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.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Why Voluntary Clean-up of Plastic Waste by Companies is Trash Talk
Manufacturers should be held liable for the harm caused by their products and they should be made responsible for the collection, recycling and final disposal of plastic waste.
By global standards, Kenya is generally not a wasteful society. Estimated in 2018 at 11 kilograms per person per year, the country’s waste generation is just over a third of the world average of 29 kilograms. In places like Nairobi, up to a fifth of that waste is plastic and relatively little of that is properly disposed of. However, only around 7 per cent is recycled. The rest, from bottles, caps, and food packaging to illegal plastic bags, finds its way to dumpsites, rivers and the ocean, or clogging up drains and littering the environment, into the stomachs of animals, birds and fish, and eventually into our own bodies.
With the problem set to get much worse—estimates are that by 2060, plastic generation will have nearly tripled—the question of what to do about it, and specifically who is responsible for cleaning it up, has become contentious. After all, pretty much all the plastic we have is produced by private industry. For example, a 2020 study shows the industrial sectors that produce the most plastic waste are food, packaging, textiles, and automotive tires. But the companies involved have long foisted the responsibility for the clean-up on their customers and on public entities.
Basically, the issue is framed in moral terms. If only people were more careful about where they disposed of their plastic bags and bottles, we wouldn’t have this problem. It is the end user who bears responsibility and thus needs to change. But this ignores that people don’t always have the resources, knowledge, choices and ability to safely dispose of plastics. On the other hand, the companies that saturate the market with convenient plastics can be among the largest, most powerful and wealthiest in the world.
According to the 2021 Brand Audit Report, a global audit of plastic trash conducted by the Break Free From Plastic movement, “fast moving consumer goods companies (FCMGs) such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Mondelēz, Danone, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and Mars buy packaging from manufacturers supplied with plastic resin from fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron Phillips, Ineos, and Dow”. The audit involved over 11,000 volunteers cataloguing and counting the branding on plastic waste across 45 countries in six continents to help identify the companies that created it.
What responsibility do these global corporations, and their local partners and competitors, have for mitigating the harm their products cause? The idea behind the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is that product manufacturers and distributors are responsible for the entire lifecycle of products and packaging they bring to the market, even after the consumer is through with them. Introduced by Thomas Lindhqvist in Sweden in 1990, it moves the burden for dealing with waste away from individuals and society, to the businesses that profit from its production. Lindhqvist, who presented his research to Sweden’s Ministry of the Environment, theorized that companies responsible for their products would make them more recyclable and reusable, making the overall system less wasteful. In his doctoral thesis written a decade later, he listed models for EPR including holding manufacturers liable for the harm caused by their products, making them pay for—or physically responsible for—their collection, recycling and final disposal, and requiring them to provide information to consumers about the environmental damage they cause.
EPR seeks to make environmental costs visible. Lindhqvist calls it “a necessary condition for reflecting the essential life cycle costs in the price of the product” and alerting buyers to them. “With the exception of a few EPR systems, costs connected to waste collection, recycling, or final disposal, for instance, are not reflected in the price of the products. Consequently, these costs run the risk of being [overlooked] by the consumer when he is making the buying decision. Indeed, they are beyond the control of the consumer today and will not be influenced by his actions. Equally important, the manufacturer of the product may [overlook] such costs when designing the product”.
According to an article by Neil Seldman, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and director of the Waste to Wealth Initiative, not all EPR systems are born equal. Potentially good EPR programs can become bad because of poorly crafted implementation, especially when public oversight and control is handed over to business. As he notes, “corporate objectives for maximizing profits are not always compatible with achieving the highest environmental values,” offering examples when such programs have either gone awry or been deliberately sabotaged or undermined by corporate interests.
“With the exception of a few EPR systems, costs connected to waste collection, recycling, or final disposal, for instance, are not reflected in the price of the products.”
In Kenya, efforts to tackle plastic waste have faced fierce resistance from local manufacturers and distributors of plastic. In the mid-2000s, attempts to increase taxes on “flimsy” plastics bags (with a thickness of under 30 microns) were met with widespread protests by traders, as were similar efforts in 2011 by the National Environmental Management Authority and the Kenya Bureau of Standards to ban bags below 60 microns. The 2017 ban on plastic bags also faced stiff opposition, with the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) and several traders filing an unsuccessful petition at the High Court to block its implementation.
