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A Place Under the Sun: Solar Energy and the Struggle for a Billion-Dollar Invisible Market

15 min read. Unserved by policy makers whose grand energy priorities lay elsewhere, 600 million rural Africans for decades lay off-grid. When new technologies and global investment arrived, this emerging market became the site of competition and fantasy between indigenous solar technology traders and a white saviour industry backed by billionaire philanthropy investors.

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A Place Under the Sun: Solar Energy and the Struggle for a Billion-Dollar Invisible Market
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The truth of the hunt, it is said, will never be fully known until the lion tells its story. This is particularly useful in the context of international development; the stories that get told tend to focus on the deeds of the “hunters” – in this case, the international do-gooders — that led to whatever outcomes they desire to highlight. The saying certainly holds true for the development of solar energy in Africa, because the coverage too often tells of expat social entrepreneur efforts to spread the technology. Intentionally or not, these Western actors ignore the work done by local players — the “lions”, who actually built the sector.

To better understand both sides of the story of solar in Africa, a global perspective of solar and the forces that drive demand is useful. Today, the worldwide solar energy sector is valued at more than $100 billion annually. In 2018, over 100 GW of solar power systems were installed. Yet despite enormous resources on the continent, less than two percent of this solar capacity was installed in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is, in fact, a backwater for solar investments.

Today, the worldwide solar energy sector is valued at more than $100 billion annually. In 2018, over 100 GW of solar power systems were installed…less than two percent of this solar capacity was installed in sub-Saharan Africa.

Globally, solar electricity’s growth spurt came after 2000 when the German government supported the energiewinde program and Chinese production of solar modules ramped up in response to sharp spikes in demand. Since the late `90s, solar power projects in developed countries have mostly been grid connected and large scale. Early on-grid developments occurred in Germany and California, where today millions of homes have rooftops covered with solar panels. All over the developed world and in China and India, fields of modules produce gigawatts of power on sunny days. However, though production is over 100 GW per year today, it wasn’t until 2003 that global production surpassed 1 GW per year.

While millions of modules were installed in the global North, on-grid solar’s potential was almost entirely ignored by African governments. It was seen to be too expensive, unsuited for grids plagued by instability, a novelty without a real future. Africa’s power sectors were not ready to experiment with solar, so the line went. But after 1995, in order to placate post-Rio environmentalists, a number of World Bank and UN Global Environment Facility solar projects were set up to fund off-grid rural electrification. If the inattention delayed progress in African on-grid solar by decades, these small projects play an important, if largely undocumented, role in the global solar energy story: they stimulated the use of solar by rural people.

It wasn’t until 2003 that global production surpassed 1 GW per year.

Africa’s different solar path: Solar for Access

Well before grid connected programs were launched in the North, African entrepreneurs were selling off-grid and small-scale solar systems targeted at rural projects and consumers. This goes all the way back to the early days of solar, long before the technology was financially viable or available for grid power.

Today, in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, if measurements are made by percentage of households with solar power systems, many rural parts of these countries have a much higher absolute penetration of solar products than Northern countries. Surveys of Kenya and Tanzania populations show that penetration rates surpass 20 percent of all rural households. But the systems in Africa are much smaller and, until recently, of much less interest to the mega green investors that today drive the industry. Depending on who is telling the story, there are different versions of how such high penetration rates among rural populations have been achieved.

Well before grid connected programs were launched in the global North, African entrepreneurs were selling off-grid and small-scale solar systems targeted at rural projects and consumers.

All of the industry actors would agree on a few fundamentals. First, 600 million people lack access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. For the small amounts of energy these populations use — in the form of kerosene, dry cells and cell phone chargers — they thus pay a disproportionately high portion of their incomes.

Secondly, the massive funds to roll out rural grid investments for un-electrified populations are neither available to African governments nor the multilateral groups that support grid electricity development. Conservatively estimating grid connection at $500 per household, it would cost in the order of $50 billion dollars to distribute grid electricity to the continent’s unconnected rural population. And this does not include the generation and transmission infrastructure.

Because of these costs, and the lowered costs and technological improvements made in off-grid solar over the past decade, the World Bank, investors, donor partners and the private sector agree that off-grid solar energy is the best way to quickly cover a large portion of un-connected dispersed African populations. Nevertheless, governments still focus their budgetary outlays on grid-based electrification. Their spending has largely ignored the viability of off-grid solar power for rural electrification.

Conservatively estimating grid connection at $500 per household, it would cost in the order of $50 billion dollars to distribute grid electricity to the continent’s unconnected rural population.

Finally, as more and more investors line up to finance the solar electrification of off-grid Africa, all players agree that it is the private sector that has done and will continue to do the heavy lifting to provide solar electricity to rural consumers.

It is here that the story diverges. Who should be given the credit for the widespread use of rural solar in Africa? And, more importantly, how should future investments be made in the sector? The answer depends on who you ask.

The African Pioneers

Off-grid systems were a critical part of worldwide solar sales early on and many ended up in Sub Saharan Africa.

But these days, this remarkable story of the early players is not often told.

In the 1970s, though still expensive, solar became cost-effective for terrestrial applications (as opposed to NASA satellites). In Africa, national telecoms and international development players began using solar to power off-grid applications such as repeater stations, WHO vaccine refrigerators, communication radios in refugee camps and later, lighting in off-grid projects. Solar panels and batteries replaced generators — and the need to expensively truck fuel to remote sites. Because of this demand, traders in cities such as Nairobi began to stock and sell solar systems for these specialized high-end clients.

