“A Global Food Crisis Looms”, headlined the New York Times in April 2020, drawing attention to the millions of vulnerable populations around the world facing hunger exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Kenya, “We fear hunger more than corona’’ is now a common refrain among the urban poor who earn a living in the informal sector. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed deep structural and policy fault lines in Kenya’s food systems.
In the 2019 Global Hunger Index, Kenya ranked 86 out of 117, a position categorised as serious. But long before COVID-19, Kenyans have endured hunger and famine attributed to climatic factors, the rising cost of basic food commodities and a fractured food distribution system. In Nairobi, where 60 per cent of the population lives in informal settlements, rising prices of basic foodstuffs have reduced millions to a hand-to-mouth existence.
After a three-month restriction of movement out of Nairobi was lifted, a number of my cousins and friends told me that they were headed straight to their rural homes to set up food security bases. Among the urban middle class for some of whom it had formerly been a side gig, agriculture has now evolved into the main hustle and as Dauti Kahura has reported, they can now be found parked by the roadside, selling fresh produce from the boots of their cars.
The government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has turned a health crisis into a security and corruption problem that is putting the most vulnerable at risk. In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, Kenya’s political soap opera goes on uninterrupted as the media focus remains locked on the rivalries of the wealthy 1 per cent.
Under these circumstances, to escape the city is a matter of pragmatism as writer Alexander Ikawah observed in a recent article. Inhabitants of African cities have one foot firmly planted in a rural village somewhere, ready to seek refuge at “home” if the city turns hostile. And so, as the labour market struggles and industries shed jobs, many Kenyans have fled Nairobi as a temporary measure, retreating to the security of the rural areas where ancestral land provides a buffer against hunger and guarantees the basics of living and rent-free shelter.
A day before restriction of movement was lifted, my cousin Oluoch sent me a message telling me of his plans to go back home to the village to start work on the shamba. Oluoch is a father of four children who has stopped hedging his bets on things returning to “normal”. He got me thinking about my own small rural farm 7,000 kms away as I cycled along a straight, narrow road cutting through farmland in the Dutch municipality of Amstelveen, 10 kilometres south of Amsterdam.
Sheep and diary cows grazed on pasture as ducks swam in a canal in the early summer sunshine. I stopped to take a picture of this idyllic scene and sent it to my cousin Oluoch who promptly replied, “Ondiek, we have to learn how to farm like the Dutch. This is the future”.
As small-scale, part-time farmers who had inherited family land in our rural homes, we had believed we would be the generation that would adopt modern farming techniques, our motivation for commercial agriculture driven by the promise of high yields and maximum profit, just like the Dutch, we imagined.
The Netherlands is a flat country of green fields stretching far off into the distance, subdivided by water canals and fences in a symmetrical pattern. From the air, the land resembles a huge chessboard. The country has one of the world’s most efficient agricultural and food production systems and is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural produce after the United States, whose landmass is 237 times the size of the Netherlands. In 2019, Dutch exports of agricultural products were worth 94.5 billion Euros.
The Netherlands is also a world leader in potato production, export and processing. The potato yield per hectare on the average Kenyan farm is approximately 6 to 7 tonnes with large-scale farms averaging 10 to 14 tonnes according to the National Potato Council of Kenya. The yield per hectare on the average farm in the Netherlands is 40 tonnes.
The success of agricultural productivity in the Netherlands is buttressed by science and innovative solutions developed by institutions such as the Wageningen University, one of the world’s top agricultural institutes. Here a brain trust is pioneering the thinking to meet the challenge of feeding a global population expected to exceed 9.7 billion by 2050.
The story of the Netherlands agricultural revolution can be traced back to 1888 with the formation of the Heidemaatschappij, the Association for Wasteland Redevelopment that introduced the reclamation and cultivation of wastelands by improving the soil quality of vast areas of heath. The Heidemaatschappij laid the foundation for a new culture of farming, based on generating high yields from fallow and neglected land and the input of new knowledge and skills. Land consolidation became a matter of industry policy, combining fragmented pieces of land and taming idle land around the country for agricultural exploitation. The winter famine of 1944-45 that followed the end of the Second World War and led to the death from starvation of 20,000 people, created the motivation to find a lasting solution to food insecurity. The result is the grand design of the country’s landscape with geometric precision and infrastructural support, roads and water, and the move from small, mixed agriculture farms to the consolidated mono-cropped large farms that define contemporary Dutch agriculture.
The major cost of the green revolution has been the disappearance of nature as the practice of monocultures has led to a visible decline in animal and plant biodiversity. In a series on nature curated by Amsterdam’s De Correspondent, writer Jan Van Poppel investigates the Dutch policy on nature, which he describes as little more than putting a fence around a patch of green and building on the rest of the country.
The natural environment in the Netherlands is almost entirely lost, and what appears to be natural is in reality an elaborate environmental design, a kind of colonialisation of the natural world. As an example, the Amsterdamse Bos, a forest that sits between Amsterdam and Amstelveen that measures over 1,000 hectares (equivalent to the size of Karura Forest in Nairobi) is man-made. All the trees were planted in the 1930s as part of a work-relief programme.
The Netherlands is now proactively dealing with the negative consequences of agriculture monocultures, applying a stringent pesticide policy, cutting down on nitrogen emissions from livestock operations and facing up to the problem of ground water pollution.
In 2019, the Dutch government put forward a proposal to limit nitrogen emissions that had hit crisis levels by reducing livestock-holding farms, triggering national protests by farmers who mobilised to defend livelihoods that were threatened by the new environmental pollution rules. They used tractors to cause traffic jams and occupied public spaces to give voice to their plight and counter the stereotypes that single out farmers as environmental polluters; the agricultural sector is the second leading cause of environmental pollution after the transport sector.
As an amateur farmer who arrived in the Netherlands brimming with the ambition to learn the best practices I grapple with this contradiction. While the Netherlands is without doubt a leader in efficient agriculture, the focus on volume, efficiency and profit has produced negative consequences that can no longer be ignored. This is the model many small-scale farmers in Kenya aspire to but I am no longer a true believer in intensive agriculture as a model for small-scale farms.
Small-scale farming in Kenya accounts for 75 per cent of the total agricultural output and meets 70 per cent of the national food demand, so I know I am part of an important constituency. The challenge of my generation, those with access to land under 3 ha in size, is to craft a new farming philosophy that is built on progressive ideas through investigation, dialogue and exposure to alternative sources of knowledge grounded in the African experience. We need more philosophers and fewer technical experts to redefine what we call sustainable farming. Africa’s own knowledge systems and philosophy in agriculture are held in the memory of a generation that is dying out and dismissed as backward. Yet my grandmother’s practices resonate with those of emerging natural farming systems around the world that espouse new ideas grounded in the environmental, social and historical realities of the non-western world.
