported while other non-Somali refugees are left to survive in Nairobi in the informal sector. A participant from a government department noted in my research that, “If a refugee wants to stay in Nairobi then they can fend for themselves…the camps are equipped to care for them so if they are in Nairobi it is by choice and they ideally should have a transit permit from the government.” Self-reliance is thus inherent in the national attitude towards refugees, which simultaneously ignores the circumstances of violence, health issues, and poverty in refugee camps.

Much attention is given to refugee survival in camps; however, with the constant threat of their closure, many refugees are permanently relocating to Nairobi and its environs – a move that is illegal without a permit.

Since no welfare support systems exist, many NGOs offer some sort of business training and loan assistance programmes – another example of “disciplinary entrepreneurialism”. In order to access these loans or grants, refugees must go through a training programme where they learn the necessary business skills to set up shop. They must learn how to make a profit so that they can repay the loan, because these loans, in fact, are frequently used for other refugees in the context of shrinking services. NGOs also recognise that refugees are a flight risk for loans because the cash in hand is used for basic consumption needs – a key issue identified in the literature on microfinance.

In short, the use of loans under the spirit of entrepreneurialism dovetails with the security maximisation arm of the state that prevents refugees from entering its territory. These strategies coincide with two central aspects of neoliberalism – austerity and accumulation.

As the story goes, the Kenyan government, along with international actors, prevents refugees from entering the country. These refugees are framed as threats to state security and an unaffordable risk. In turn, refugees that already exist in camps are either sent back to their country of origin or transformed into entrepreneurs where the camp becomes a space of experimentation.

In short, the use of loans under the spirit of entrepreneurialism dovetails with the security maximisation arm of the state that prevents refugees from entering its territory.

Refugees in urban areas are also meant to become entrepreneurs in order to survive without any state-led assistance. Importantly, these strategies have little to no empirical evidence, further pointing to the experimental nature of entrepreneurialism as a key strategy for survival upon relocation (for a greater exploration of these themes see my article here).

The Kenyan case reveals that exclusion and violence continue to facilitate capital accumulation while also preventing long-term refugee survival. The notion of experimentation, briefly sketched here, allows us to frame neoliberalism as an ambivalent process. Capital permeates these spaces of poverty and the logics of entrepreneurialism facilitate some form of accumulation either through debt or through micro-transactions in the form of remittances. Importantly, refugees in the development of so-called smart communities also produce data and this data can be used for the purposes of capital accumulation in other contexts.

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

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Nairobi: The City That Was Never Meant to Be

7 min read. OWAAHH and JOHN KAMAU explore Nairobi’s evolution from its humble beginnings as a railway depot to its present status as the nation’s capital.

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Nairobi: The City That Was Never Meant to Be
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More than a century ago, a brash and mostly racist decision created a small tin shack town in the middle of a swamp. Then the town became unstoppable.

The first men and women who landed in Nairobi probably considered the brackish swamp land perfect. The area was picturesque, with hills in the horizon and rivers crisscrossing the plains. While the swampy land was not suitable for farming, and certainly not for settlement, it was perfect for grazing.

For the Maasai and the Kikuyu, the plain was also a meeting ground, cutting between the highland farming community in Central Kenya and the nomadic community in the Rift. For the Kamba and other traders and adventurers, it was the easier part of the journey. The Maasai called it Enkare Nyorobi, ‘the land of cool waters’; other names for the land seems to have evaded history books.

The colony’s vanguard also saw it as one of the easy stretches of a long, much more arduous journey to the Western parts of what would become Kenya. The treeless plain was also curiously empty, particularly on the lush parts towards Central Kenya. They wrote of ‘Nyrobe’ in their letters home, a name which, in a short time, would become the name of the capital of a new country.

It was not empty or deserted though; it was occupied, just not permanently. And even less at that point because smallpox and a few other epidemics had cut down the populations of many Kenyan communities.