In the 1970s… on the back of pioneer demand, a lucrative market opened up when television signals spread across cash-crop growing regions of East Africa.

On the back of pioneer demand, a much more lucrative market opened up when television signals spread across cash-crop growing regions of East Africa. Rural people with coffee and tea incomes realized that they could power black-and-white “Great Wall” TVs with lead acid car batteries. Especially in Kenya, traders selling DC TVs quickly realized that car batteries could be charged with solar panels. Since they already had strong rural distribution networks, they added solar to their rural lines and a new industry selling, solar systems, TVs, lights and music systems was born. In the 1990s, East Africa’s off-grid solar market was a small but important slice of global solar demand.

After 1995, when Nairobi traders such as Animatics, NAPS, Telesales, Chloride Solar and Latema Road shops introduced lower cost 10-watt modules and 12-volt lights to the market, demand increased exponentially. Hundreds of technicians were selling systems to rural farmers and teachers. By the turn of the century, this market pioneered by African traders was selling — and even financing — tens of thousands of single panel solar systems per year in off-grid areas of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

These established businesses exploded with the emergence of cell phone markets in the mid-2000s. Suddenly, millions of rural cell phone owners needed a cheap, convenient way to charge their phones. Distribution chains, with over-the-counter sales of solar electric systems already in place, simply added the required kit for charging phones to the wares they offered. Cell phone charging, a business worth tens of millions of dollars per year, tied into the groundwork laid by small retail indigenous companies and businesses. By 2005, enterprises had sprung up in rural areas all over East Africa that were selling these systems — and village SMEs were charging cell phones, video-cinemas and kiosk refrigerators with solar.

Business exploded with the emergence of cell phone markets in the mid-2000s.

Difficulties arose as demand grew. Competition brought poor quality and counterfeit products. Dodgy traders, a lack of skilled technicians and insufficient consumer awareness began to spoil the market. Without standards or regulatory systems in place to police the industry, the reputation of off-grid solar suffered. In those early days, uneducated consumers bought poorly-designed systems and were discouraged. The reputation of solar, especially among policy makers whose energy priorities lay elsewhere, was badly tarnished.

Enter the international development community

Recognizing a market of over 600 million off-grid people, multilateral and national aid agencies (World Bank, DFID, GIZ) realized the potential of solar to support energy access. They saw that rapid changes in technology were making off-grid solar more viable. Prices of solar modules were falling. Super-efficient LED lights were becoming available. Solid state-of-the-art electronic controls, inverters, dc appliances, lithium-ion batteries and well-designed products were coming into the market. These changes, together with rising awareness, did much to improve the choices of consumers.

In 2008, the World Bank and its investment arm, the International Finance Corporation, set up Lighting Africa to support the development of off-grid solar. Lighting Africa raised awareness of solar among African policy makers, developed quality standards and laid the groundwork for corporate investment in solar companies. It stimulated a transition of the sector from NGO/donor domination to foreign investor-based models. By developing a platform that recognized the enormous opportunities for solar businesses, Lighting Africa helped roll out standards for the sector, grew in-country awareness and stimulated investment in a new generation of off-grid solar companies that designed truly innovative products. It also helped set up a trade group — the Amsterdam-based Global Off-Grid Lighting Association, GOGLA — for companies selling approved solar products.

In 2008, the World Bank and the IFC, set up Lighting Africa to support the development of off-grid solar. Lighting Africa raised awareness of solar among African policy makers, developed quality standards and laid the groundwork for corporate investment in solar companies. It stimulated a transition…from NGO/donor to investor-based models…and stimulated investment in a new generation of off-grid solar companies that designed truly innovative products.

Lighting Africa did much to bring on board local policy makers, to help improve equipment quality and to increase market size. With the involvement of the donor partners, investment flooded in and new players, predominantly Western, entered the market. Companies such as D.Light, Greenlight Planet (owner of the Sun King brand), Solar Now, Bright Life, fosera, Mobisol and Solar Kiosk brought innovative high-quality products and services. The new generation of companies revolutionized consumer choice by using professional product designers, manufactured in China and elsewhere in South East Asia, sophisticated business models and Silicon Valley investment to roll out. An industry that had largely been indigenous and self-financed had become an opportunity for big money international investors.

The disruptions accompanying the arrival of Lighting Africa were felt almost immediately. Newly agreed quality standards mostly worked for manufacturing companies with deep pockets. Companies located further down the supply pyramid — the ones near the consumers, and which had built the markets — were by and large shut out as the big money began to flow in. As far as the donors and impact investors were concerned, there were two categories of players; their money would target the first, the international manufacturers. These were the established disruptors, represented by GOGLA members and led by savvy expat social entrepreneurs from Europe and the USA.

The other category, which GOGLA now described as the “grey market”, is composed of “thousands of small businesses and technicians in Africa”: local traders, rural wholesale dukas, small-scale integrators, technicians, import-exporters, ambitious lone wolf entrepreneurs. This group, grappling with the day-to-day of basic survival and incapable of preparing grant proposals for donors or business plans for impact investors, is largely unrepresented in the international conversation. It was this group, rightly or wrongly, that was held responsible for market quality problems that, according to the new narrative, the GOGLA members would solve.