In the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, a farmer and philosopher from southern Japan, I encounter farming concepts of my childhood rural experience, farming techniques that used no machinery, no chemicals, involved little weeding and that are now back in vogue, in particular in the permaculture concept that advocates for the harmonious integration of the environment and the people.
Where land is valued as a collective resource that sustains a community, its conservation and sustainability become sacred, as opposed to being merely the source of perpetual extraction of profits. Organisations such as Survival International are involved in advocating for the human and territorial rights of indigenous communities that are under attack from the international barons of the conservation industry who are destroying their cultures and forcefully removing them from territories that they have inhabited and conserved for generations. Scientists studying forest systems have only in recent decades come to acknowledge the role of long-forgotten generations of indigenous communities of the pre-Columbian era and their positive impact on the Amazon forest. The role of forest conservation and reforestation to mitigate climate change is mainstream knowledge in Kenya today as a result of concerted mass awareness campaigns but trees are just one aspect in an elaborate ecological system.
So, as custodians of the land, what becomes our mission? To be socially engaged and philosophically grounded, my farming decisions must consider the long-term consequences of the choices I make.
The principle of sustainability guides the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. This involves thinking beyond consumption-oriented values that are dictated by our industrial economies to evolve a deep ecological philosophy that challenges the toxic ideas of dominance, colonialisation, exploitation and extraction where nature is viewed purely as a resource repository to be conquered and dominated.
Nature is the life source and, beyond the concept of mere conservation, an eco-pedagogy is needed to transmit culturally relevant forms of knowledge. There are ideas out there—such as Arnes Næss‘ Deep Ecology, Bill Mollison’s Permaculture, Masanobu Fukuoka’s, One Straw Revolution, the Slow Food movement—that all share a philosophy and a set of principles that place humanity and its connection to nature at the core of enlightened agriculture.
Chinese artist, activist and filmmaker Ou Ning—whose work titled, The Bishan Commune: How to start your own utopia explores ideas for an alternative community in rural China—has become a leading voice in the new rural reconstruction movement at the forefront of reimagining rural-urban relations. The power of narrative is what artists and thinkers use to weave alternate realities to help societies reimagine the holistic value of small-scale farming and eliminate the colonial mentality that views the rural countryside as the segregated homeland of a silenced underclass. The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity for artists to lead a call for a return to the countryside and to renew the rural-urban relationship as a mutually beneficial support system. Philosophers have to deepen their thinking on the fundamental root causes of food insecurity and re-imagine new systems by returning to basic values and practises.
For a generation undermined by the immorality of policy makers and the political leadership’s bankruptcy of ideas, this global crisis is an opportunity to meet the challenge of truly achieving food sovereignty and to resist the allure of the industrial model as the only one suitable for the development of small-scale agriculture.
Kenya: A Question of Land
Kenya is moving inexorably in the direction of significant political upheaval and a long-delayed backlash unless reforms to address economic inequality are implemented.
Not too long ago, musician John Mũigai Njoroge was summoned by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) for uploading the song Ĩno Mĩgũnda to YouTube. Ĩno Mĩgũnda may be translated to mean “These Parcels of Land”, or, as translated in the song’s sub-titles, “This Land”. Increasingly, and amidst stifling economic stagnation at the citizen level, the spotlight is beginning to shine on the contentious matter of land. In this piece we to look at how economists have treated (or ignored) land, the economic dynamics of land in reality, the current status of our nation, and offer three possible solutions to the current state of affairs.
In one sense, land can be defined, as by Dr Josh Ryan-Collins et al in Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing, as “space, and the occupation of that space over time”, and indeed this is the most common understanding of land as we have it. However, we would do well to include in the definition of land, as Henry George did in his seminal book Progress and Poverty, not merely the surface of the earth as distinguished from air and water, but also as, “. . . in short, all natural materials, forces and opportunities”. This definition would include mineral resources such as oil, natural gas and coal; water and related resources; the electromagnetic spectrum; etc. In fact, we can think of land loosely as “that naturally-occurring wealth that man cannot produce”.
Increasingly, and amidst stifling economic stagnation at the citizen level, the spotlight is beginning to shine on the contentious matter of land
Definitions are very important and as we shall see, defining or mis-defining land can lead to economic theories/practices that are either unrealistic, unjust or (as is often the case) both.
Is land important economically speaking? The French physiocrats and the classical economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill all recognised the importance of land in understanding economics. Building on their work, Henry George wrote Progress and Poverty, a book that was second in circulation only to the Bible in the 1890s.
(Although he was not the first to state it, Henry George wrote that the factors of production are land, labour and capital. He added that, this being the case, the returns from production must necessarily be shared between/among these three factors. It seems to me that on this simple premise one could base/found the whole realm of economic study or even economic history (together with vast swathes of history proper): what proportion, if any, of the returns from production should – rightly, justly, properly – accrue to each of the factors of production: to land, to labour, and/or to capital?
We shall examine Henry George’s solution to the land problem later. At this point we shall merely state that so forceful was the power and the logic of George’s writing that, according to the late Professor Mason Gaffney, it generated a scholastic reaction that grew into neo-classical economics. Neo-classical economics chose to base itself on principles of free choice, rational actors, and “free markets” that naturally self-equilibrate through the forces of supply and demand. This brand of economics came to dominate learning, and still does. Eventually, it succeeded in conflating land and capital as factors of production. In this way, the importance of land as a factor of production was lost to the academic world and to the realm of economic theory. The results of this disastrous omission reverberate all the way up to the global financial crisis (which perhaps should more accurately have been named the North Atlantic financial crisis), but we are not on that today.
The truth is that land and capital are radically different factors of production. Crucially, the supply of land is fixed; i.e. the stock of land cannot increase as a result of rising demand for it. Only its price can rise – and it does. The market in land, therefore, cannot (justly) self-equilibrate via the forces of supply and demand. As we consider this, we stumble upon the reality that the private ownership of land, and indeed of all natural-occurring resources, is at once freedom and theft; while it is freedom for the owner of the land/resource, it is also theft from the public, because of what economists call economic rent.
(Economic rent is defined as any payment to an owner or factor of production in excess of the costs needed to bring that factor into production. In lay terms, we may define economic rent more simply as “unearned income”.)
As far as land is concerned, economic rent comprises: a) the capital gains that arise from the ownership of land and/or the private ownership of what Henry George called naturally-occurring “materials, forces and opportunities” and b) what the owner of that land can charge as rent simply because of the positioning of the land (or the value of the natural resource).