Since 2019, the government has sought to transition the country from a linear economy, where raw materials are collected and transformed into products that consumers use and discard as waste, to a circular economy, where products have an extended shelf life and are built so they can be repaired and recycled. The latest policy and legislative interventions in this regard are meant not only to strengthen the overall waste management landscape in the country but to also tackle the growing problem of plastic waste. These include draft regulations that seek to establish a mandatory EPR scheme whereby producers are legally responsible for the entirety of their product’s life cycle.
In a typical bid to head off regulation by the state, Kenyan corporates have set up voluntary EPR schemes such as PETCO, which identifies itself as “the Kenyan PET plastic industry’s joint effort to self-regulate post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling” and the Kenya Producer Responsibility Organisation (KEPRO) which was established 2021. However, the Talking Trash report published by the Changing Markets Foundation in 2020 describes PETCO as a ploy by “FCMGs such as Unilever and Coca-Cola . . . to ensure they can continue to sell single-use plastic products in the country” and to push responsibility and blame for pollution onto consumers by urging them to “#do1thing. Recycle”. The companies have fiercely resisted introduction of a mandatory Deposit Return Scheme for plastic beverage containers, where consumers leave a small deposit which they recover when they return the empty bottle or can, which was how Kenyans for a long time bought their drinks in the era of glass bottles. By far the world’s top polluter according to the Brand Audit Report, Coca-Cola has claimed the scheme would be inappropriate for the country despite a finding by KAM in its 2019 Kenya Plastic Action Plan that while not suitable for collection of a wide range of plastic products, DRS was nonetheless feasible for collection of beverage containers. It is important to note that KAM frames DRS as an incentive or reward scheme for consumers behaving in an environmentally decent manner rather than a way for polluters to fix the mess they have created.
The behaviour of local and global corporates validates Seldman’s point that businesses cannot be trusted to voluntarily implement EPR as the profit motive does not always align with environmental objectives. For example, according to the Talking Trash report, Coca-Cola “has a double incentive to stymie DRS—every refillable glass bottle that is displaced from the market is replaced by 25 single-use plastic bottles, and, in Kenya, the advent of single-use plastic bottles has outpaced local glass bottlers—which would also bottle beverages from local soda brands, stifling the company’s competition”.
Further buttressing the point, local activist organizations, such as Clean Up Kenya, have accused PETCO of “continuing to piggyback on the existing system to score public relations points while spending millions of shillings in media campaigns to green-wash what is already a PET bottle recovery scandal”. In a May 2020 open letter, Clean Up Kenya described the pay per kilo for PET bottles—KSh10—offered to collectors as “almost laughable” and said PETCO had relegated collectors to “slaves of the system” having to gather a pick-up load of bottles just to earn KSh100, with reports of many “in peripheral areas being stuck with as much as 2000 kilos of PET bottles after months and months of hard corporate slave labour”.
KAM frames DRS as an incentive or reward scheme for consumers behaving in an environmentally decent manner rather than a way for polluters to fix the mess they have created.
Around the world, there is little evidence that voluntary targets by industry ever contribute to significant plastic clean up. Worse, it perpetuates the myth that the plastic problem can be addressed through recycling. Yet globally, as reported by The Intercept, “the value of recycled plastic is undercut by “virgin,” or newly produced plastic, which is cheap both because of the low cost of the subsidized fossil fuels used to make it and because its pricing doesn’t reflect the cost of cleaning it up”. Kenya is no exception. In a September 2020 interview, PETCO Country Manager Joyce Gachungi claimed the company had collected and recycled 7,700 metric tons of PET, or over 320 million bottles the previous year, and a further 3,500 metric tons in the first 9 months of 2020. It sounds impressive until one remembers that the industry generates 40,000 tonnes of new PET every year!
In the same interview, Gachungi admitted that PETCO was formed to head off a ban on PET. “When the government banned plastic bags they said that were also planning to ban PET bottles as well. . . [T]he government does not need to ban anything. All companies need to do is to join or form organizations such as PETCO that can be able to hold them accountable,” she said. On mandatory EPR legislation, she says such should only obligate companies “to join organizations that would make rules” which would leave the industry free to set its own targets and priorities.
The fact is, despite the flowery rhetoric, recycling and voluntary EPR schemes are not about companies living up to their responsibilities, but just ways to delay and frustrate the goal of a world free of plastic waste and to socialize the cost and responsibility for cleaning up existing plastic waste while continuing to profit from generating ever more plastic. In the end, only legislation forcing them to actually pick up after themselves rather than foisting the burden on consumers, and that moves towards a full and complete cessation of plastic production, will do.