The disruptions accompanying the arrival of Lighting Africa were felt almost immediately. Newly agreed quality standards mostly worked for manufacturing companies with deep pockets. Companies located further down the supply pyramid — the ones near the consumers, and which had built the markets — were shut out as the big money began to flow in.

If the positive product and marketing innovations of Lighting Africa and GOGLA members demonstrably benefitted millions of rural consumers, their market disruption also affected the ‘grey market’ players. In donor-supported conferences, convened mostly in the West, where energy access is discussed, the narrative is that the African solar industry passed from locals to international social entrepreneurs. Even if the international social entrepreneurs had the best intentions of serving African consumers, they were also strategically positioning themselves to win the hundreds of millions of dollars of grant and impact investment finance that was coming to the sector. And everything changed with Pay As You Go.

The Birth of PAYG

Pay As You Go (PAYG) was developed on the back of mobile money. Simply put, PAYG systems are small off-grid solar systems with embedded SIM cards that enable companies to remotely collect incremental payments from consumers. The embedded SIM card can accept payments, monitor the solar system and switch it off if payments are not made. The spending history of each PAYG customer can also be tracked online, much in the same way that credit card customers are tracked.

This group, faced with day-to-day survival and incapable of preparing grant proposals for donors or business plans for impact investors, is largely unrepresented in the international conversation.

When Nick Hughes, one of the developers of M-Pesa for Vodacom, Safaricom’s UK parent company, looked to the future he saw how mobile credit among poor consumers would enable them to access a variety of products. He recognised that solar electricity for phone charging, TV and lighting would be the most sought after rural product. With Jesse Moore, he established M-Kopa Solar. Once they tested their product, M-Kopa launched outlets in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, where solar demand was already well-developed.

The difference between PAYG and over-the-counter sales is that PAYG can reach a lower strata of customers and, importantly, the business can be scaled. PAYG enables companies to collect payments from thousands of Base of the Pyramid (BoP) customers — and it enables consumers in turn to finance systems over much longer time periods.

When Nick Hughes, one of the developers of M-Pesa for Vodacom, Safaricom’s UK parent company, looked to the future he saw how mobile credit among poor consumers would enable them to access a variety of products.

Before PAYG, virtually all transactions in solar were cash over the counter. The PAYG business model had the potential to disrupt the old model in the way that cell phones invalidated landlines. Payments could be tracked on-line in real time. Once PAYG technology was in place and investible models established, hundreds of millions of dollars of investment flowed into off-grid companies.

Donors had funded the pilot experiences and multilaterals had established the financial and policy framework for off-grid energy access. Now international patent capital could be enthusiastically invested in PAYG solar. Indeed, since 2015, on the order of a billion dollars of impact investment has been placed in PAYG companies in Africa. M-Kopa Solar alone has attracted well over $100M in venture capital and grant money. They are not alone. Others include Off-Grid Electric (now Zola, in Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Ivory Coast), Fenix (Uganda, Zambia), Mobisol (Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya), Azuri and others.

The PAYG business model had the potential to disrupt the old model in the way that cell phones invalidated landlines.

Taken together, these PAYG companies have connected millions of customers and brought much needed resources to the energy access sector. The point of this article is not to belittle their accomplishments. In fact, building PAYG companies can only be done with deep pockets, good planning and strong teams. To succeed, companies must build market share quickly and raise multiple rounds of investment. Though PAYG players start as technology and marketing companies, they quickly become finance providers. Snowballing cash demands force PAYG companies to pass through what some call a financial “Valley of Death”. Before they have enough revenue to support a viable business, they have to spend millions on equipment and sales staff to expand their base. It is a risky, high-roller business.

Competition is stiff. Many consumers are unwilling to pay the extra costs of branded PAYG products and will regularly privilege price over international standards. In fact, most products being bought in Africa are not from GOGLA members. Shops operating in “Buy-em-Sell-em” trading streets stock a large array of equipment, much of it substandard. Moreover, PAYG companies that finance Base of Pyramid customers can lose them at any time. Drought, political disturbance or economic downturn will shut down income streams. When there is no money in the economy, vulnerable populations simply stop paying bills for solar gadgets.

Since 2015, on the order of a billion dollars of impact investment has been placed in PAYG companies in Africa.

A further problem faced by PAYG companies is that their products provide electricity services unsuited to the elastic needs of rural families. A typical PAYG solar kit comes in a neat box with a 20W module, a few lights, a charger and a battery. A consumer might be happy with such basic light and cellphone charging service initially, but consumer needs and aspirations evolve quickly. A consumer that wants a 20W system one month might desire a system twice that size six months later. The boxed set units sold by PAYG companies struggle to grow with the aspirations and needs of much of their customer base.

Today, despite the potential of the PAYG model to scale, many of the first generation of companies are in trouble, languishing in the face of ruthless competition and the challenges described earlier. In 2017, Off Grid Electric, a company that pledged to electrify one million Tanzanians, virtually pulled out of their foundation country and rebranded to attract more rounds of desperately needed finance. In Kenya, M-Kopa had to downsize and restructure its business in late 2017. Smaller companies in less lucrative markets also struggle to scale. Fenix, the largest player in Uganda, was able to avoid financial issues by selling majority shares to the global utility company Engie.

Few if any investors are making financial returns on their investments.