As Adam Smith stated, “As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed [i.e. become the recipients of unearned income], and demand a rent even for its natural produce”.
The result of this is a well-known phenomenon in the Kenyan economy: one buys a piece of land and hopes that soon the government will build a road nearby. The government builds a road and the land increases in value, sometimes by several factors. This increase in the value of the land is unearned income. It is economic rent. Further, not only does the land gain in value, but the rent a landowner can charge also increases without the landowner applying an iota of effort. This too is unearned income.
In fact, as Henry George points out, no government improvements are necessary in order for the value of a parcel of land to rise. The mere settling of a community in and around a parcel of land can in and of itself raise that parcel’s value – with not a stroke of work done by its “owner”. City centre land (or land in Upper Hill or in Westlands), for example, takes this to extremes.
The result of this is a well-known phenomenon in the Kenyan economy: one buys a piece of land and hopes that soon the government will build a road nearby
Any society/economy that allows a select few to earn an unworked-for income – of any form – is an inherently unjust economy. To see this truth is to begin to recognise a grave injustice: unearned income is the bane of socio-economic equity. Further, an unjust economy will naturally result in an unjust society. This is what it was about George’s writing that generated such a reaction in the halls of academe: it laid bare these inequities and proposed solutions to bring them to an end.
Without the equitable distribution of land, and without the extraction of unearned income from the hands of private interests into the hands of the public, inequalities in income – and very shortly thereafter inequalities in accumulated income, i.e. wealth – rapidly manifest themselves. Such a society very swiftly descends into that morass of wealth disparity characterised by vast differences in resources between the haves and the have-nots. There then arises that situation so succinctly described by Adam Smith, in which “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all”.
To see this truth is to begin to recognise a grave injustice: unearned income is the bane of socio-economic equity
If all this be true, then it ought to be the case – empirically, not in abstract formulaic or merely academic terms – that a more equitable distribution of land should lead to more widespread prosperity. This is indeed the case, although other factors must necessarily support such a redistribution. We shall revisit this in the proposed solutions to our current situation. Suffice it to say at this point that that which we know in our bones to be true; that which causes our Luo brothers to call their daughters Nyar-Ugenya, or their sons Ja-Kisumo; that which inspired Wahome Mũtahi, in his Whispers column, to call himself “Son of the Soil”; that indefinable intuition! certainly is true: that we are from here; that this land – all of it – is rightly, justly, and collectively ours; that each of us deserves some of it; that none of us deserves disproportionately more of it, and that very certainly nobody deserves most/all of it. This truth, try as the crashing waves of fraudulent social science might to repudiate it, stands firm, and it is corroborated by that social science of the more honest variety.
Does everybody need land?
A captious economist planned
to live without access to land.
He nearly succeeded,
but found that he needed
food, water, and somewhere to stand.*
Having established in the foregoing section that the equitable distribution of land is critical for economic justice, we wish to more certainly determine: should everybody have land? The limerick above, in whimsical fashion, answers the question – showing that while land can be put to any one of a hundred uses, it is impossible to function as a human being – to live – without the use of some land. Therefore, everyone should have some land.
How much land is equitable?
In his important book How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region, Joe Studwell found that “Output booms [in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan] occurred in conditions in which farming was essentially a form of large-scale gardening. Families of five, six or seven people tended plots of not more than one hectare”.
(Studwell does an excellent job of showing that large-scale, mechanised agriculture maximises merely profit, while small-scale, labour-intensive agriculture maximises output per acre, and thereby economic growth.)
Does Kenya currently have enough land?
While Kenya has an area of roughly 582,646 square kilometres (58,264,600 hectares), “only 20 percent of the land surface can support rain-fed agriculture (medium to high potential). About 75 percent of the country’s population lives in these areas, with population densities as high as 2,000 per square kilometre in some parts”. Further, even within this narrow arable area, the distribution of land is inequitable, for “more than half of the nation’s arable land is in the hands of only 20 percent of the population.” Such was the situation in 2006. By 2016, according to the World Bank, just 10 per cent of Kenya’s land was arable.
From the 2019 census, Kenya has a population of 47.6 million. We have a median age of about 19 years. From these figures, we can assume that the number of non-dependents requiring land for basic economic activity such as smallholding agriculture is 23.8 million people or (in a utopian situation) about 12 million families. Going by the World Bank’s statistic that 10 per cent of Kenya’s land is arable, that would leave 5,826,460 hectares (14,397,496 acres) of arable land, or about 1.2 acres per family.
While land can be put to any one of a hundred uses, it is impossible to function as a human being – to live – without the use of some land
Taking Studwell’s one hectare (about 2.5 acres) as the family unit for land, we see that there are two problems: i) that there is not enough arable land (i.e. 1.2 acres vs 2.5 acres), and ii) that what arable land does exist is not equitably distributed.
(The fact that our median age is 19 demonstrates that our unemployment situation – already utterly tragic – will only deteriorate with time. It is the single most significant problem we need to solve. Land reform – as shown below – would go a long way towards solving it.)
Which solutions are available to us to resolve these problems?
Land redistribution (land reform)
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines land reform as “measures designed to effect a more equitable distribution of agricultural land especially by governmental action”. In order to more meaningfully convey the object of land reform, this article uses the term land redistribution.
What problems would land redistribution solve? At present, the ownership of land is highly concentrated. This concentration of land ownership has a direct impact on the minimum wage. If land were more equitably distributed, so that each family unit had about 2.5 acres for agricultural use, then the minimum wage would not need to be set by government. The minimum wage would instead default to the return available to the average farmer for working their 2.5 acres of land. Any industrialist would have to offer better than that to attract workers from rural Kenya to the city. The absence of a fair distribution of land leads directly to the current “city dwellers” situation, in which we have masses of workers who walk daily from Kangemi to Nairobi city centre and back (or from Kibera to Industrial Area and back) to do back-breaking work – all for a pittance.
Joe Studwell traces the origins of the economic take-offs of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to the redistribution of land among citizens, noting that “In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, household-based land redistribution programmes were implemented peacefully, and sustained. It was this that led to prolonged rural booms that catalysed overall economic transformation”.
Which leads us to: how did they do it? Japan, in particular, implemented land redistribution by imposing a maximum 3-hectare limit for farms in almost all areas of the country. This was implemented by creating land committees on which local tenants and owner-farmers outnumbered landlords. The local aspect of these committees was of critical importance – more centralised, authoritarian redistributions, such as those that took place in Korea seemed less effective. In addition, the composition of these committees was critical for ensuring that fair redistributions took place. A situation where land is redistributed to different, already-wealthy new owners (such as members of county assemblies), or one in which the wealthy generate proxies to “redistribute” their land to, is not difficult to imagine in Kenya. Ensuring that currently landless locals (or those locals with too little land) benefit from redistribution by placing local individuals of individual integrity and probity on the land redistribution committees would be critical to ensuring that land redistribution lasts.