Will Ruto Resist the Temptation to Marginalize Civil Society?
William Ruto’s administration has an opportunity to distinguish itself from its predecessor as a defender of civil society’s independent role.
When scholars speak of “civil society”, they usually mean all organized groupings of people that are neither part of government nor part of business. Sometimes media groups are also included. Using this definition, Kenya’s civil society sector is rich and diverse. It ranges from neighbourhood chamas, to churches and mosques, to international NGOs with billion-shilling budgets. Yet it is the highly focused governance and democracy-promoting civil society organizations (CSOs) that usually have the most prominent voices in Kenya. Around the world, the 1990s heralded an “opening” of space for such organizations, but that space eventually began to close. Kenya is no exception to this experience.
There has also grown some confusion in the country about the role that civil society ought to play. In the 1990s, CSOs were perceived by wananchi as primarily interested in fairness, accountability, and human rights—not political power—as they pushed to make Kenya a democracy. But as the new millennium has unfolded, prominent CSO leaders have increasingly been seen as “taking sides” in the political arena, whether in supporting the International Criminal Court indictments and the challenge to the 2022 presidential results, or in themselves running for political office. Although most NGOs and community-based organizations remain apolitical, these changes can make CSOs in general appear to be less united with wananchi as a whole. And this leaves CSOs in a more precarious position.
With the new William Ruto administration, the country now sits at a possible inflection point. Will Ruto follow in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, in threatening to close the space for CSOs, or might he take an approach similar to Mwai Kibaki, under whose leadership vocal Kenyan civil society largely thrived?
As a candidate, Ruto ran as a proponent of accountability. If he wishes to continue in the same vein as president, he will facilitate Kenyan civil society and free media. Doing so will not only help to guarantee his legacy among Kenyans, it will also help to retain Nairobi as a regional leader and an employment hub for the large Eastern Africa and Horn development sector. And it could bring more politicians with a CSO background to his side.
Here, we present a brief history of the space allowed for civil society over the past sixty-plus years and under the three previous administrations, followed by a discussion of possible trajectories for Ruto and their potential outcomes.
Kenya’s rich history of civil society since before independence
Kenya has had a reputation for being home to a strong civil society sector—arguably the strongest in East Africa. This reputation stems from the long-standing culture of harambee, which encourages people to work together to better the community. The sector has also grown in part out of the country’s religious communities. But it has also grown from the decolonization movements that included educational institutions, trade unions, and ethnic associations, among others fighting for self-rule.
Kenya’s CSOs are diverse, yet they all share at least one thing in common: the space in which they can operate is determined by government regulation—and sometimes by a government’s whims. During colonial times, space was exceedingly limited. The colonial government restricted education and assembly in order to maintain its illegitimate power. During the Jomo Kenyatta administration, local community based organizations and harambee groups were granted more space, but also something of a responsibility to provide self-help solutions.
Closed space: repression and resilience under Moi
For more than two decades, civil society was tightly controlled by the Daniel arap Moi administration. After the 1982 coup attempt, Moi learned to carefully monitor society for potential sources of alternative power, including from nongovernmental organizations and the media.
Given flat economic growth and increasing calls for economic liberalization and budget downsizing from powerful Western donors, however, Moi also recognized the benefits of some types of civil society actors. He recognized that they could provide social services like healthcare, education, and sanitation services where the state could not.
Moi skilfully developed regulations that allowed such apolitical service-provision organizations to offer needed services, while maintaining the ability to take credit for their work. At the same time, the creation of the governmental NGO Board in 1989 gave his administration an organizational authority to shut down or intimidate democracy, human rights, and governance organizations that he perceived as threatening him politically, while the NGO Act, passed in 1990, provided the legal justification. Media was similarly repressed while harambee organizations, meant to be an avenue for self-help, became politicized tools for support and mobilization.
Moi skilfully developed regulations that allowed such apolitical service-provision organizations to offer needed services, while maintaining the ability to take credit for their work.
Yet individual proponents of opening up the civic space, like Wangari Maathai, Oginga Odinga, and Kenneth Matiba, could not be fully deterred. Under Moi, they were largely based in professional organizations like the Law Society of Kenya, religious ones, like the National Council of Churches of Kenya, national movements like Greenbelt, or banned political parties like FORD. From these havens, they pushed for political opening and democracy for Kenyans.
