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

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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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Tigray is Africa’s Ukraine: We Must Build Pan-African Solidarity

A genocide is taking place in Tigray. Why is there no mobilization of African civil society organizations, non-governmental bodies, religious institutions, and individuals in support of Tigrayan refugees?

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Tigray is Africa’s Ukraine: We Must Build Pan-African Solidarity
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Two months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than  5 million Ukrainians fleeing the war have crossed the borders into other European countries. While this is largely a testament to the massive scale of the attack by Russian forces that has forced millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes in all directions, it also has a lot to do with the warm welcome and sympathy extended to these refugees by European nations.

Europeans both individually and collectively stood in solidarity with and committed to supporting Ukrainian refugees in all ways. Member states of the European Union established reception centres and facilitated the right to travel, stay, and work for all Ukrainians within days of the war starting. Families across Europe (and in the United Kingdom) volunteered to host Ukrainian families, organizations raised funds, individuals donated basic necessities, and many even travelled to borders to personally welcome Ukrainian refugees.

While this “gold standard” welcome by European countries—who are generally accused of being hostile to other (particularly black and brown) refugees—has been the subject of heated discussion, a question that is yet to be thoroughly addressed is why such solidarity is not seen in other parts of the world. More particularly, using the experiences of refugees from the Tigray war as a case study, we would like to ask why the multiple conflicts ravaging the African continent fail to inspire such a response by African countries.

The Tigray war, characterized as the world’s deadliest war, has been ongoing for seventeen months. Thus far, more than 500,000 people are reported to have died. Terrible atrocities amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, including scores of massacres, weaponized sexual violence, and a total humanitarian blockade have all contributed to creating conditions aptly described by the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) as “hell”.  Despite the length and brutality of this conflict, however, the number of Tigrayans who have managed to escape into neighbouring African countries is relatively minuscule.

As far as we are able to establish, about 70,000 Tigrayans crossed into Sudan during the first few days of the war. We can add to these the thousands of Tigrayans who worked and lived in Djibouti before the war and the few hundreds that managed to flee to Kenya following the ethnic profiling and mass arrests they faced in Ethiopia. It is possible to argue that the number of refugees from Tigray has remained low mainly because the borders have been blocked by the Ethiopian regime and its allies. This draconian blockade has indeed been used as a tool of war by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to completely cut off Tigray from the rest of the world in order to hide atrocities and control the narrative. It is also believed to have the approval of key members of the international community seeking to mitigate the impact of the war on the broader Horn of Africa region and its potential contribution to the migration crisis in Europe.

Even so, taking into account the precarious situation of the millions of Tigrayans in the region itself and in the rest of Ethiopia along with well-known patterns of illicit migration from conflict areas, it is reasonable to wonder if the low number of Tigrayan refugees is due to the receptiveness—or lack thereof—of neighbouring countries as well as the blockade. With this in mind let’s look more closely at some policies and practices in the region that can be perceived as obvious deterrents to those seeking refuge.

Political and diplomatic support given by African countries to the regime in Addis Ababa 

The Tigray war is happening in the host country of the African Union (AU) and the second-most populous country on the continent. However, this conflict has not been included as an agenda item in any of the meetings of the AU heads of states that have been convened since its onset in November 2020. The only significant statement that was made regarding this conflict by the Chairperson of the AU, Moussa Faki Mahamat, was one that endorsed the war. Since this early statement, the AU has assiduously ignored the overwhelming evidence of the gruesome atrocities and violations of human rights and humanitarian laws perpetrated during this conflict. Nor has the AU acknowledged the direct involvement of Eritrea and Somalia—both members of the AU—who deployed troops into Tigray and have been credibly accused of committing grave atrocities.

Diplomatically, African countries have given cover to the Ethiopian regime in all multilateral forums including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The passionate and well-received speech by Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, in opposition to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, makes one wonder why the same passion is absent for crises nearer home, including Tigray. Sadly, however, not only do the so-called A3 countries on the UNSC continue to frustrate action against the Ethiopian regime, African countries have voted against measures to establish investigative mechanisms into the atrocities committed in Tigray. Even more disappointingly, on the 31st of March, Kenya voted in support of a bill introduced by the Ethiopian regime to halt funding for the International Commission of Human Rights Experts set up to investigate the crimes and human rights abuses that took place in Tigray.