In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, household-based land redistribution programmes were implemented peacefully, and sustained
It is important to note that land redistribution, while monumental, cannot work on its own. It must in turn be supported by: i) strict restrictions on the future sale of land; ii) Investment in rural infrastructure (for example irrigation infrastructure, grain-drying facilities, roads to food-basket areas, etc); iii) the provision of agricultural extension services (it was once noted that Kakamega was twice as poor as Nyeri mainly because Nyeri farmers used certified seed); iv) the provision of low-interest credit; and v) marketing support (of a vastly different nature to that hitherto provided by Kenya Planters Cooperative Union, for example) – or liberalisation of marketing.
Lastly, within a society, the ownership of wealth naturally becomes concentrated over time. One-off land redistribution would not solve this perennial problem. Land redistribution must be done periodically – every 50 years being the prescriptive interval.
The taxation of land is Henry George’s elegant solution to the conundrum of allowing the private ownership of land while at the same time preventing the private individual from keeping to himself/herself the public benefits of this private ownership. To recap, George’s central premise is that people own the earth and its resources in common, and that returns to land (itself a metaphor for the earth and all its resources) should therefore be realised in common. This would appear to negate the concept of private ownership of land or property; Mr George’s elegant solution to allowing the private ownership of land while causing the returns to land to be commonly realised was a land-value tax – i.e. the taxation of privately-owned land based on the market value of the land alone (excluding any improvements and buildings upon it). This solution, he wrote, would take the enjoyment of unearned income arising from landownership (i.e. economic rent) away from private hands and place it in the hands of the public.
It might be worthwhile to think, for a moment, about just a few of the implications of this simple “remedy”, as he calls it. First, implementing a land-value tax would immediately make owning idle land unprofitable. Living, as we do, in a country where vast tracts of land are “owned” without being put to optimum use – indeed, to any use at all – taxing the ownership of such land would in short order cause the sale, or the lease, or the use of that land; anything to enable the payment of the land-value tax. All of these outcomes would be nationally, economically beneficial.
Placing local individuals of individual integrity and probity on the land redistribution committees would be critical to ensuring that land redistribution lasts
Second, if only land ownership were taxed, it would imply that labour and capital would not be taxed. Mr George states that to tax anything is to discourage it. This is one of the reasons why taxing land values would discourage private land ownership (unless the landowner was doing something with that land that would enable them to pay the land-value tax). Applying this principle of taxation to the other factors of production, to tax human endeavour (labour) is to discourage it, and therefore such endeavour should not be taxed. Imagine the effect on any economy of allowing people to realise the full benefit of their labour. Would this not be just?
Third, that the benefits from ownership of naturally occurring wealth, for example, should be publicly realised is another implication of Mr George’s remedy. Implementing this would mean that there would be no more private fortunes in oil, or gold, or diamonds, or the electromagnetic spectrum…
Fourth, implementing a tax based on the value of land, insofar as the value of land was determined accurately, would mean that landowners – including the owners of the most prime real estate in New York, or Nairobi, or London – would realise from their ownership of land only such benefit as accrues from their improvement of that land (e.g. by building upon it); they would not be able to benefit merely from “owning” it.
Fifth, Apple and Amazon and Google and Microsoft would not be able to evade federal taxes any longer by pretending to be operating out of Ireland, so long as they had offices (campuses!) in the United States. In other words, a land-value tax is not as easily evadable as many of the forms of taxation we have today.
Land value taxation as a single tax has not been implemented anywhere in the world, for political reasons. In as far as a land-value tax captures the economic rent arising from the private ownership of land, however, an example of the efficacy of this can be seen in Singapore, where the government owns the majority of the land and uses land-based taxes (leases and development uplift) to fund the development of that nation’s infrastructure.
Increase of arable land
Before we began to review our solutions, we noted that we have two main problems: a shortage of arable land, and an unequal distribution of what arable land we do have. The first two solutions we have looked at would redistribute what arable land we do have more equitably. We now look at how we can increase the quantum of our arable land.
Bishop Dr Titus Masika, father of the well-known gospel singer Mercy Masika, and founder of Christian Impact Mission, has done some work in this area that is at once illustrious and illustrative. Bishop Dr Masika launched what he called Operation Mwolyo Out (OMO) in the Yatta sub-county of Machakos County (mwolyo is Kamba for relief food). Yatta, home to about 150,000 people, is classified among the arid and semi-arid areas of the country. OMO saw families encouraged to excavate 20ft-deep water pan to harvest rainwater, and then use the water collected during the rainy season to farm year-round. As a result of these interventions, a community that once had food deficits now generates food surpluses.
Bishop Dr Masika’s OMO initiative demonstrates that we do not need to accept the World Bank’s “10 per cent arable land” as just another nail in our nation’s economic coffin. Amidst much injustice and inequality, we can start with what we have right now. Bishop Dr Masika emphasises the importance of changing a people’s mindset before you can change their outcomes . He states that a change in mindset is the most important step in bringing about permanent change. A radical change of mindset is as necessary in the way we think about economics, land and poverty as it was for the people of Yatta before OMO became a success. For water harvesting, while important, would not have been enough.
The late, great Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, once stated that the first job of government is to equalise opportunity. An economically undeveloped society with an inequality of opportunities is a society that is ripe for land reform. An economy/society that allows the accumulation – for a select few – of an unearned income arising from the private ownership of land is an unjust economy/society. Indeed, even where unearned incomes such as capital gains are shared quite broadly across the economy (as has happened through the democratisation of home ownership in the UK, for example), as this situation is allowed to persist, wealth concentrates among those who first had the opportunity to privately own land. Eventually this leads to inter-generational differences, where the young experience a “failure to launch” into their own homes because home ownership/tenancy becomes too expensive for young people working their first jobs.
A society that allows the accumulation of an unearned income arising from the private ownership of land is an unjust society
Typically, however, it takes moments of immense political upheaval in order for land reforms to be implemented. In Japan, land redistribution was carried out under General MacArthur’s reconstruction programme (on the advice of the great Wolf Ladejinsky) during the US occupation of Japan immediately after the Second World War. In South Korea, the US’s favoured political stooge, Syngman Rhee, enacted redistribution laws, but dragged his heels in implementing them. Matters came to a head during the 1950-53 Korean civil war; after the war, land redistribution was implemented.