In 1896, builders of the Lunatic Line set up a small supply depot and a camp on the plains. The original boundaries of what is now Nairobi were for “the area within a radius of one and a half miles from the offices of the sub-commissioner of the Ukambani Province.” There was no plan beyond that, and Nairobi was merely one in a chain of such supply depots. The railhead reached Nairobi, the small supply depot between Mombasa and Kampala, in 1899.

With it, a new future began.

A cultural melting pot

The railway management picked Nairobi to be their railway headquarters. But this seemingly arbitrary decision that would put the builders at loggerheads with the colonial government did not involve any proper assessment of the site. Public health would be the key issue in those early years, with the lack of proper drainage making the new town the perfect breeding grounds for epidemics.

But the railway engineers did not see Nairobi as becoming anything more than an Indian township which, they argued, could “prosper in spite of unsanitary conditions and chronic plague.”

As more people settled on what had become the railway headquarters, a pattern emerged. Europeans settled to the West, Asians to the Parklands side, and Africans to the East. But segregation laws would not become codified until 1908, after yet another bout of the plague. Within the first five years, what had been a sparsely occupied swampy plain was now home to 10,000 people. After Mombasa, Nairobi was now the cultural melting pot of the young British colony.

The railway management picked Nairobi to be their railway headquarters. But this seemingly arbitrary decision that would put the builders at loggerheads with the colonial government did not involve any proper assessment of the site.

With government funding and rich entrepreneurs like AM Jeevanjee, who had made a fortune supplying material and labour to build the railway, a town sprouted from the swamp. The richest man in Kenya at the start of the 20th century, Jeevanjee would later go on an investment spree, building the first law courts, the original Nairobi Club, the first building that housed the National Museum, and many other buildings.

Before the railhead reached Nairobi, the central economic activity for the young town had been big game hunting. By 1900, the town was a single street, driven by commerce as Asian railway builders settled in tin shacks on the plain. Beyond that street “lay the swamp where frogs lived every night at dusk they used to bark out their vibrant chorus and spread a cloak of deep, incessant sound over the little township” as Elspeth Huxley writes in White Man’s Country. The frogs formed part of the ecosystem, providing a rhythmic croaking during the calm nights of a budding young town. It was free music, if not poetry, but it freaked out public health officials.

A public health hazard

Doctors were particularly concerned about the hazards the soggy grounds carried. At 1,750 metres above sea level, colonialists thought Nairobi’s temperate climate would limit the development of malaria-carrying mosquitos (an oft-repeated myth, most notably in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth). It didn’t, and not just because the soggy grounds allowed pools of stagnant water to collect. Malaria would thrive in the new town, with 14,000 new malaria cases reported in Nairobi in 1913 alone. But malaria was just one of many health concerns that made doctors want the small town moved to higher ground.

In 1902, the small town faced its first major public health problem. An epidemic of the dreaded bubonic plague erupted along Indian Bazaar. With no sanitation or municipal plans, the main street at the time had played host to rodents, and the animals had in turn brought in the plague, killing several people. The plague was diagnosed by the enigmatic zebra-riding Dr. Rosendo Ribiero. The Medical Officer, Dr. Alfred Spurrier, ordered the entire street burnt. Everyone was evacuated, and Nairobi’s first CBD was torched.

This was probably the point in history when the situation could have been salvaged and the young town moved, but that didn’t happen. Instead, lethargy and bureaucracy resulted in a status quo.

At 1,750 metres above sea level, colonialists thought Nairobi’s temperate climate would limit the development of malaria-carrying mosquitos…It didn’t, and not just because the soggy grounds allowed pools of stagnant water to collect.

In May 1903, Dr. Moffat, a principal medical officer of the East Africa and Uganda Protectorate, called Nairobi dangerous and defective. After another plague in 1904, he recommended relocating residents to modern-day Kikuyu Township. But Moffat left in April 1904, and his successors held the costs of relocation too high.