Despite the potential of the PAYG model to scale, many of the first generation of companies are in trouble…

In a way, the PAYG players want to have their cake and eat it too. They claim that they offer quality products and they like to say that their data-based business model is best able to deploy resources to the 600 million ‘base of the pyramid’ consumers unserved by the mainstream energy market. Their complaints, mostly to do with quality, are directed at the ‘grey market’. But they are the first in line for Western grant money and super easy-term financing to grow their companies. At international conferences, almost exclusively convened in the West, it is their polite, white faces that own the conversation.

African Traders in the Over the Counter Market Still Dominate

PAYG entrepreneurs do not acknowledge a self-evident truth: the so-called “grey market” is the market. In Africa, for bicycles, sofas, consumer electronics, dishware and roofing tiles, there has always been a range of products for consumers to choose from. Providing consumers with choice is what drives capitalism — those companies that provide the best choices for consumers at the best prices win out. The market for off-grid products was never being ruined by poor quality products any more than the market for cell phones was. Consumers learn, traders improve their product offering and manufacturers innovate.

PAYG entrepreneurs do not acknowledge a harsh truth: the so-called “grey market” is the market.

Today, the same local traders that built the supply chains in the 1980s and `90s still dominate the consumer off-grid solar market. But they do not feature in the international solar discussion. Their sales are invisible to consultants and undercounted in global reports (The GOGLA annual report, now the sectors’ bible, does not count the “grey market” and off-handedly considers it a threat to the “quality” market).

Rural people buy most of their solar from grey market traders. I’ve followed markets and conducted field research in Africa for 20 years and have the data to back it up. In Tanzania, a 2016 national census indicated that over 25 percent of the rural population own some type of solar device – this is more than a million PV systems installed almost exclusively by “grey market” traders. Recently, when conducting demand surveys in Uganda’s Lake Victoria islands, I found that 80 percent of the island populations had purchased solar systems from over-the-counter traders — virtually none had PAYG systems. In Zambia, I conducted surveys of 20 off-grid villages and found that upwards of 60% of households had grey market solar systems. In Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, the story is the same.

Of course, Chinese solar modules and batteries dominate over-the-counter trade. But local manufacturing also plays a major role. Kenyan battery manufacturer Chloride sells on the order of 100,000 lead acid batteries per year to the off-grid market. Its partner Solinc, which manufactures 6MW of solar modules per year in Naivasha, provides its modules to Kenyan, Ugandan, Tanzanian and Rwandan over-the-counter players in the region. This commerce, of course, is driven by hundreds of traders and solar technicians.

The driving force for the success of local traders is rural consumers. Rather than being “manipulated” by unsavoury traders, consumers have absorbed lessons; they have become more shrewd. Over decades, they have learnt about solar products and, in true do-it-yourself fashion, they have become better able to put solar systems together. They value price and short-term functionality over quality. They understand that when they want larger systems, over-the-counter players are more responsive to their needs than PAYG sellers. OTC traders can provide larger systems for growing households at a lower cost. In short, rural retailers and their largely Chinese suppliers are still more responsive to consumer needs than PAYG companies. And they are lighter on their feet.

In 2019, solar is holding its own against grid-based rural electrification. Off-grid solar is growing because the technology has numerous advantages over grid extension. If governments have been slow to invest in solar for rural households, rural consumers are voting with their pocketbooks. Solar systems work, there is an infrastructure to supply and rural consumers understand the technology.

Expat social entrepreneurs, using impact investment and international aid assistance, advanced the international agenda for off-grid solar, raised financing, developed new technology and innovated new business models. But despite hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and grant aid, PAYG companies are still losing to local players. Why? Rural traders move more product because they inhabit the markets they work in.

In a market of 600 million consumers, there is plenty of room for different business models and players across the supply chain. But the untold story of local solar traders raises a number of questions about how we should build the coming solar industry.

First, is the issue of ownership and funding opportunities. Many here are uncomfortable with the idea of an industry predominantly owned and controlled by foreigners, even if they are well-intentioned social entrepreneurs. For each successful expat social entrepreneur, there are 20 local entrepreneurs equally capable but lacking support to finance even a modest start-up. Much more can be done to level the playing field for local start-ups if these budding players are given the opportunities that have been handed to PAYG pioneers.

Second is business size. Decentralized and off-grid power is exciting because it democratizes opportunity and lowers entry costs for small players. East Africa is a region where small and medium sized entrepreneurs create the biggest opportunities and drive dynamic economies. Investor interest in scalable businesses worth hundreds of millions of dollars is driven by greed, not by common sense. Smaller players would make for a more exciting and lively solar sector. There is no reason why scores of million-dollar companies shouldn’t be supported in a healthy sector, instead of one or two behemoths.

Finally, planners should reconsider the policy focus which has thus far trained the solar market on poverty alleviation and energy access. Base of the Pyramid off-grid electrification is a race to the bottom. Unless the same subsidies that underwrite most grid-based rural electrification is made available, off-grid BoP solar will remain too risky for real finance. In Africa people are moving into cities and looking for urban-based opportunities. Many who are concerned about climate change know that getting solar on-grid and into urban energy planning will do far more to fight climate change than off-grid solar. These small-scale on-grid opportunities are where the real long-term future for solar is in Africa.

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

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South Africa: Xenophobia Is in Fact Afrophobia, Call It What It Is

5 min read. Anti-African violence in South Africa is fuelled by exclusion, poverty and rampant unemployment. This isn’t black-on-black violence. This is poor-on-poor violence.