In Taiwan, the Kuomintang, fleeing from mainland China, realised they would have to deal with economic inequality by implementing land reform, or perish politically. Songs like Ĩno Mĩgũnda, coupled with our current unemployment metrics (5.3 million of our young people i.e. 39% of our youth, are unemployed), and the fact that our median age is 19, are indicators that our own nation is moving inexorably in the direction of significant political upheaval.
It is incumbent upon us to implement these reforms before economic injustice is obliterated in excruciating fashion as the forces of economic inequality now acting upon our nation’s youthful population give birth to a long-delayed backlash.
Africapitalism’ and the Limits of Any Variant of Capitalism
Stefan Ouma provides a critical account of Africapitalism as well as an assessment of the future/s it imagines, what it silences and its potential to transform African economies. Ouma concludes that the ecologically destructive and dehumanising architecture of our global economic system provides further evidence to condemn any variant of capitalism.
In 2019, Tanzanians mourned prominent businessperson Ali Mufuruki (1959-2019). Under the umbrella of his InfoTech Investment Group, he championed the cause of indigenous ownership of businesses in the country. He was successful at his trade, representative of a group of ‘Tanzanians of African origin who have been the voice of the private sector during – and since – the transition to liberalization in the 1980s/90s.
He was also an ‘ideational entrepreneur’ who promoted the structural transformation of African economies to engender less extraverted and extractive forms of development. With the aim to safeguard the ‘gains of liberalization’, he co-founded and chaired the CEO Roundtable of Tanzania (CEOrt), providing a forum for industry leaders to constructively engage the government on policy issues. Together with his fellow countrymen Rahim Mawji, Moremi Marwa, Gilman Kasiga, he published a book to which the President himself, John Pombe Magufuli wrote the foreword: Tanzania’s Industrialisation Journey, 2016-2056: From an Agrarian to a Modern Industrialised State in Forty Years (2017).
Mufuruki also spread his ideas in a TED talk, where he debunked the myth of ‘Africa rising’ with great verve, as some critical political economists have also done. Yet despite being touted as an ‘intellectual of capital’ by historian Chambi Chachage, you won’t find the term capitalism mentioned in Mufuruki and colleagues’ book other than when another cited author uses the term. Instead, less suspicious terms such as ‘the market’ and ‘the private sector’ are put to use. After all, upebari (capitalism) and mapebari (capitalists) are still terms used widely with a negative connotation in a country where socialism is still enshrined in the constitution.
In contrast, in Nigeria, another intellectual of capital, Tony Elumelu, was far less hesitant to mobilise the vocabulary of capitalism for his purposes when he came up with the term Africapitalism in 2011. Since then, the notion has become a popular hashtag in social media, and now garnishes the titles of at least three books (Edozie 2017; Idemudia and Amaeshi 2019; Amaeshi et al. 2018).
Like Mufuruki, Elumelu is someone for whom capitalism has worked very well, having turned the Nigerian United Bank of Africa (UBA) into a pan-African player in the 2000s. He is now the board chairman of Heirs Holding, a pan-African private equity firm based in Lagos. For the past ten years, he has also headed a large philanthropic enterprise dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship across the continent.
Like Mufuruki, Elumelu is representative of ‘Africa’s new, burgeoning capitalist class’ – a new crop of African entrepreneurs who not only have amassed huge fortunes, but who also increasingly shape representations of the continent on matters of economic and social policy in the battle for minds in and beyond Africa. As argued in a recent post to this blog series by Nigerian historian Moses Ochonu, engagement with this new crop of entrepreneurs is often fraught with two interrelated 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.’ I am taking this finding as an invitation to critically think through Africapitalism beyond capitalism.
Originally, ‘Africapitalism’ only provided a shadowy outline of a new economic blueprint for structural change in Africa. Elumelu underlined that ‘its primary goal is greater economic prosperity and social wealth, driven by Africa’s private sector – its domestic economies, markets, and businesses.’ Its agenda, however, became subsequently more philosophically refined as part of an academic project sponsored by Elumelu’s Foundation at the University of Edinburgh School of Business.
The Nigerian academics involved reframed the Africapitalist ethos as a set of fundamental values through which capitalism is supposed to be made to work for Africans. ‘[A] sense of progress and prosperity,’ ‘a sense of parity,’ ‘a sense of peace and harmony’ and a ‘sense of place and belongingness’ were put at the heart of the Africapitalist project.
At first it seems puzzling that someone would unashamedly embrace capitalism as an ideology of the future on a continent that has historically most brutally suffered under it, and which until today – by many accounts – continues to do so. Making a case for capitalism so boldly happens rarely anywhere in the world, especially outside the UK and the US, where Milton Friedman and others have promoted capitalism as a free-enterprise system that brings humans’ true nature to the fore. Friedman even ran a TV show on it.
Originally, ‘Africapitalism’ only provided a shadowy outline of a new economic blueprint for structural change in Africa. Elumelu underlined that ‘its primary goal is greater economic prosperity and social wealth, driven by Africa’s private sector – its domestic economies, markets, and businesses.’
Even in other core capitalist countries such as Germany, politicians or business folk tend to use less controversial vocabulary such as ‘the market economy’ or ‘our economic system’ when they talk about the world they inhabit. When the leader of the Youth Wing of the Social Democrats (JUSOS) in Germany explicitly used the term capitalism in 2019 to argue that what is assumed to be God-given can actually be changed (calling for labour to own stakes in large businesses), all hell broke loose. That the term is avoided in public debate happens even more often across Africa.
Most independence governments shunned capitalism as the ideology of the colonisers, and until today, many leaders shy away from openly embracing it as the ideology of choice. Almost 30 years ago, Paul Zeleza noted that even in countries with a history of pro-capitalist development since independence, such as Kenya, politicians, entrepreneurs and academics rarely made a public case for capitalism. A recent piece by ROAPE’s Jörg Wiegratz for this series on roape.net and a 2019 intervention of the Mathare Social Justice Center seem to reaffirm the discursive invisibility of capitalism in at least that corner of the continent.
The enthusiastic promotion of Africapitalism also seems puzzling given that capitalism has become increasingly questioned as an ideology-cum-economic system that can take us into the future. The global financial crisis, all-time high global inequalities, but also the increasingly obvious ecological limits of an economic system based on infinite growth, present challenges to anyone trying to make a continued case for capitalism.
Critical books diagnosing capitalism as ready to implode, imagining post-capitalist futures or directly attacking those benefiting disproportionally from the machinations of contemporary capitalism have become plentiful, often reminding us that it is either capitalism or the planet.