The AU has assiduously ignored the overwhelming evidence of the gruesome atrocities and violations of human rights and humanitarian laws perpetrated during this conflict.

These actions indicate that the AU and its member states have either failed to recognize the gravity of the human rights and humanitarian violations in Tigray or are unwilling to address violations by other member states, however grave, as a matter of policy.

Forced Repatriation to Ethiopia

This policy and the attendant practices in turn mean that Tigrayans or other minorities seeking refuge from state-sanctioned violence in the region are denied official welcome and feel insecure even when they are sheltered there as refugees under UN protection. Tigrayan refugees in the region are under continuous threat from Ethiopian and Eritrean intelligence and security officials that are fully capable of crossing borders to harm or forcibly repatriate them. Just to look a bit more closely at the experience of Tigrayan refugees in the region, in Sudan, senior Ethiopian officials and supporters of the regime have on several occasions threatened to forcefully repatriate Tigrayan refugees from the Sudanese refugee camps that are under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In Djibouti, the threat of forced repatriation was realized when several Tigrayans, who had committed no known crime, were apprehended and returned to Ethiopia. This clear breach of the principle of non-refoulement has excited no response from other African governments or African Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). 

Tigrayans also live in fear of forced repatriation even in the relatively more friendly Kenya. The December 2021 abduction of Tigrayan businessman Samson Teklemichael in Nairobi in broad daylight is a prominent example of the insecurity of Tigrayan refugees in Kenya. In addition, personal accounts from Kenya suggest that newly arriving refugees can fall victim to immoral actors demanding large sums of money to facilitate registration. Tigrayans who have been unable to obtain proper documentation for this and other reasons risk being thrown in jail. The lucky few that are registered are coerced to relocate to remote and inhospitable camps. As a result of this, and due to the increased insecurity created by the presence of Ethiopian and Eritrean intelligence officers operating in Nairobi, Tigrayans in Kenya are increasingly opting to remain hidden. This means that the actual number of Tigrayan refugees in Kenya is unknown.

The December 2021 abduction of Tigrayan businessman Samson Teklemichael in Nairobi in broad daylight is a prominent example of the insecurity of Tigrayan refugees in Kenya.

It also bears noting that in response to the war in Tigray, the Kenyan government tightened its borders with Ethiopia, essentially closing the only avenue open for Tigrayans fleeing conflict and ethnic-based persecution by land. Moreover, Tigrayan refugees who have been stopped at Kenyan border controls in Moyale have at different times been apprehended and returned by agents of the Ethiopian regime.

Harsh conditions facing Tigrayan refugees

Sudan hosts the largest number of documented Tigrayan refugees. An estimated 70,000 Tigrayans fled to Sudan to escape the brutal invasion and occupation of Western Tigray. While these people were welcomed with extraordinary kindness by the people of Eastern Sudan, the refugee camps to which they were relegated are located in remote and inhospitable regions with almost no basic infrastructure. As a result, international organizations have been unable to provide adequate support and Tigrayan refugees have fallen victim to extreme weather and fires.

Similarly, Tigrayans remaining in Djibouti are kept in remote camps under unbearable conditions, facing maltreatment and abuses such as rape and sexual violence including by security forces. The whereabouts of the thousands of refugees who escaped from abuses and starvation at Holhol, one of Djibouti’s remote refugee camps where over 1,000 Tigrayans remain, are unknown.

The disinterest of African media and society

Arguably, the above realities describe the failings of African governments in terms of welcoming and protecting refugees fleeing conflict. But what of other sections of African society? Why are there no responses akin to the mobilization of European civil society organizations, non-governmental bodies, religious institutions, and individuals to support Ukrainian refugees? Even taking into full account economic limitations likely to affect responses to such crises, this could potentially speak to a larger failure in terms of building pan-African solidarity, not just as a political concept but as a grassroots reality. In the specific case of the Tigray war, this is further reflected and augmented by the minimal coverage of the war in African media outlets relative, for example, to the extensive daily coverage given to the Ukraine war. Moreover, African intellectuals and intercontinental forums have shown little to no interest to address an ongoing genocide that is quickly paralleling the worst examples of mass atrocities on the continent thus far.

What can we learn from the European Response to the Ukraine crisis?