And, importantly, they attracted popular support from wananchi wanting to live without fear of government. Activists and Kenyans together sought basic political and civic rights.
Opening space: CSOs in the Kibaki administration
When Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2002, he brought with him many allies from civil society. Kibaki’s regime not only hired many CSO leaders like Maina Kiai, Willy Mutunga, Kivutha Kibwana, and John Githongo into government, but also deliberately worked more openly with those who stayed in the third sector. Many thought Kibaki’s technocratic background allowed him to adopt a hands-off approach.
These strong relationships soured somewhat when Githongo was run out of the country in 2005. And tensions grew after the 2008 post-election violence, when some governance, human rights, and media leaders were harassed or restricted, and even murdered.
Yet Kibaki signed the Public Benefit Organization (PBO) Act of 2013 into law before leaving office. The progressive law, which aims to ensure transparency and accountability for organizations in Kenya, has been lauded by civil society advocates, but is yet to be operationalized nearly a decade later.
Further, beyond civil society leaders moving into administrative offices, during Kibaki’s time some civil society leaders began to seek their own political ambitions as well. New research shows that NGO work can act as a pipeline to politics for potential candidates by placing them in politics-adjacent roles and providing them with deep community connections and relevant expertise. Civic activism can align well with opposition politics. This trend of CSO activists making the leap into politics could erode a focus on human rights and the collective good. In seeking political advancement—especially in a country where MPs are among the highest paid in the world—former activists-turned-politicians may muddy the waters of civil society, blurring the line between governance and accountability.
Contracting space: Uhuru warns CSOs
The start of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration in March 2013 was in many ways overshadowed by the indictment in the preceding months of both Uhuru and his deputy, Ruto, at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity in relation to the violence that followed the 2007 elections. Although service-providing civil society organizations were largely unaffected, and most NGOs stayed out of the conversation, many prominent governance and human rights organization leaders supported the ICC investigations. They petitioned for the courts to bar Uhuru and Ruto’s candidacy on account of the indictments and demanded that the trials move forward even after the two were in office. They focused on the worrying “culture of impunity” in the wake of the 2008 post-election violence.
This trend of CSO activists making the leap into politics could erode a focus on human rights and the collective good.
This had caused tension even before the 2013 election. Uhuru’s rhetoric troubled many CSOs as he supported calls for limits on foreign funding of NGOs. Public support for restrictions on NGO funding rose in some quarters as Uhuru supporters suggested that civil society had evolved into an “evil society.”
In the coming years, the space grew more hostile. Uhuru made sharp statements threatening to defund NGOs and restrict foreign worker permits. His administration also stridently refused to implement the PBO Act of 2013, even when ordered to do so by the High Court.
The administration was even willing to use the NGO Board, which the PBO Act abolishes, for political purposes. It sent harassing letters from the Board in an attempt to silence human rights and governance NGOs that had spoken out against Chris Msando’s brutal murder in the lead-up to the 2017 election.
These challenges were compounded by the government’s support of a controversial media bill which would have forced journalists to reveal their sources and, unsurprisingly, drew immediate protests. These efforts to restrict free expression led to reports that Kenya was experiencing significant free speech backsliding,
Yet these setbacks for civil society occurred as Kenyan legal institutions grew stronger. The courts’ empowerment culminated in the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on the 2017 election, annulling Uhuru’s win and requiring that the election be rerun. This dramatic democratic showing buoyed the CSO sector, reassuring governance groups that they were not operating alone, but rather had powerful allies on the march toward a stronger democracy. In so doing, however, did these prominent governance organizations increasingly politicize themselves?
New space: greater autonomy and accountability on the horizon?
The future prospects for Kenyan civil society now depend a great deal on how Ruto decides to lead. We see a unique opportunity for this new administration to distinguish itself from its predecessor as a defender of civil society’s independent role. In so doing, he may thwart further politicization of the sector.
Will President Ruto follow Candidate Ruto’s roadmap? While campaigning, Ruto worked hard to separate himself from prior administrations. He presented himself as an “outsider” candidate, immune to dynasty politics. His opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative suggested wariness of the strongman politics of years past and signalled an openness to robust government accountability, a point he has made at home and abroad.
Candidate Ruto appeared to extend a hand to civil society groups, in contrast to Uhuru’s contentious engagement with the sector. He promised that they would be free to operate without government interference. He explicitly invited them to hold the Kenya Kwanza government to account, referring to the sector as a key accountability mechanism, essential for good governance.