On 18 May 1906, Sir James Sadler, commissioner for the Protectorate, wrote to Winston Churchill, Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, complaining about the emergence of Kenya’s capital: “…at the commencement of the 1902 plague…the then-commissioner, Sir Charles Elliot, was strongly of the opinion that the site, which had been selected three years before by the manager of the Uganda Railway without consulting medical or sanitary authorities, was, with its inadequate drainage, unsuitable for a large and growing population. [It is a] depression with a very thin layer of soil or rock. The soil was water-logged during the greater part of the year.”

The letter further reminds Churchill of the 1902 recommendation to move the city “to some point on the hills.” Sadler told Churchill this was a critical point in Nairobi’s history; that his predecessor had said: “…when the rainy season commenced, the whole town is practically transformed into a swamp.”

But the Board running the city decided instead to try drain the swampy bazaar area.

Six years before, in 1898, a 25-year-old man called John Ainsworth had disembarked from a ship at the Port of Mombasa. He was an employee of the colonising company called the Imperial British East African Company, and was ambitious to make a career for himself. Before that year ended, he travelled from Mombasa up to Machakos, and into the tin shack town called Nyrobe. He built his house at Museum Hill to found the colonial administration, much to the chagrin of influential railway builders. Eager to make the swampy plains work, he planted Eucalyptus trees on the swamp to drain the water. Ainsworth’s legacy remains to date, with most of his efforts being the only reason why more and more parts of the swamp could be occupied.

Nairobi continued to develop quickly and Sadler finally threw in the towel: “It is, I admit, too late to consider the question of moving the town from the plains to the higher position along the line some miles to the north. We had a chance in 1902, and I think it was a pity that we did not do so then as advocated by Sir Charles Elliot.”

But even Sadler did not anticipate the growth – eightfold since 1969, from 500,000 people to 4.4 million today. He said Nairobi would never become “a city like Johannesburg or a large commercial centre, for if there is a rapid development of industries or minerals in any of the new districts, the centres would spring up around them.”

Churchill accepted this idea and made the final decision: “It is now too late to change, and thus lack of foresight and of a comprehensive view leaves its permanent imprint upon the countenance of a new country.”

The colonists had given up, and the town they had once thought would only be occupied by Indians became the centre of the new colony. It would take another six years for the Nairobi Sanitary Commission to be appointed, by which time the city was home to thousands of people. The swampy grounds would pose challenges for builders, medical officers, and town planners.

From tin shack town to city

Settlers like Ewart Grogan believed that the Europeans should have occupied the area from Chiromo up towards and past Westlands. They could then leave the lower plains and its tin shacks to Asians and Kenyan natives. The plan never came to be as the influence of the railway builders carried the day, and by the time it became clear the city would grow, it was too late to move it.

In 1919, Nairobi Township became Nairobi Municipal Council and the boundaries were extended. It would be extended nine years later to cover 30 square miles. Seven years after that, Jim Jameson presented a town planning report with great plans to plant Jacaranda trees. The tin shack town was well on its way to becoming a city, and the future generations of city fathers would have to find a way to deal with the thin layer of soil.

It hired a consultant in the mid-1920s, by which time the town’s economic importance made it a fait accompli. One colonial officer wrote that the new plan was ambitious, but until it bore fruit, “Nairobi must remain what she was then, a slatternly creature, unfit to queen it over so lovely a country.”

More than three decades later, when it became the official capital of a new country, Nairobi still did not have a blueprint.

The initial stubborness of the railway engineers trumped those of the colonial government and its health officials. For that, the latter would pay dearly, facing many epidemics and having to dedicate finances to further drain the swamp. Most of the swamp has now been replaced with skyscrapers and road networks, with insufficient footpaths, drainage and leadership.

The colonists had given up, and the town they had once thought would only be occupied by Indians became the centre of the new colony.

More than a century after its unlikely birth, Nairobi is home to more than 4 million people. The city still reminds that it was once a swamp where rivers criss-crossed at will. One pending idea, which has been revived in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) Taskforce report, is to grant the city special status as a capital city. It would mean Nairobi will not have a governor, but the report hopes that it would not “impede the rights of the Kenyan people to representation at the ward and parliamentary levels.”