The enthusiastic promotion of Africapitalism also seems puzzling given that capitalism has become increasingly questioned as an ideology-cum-economic system that can take us into the future
In the wake of the global financial crisis 2007-8, even the promoters of global corporate elites admit that capitalism has come ‘under siege.’ With debates on inequality and climate change at an all-time high, now even some of the biggest profiteers from financialized capitalism, such as investment banker Jamie Dimon, want to save capitalism from capitalism.
The Corona virus crisis is just the latest product of capitalism’s ‘blasted landscapes.’ As Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr recently argued in two widely circulating essays in the German Newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the COVID-19 pandemic is the product of the minority world’s ‘imperial mode of living’ which partly has been taken up in China and other emerging economies, and now puts the fallout on the rest of us. In a way, it may be considered the harbinger of the climate catastrophe to come – a catastrophe for which only a relatively small part of the world population is responsible (especially if environmental debt is calculated per capita and historically).
The Corona crisis also calls into question the debt-financed growth strategies of many African governments, to the extent that a group of 100 African intellectuals have called for a complete overhaul of the African variant of neoliberal capitalism, where road and airport infrastructures and other ‘urban fantasies’ are prioritized over human well-being.
At the same time, there have been various developments that help us make sense of why ‘Africapitalism’ as an idea emerged and has been taken up so enthusiastically across Africa, and reverberates powerfully even in times of Corona (Elumelu’s UBA just announced a $14 million COVID-19 relief support across Africa).
First, since 2008, Africa has come to be heralded as the last frontier of capitalism, most prominently encapsulated in the ‘Africa rising’ narrative. Although even some intellectuals of capital have been wary of the danger of a single story, such as Mufuruki himself, this narrative has nevertheless redirected the gaze of global capital towards the continent.
As the late Thandika Mkandawire pointed out: ‘Ideas matter. While not always decisive, they do have an autonomous and noticeable effect on interests and institutions.’ Indeed, many African corporate and political elites have tried to exploit this moment of increased global attention, especially the new crop of mega-rich entrepreneurs that Elumelu is part of: the Kirubis, Motsepes and Dangotes of the continent.
Since 2008, Africa has come to be heralded as the last frontier of capitalism, most prominently encapsulated in the ‘Africa rising’ narrative.
Elumelu himself seems to admit that Africa should not rise in a business-as-usual mode. To remedy potential conflicts arising from jobless growth, accumulation by resource extraction and increasing demographic pressures, it ‘is in capital’s own interest to think long-term and invest for social impact’ Why not bet on a mode of production that has, as some would say, proven to be the largest wealth-creating machine in human history?
For Africapitalists, it just depends on the variety of capitalism and how inclusive it is made. It is along these lines that promoters of Africapitalism want to free capitalism from its most excessive and socially destructive features, turning it into a win-win machine for capitalists and the communities they ‘serve’. This is supposed to happen through voluntary, private sector-driven initiatives rather than through taming capitalism through public regulation.
Second, there has been an increasing shift in development thinking over the past decade. The private sector is now being hailed as the prime agent of economic change. The entry of philanthropic entities, private equity funds, impact investors and conventional multinationals into the business of development indicates this trend.
This has been buttressed by a range of concepts that try to give capitalist activities greater legitimacy, such as ‘inclusive capitalism’, ‘corporate citizenship’, ‘social enterprise’, ‘creating shared value’, ‘impact investing’, or the ‘double/triple bottom line approach’.
Africapitalism relates to these intellectual currents, but at the same time claims to supersede them. In such an environment, it sounds increasingly natural to make entrepreneurs – as ‘wealth creators,’ ‘job creators,’ ‘innovators,’ ‘problem-solvers,’ ‘disruptors’ and ‘givers’ the prime movers of economic transformation. Yet those who also create value, be it the state or workers, are largely absent in this narrative.
Third, there are long-standing questions about how to think about Africa’s future development trajectories and through which means ‘development’ could best be achieved. The idea of Africapitalism makes a bold contribution to this debate, reinjecting African agency into the discourse of economic transformation. Many independence leaders were seriously committed to a politics of the future, creating long-term visions of how their societies should develop (e.g., Nkrumah, Senghor, Nyerere) This particular version of politics of the future faded away from the 1980s onwards, when the projects they were based on had run into economic troubles.
‘The African state,’ variously described as socialist, rent-seeking, vampiristic, centralised, clientelist, neopatrimonial, predatory, kleptocratic or failed (Mkandawire 2001: 293), was suddenly blamed for all kinds of evils and the lost development decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Statist and home-grown academic visions of societal transformation were gradually replaced by copy-and-paste adjustment practices. Issa Shivji aptly described this situation a few years ago: ‘The globalization hegemony dictated that the “villages” of the globalizing world did not need thinkers, but only purveyors of thought generated elsewhere.’ Until the early 2000s, African economies had become even greater importers of foreign concepts, something that has always been part of the (post)colonial experience.
The Corona crisis also calls into question the debt-financed growth strategies of many African governments, to the extent that a group of 100 African intellectuals have called for a complete overhaul of the African variant of neoliberal capitalism, where road and airport infrastructures and other ‘urban fantasies’ are prioritized over human well-being.
The longstanding calls for the domestication of ‘development’ moving beyond imperial Western thought, overcoming the colonisation of mind and language, as well as the more recent calls for Africentricity, Africonsciousness and Afromodernity have been responses to this predicament. The idea of Africapitalism fits with the idea that development in Africa should happen with a ‘sense of place’.
It connects with the long-standing desire of African and African Diaspora people to reassert the continent’s role in the world. Frantz Fanon once described this desire powerfully in The Wretched of the Earth, ‘….if we want humanity to take one step forward, if we want to take it to another level than the one where Europe has placed it, then we must innovate, we must be pioneers.’
While closely linked to its Nigerian origin, Africapitalism also ties into and takes inspiration from another vision for Africa’s transformation, Ubuntu economics. Both philosophies are said to ‘embed within themselves the principles of self-determination, African agency, African knowledge and an Africacentric symbolic identity’.
Both philosophies are mobilised to carve out new spaces of thought and practice from the global political economy for accumulating both economic and social wealth in Africa. But Africapitalists have no problem with the foreignness of capitalism, and for the more libertarian kind it is in fact socialist practices that are foreign imports into a context where ‘(p)rofit, trade, and entrepreneurship are inherent aspects of indigenous economic systems’.
For these libertarian Africapitalists, the capitalist ethic is a product of nature (rather than a product of history) – a finding which has been critiqued in an earlier contribution to this blog series by Horman Chitonge. ‘Africapitalism’ also can be related to the long-standing concept of Pan-Africanism, but comes across as a globally more appealing and neutral concept, as Pan-Africanism always had an anti-imperial and anti-capitalist ideological core.