In many ways, the European response to the Ukraine crisis has been unprecedented and arguably sets a new standard for welcoming refugees from all regions including Europe itself. In the African context, the Tigrayan experience of policies and practices that endanger and harm the most vulnerable seeking safety reveals an urgent need to take these lessons on board.  With this in mind, we can tentatively outline the following suggestions.

First, we as Africans should find mechanisms for building pan-African solidarity amongst citizens that are not contingent upon the will of our governments. This can only be achieved if African media, civil society organisations, thought leaders, and other influencers commit to prioritizing what is happening on the continent. In this interconnected and highly digital age, it is no longer acceptable that an African anywhere on the continent does not know about what is happening in Tigray as much as, or more than, they know about what is occurring in Ukraine.

We as Africans should find mechanisms of building pan-African solidarity amongst citizens that are not contingent upon the will of our governments.

Second, African citizens should protest policies and practices by African governments that favour state-sanctioned violence and support regimes over vulnerable communities. We all, as Africans, are prone to fall victim to state violence and violations of human rights in our countries and this necessitates pan-African reflection on human rights for all, indigenous communities as well as refugees and migrants.

Third, refugees and migrants are rarely a burden on the host countries and communities. Those fleeing the Tigray war, for example, are generally highly educated and carry unique skills that could contribute to societies wherever they land. Harnessing these resources on the continent should be a priority. Moreover, refugees enrich host communities and facilitate regional and continental integration which the AU and its member states continue to discuss, but never materialize.

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UK-Rwanda Refugee Deal: A Stain on President Kagame

Rwanda’s proposed refugee deal with Britain is another strike against President Paul Kagame’s claim that he is an authentic and fearless pan-Africanist who advocates for the less fortunate.

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UK-Rwanda Refugee Deal: A Stain on President Kagame
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In mid-April 2022, Rwanda and Britain unveiled a pilot scheme in which the latter will ship off asylum seekers who arrive in Britain “illegally” to the former for the whopping sum of £120 million. Although full details of the deal remain sketchy, it is believed that it will target mainly young male refugees who apply for political asylum in Britain. Anyone who entered the UK illegally since January 1, 2022, is liable to be transferred. Each migrant sent to Rwanda is expected to cost British taxpayers between £20,000 to £30,000. This will cover accommodation before departure, a seat on a chartered plane and their first three months of accommodation in Rwanda. Their asylum application will be processed in Rwanda and if they are successful, they will have the right to remain in Rwanda. Those whose applications fail will be deported from Rwanda to countries where they have a right to live. The plan is contingent on the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill currently before the British Parliament. Britain is planning to send the first set of asylum seekers in May 2022, but this is highly unlikely as human rights groups will almost likely challenge this deal in court and, as a result, delay the implementation.

Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, Vincent Biruta, and Britain’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, present the initiative as a remedy to what they deem a malfunctioning refugee and asylum system, “(T)he global asylum system is broken. Around the world, it is collapsing under the strain of real humanitarian crises, and because people traffickers exploit the current system for their own gain… This can’t go on. We need innovative solutions to put a stop to this deadly trade.” In a jointly written editorial for the UK’s Times newspaper, they portray the agreement as a humanitarian measure that would disrupt the business model of organized criminal gangs and deter migrants from putting their lives at risk.

Back in Rwanda, the pro-Kagame newspaper, The New Times of Rwanda, highlighted Rwanda’s experience in hosting refugees: “Rwanda is home to nearly 130,000 refugees from around the region.” The New Times claims that “… even those who arrived in Rwanda as refugees fleeing violence have since been integrated in the community and enjoy access to education, healthcare and financial services. This friendly policy toward refugees and migrants is in part linked to the country’s history.” It concludes by noting that “Kigali’s decision to extend a helping hand to migrants and asylum seekers in the UK who’re unable to secure residence there is very much in keeping with this longstanding policy on migrants and moral obligation to provide protection to anyone in need of safety. It is, therefore, shocking that this act of generosity has come under severe attack by some people, including sections of the media.”

Reaction in the UK has been mostly negative, ranging from the Anglican ChurchAmnesty International. A broad range of 150 organizations, including Liberty and the Refugee Council, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Home Secretary (the UK immigration minister).  Even some MPs from Johnson’s ruling Conservative party condemned the deal. Dozens of Home Office staff have criticized the policy and are threatening to strike because of it.