In this scenario, only a special status would allow the central government “the means to provide the services and facilitation necessary to maintaining as a capital city and as a diplomatic hub.” Whether that’s likely is a toss-up, but whoever runs it will always face the same problems as its first city fathers. Indeed, the city that was never meant to be, and probably should never have been, is now the epicentre of the Kenyan economy and society.

Perhaps the time is ripe to ask ourselves whether Nairobi should be the epicentre of Kenya, because today, amidst the floods raging in the city, poor drainage and the chaotic streets, Nairobi leaves much to be desired as a capital city and is still an unfit slatternly creature to queen over the country, despite what the BBI report claims.

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I Transact, Therefore I Am: A Case for the Humble Marketplace

13 min read. OBY OBYERODHYAMBO explains why ordinary markets, which sell innovative products derived from our cottage industries, also act as purveyors of our culture while presenting a unique solution to the economic, health and environmental challenges facing us.

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I Transact, Therefore I Am: A Case for the Humble Marketplace
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At the risk of bringing the wrath of philosophers upon me, I wish to borrow from the famous maxim cogito ergo sum by French philosopher Rene Descartes – which translates to I think, therefore I am – to define present humankind: I transact, therefore I am. This is no way a reification of consumerism, or a deification of capitalism, and how the market has become definitive of our era; it comes from a deep observation of the single thing that defines us humans today: markets and trade transactions.

Modern civilization is premised on structures and systems that make trading and legal transaction possible. There is no community that does not have markets and that does not have market systems for legal transactions. All communities frown upon any exchange that is not transactional; that is simply called theft.

Though humans have preferred to distinguish themselves from other animals on the basis of their rationality, what really defines us is interdependence – the realisation that we need each other in order to survive, and that we basically cannot do without one another. This common human need for the other transcends the individual to communities and embraces entire nations. Even the most individualistic eccentric, with delusions of self-sufficiency, quickly realises the mutual need humans have for each other, and the primacy of structures for transaction. Nations maintain diplomatic relationships on this principle, and despite the dominance nature of the global powers, forums, such as the United Nations General Assembly, are ideally supposed to be an equitable marketplace of ideas where both the powerful and the not so powerful, the wealthy and the financial minions exchange and interact. The most basic transactional platform is the marketplace.

A while ago, while pondering this piece, I sought opinions from several professionals. I needled them to reflect on the state of markets in Kenya. Each one, without exception, responded by focusing on the financial, stock and commodities markets. My interlocutors were not all economists or engaged in the financial sector; in fact few were, and this is the poignant point.

In the psyche of most people, the “market” is conflated to mean local and international stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets. Few think outside this frame and the managers of our economy are guiltiest on this score. It is not surprising that there was a look of utter surprise when I revealed that the market I was interested in was the kawaida or ordinary market – the soko, chiro, ndunyu that is the massive open air market teeming with kawaida people in Karatina, Kongowea, Gikomba, Muthurwa, Toi, Kapsoit, Luanda, Kibuye and many other places. The livestock markets in Suswa, Koriema, Lubao and Kibokoni that specialise in cattle, goats, dogs and fish, respectively, and the MwembeTayari, SokoMjinga, SokoMoi, Marigiti, Mbero and Rongai markets that have acres and acres of farm produce strewn all over, usually displaying the most unhygienic handling. Even Village Market, Maasai Market, or Kariakor that specialise in curios or material culture, but which are basically outlets for tourists to purchase memorabilia and trinkets, and which hardly provide a forum for engagement with our rich material culture.

Once the surprise faded off their faces, each one was challenged to ponder why it is that the kawaida (ordinary) markets were rendered invisible in discourses around GDP, economic performance and human resource deployment, whereas there were millions of individuals directly or indirectly engaged in markets as traders, service providers and clients. Why is the ordinary market, with the potential to provide the impetus for innovation that would provide much-needed employment for the youth, totally ignored?