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South Africa: Xenophobia Is in Fact Afrophobia, Call It What It Is
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Written in May 2008, as African bodies burned on the streets of South Africa, Ingrid De Kok’s throbbing poem Today I Do Not Love My Country poignantly captures the mood of an Afrophobic nation fluent in the language of violence and name-calling.  (I say Afrophobic because South Africa does not have a xenophobia problem. We don’t rage against all foreigners—just the poor, black ones from Africa.)

The irony of South Africa’s most recent attacks on African immigrants is that they happened in the wake of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement which positions the country as an economic gateway to the continent. As the debris is cleared off the streets of Johannesburg after a week of violent looting and attacks against African migrant-owned businesses that saw eleven people killed and almost 500 arrested, Pretoria now faces calls to boycott South African-owned businesses on the continent.

Zambia and Madagascar cancelled football matches. Air Tanzania has suspended flights to South Africa. African artists are boycotting South Africa. Should an Afrophobic South Africa lead the African Union next year?

The irony of South Africa’s most recent attacks on African immigrants is that they happened in the wake of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement which positions the country as an economic gateway to the continent

The South African government has remained steadfast in its denial of Afrophobia, opting instead to condemn “violent attacks” and highlight the criminal elements involved in looting African-owned businesses. The police attributed the attacks to “opportunistic criminality”. By denying that these are Afrophobic attacks, everyone can deny the role of South Africa’s political leadership in fomenting the hatred.

The Afrophobic attacks are not spontaneous criminal mobs preying on foreigners. They are the result of an orchestrated, planned campaign that has been fuelled by the ongoing anti-immigrant rhetoric of South African politicians.

The All Truck Drivers Forum (ATDF), Sisonke People’s Forum and Respect SA stand accused of orchestrating last week’s violence. ATDF spokesperson, Sipho Zungu, denied that his group had instigated the violent looting, saying that “the nation is being misled here.” Zungu did stress, however, that South African truck drivers “no longer have jobs” and the government “must get rid of foreign truck drivers.”

Zungu echoes the sentiments of many poor South Africans, and their views are the end result of a drip-feed of anti-immigrant messages from South African politicians, particularly in the run-up to this year’s elections.

Anti-African violence in South Africa is fuelled by exclusion, poverty and rampant unemployment. This isn’t black-on-black violence. This is poor-on-poor violence.

One-third of South Africans are unemployed. Thirteen per cent of South Africans live in informal settlements, and a third of South Africans don’t have access to running water. The problems are a combination of the country’s apartheid past and rampant corruption and mismanagement within the ANC-led government. Crime is climbing, mainly due to corrupt and dysfunctional policing services, high unemployment and systemic poverty.

By denying that these are Afrophobic attacks, everyone can deny the role of South Africa’s political leadership in fomenting the hatred.

South African politicians from across the spectrum have blamed immigrants for the hardships experienced by poor South Africans. Political parties tell voters that foreigners are criminals flooding South Africa, stealing their jobs, homes and social services, undermining their security and prosperity.

Even the government sees poor and unskilled African migrants and asylum seekers as a threat to the country’s security and prosperity. Approved in March 2017, its White Paper on International Migration, separates immigrants into “worthy” and “unworthy” individuals. Poor and unskilled immigrants, predominantly from Africa, will be prevented from staying in South Africa by any means, “even if this is labelled anti-African behaviour” as the former Minister of Home Affairs, Hlengiwe Mkhize, pointed out in June 2017. The message is simple: there is no place for black Africans in South Africa’s Rainbow Nation.

In November 2018, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi claimed in a speech at a nurses summit that undocumented immigrants were flooding South Africa and overburdening clinics and hospitals. When immigrants “get admitted in large numbers, they cause overcrowding, infection control starts failing”, he said.

Johannesburg—the epicentre of the anti-African violence—is run by the Democratic Alliance (DA), the second-largest political party in South Africa after the ruling African National Congress (ANC). DA mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been leading the war against African immigrants.

In a bid to attract more support, Mashaba and the DA have adopted an immigrant-baiting approach straight out of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro’s playbooks.

Mashaba has described black African migrants as criminals and has spoken of the need for a “shock-and-awe” campaign to drive them out.

In February 2019, Mashaba diverted attention away from protests against his administration’s poor service delivery in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township by tweeting that foreigners had made it difficult to provide basic services.

On August 1, police operations in Johannesburg to find counterfeit goods were thwarted by traders who pelted law-enforcement authorities with rocks, forcing the police to retreat. Social media went into overdrive, with many accusing the police of being cowards running away from illegal immigrants. Mashaba was “devastated” by the police’s restraint. A week later over 500 African immigrants were arrested after a humiliating raid, even though many said they showed police valid papers.

In 2017, South Africa’s deputy police minister claimed that the city of Johannesburg had been taken over by foreigners, with 80% of the city controlled by them. If this is not urgently stopped, he added, the entire country “could be 80% dominated by foreign nationals and the future president of South Africa could be a foreign national.”

None of this anti-immigrant rhetoric is based on fact. Constituting just 3% of the South African population, statistics show that immigrants are not “flooding” South Africa. They aren’t stealing jobs from South Africans and nor are they responsible for the high crime rate. South Africa’s crime problem has little to do with migration, and everything to do with the country’s dysfunctional policing services, unemployment and poverty.