Deals of this kind between Britain and Rwanda are not new. Britain tried to enter a similar agreement with Ghana and Kenya, but both rejected it, fearing a backlash from citizens. Rwanda has done similar deals before. Israel offshored several thousands of asylum-seekers, many of them Eritreans and Sudanese, to Rwanda and Uganda between 2014 and 2017. A public outcry forced Israel to abandon the scheme when evidence emerged that most of them ended up in the hands of people smugglers and were subjected to slavery when traveling back to Europe. Under a deal funded by the European Union, Rwanda has taken in evacuees from Libya. Denmark has a similar agreement with Rwanda, but it has not yet been implemented.

In 2016, Australia signed a similar deal with Nauru, a tiny island country northeast of Australia. In May 2016, Australia held 1,193 people on Nauru at the cost of $45,347 a month per person – about $1,460 a day or $534,000 a year. That same year, the EU signed a deal with Turkey under which Turkey agreed to take back “irregular migrants,” mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, in exchange for reduced visa restrictions for Turkish citizens, €6 billion in aid to Turkey, update the EU’s customs union with Turkey, and re-energize stalled talks regarding Turkey’s accession to the European Union.

If these failed deals did not deter Britain, Rwanda’s human rights record should have. Even Kagame’s supporters concede that his human rights record is deplorable. At the 37th session of the Universal Periodic Review (a regular, formal review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States), Britain recommended that Rwanda “conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture, and bring perpetrators to justice.” A Rwandan refugee in London told The Guardian that, “Rwanda is a good country for image, but not for freedom of speech…Those who oppose Kagame end up in prison. The Rwandan government use[s] torture and violence against their opponents.”

The deal between Rwanda and Britain also contravenes international law. The principle of non-refoulement “… prohibits States from transferring or removing individuals from their jurisdiction or effective control when there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at risk of irreparable harm upon return, including persecution, torture, ill-treatment or other serious human rights violations.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) notes that Britain has a duty under international law to ensure that those seeking asylum are protected. UNHCR remains firmly opposed to arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards and standards. Such arrangements simply shift asylum responsibilities, evade international obligations, and are contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention . . . [P]eople fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.

Rwanda is the single most densely populated state in Africa, with more than 1,000 people per square mile. It already has its fair share of refugees from neighboring countries. (Biruta told the Financial Times last month: “This program [the deal with Britain] will be dedicated to asylum seekers who are already in the UK … we’d prefer not to receive people from neighboring countries, immediate neighbors like DRC, like Burundi, Uganda or Tanzania.”

Although it has done well economically compared to many other African countries, it remains a poor nation that needs to prioritize addressing its internal economic issues rather than allowing Britain to dump its refugees on them. It is unlikely that the economic benefits of this deal will help get the average Rwandan out of poverty. If Rwanda needs more refugees, it needs to look no further than its neighbors. Many of those who will end up in Rwanda will likely be genuine refugees who would have a right to remain in Britain and white supremacists in the UK do not want them there because they do not have the right skin color.

With this deal, Johnson and Patel are pandering to the racists simply to get more votes. If this deal was in place in 1972, when Idi Amin deported Ugandans of Asian descent to the UK, Patel’s family might likely have been shipped off to Rwanda. For his part, Kagame is pandering for influence and money from Western nations. It undermines his claim that he is an authentic and fearless pan-Africanist who advocates for the less fortunate. What happened to speaking the truth to Western powers? Let us hope a judge in the UK stops this terrible deal.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Road to 9/8: What Is at Stake?

This is the first of a series of articles that will discuss some of the major issues at stake, and the roles played by various institutions in safeguarding the integrity of the August 2022 general election.

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Road to 9/8: What Is at Stake?
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The past few months have witnessed political activity that is reaching fever pitch ahead of the general elections which are slated for August 9th. Public officers intending to contest in the forthcoming elections have resigned from office and political parties have either held party primaries or issued direct nominations. Already, parties have shared with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) the final list of candidates they intend to field for the elections, and campaigns officially begin by the end of May.

In reality, the campaigns commenced years ago; immediately following the 2017 general election when the president and the leader of the opposition made amends and embarked on the constitutional reform process that was the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), the drumbeat of electioneering became ubiquitous. Since then, the political class has largely been in a preparatory mood, with various outfits coming together in anticipation of forming the next government. Despite the attempted BBI constitutional reform being halted by successive courts including the Supreme Court, the effect it has had on political campaigning has persisted, with broad coalitions being formed in apparent anticipation of power-sharing arrangements akin to those proposed under the BBI Bill.