In the psyche of most people, the “market” is conflated to mean local and international stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets. Few think outside this frame and the managers of our economy are guiltiest on this score.

The challenge extended to questioning why the resilience of the kawaida markets to sustain the social and economic well-being of communities is not factored in our economic growth models. Why is it that though the monies that circulate within kawaida markets is significant there does not seem to be a fair estimation of it in our economic projections?

I was also most intrigued by the human interaction and the resultant social and cultural dynamics evolving around markets, but found scanty studies on the phenomenon. I further pushed my respondents to think of the reasons that led to the waning in prominence of markets that in the past were important meeting points for communities and their commodities. Today these markets have become totally eclipsed by virtual markets that serve the interests of a minority. Corollary to this is what is lost when these interactions fizzle out. Markets must have created social cohesion premised on co-dependence. Language and common practices evolved to ensure the harmony upon which markets thrived. The intercultural interactions gave rise to multicultural creative and expressive forms.

Angela Ka-yee Leung et.al, in a study published in American Psychologist, empirically demonstrate that exposure to multiple cultures in and of itself enhances creativity. They argue that the extensiveness of multicultural experiences greatly enhances creative performance, as well as the creativity supporting cognitive processes that make an individual more creatively versatile. Cross-cultural exposure, such as what kawaida markets provided, increased the capacity for creativity, invention and innovation.

A confluence of needs and cultures

The centrality of markets in African life can be appreciated from the mention of markets in African literature and even in songs. Activities on designated market day, and at the market are pointers to such significance as proverbs like “Every marketplace has its own madman” denote. Any authentic work of African fiction invariably has a market scene. The marketplace facilitated more than simple economic engagement; it allowed people from diverse communities to interact and exchange. In exogamous communities, market day was an opportunity to forge future romantic relationships. It could be argued that the marketplace was the dating sites that pre-dated the digital era.

Actual markets, in contrast to virtual ones, are physical spaces that evolve to enable transactions between buyers and sellers. There is a confluence of needs: the needs of a seller with commodities to dispose of, and the needs of a buyer who lacks the commodity on sale. Each is driven to the market by their needs. The existence of markets underscores a reality that no individual, community or region is self-sufficient and therefore must transact. A description of the evolution of Dagoretti in Nairobi as a significant meeting point between Kikuyu farmers and the pastoralist Maasai shows how markets fostered both co-existence and rivalry: “19th century Dagoretti was part of the rich food- producing Kikuyu country and was populated with Maasai and Kikuyu people as it lay on the edge of Maasai country. Kikuyu farmed sugarcane and banana among other crops, while Maasai kept cattle. The two groups cohabited and their lives together ebbed between trade and raid.”

“Ebbed between trade and raid” meant that even as they had a transactional relationship, there were times when they would raid each other. This notwithstanding, there was still a strong relationship between the two communities that allowed for social interaction and cross-cultural mingling.

Kisumu, the third-largest city in Kenya, evolved from a marketplace as the Kisuma name suggests. Sumo is a food security strategy practiced by the Luo where regions that have not enjoyed a good harvest would visit relatives in food-secure regions to borrow grain. In subsequent seasons, the favour would be returned.

The knowledge that those with bumper harvests today might face hardship in the next season entrenched the interdependence. What is today Kisumu was a central place that allowed for transactions between different communities around Winam Gulf all the way to the hills of Nyangóri to Nandi Hills and the present day Kericho. Many towns in Kenya have evolved from such humble transactional markets.

On market days, communities were brought together and even hostile neighbours managed a truce to allow for transaction. An important aspect of these transactions is that there arose between the traders an in-between population and language. Languages of commerce also emerged and these elements of culture ensured that there was social cohesion, if not total harmony.

Kisumu, the third-largest city in Kenya, evolved from a marketplace as the Kisuma name suggests. Sumo is a food security strategy practiced by the Luo where regions that have not enjoyed a good harvest would visit relatives in food-secure regions to borrow grain. In subsequent seasons, the favour would be returned.