Johannesburg—the epicentre of the anti-African violence—is run by the Democratic Alliance (DA), the second-largest political party in South Africa after the ruling African National Congress (ANC). DA mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been leading the war against African immigrants.

But South African politicians don’t let facts get in the way.  After all, it’s easier to blame African immigrants rather than face your own citizens and admit that you’ve chosen to line your own pockets instead of doing your job. If you can get others to shoulder the blame for the hopeless situation that many South Africans find themselves in, then why not?

South Africans are rightfully angry at the high levels of unemployment, poverty, lack of services and opportunities. But rather than blame African immigrants, frustration must be directed at the source of the crisis: a South African political leadership steeped in corruption that has largely failed its people.

The African Diaspora Forum, the representative body of the largest group of migrant traders, claimed that the police failed to act on intelligence that it had provided warning of the impending attacks. It took almost three days before Cyril Ramaphosa finally issued weak words of condemnation and for his security cluster to meet and strategise.  All of this points to a government refusing to own its complicity and deal with the consequences of its words.

South Africa has fallen far and hard from the lofty Mandela era and Thabo Mbeki’s soaring “I am an African” declaration.

Senior political leaders in South Africa are blaming vulnerable Africans for their failure to adequately provide a dignified life for all South Africans. Until this scapegoating stops, violent anti-African sentiment will continue to thrive, and South Africa will entrench its growing pariah status on the continent.

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A New Despotism in the Era of Surveillance Capitalism: A Reflection on Census 2019

6 min read. In the creeping securocratisation of every sphere of the State, the incessant threats and arbitrary orders, the renewed quest for that elusive all-encompassing kipande, and even the arbitrary assignment of identity on citizens, Montesquieu would see a marked deficiency of love for virtue, the requisite principle for a democratic republic.

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A New Despotism in the Era of Surveillance Capitalism: A Reflection on Census 2019
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The just concluded census 2019 brought with it many strange occurrences including the official classification of my good friend Rasna Warah as a Mtaita, a community to which she is only very remotely connected by virtue of being married to a husband whose mother is a Mtaveta. The Taita and Taveta, who give their home county Taita-Taveta its name, are two related but distinct ethnic groups. Rasna’s ethnicity is unambiguous, she is a Kenyan Asian, which should be one of the ethnicities available on the census questionnaire.

In standard statistical practice, people’s racial and ethnic identity are self-declared and the identity questions usually have options such as “other” and “mixed” as well as the choice not to disclose. But Rasna was not given a choice, as she recounts here. While this may seem like a trivial matter, the undercurrents of racism and patriarchy in this action are disturbing. It is, I think, even more alarming that the enumerators, given a little authority, felt that they had the power to exercise discretion on the matter.

Past censuses have been rather uneventful statistical exercises. This one had the aura of a security operation. In the run-up, we were treated to all manner of threats and arbitrary orders from the Internal Security Cabinet Secretary, the Jubilee administration’s energetic and increasingly facile enforcer. On the eve of the census, the government spokesman added to the melodrama by issuing a statement informing the public that census enumerators would be asking for personal identification details, including national ID and passport numbers and, ominously, huduma namba registration status. There are few issues as controversial right now as huduma namba and to introduce that question was a sure way of heightening suspicion and undermining the credibility of the census.

More fundamentally, anonymity is a canon of statistical survey work. In fact, the law prohibits dissemination of any information which can be identified with a particular respondent without the respondent’s consent. For this reason, censuses and statistical surveys are usually designed and the data maintained in such a way as to ensure that the respondents remain anonymous.

In October last year, the Government gazetted the census regulations that include a schedule of the information that would be collected. Identity information is not listed in the schedule. In January this year, the Keya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) issued a media briefing, still on their website, that also listed the information that would be collected. It too does not mention identity information. That it was the Government spokesman—and not the KNBS—who appraised the public, and only on the eve of the census, is telling.

The response to the protestations that met the disclosure was vintage Jubilee—dishonest and inept. The spokesman explained that the personal identity information would be removed to restore the anonymity of the data. If indeed the purpose was to establish registration coverage, the professional statisticians would have asked respondents to state their registration status. Moreover, for planning purposes, professional statisticians would have designed a comprehensive module that would have included other critical information such as birth registration status.

The draconian zeal with which huduma namba is being pursued—including the proposed legislation—is all the more perplexing because, since all the functions listed are those that are currently served by the national ID, the sensible thing to do would be to upgrade the national ID. Seeing as we have already had three national ID upgrades since independence, it seems to me unlikely that a fourth upgrade would have generated the heat that the huduma namba has.

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu classified political systems into three categories, namely republican, monarchical and despotic. He defined a republican system as characterised by citizenship rights. A republican system is democratic if political equality is universal, and aristocratic if the rights are a privilege that is denied to some members (e.g. slaves). In monarchical systems, the rulers have absolute authority governed by established rules. In a despotic system, the ruler is the law.

Montesquieu postulated for each system a driving principle, ethos if you like, on which its survival depends. The driving principle of a democratic republic is love of virtue— a willingness to put the public good ahead of private interests. He opined that a republican government failed to take root in England after the Civil War (1642-1651) because English society lacked the required principle, namely the love of virtue. The short-lived English republic, known as the Commonwealth of England, lasted a decade, from the beheading of Charles I in 1649 to shortly after the death Oliver Cromwell in 1659. The driving principle of monarchical systems is love of honour and the quest for higher social rank and privilege. For despotism it is fear of the ruler. The rulers are the law, and they rule by fear.