Based on recent developments, the forthcoming elections are shaping up to be highly unprecedented and unique. This is primarily due to the make-up of the competing factions. In an unsurprising but also unprecedented turn of events, the incumbent has thrown his weight behind the opposition leader against his own deputy. The last time we saw this in Africa was in Malawi when Salous Chilima (current and immediate former vice-president of Malawi), was in direct confrontation with President Peter Mutharika.

Evidence suggests that the president intends to remain in active politics beyond his term. For example, he recently revitalised his Jubilee Party, now a member of the Azimio-One Kenya Alliance Coalition that will be fielding Raila Odinga as its presidential candidate. Further, he was appointed Chairperson of the Council of the Azimio-OKA Coalition. More recently, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance omitted allocations for the president’s retirement in his budget statement apparently out of caution to avoid violating the legal restrictions on retirees enjoying perks while involved in active party politics. “Walking into the sunset” does not seem to be on the president’s agenda.

The president’s involvement complicates attempts to forecast the outcome of the elections. For one, it is presumed that the incumbency advantage will operate in favour of the opposition leader with the president’s backing. Already, Raila Odinga has stated he intends to “walk in Uhuru’s footsteps” to benefit from the president’s achievements and inherit his support base. Unfortunately, this puts him in the difficult position of being unable to wholly distance himself from the blemishes in the president’s record. It also undermines one of Odinga’s hallmarks: being an anti-establishment figure. In addition, one need only recall—especially now following the death of President Mwai Kibaki—that the power of President Daniel arap Moi’s incumbency was in fact a poisoned chalice for candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, who was crushed at the polls, wining just 31 per cent of the vote compared to Mwai Kibaki’s 62 per cent.  Some claim that Raila Odinga was the “king maker” since he backed President Kibaki. There may be some truth to this, but it is also true that Raila Odinga made a political and not an altruistic decision: he read the mood of the country and surmised that he had to distance himself from the establishment that President Moi and then candidate Uhuru Kenyatta represented. So, in a sense, Deputy President William Ruto is today’s Mwai Kibaki, President Kenyatta is today’s Moi and, irony of all ironies, Raila Odinga is today’s candidate Uhuru Kenyatta. Don’t ever be told that musical chairs is a children’s game.

The president’s involvement also raises questions around the use of state machinery to boost Odinga’s candidacy. A supplementary budget estimate tabled in parliament saw an increase in the president’s budgetary allocation for new vehicles from KSh10 million to KSh300 million. In a campaign season where the president has made clear his level of involvement, it is clear that, with the assistance of the National Treasury, the president has elided the lines between state and political candidate.

In a sense, Deputy President William Ruto is today’s Mwai Kibaki, President Kenyatta is today’s Moi and, irony of all ironies, Raila Odinga is today’s candidate Uhuru Kenyatta.

On the other hand, the deputy president is walking an intellectual tight-rope, taking credit for the achievements of the last 10 years and distancing himself from the blemishes. This is an altogether self-serving strategy but, were it not for the resonance of the “hustler” narrative, one would have thought that its transparent hypocrisy would be its own condemnation.

Bearing in mind Kenya’s unique history with election-related fraud, there exists a tangible risk of either side engaging in fraud, but this is more plausible where the state has a vested interest (such as the president’s). While speaking in the US, the deputy president stated that Kenya’s democracy is under threat and further alluded to a plot by several political actors to manipulate the outcome of the election. In his research, Walter Mebane has shown that fraud was prevalent in both the 2013 and 2017 general elections. The vice president was a beneficiary of both results. It is always hard to speak from both sides of your mouth; except if you are a politician, it seems. Without commenting on the accuracy of the deputy president’s assertions, it is clear that the IEBC, election observers, civil society and the judiciary will have to remain vigilant for any signs of fraud. Already, the deputy president’s party—the United Democratic Alliance—has faced allegations of rigging following its recently concluded primaries.