So, what does the concept actually deliver for the continent (and its diaspora people) in terms of transformative, emancipatory and redistributive potential? Despite the welcome Afrocentric and Afroconscious rhetoric, Africapitalists, much like most other politicians and business folk fail to fully ‘open up the present to more than its own repetition.’
This does not deny the need for Africans to advance a more humane, place-based, and connected economy that tries to radically transcend capitalism as the continent has known it. As Mkandawire recently remarked, we should be essentially upbeat about Africa, but it ‘must be given space, or capture space, to think its own way out of its predicament’.
At a time when the true costs of climbing up the capitalist ladder are more obvious than ever; Africa is in a good position to generate real and viable alternative economic futures. But this requires much more than promoting Afrocentric entrepreneurship and needs an approach that enables us to seriously break with the coloniality of power, knowledge and being that has shaped Africa’s adverse insertion into the global political economy since the colonial period. It is only this systemic overhaul which will set African economies on a new footing.
Frantz Fanon once described this desire powerfully in The Wretched of the Earth, ‘….if we want humanity to take one step forward, if we want to take it to another level than the one where Europe has placed it, then we must innovate, we must be pioneers.’
After all, Africanization does not equal decolonization. By relying on categories that were often formed during colonial encounters (such as ‘growth,’ ‘efficiency’; ‘nature serves man as a resource’), by largely subscribing to the current orthodoxy in management and business speak, and by not being grounded in a broader alliance of social forces and ontologies, Africapitalists fail to make visible and utilise the full range of unrealised possibilities that the continent offers when it comes to thinking through capitalism beyond capitalism. They promote a world where redistribution happens because of entrepreneurs’ commitments to the idea of shared value rather than improved tax collection or other forms of redistribution.
Africapitalists also are ‘devoted to the unlikely idea that the bitter conflicts between labour and capital in the West can be replaced on the continent by capitalism informed by the humanistic solidarities of Ubuntu. They imagine a world where capitalist enterprises create economic and social value in the communities they serve through win-win arrangements. It is also a world where large foundations are tasked with economic and social transformation more broadly, despite the increasing evidence of the flaws of the venture philanthropy model/philanthrocapitalism, and the wanting labour, environmental and corporate governance track record of companies that are being cited as good examples of Africapitalism (take Zambeef or Nakumatt, for instance).
In order to revoke the current economic order, we need concerted, pan-African and radical efforts to remake African economies, which are at the same time grounded in the awareness that Africa is part of a wider global ensemble in which humans are one among many species. This does not mean that Africans must scale down on their desire to live dignified, fulfilled, and secure lives, but that anyone engaging with the future must dare to move outside a frame that may hold for only another few decades before it will fully fall apart.
Such questions may be dismissed against the background that Africapitalism is first and foremost about attaining the discursive power to shape one’s own economic destiny in a region where millions of people are yet to enjoy the material wealth of the North, or many emerging economies, and thus lack the privilege to think beyond capitalism. During such an endeavour, questions of environmentalism may be treated rather agnostically.
Yet, even though attaining the power to shape one’s own destiny and developing a set of discursive, place-based concepts that can help build alliances around a project of economic transformation are certainly key to more prosperous African futures, it can be questioned whether this should be done through practices that have historically built wealth in certain regions of the world only on the back of cheap nature, food, labour and energy elsewhere.
The COVID-19 pandemic is nature’s way to fight back, bringing the technologically sophisticated yet often ecologically destructive and dehumanising architecture of contemporary supply chain capitalism to its knees, further proves the ecological and social limits of any variant of capitalism. It is worth re-reading Fanon: ‘So comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies that draw their inspiration from it. Humanity expects other things from us than this grotesque and generally obscene emulation.’
The article was published in the Review of African Political Economy journal extended version originally published in Africapitalism: Sustainable Business and Development in Africa by Idemudia and Amaeshi (eds) 2019.
Urban Africa Under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities
As in other neoliberal cities, the remedies for significant economic burdens are individualized and the political economy that scaffolds them often remains hidden from view. Instead, predatory mobile loans, principally targeting youth, are offered at exorbitant interest rates, the booming church industry thrives on a prosperity gospel that promises individual riches in exchange for prayers and the country’s development is projected in a number of ‘vision’ documents that promote large-scale infrastructure rather than an improvement in basic conditions for all Kenyans.
Research on economic pressure in Africa has been approached from diverse vantage points. While economists frame ‘pressure’ as a consequence of market failures, or as a by-product of macro-economic measures such as structural adjustment reforms or technological and political change, anthropologists who zoom in on the economic pressures individuals face in their everyday lives, i.e. the lived experiences of those who are ‘under pressure’ have focused more on topics such as uncertainty and precarity. Alternatively, economic psychologists tend to naturalise pressure as an individual response to an adverse financial situation, eclipsing the varied ways pressure is intertwined with and shaped by broader societal transformations, power structures, social relations and obligations, and webs of exchange. There are currently no studies we are aware of that focus on the multi-faceted societal constitution of economic pressure in capitalist Africa, or that compare how pressure is experienced across gender, generation or socioeconomic groups.
How do we study pressure?
Our review of existing literature on economic pressure has identified two main gaps. On the one hand, most ethnographic studies focus on a particular group/community (e.g. female gig workers, urban poor, farmers, security guards, an extended family or even a few individuals). How the experiences and drivers of pressure differ across groups according to class, income, gender, geography, profession etc., is largely absent from the literature. On the other hand, studies tend to frame pressure in the context of one specific driver (e.g. agrarian change, consumer credit, financial inclusion, changes in the structure of work, unemployment, supply chain dynamics, etc.), often in a broader context of neoliberalism, commercialisation, and globalisation.
Our blog series aims to address these gaps by exploring economic pressure in a more situational and practice-oriented way, in which pressure is understood as an affect produced in and through specific geographies, temporalities, and social and economic relations. This allows us to apprehend how specific geographies such as neighbourhoods, estates, markets or cities are pressure inducing or “under pressure”. We frame economic pressure as a multi-causal and highly localized phenomenon shaped by broader geographic, social, cultural, economic and political environments, while, at the same time, acknowledging the value of a comparative approach that captures the experience of pressure across social and economic classes.
Correspondingly, our intervention – in this blog series and beyond – aims to critically engage with and counter two main positions in the literature and policy debates. First, we argue that as a social experience, economic pressure and stress are not confined to the urban poor. By widening the categories of actors (e.g. ultra-poor, poor, middle-class, rich and super rich), our analysis and debate expands the portrayal of pressure as an experience that solely affects the poor; whether it be the “hustler” striving to make ends meet on the streets of Nairobi or families using food banks in Johannesburg. Understanding the cross-class characteristics of pressure is key to understanding how it has become an ubiquitous phenomenon constitutive of capitalist society and everyday life.