The para-linguistic nature of the communication between neighbouring communities would be a fascinating area of intercultural studies. Picture a conversation at the Lubao market in Western Kenya between a dog seller and a dog buyer. What attributes of the canine would the seller extoll in order to secure a deal? Each context is unique. For instance, a goat seller in Koriema in Baringo or Kiamaiko in Nairobi, or a cow seller in Suswa, or even a fishmonger and the buyer at Jubilee Market in Kisumu wishing to purchase a specific species of fish develop their own transactional language.

In many Kenyan livestock markets, there is a distinct bargaining method used to arrive at consensus on a price. The seller and the buyer shake hands while mentioning a price and as long as the price is not agreed upon, the hand is let go. This is repeated several times as the two parties haggle to reach a middle point, and once the negotiated price is mutually arrived at, the handshake is held; a deal has been arrived at. Only after this does money and the livestock change hands.

What is demonstrated by this shared common culture and the rules of engagement are two subtle messages: that the parties are equal and that the transaction is negotiated to the satisfaction of both parties. No one leaves the deal feeling like they have been shafted. This is important because social cohesion must be maintained even after the deal is done. This is a far cry from the skulduggery that defines trade outside of the kawaida market where kickbacks, price-fixing, price variation and other unscrupulous practices are the nature of the transactions.

The existence of markets underscores the centrality of equality between the two transacting parties. Both parties must be willing to acknowledge a “deficiency” – something they lack which the other party has. The transaction only works because the buyer has something of value which they offer to the seller in exchange for the desired product. The transaction is only successful if there is a mutual agreement on the equivalence in value of the transacted items. There is an inherent danger if the parties have no consensus on the value of the transacted items.

Another factor of the market is that the interaction between the parties must be premised on a malleability – a willingness to evolve new identities, characteristics and behaviours. No one leaves a market in the same state as they entered it. Since it is a platform for exchange, markets therefore exist on the principle of fairness – both parties in the transaction must agree that the exchange satisfies their notion of equivalent value. In order to arrive at this mutuality and symbiotic co-existence there must be ways in which cooperation and understanding is built and maintained between the two parties. There are shared values that arise from the familiarity between the sellers and the buyers. This cordial relationship promote an ethic of quality products and honest exchange.

Markets are, therefore, an indicator of whether an economy is productive, or has been rendered purely consumer-oriented and parasitic. Whereas the stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets might not reveal the underlying inequalities, the kawaida markets cannot hide the extent of symbiotic co-existence between parties.

Goods available on the market is indicative of what a region produces and consumes, and this balance or imbalance immediately exposes the power dynamics between these communities, nations or regions. The kawaida market is the platform where local contextual everyday problems find solutions. Whether the challenges emerge from energy, water, food security, health or climate, the solutions can only be invented, innovated and made available at the local kawaida market. The local stock exchange will not be able to reflect and respond if a community is facing an energy crisis and the locals cannot boil their githeri or fry their mbuta. Neither will the forex market respond to a water crisis where women have to travel miles to get the precious liquid for their families. Nor can the bond market respond to the food security that might threaten a region when army worms have invaded their maize farms. The securities market cannot respond the to the health challenges caused by malaria. The need to develop innovative solutions actually rests in the kawaida market.

Kawaida markets as hubs for innovation

William Kamkwamba’s story has been immortalised in a film titled The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In 2001, Malawi, his home country, was facing a terrible drought, and the subsequent famine was made worse by abject poverty. Imported maize from Tanzania was highly-priced and the desperate locals could not afford their staple nsima. Disaster was imminent.

William, 14 years old at that point, was meant to transition to high school, but his family could not afford school fees and he had to drop out of school. The farming community he hailed from faced a series of combined problems: poverty, food insecurity, unpredictable climate and erratic rain patterns, poor educational infrastructure and unsustainable eco-unfriendly energy.