Further context

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the highly consequential nature of this election is the context in which it is taking place. Last year, the president and the leader of the opposition attempted to orchestrate a constitutional reform process that was finally halted by the Supreme Court. Seemingly motivated by a desire to remedy the winner-takes-all nature of elections to which they attribute the violence that always accompanies electoral processes, the president and the opposition leader proposed to expand the executive and to make a raft of other changes to the constitution through the BBI. In contortions only possible when the pursuit of power is the organising principle for decision making rather than any sense of principle, both the president and Odinga were supporters of the constitution but led the BBI movement which would have dismembered that constitution. Deputy President Ruto was a virulent critic of the constitution but has portrayed himself as its chief defender with his opposition to the BBI.  Like Saint Paul, both camps seem to have experienced a moment of conversion, but it is unclear who is on the road to Damascus. To a section of Kenyans, this entire process was an affront to the spirit of the constitution and constituted an elite power-sharing scheme. Some even viewed it as an attempt by the president to stage-manage his succession. As noted, whilst the BBI was overturned by the courts, the broader political aims sought by its promoters are currently being pursued.

The high stakes nature of the election is not lost on the various political factions in formation. Already, parallels are being drawn between the upcoming election and the 2002 general election, which is widely believed to be one of the more credible elections in Kenya’s history. This is in part due to the broad range of support Raila Odinga has been receiving from political actors who were involved in the 2002 NARC Grand Coalition. However, such a comparison immediately fails as John Githongo rightly explains: the upcoming elections seem to be about nothing. This is despite attempts by both sides to centre economic reform in campaign discourse. Without a clear impetus to go to the polls, voter apathy is high.

Whilst the BBI was overturned by the courts, the broader political aims sought by its promoters are currently being pursued.

Kenya is in the middle of a biting economic crisis. As of June 2021, the country’s public debt stood at KSh7.7 trillion—a 300 per cent increase in the country’s debt stock from 2013. As it stands, a significant portion of the country’s revenue is used to service debt. According to the Institute of Economic Affairs, the debt service to tax revenue ratio is currently 49 per cent—a 19 per cent increase from 2013/14. These trends seem to have brought the economic agendas of the various candidates into sharper focus. For example, the deputy president has proposed a “bottom up” economic model that pits “hustlers” against “dynasties”. On the other hand, his opponent has floated the idea of a social welfare programme involving the distribution of a monthly stipend to certain sectors of the population. These economic agendas seem not to have taken root, with significant political commentary focusing on tribal demographics and the candidates’ support bases in various regions. This is a concerning reality as the next administration will be saddled with the enormous burden of economic recovery.  And while the politicians politic, northern Kenya is the grip of a growing famine.

Aside from the state of the economy, these elections come against a backdrop of declining relations between the executive and the judiciary. In recent years, the country has witnessed the flouting of court orders, the interference with the independence of the judiciary, a worrying increase in the rate and normalisation of corruption, and the use of criminal law enforcement agencies for the settlement of commercial disputes.  While the courts have in many ways held the executive to account and stood firmly on the side of constitutional order, in the context of commercial and criminal law, the courts are riven with corruption and this has badly dented the judiciary’s credibility. Besides reducing investor confidence and jeopardising the state of the economy, these trends threaten people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. The further they are entrenched, the less likely we as a country are able to backtrack and rebuild.

Risks 

The upcoming elections are likely to be highly polarising. Election related violence stemming from political division is not new to Kenya; thus far, both sides’ party primaries have been rocked by violence. In what is an unfortunately ironic turn of events, the attempt by the president and Raila Odinga to remedy the “winner-take-all” nature of elections to which they ascribe election-related violence, seems to have had the opposite effect. The broad nature of the coalitions forming only serves to raise the stakes, increasing the likelihood of tensions running high. Take for example the political primaries: the positioning of the two coalitions within their strongholds is such that candidates needed to secure a ticket to maintain a chance at winning in the elections. As a result, some have turned to unscrupulous tactics to do so, and faced with unfavourable outcomes, have resorted to violence.

The broad nature of the coalitions forming only serves to raise the stakes, increasing the likelihood of tensions running high.

The increased digitisation of political campaigning continues to muddy the waters. This election cycle has seen a significant amount of mis- and disinformation. Some of the content tends towards spreading inciteful messages. However, social media platforms have largely remained complacent, jeopardising Kenyans’ access to civic information online, and undermining healthy democratic debate.

Between Kenya’s election history which is fraught with division and violence, and the current state of the economy and the rule of law, the coming elections are likely to be instrumental in shaping the future trajectory of the country and, to an extent, the region, especially at a time when there is increased regional instability. This is further compounded by the changing nature of elections in the digital age.

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