Yet during the same period, Candidate Ruto’s team was accused of media harassment that threatened progress toward a more robust democratic space for all. Prominent CSOs called for an opening of civic space with an eleven-point list of demands. They noted that Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organizations, had rated Kenyan civil society as “obstructed” while Ruto was deputy president.
The future prospects for Kenyan civil society now depend a great deal on how Ruto decides to lead.
It remains unclear what hand Ruto may have had in marginalizing civil society during the Kenyatta administration. And he may still harbour a grudge against CSOs for their support of the ICC trials. Regardless, the relationship between his administration and CSOs is off to a rocky start, as it is well known that prominent civil society groups strongly supported Ruto’s opponent, Raila Odinga, in the August general election. After the election, leading civil society activist (and The Elephant founder) John Githongo, claimed to have evidence that the IEBC could have been hacked easily. Githongo’s affidavit, which the court ruled could amount to perjury, was a prominent part of the larger, unsuccessful, effort to overturn Ruto’s win.
Moreover, compared to past periods, activists such as Githongo and Boniface Mwangi have been more open about their partisan leanings, which may make it easier for citizens to discount their calls for reform. Even former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga has advocated that civil society actors form a political party, a move which would further muddy the waters. Through these explicitly political dabblings, and by betting on Odinga in the August poll, the civil society sector may have inadvertently undermined its future relationship with the Ruto government.
Nevertheless, as president, Ruto can choose whether to see civil society as a continued opponent or not. At least publicly, he has not moved to restrict the sector in retaliation, and has called for civil society and media to work hand in hand with government to amplify the voices of Africa globally with regard to climate change. Yet after more than two months of the Kenya Kwanza government, it is not clear that the administration is going to heed its own calls.
If the new administration can put aside its election-related differences with prominent civil society actors and submit to accountability meted out by CSOs, Ruto will find an undeniably effective way to prove the anti-dynasty politics for which he campaigned. This may prove fruitful if he plans to seek re-election in 2027. It could also endear him to Western allies, who have historically encouraged democracy.
Activists such as John Githongo and Boniface Mwangi have been more open about their partisan leanings, which may make it easier for citizens to discount their calls for reform.
Indeed, abstaining from undermining civil society freedoms while also choosing to embrace criticism from CSOs could distinguish Ruto’s leadership internationally. The West is facing challenges with declining democratic credibility both at home and abroad. The US and UK spoke out in support of the ICC cases, yet took a “business as usual” approach to relations with the Uhuru/Ruto administration. Western leaders also praised the 2017 elections before they were annulled by the Kenyan Supreme Court. If Ruto shuns the temptation to ignore the warnings of civil society, his administration could be a model on the international stage that would needle at older democracies that may be leaning away from accountability.
On an even more practical note, re-opening space for civil society could help Ruto fulfil his vow to reinvigorate the Kenyan economy. The international humanitarian and development sector comprises a nontrivial part of the economy. There are not only UN agencies based in Nairobi, but also around 12,000 active NGOs countrywide, who employ an estimated quarter of a million people. The sector brought in KSh185 billion in donations in the 2019/2020 financial year.
Abstaining from undermining civil society freedoms while also choosing to embrace criticism from CSOs could distinguish Ruto’s leadership internationally.
Research shows that development sector organizations like international NGOs tend to locate in democratic countries more than in authoritarian ones. Thus a welcoming environment for civil society could help to retain Nairobi as a leader and an employment hub of the large Eastern Africa and Horn development sector.
Ruto must decide which legacy to leave for the history books. Ultimately, his administration, like those of his predecessors, may find itself unable to resist the temptation to frustrate and marginalize civil society actors who opposed his presidency. If that happens, we expect the sector to grow ever more nimble, adapting to restricted space just as it has in the past.
Philosophy for the People
For philosophy to be relevant in Africa, it must democratize and address contemporary social problems.
In late September 2022, a consortium of universities hosted by the Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale in Yaounde, Cameroon held an “Ethicslab” to deliberate on the theme, “Justice, Democracy and Diversity.” The meeting brought together doctoral candidates in philosophy from Cameroon, Canada, Nigeria, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to be mentored by experts. Some of those experts included Dany Rondeau (Canada), Geert Demuijnck (France, based in the Netherlands), and Bernard Gagnon (Canada).
The driving force behind the event was Thierry Ngosso, a young Cameroonian philosopher based at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. Ngosso’s dream has been to deliver important philosophical lessons in a readily digestible way to younger African scholars while at the same time aiming for social transformation.