Markets are, therefore, an indicator of whether an economy is productive, or has been rendered purely consumer-oriented and parasitic. Whereas the stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets might not reveal the underlying inequalities, the kawaida markets cannot hide the extent of symbiotic co-existence between parties.

Driven by the desire to solve his community’s problems, William, inspired by diagrams in a Physics textbook in the local library where he sought refuge after dropping out of school, sought to build a windmill that could generate electricity that could be used for pumping water for irrigation of their farms and also provide lighting and charge mobile phones that a few in their community-owned. Once he built his windmill from discarded scraps from a junkyard, and managed to generate enough electricity to power his family’s radio and a few light bulbs, it can be said, the rest is history. His innovation was scaled up and a water pumping windmill was built that could enable irrigation as well as light up the village, the local school and provide a model for others to copy throughout Malawi. William went on to recruit many other young Malawians into building windmills to solve the problem of lack of sustainable energy, reliance on rain-fed agriculture and resultant poverty.

A few years ago, at the height of the Hyacinth menace in Lake Victoria, Kisumu Innovation Centre (KICK) came into the picture by innovatively using hyacinth to produce paper, ropes and other materials with the weed. The moment of glory for their innovations came during the memorial service for the late Nobel laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai when it was revealed that the unique casket in which her body lay was manufactured by KICK from hyacinth. It is in this eco-friendly casket that she was cremated. The young men and women at KICK responded to the local problems of youth unemployment, environmental degradation, and poor garbage disposal by promoting the recycling and re-use of waste to create environmental sustainability.

Prof. Wangari’s decision to opt for cremation, and to cap it off in a hyacinth casket, showcased two levels of innovative thinking: it made the point that trees need not be cut down to build coffins, and it also challenged people to adopt more environmentally-friendly body disposal methods using eco-friendly solutions. When one thinks of the number of trees felled just to build caskets, which are used just for a short while before ending up being buried in concrete vaults, the hyacinth casket is nothing short of genius.

There are 4.4 million disabled people in Kenya and 67 per cent of these are unemployed and living in poverty. For those who cannot afford basic wheelchairs, their movement is restricted and some end up wasting away. A young Lincoln Wamae decided to tackle this challenge by making electric wheelchairs. He collects most of the parts from junkyards and assembles the motorable wheelchairs. He says that he began his innovations as a hobby and it has now evolved into a thriving business. He obtains the batteries from old discarded laptops and by so doing is actually contributing to solving the problem of e-waste.   His lithium-iron powered wheelchairs have made these life-changing gadgets available to those who would only have dreamt of them.

Prof. Wangari’s decision to opt for cremation, and to cap it off in a hyacinth casket, showcased two levels of innovative thinking: it made the point that trees need not be cut down to build coffins, and it also challenged people to adopt more environmentally-friendly body disposal methods using eco-friendly solutions.

The same can be said of Simon Karumbo who has made a 100 per cent solar-powered vehicle. He responded to the challenge of youth unemployment as well as climate change and energy challenge by innovating on energy-saving solutions. He controversially went ahead to invent a bed that generates energy when animated activity is performed on it.

Innovation is not only in technology-based solutions. Every market in Kenya has a section where the vibrant trade in second-hand clothes happens. There are usually heaps of clothes neatly segregated by type to allow for easier picking. There is even some level of specialisation: shirts, trousers, ladies’ clothes, children’s attire and shoes.

The mitumba traders traverse the county with bales of clothes worth millions of shillings. They hire thousands of youth as clothes sellers. Young men and women sell second-hand clothes in a well harmonised promotional sing-song, urging buyers to explore the displayed wares. “Ni ya leo, ni ya leo, akina baba, akina mama, ni ya leo ni ya leo.” This translates to: It’s today’s fashion, for men and women. It’s today’s item.