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu classified political systems into three categories, namely republican, monarchical and despotic. He defined a republican system as characterised by citizenship rights.

Identity documents are a key element of the apparatus of despotism. Our own identity card has its origins in the colonial kipande (passbook). As Juliet Atellah narrates in Toa Kitambulisho! Evolution of Registration of Persons in Kenya,

“The Kipande was worn around the neck like a dog collar. The Kipande contained the wearer’s tribe, their strengths and weaknesses and comments from his employer on his competence, therefore, determining his pay or whether or not he would be employed. The government used the Kipande to curtail freedom of Africans and monitor labour supply. It also empowered the police to stop a native anywhere and demand to be shown the document. For Africans, the Kipande was like a badge of slavery and sparked bitter protests.”

In essence, the kipande was a surveillance tool for an indentured labour system which enabled the settler economy to suppress wages. But it was not perfect. Keren Weitzberg, a migration scholar and author of We Do Not Have Borders: Greater Somalia and the Predicaments of Belonging in Kenya, makes an interesting and insightful contextual link between huduma namba and the colonial quest to better the kipande revealed in a recommendation that appears in a 1956 government document:

“Consideration should be given to the provision of a comprehensive document for Africans, as is done in the Union of South Africa and the Belgian Congo. This should incorporate Registration particulars, payment of Poll Tax, and such other papers as the African is required to carry or are envisaged for him, e.g. Domestic Service record and permit to reside in urban areas. Eligibility under the Coutts proposals for voting might also be included in the document. The document would then become of value to the holder and there would be less likelihood of its becoming lost or transferred, as is the case with the present Identity document.” 

The purpose of the huduma namba is the same as that of the “comprehensive document for Africans”—to instill in people the sense that Big Brother is watching. But despotism is not an end in itself. The raison d’être of the colonial enterprise was economic exploitation. This has not changed.

The 2001 Nobel Prize for Economics was shared by George Akerlof, Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz for their analysis of markets with asymmetric information. A market with asymmetric information is one where material attributes of a good or service are private information known only to the seller and not observable by the buyer; the seller has an incentive to conceal the attributes. In essence, it is a market where the buyer cannot be sure that they will get what they pay for. Asymmetric information problems are pervasive in labour and credit markets.

Identity documents are a key element of the apparatus of despotism. Our own identity card has its origins in the colonial kipande (passbook). As Juliet Atellah narrates in Toa Kitambulisho! Evolution of Registration of Persons in Kenya

A potential employer cannot tell in advance whether a worker is a performer or not, or even whether he or she is dishonest—they only get to know that after hiring the worker, and at considerable cost if they get it wrong. We know that job seekers go out of their way to misrepresent themselves, including faking qualifications and references, and concealing adverse information such as previous dismissals and criminal records. To mitigate the problem, employers go out of their way to obtain and check out references including certificates of good conduct from the police.

The original kipande, as Atellah notes, included information on the bearers “strengths and weaknesses and comments from his employer on his competence.” It does not require too much imagination to see how errant natives would have made for a severe labour market information asymmetry problem, motivating the settler economy to invent this seemingly innocuous but probably effective labour market information system.

Similarly, a potential borrower’s creditworthiness is not observable to lenders. Lenders only get to sort out good and bad borrowers from experience. A customer’s credit history is a lender’s most valuable asset. A public credit reference system, such as the Credit Reference Bureaus, is a device for mitigating credit market information asymmetry. The parallel with the kipande character reference is readily apparent.

In essence, the kipande was a surveillance tool for an indentured labour system which enabled the settler economy to suppress wages.

As a credit information system, the digital panopticon envisaged by huduma namba is priceless, and as one of the country’s leading mobile lenders, the Kenyatta family-owned Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA) is the primary beneficiary. Indeed, well before the public was informed about it, huduma namba featured prominently in a CBA-led mobile lending platform project called Wezeshafeatured in this column—that was subsequently rebranded and launched as Stawi.

Nine years ago this week, we promulgated a new constitution. Since its enactment the political and bureaucratic establishment has spared no effort to restore the unfettered discretion and apparatus of rule by fear that the new constitutional dispensation is meant to dismantle. Early in its term, the Jubilee administration sought to pass a raft of security-related legislation that would have clawed back most of the civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Uhuru Kenyatta is on record, in one of the pre-election TV interviews, attributing his underwhelming performance to the constraints on his authority by the 2010 Constitution. He went on to express nostalgia for the old one.

In the creeping securocratisation of every sphere of the State, the incessant threats and arbitrary orders, the renewed quest for that elusive all-encompassing kipande, and even the arbitrary assignment of identity on citizens, Montesquieu would see a marked deficiency of love for virtue, the requisite principle for a democratic republic.

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Africa and Palestine: A Noble Legacy That Must Never Be Forgotten

4 min read. Today’s generation of African leaders should not deviate from that the solidarity between Africa and Palestine. Indeed, writes RAMZY BAROUD If they betray it, they betray themselves, along with the righteous struggles of their own peoples.