Second, we question the assumptions regarding the power of individual action and choice prevalent among psychologists, behavioural economists and other social scientists working on the productive potential of hope, aspirations and self-efficacy (e.g. the work of behavioural economists such as Johannes Haushofer as well as anthropologists such as Arjun Appadurai). Instead, we take the position that economic pressure is produced through the intersection of overarching ideologies, economic structures, social webs of exchange, and the dynamics of capitalism that shape the lives of all classes in the urban population. Based on our review of existing literature and preliminary qualitative interviews conducted in Nairobi, we suggest that economic pressure is an emotional state engendered by a cognitive assessment of a real/imagined disbalance between real/imagined economic demands and the real/imagined ability to fulfil them. Crucially, the existence of economic pressure does not necessarily entail an actual disparity between demands and abilities; rather, it is a (inter)subjective experience produced by changes in an actor’s social and material environment that suggests to him or her that such a disbalance exists and is relevant, significant and urgent. Hence, we do not conceptualise economic pressure as a quantitatively measurable individual feeling, but as an affect whose constitution, magnitude and presence are a function of atmospheric changes in one’s environment. Economic pressure is thus better grasped by local idioms such as piny pek (Dholuo, “the world weighs heavy”) or ngori (Sheng, “trouble”) than through a set of objective criteria.
Where do we study pressure?
Our focus is the capitalist and especially neoliberal city. The effects of neoliberal restructuring and regimes of accumulation have been particularly inimical in African cities, which face ever deepening informalisation, inequality, insecurity, economic uncertainty and attendant excessive policing, yet continue to pulsate with the promise of possibilities. African cities are particularly fertile sites in which to examine pressure as they are agglomerations of rapid and often turbulent social, cultural and economic change triggered by late capitalism, and are home to a range of interconnected actors who experience and manage, as well as co-produce and co-intensify, pressure across class and other divides. City dwellers also experience a constellation of conditions that are distinct from their rural counterparts: they have more business opportunities and risks; face a range of infrastructural constraints, from rising housing and transport expenses to a shortage of affordable housing, water and sanitation; experience high levels of poverty, widespread under-/un-employment, and intense competition for jobs with concomitant downward pressure on wages in the context of increasing rural urban migration; are more vulnerable to urban criminals or state agents (police etc.) that rob them of their earnings or assets, and their financial demands are not fixed, but ever-changing, often with an accelerated speed, and abetted by mobile technology, the self-help industry, and loan apps that encourage financial action. In addition, urban residents are more plugged into the circuits of global capitalist culture (technological connections, media, music, wealth, digital work, etc.) and the latter’s imaginaries of prosperity contribute to the trend of restless and calculative agency.
This complex and shifting landscape of ‘pressure in the city’ demands an inter-disciplinary approach to apprehend how economic demands, obligations and constraints interweave with the social worlds and life experiences of city dwellers. This includes, on the one hand, examining the inter-relationship between available income (and saleable assets more widely) and the necessary and desired demands that actors (and their families, kin, and social networks) face. This income-demands gap (as distinguished from the income-expenditure gap) is a key catalyst of ‘pressure’. On the other hand, this requires tracking pressure across noneconomic registers – financial, cultural, social, psychological – and gaining a comprehensive picture of how these registers relate. For example, while pressure is associated with a number of common somatic symptoms such as sleeplessness, ulcers, lack of energy, depression, over-activity and burn-out, it may also create the conditions that prompt an array of actions such as gender-based violence, concealing or switching phones to avoid being observed or contacted, gambling and drinking, which can induce new psychological, financial and social pressures. Attaining a full picture of pressure — its drivers, symptoms and consequences — thus necessitates an inter-disciplinary and multi-methodological approach.
“One illness away from poverty”: Economic pressures and uncertainty in Nairobi
In the context of the pandemic, Nairobi continues to be a city of disparities. Against the looming local and global slow-down that the Covid-19 crisis has provoked, a recent poll shows that vast sections of the Kenyan population are now unable to pay for utilities (67%), rent, or medicine, can no longer remit money to dependants (79%), have defaulted on loans repayment (75%), and had to turn to food donations. Significantly, 81% of those surveyed are anxious and stressed, while 52% felt helpless and 33% angry. Indeed, the conditions urban residents face are stressful. With the large tracts of the promised Covid-19 stimulus package monies unaccounted for and seemingly never expended, the inconsistent food donations in poor communities tapering, and one million jobs lost in three months, daily life is now even more difficult to plan. But these pressures build on dynamics that existed before the pandemic. In February 2020, before the government implemented a lockdown, census data documented that 39% of youth (between the ages of 18-35) were unemployed. Likewise, over half of those employed in 2018 earned less than 10,000 Kenya shillings a month [less than $100], which is barely enough to cover basic necessities such as food, transport, housing and clothing. With privatization and the high cost of basic services such as rent, healthcare, water and, in many poor neighbourhoods, even sanitation facilities, meeting one’s every day needs is a significant financial strain. Even the middle-class are only “one illness away from poverty” due to the inordinate cost of private health care and similar shocks.
As in other neoliberal cities, the remedies for these significant economic burdens are individualized and the political economy that scaffolds them often remains off-staged/hidden from view. Instead, predatory mobile loans, principally targeting youth, the poorest and underemployed, are offered at exorbitant interest rates, the booming church industry thrives on a prosperity gospel that promises individual riches in exchange for prayers (and often significant tithes) and the country’s development is projected in a number of ‘vision’ documents that promote large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, railways, airports etc) rather than an improvement in basic conditions for all Kenyans.
It is against these realities, that, over the last few years, public discourse more and more features words such as “mental health” and “burnout.” It is not a coincidence that this vernacular is taken up at a time when most Kenyans, surveyed across geographies, genders and classes, reported that their financial status worsened between 2016 and 2019.Interestingly, during this same three year period, we observe increasing (neoliberal) efforts directed towards “financial inclusion” habitually channelled through “fintech.”
Certainly, Kenyans are finding it hard to juggle all their economic burdens, from extended families to basic necessities, let alone finance the personal and collective aspirations for home ownership, better education, cars etc. All around, across all demographics, there is personal and collective work directed towards lightening these loads, made by piny pek – a heavy world. There are bets hedged, some won and many lost; collective savings groups, gambling, debts, and other situated modes to narrativize and negotiate economic pressures. Future blog posts will detail these means of coping in more ethnographic depth, showcasing the fervent efforts people of all walks of life in Nairobi, a capitalist city, are making to ease the pressure.
This article was first published in the Developing Economics.
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