The youthful traders have innovated marketing strategies based on an intimate knowledge of their clients’ needs. The youthful sellers, aware of the desire of their clients to purchase the latest fashion trends, use their singing to reassure buyers of the contemporariness of the fashions. At a certain point they tease the buyers by telling them, “Chagualeo, chaguasasa, kuonanakushikashikani bure, kubebandiopesa”, which translates to: Look and touch [items on sale] is free and one only pays if they wish to carry an item away [buy].

The sing-song promotion is picked up by the hundreds of sellers and engulfs the entire market in a well-choreographed performance. At its peak, it’s reminiscent of a pantomime and the sellers even wear some of the clothes on sale to add colour; cross-dressing is common. It reminds one of a Bollywood film segment. In an environment where marketers are competing with multiple sellers, the innovative, attention-grabbing pantomime works more effectively than giant billboards or loud-hailers.

Potential for a thriving cottage industry

Innovation by the youth has demonstrated that there is a great potential for a thriving cottage industry-based economic growth model that will also provide thousands of jobs. A cottage industry is a small-scale, decentralised manufacturing business often operated out of a non-designated industrial complex or purpose-built factory. Cottage industries often focus on production of high-skill, labour-intensive goods as opposed to mass-market items.

Today cottage industries seek to serve a market looking for original hand-crafted products as opposed to mass-produced, name brand products.  In the past, items that found their way to the kawaida market were products from cottage industries. The clay pots, the wicker baskets, leather bags and other household items had a long supply chain that ensured employment for those who dug up clay, kneaded it, moulded pots, fired them and those who transported them. The supply chain of a papyrus mat standing at a market is even longer and includes people harvesting papyrus in boats on floating islands.

Beyond that, the cottage industries maintain a link to traditional artisanal skills passed on from one generation to the next. Cottage industries are responsive to emerging challenges. I recently witnessed some young artisans in Holo Market in Seme repairing handles of pangas and knives using discarded plastic. Anyone who has bought the mass-produced Chinese farming implements know how vexing the short life of their handles are. The youth who once worked in metal foundries, collect the plastic, and then melt and mould it into a handle that will probably outlast the implement.

In many markets today you will encounter young men and women pressing (using innovatively made blenders) and selling fresh sugarcane juice blended with ginger, lemon and mint. Every seller has arrived at a unique recipe and this nameless cocktail is drunk more than the mainstream juices or carbonated drinks. There are those who blend vegetable juices and even groundnut juice laced with omugombera. Mondiawhytei an indigenous tree that acts as an appetiser, breath freshener and is rumoured to be an aphrodisiac. There are refreshing juices made from a combination of all manner of fruits and vegetables.

Innovation by the youth has demonstrated that there is a great potential for a thriving cottage industry-based economic growth model that will also provide thousands of jobs.

In parts of the coastal region, there are the signature cassava crisps, the sweet potato cakes and biscuits from Kabondo. There is a young entrepreneur in Kisumu who is rearing and promoting edible crickets that are added into wheat dough to make highly nutritious biscuits. There are many more innovations in the kawaida markets that are solving local problems, as well as providing solutions to global challenges, such as environmental degradation and climate warming.

There is a colonial hangover in the way that modern African economies perceive markets that is constantly receiving push-back from the innovators. The fixation with stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets while ignoring the markets where a majority of the citizens have developed innovative approaches and ingenious solutions to local as well as global problems is counter-intuitive, counterproductive and inimical to development.

Kawaida markets, which sell the innovative products derived from our cottage industries, also act as purveyors of our culture while presenting a unique solution to the economic as well as the health and environmental challenges facing us. The stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets are important because these open us up to a global economic system, but the space in which we transact our livelihoods is the kawaida market where the traders and buyers meet.

A thriving innovative hub connected to local markets provide platforms for creative solutions to the world’s needs while offering the youth a livelihood. Communality and social cohesion is built premised on the mutual need for one another and fairness is the ethic that guides transactions in kawaida markets. What defines us humans is that we transact: we do so in recognition of mutual needs and inter-dependence, and we negotiate seeking a fair exchange from each other. We transact, therefore we are.

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