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Africa and Palestine: A Noble Legacy That Must Never Be Forgotten
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Europe’s “Scramble for Africa” began in earnest in 1881 but never ended. The attempt at dominating the continent using old and new strategies continues to define the Western relationship with this rich continent. This reality was very apparent when I arrived in Nairobi on June 23. Although I had come to address various Kenyan audiences at universities, public forums and the media, I had also to learn. Kenya, like the rest of Africa, is a source of inspiration for all anti-colonial liberation movements around the world. We Palestinians can learn a great deal from the Kenyan struggle.

Although African countries have fought valiant battles for their freedom against their Western colonisers, neocolonialism now defines the relationship between many independent African countries and their former occupiers. Political meddling, economic control and, at times, military interventions – as in the recent cases of Libya and Mali – point to the unfortunate reality that Africa remains, in myriad ways, hostage to Western priorities, interests and dictates.

In the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884, Western colonial regimes attempted to mediate between the various powers that were competing over Africa’s riches. It apportioned to each a share of the African continent, as if Africa were the property of the West and its white colonists. Millions of Africans died in that protracted, bloody episode unleashed by the West, which shamelessly promoted its genocidal oppression as a civilisational project.

Like most colonised peoples in the southern hemisphere, Africans fought disproportionate battles to gain their precious freedom. Here in Kenya, which became an official British colony in the 1920s, Kenya’s freedom fighters rose in rebellion against the brutality of their oppressors. Most notable among the various resistance campaigns, the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s remains a stark example of the courage of Kenyans and the cruelty of colonial Britain. Thousands of people were killed, wounded, disappeared or were imprisoned under the harshest of conditions.

Palestine fell under British occupation, the so-called British Mandate, around the same period that Kenya also became a British colony. Palestinians, too, fought and fell in their thousands as they employed various methods of collective resistance, including the legendary strike and rebellion of 1936. The same British killing machine that operated in Palestine and Kenya around that time, also operated, with the same degree of senseless violence, against numerous other nations around the world.

While Palestine was handed over to the Zionist movement to establish the state of Israel in May 1948, Kenya achieved its independence in December 1963.

At one of my recent talks in Nairobi, I was asked by a young participant about “Palestinian terrorism”. I told her that Palestinian fighters of today are Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of yesteryear. That if we allow Western and Israeli propaganda to define Paestine’s national liberation discourse, then we condemn all national liberation movements throughout the southern hemisphere, including Kenya’s own freedom fighters.

We Palestinians must however shoulder part of the blame that our narrative as an oppressed, colonised and resisting nation is now misunderstood in parts of Africa.

When the Palestine Liberation Organisation committed its historical blunder by signing off Palestinian rights in Oslo in 1993, it abandoned a decades-long Palestinian discourse of resistance and liberation. Instead, it subscribed to a whole new discourse, riddled with carefully-worded language sanctioned by Washington and its European allies. Whenever Palestinians dared to deviate from their assigned role, the West would decree that they must return to the negotiating table, as the latter became a metaphor of obedience and submission.

Throughout these years, Palestinians mostly abandoned their far more meaningful alliances in Africa. Instead, they endlessly appealed to the goodwill of the West, hoping that the very colonial powers that have primarily created, sustained and armed Israel, would miraculously become more balanced and humane.

When the Palestine Liberation Organisation committed its historical blunder by signing off Palestinian rights in Oslo in 1993, it abandoned a decades-long Palestinian discourse of resistance and liberation.

However, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, etc., remained committed to Israel and, despite occasional polite criticism of the Israeli government, continued to channel their weapons, warplanes and submarines to every Israeli government that has ruled over Palestinians for the last seven decades. Alas, while Palestinians were learning their painful lesson, betrayed repeatedly by those who had vowed to respect democracy and human rights, many African nations began seeing in Israel a possible ally. Kenya is, sadly, one of those countries.

Understanding the significance of Africa in terms of its economic and political potential, and its support for Israel at the UN General Assembly, right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched his own “Scramble for Africa”. Netanyahu’s diplomatic conquests on the continent have been celebrated by Israeli media as “historic”, while the Palestinian leadership remains oblivious to the rapidly changing political landscape.

Kenya is one of Israel’s success stories. In November 2017, Netanyahu attended the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Netanyahu was seen embracing Kenyatta as a dear friend and ally even as Kenyans rose in rebellion against their corrupt ruling classes. Tel Aviv had hoped that the first-ever Israel-Africa summit in Togo would usher in a complete paradigm shift in Israeli-African relations. However, the October 2017 conference never took place due to pressure by various African countries, including South Africa. There is still enough support for Palestine on the continent to defeat the Israeli stratagem. But that could change soon in favour of Israel if Palestinians and their allies do not wake up to the alarming reality.

The Palestinian leadership, intellectuals, artists and civil society ambassadors must shift their attention back to the southern hemisphere, to Africa in particular, rediscovering the untapped wealth of true, unconditional human solidarity offered by the peoples of this ever-generous continent.

Kenya is one of Israel’s success stories. In November 2017, Netanyahu attended the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Netanyahu was seen embracing Kenyatta as a dear friend and ally even as Kenyans rose in rebellion against their corrupt ruling classes

The legendary Tanzanian freedom fighter, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who is also celebrated in Kenya, knew very well where his solidarity lay. “We have never hesitated in our support for the right of the people of Palestine to have their own land,” he once said, a sentiment that was repeated by the iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela, and by many other African liberation leaders. Today’s generation of African leaders should not deviate from that noble legacy. If they betray it, they betray themselves, along with the righteous struggles of their own peoples.

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