The study of philosophy in the continent is marked by all-too-familiar colonial linguistic and political divisions: the anglophone sector fastened to the thought of figures such as John Rawls and analytic philosophy, while francophone countries usually follow the dictates of continental philosophy. Ngosso thinks it is time to collapse these age-old colonial divisions. Also, philosophy seems removed from pressing issues, such as poverty. It can certainly be successfully re-energized by interrogating topics such as ethics and health, ethics and education, ethics and business, politics, the environment, and so on to broaden and deepen linkages between the discipline and urgent contemporary issues.
Nonetheless, philosophy has always been valued in Cameroon’s education system. As early as high school, students are introduced to the discipline. At postgraduate levels, there are various social media forums where students debate philosophical concerns of mutual interest. These debates are usually vibrant and engrossing.
Since its inception in 2019, the Ethicslab has been inviting two or three keynote speakers from disciplines such as sociology, political science and history to brainstorm about the intellectual concerns it seeks to tackle. The Ethicslab is concerned with issues of normativity and social change. Such an approach obviously grants philosophy an urgency, purpose and social transformational energy.
The Ethicslab is an intellectual experiment to identify the future stars of theoretical thought on the continent. During the 2022 edition of the event, quite a few promising upcoming scholars further etched their names; Benjamin Olujohungbe (Nigeria), Charles Dine (Cameroon/Canada), Hammadou Yaya (Cameroon), Opeyemi Gbadegesin (Nigeria), Elisanne Pellerin (Canada), Tatiana Nganti (Cameroon), Henri Gbadi Finimonga (DRC), Kakmeni Schaller (Cameroon), Eric Vernuy Suyru (Cameroon) and Ndedi Emma Maximine Ndjandjo (Cameroon). All these individuals are not only being trained in the rigors of theoretical reflection but also in the ethics of mutuality and reciprocity. Although they come from varied national, linguistic, and institutional backgrounds, the objective is to establish commonalities based on universally accepted cultural and human values.
Ultimately, Ngosso is interested in effecting meaningful social change in African communities through the study and use of philosophy. He plans to find funding for about ten doctoral students and thirty postdoctoral scholars in the discipline within the next five years. He also intends to shift the nodes of perception regarding the African continent from an ostensibly external locus to largely endogenous sources. To realize these grand aims, Ngosso has had to battle with numerous bureaucratic obstacles. The quest to change societies from within also entails transforming the traditional character and functions of academic institutions and establishments. This is no small task. What Ngosso has been able to do is wrest a degree of flexibility in how he operates within and amongst institutions. He is currently employed by the University of Maroua, Cameroon, holds an ongoing research fellowship at the University of St. Gallen, where he is based, and is a research associate of Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale. Within an African context, and perhaps any other setting in the world, such institutional flexibility and mobility are rare. But this is precisely the sort of liberty Ngosso requires in accomplishing his stated mission of social change.
Perhaps as part of ongoing efforts to demystify the study of philosophy, Ngosso arranged a trip to Kribi for all the participants of the 2022 Ethicslab. Kribi, a coastal town, is a perfect spot to unwind. Its coast is replete with tourist attractions such as the magisterial Lobe Falls, a pristine array of waterfalls nestled within Kribi beach. The Atlantic ocean is always enticingly open for a swim after intense brainstorming or away from the diurnal pressures of everyday life. There are also amazing seaside resorts and restaurants and the most delightful varieties of seafood to savor.
In 2024, Ngosso plans a grand event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Ethicslab. In this, he will have accomplished the entrenchment of modern philosophy in Africa, concomitant globalization of its multicultural potentials and tentacles, and finally, a re-configuration of the discipline for the myriad demands and expectations of the 21st century.
Politics1 week ago
The Campaign that Remembered Nothing and Forgot Nothing
Politics2 weeks ago
Why Azimio’s Presidential Petition Stood No Chance
Politics2 weeks ago
GMOs Are Not the Only Answer
Politics2 weeks ago
It’s a Nurses’ Market Out There, and Kenyans Are Going For It
Politics1 week ago
Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven
Politics2 weeks ago
Mary Kanyaman Ekai: Gender and Livestock Rustling in Northern Kenya
Long Reads6 days ago
The Lion, the Gazelle and the Mountain: Migration Tales of the Cattle People
Op-Eds1 week ago
War of the Worlds: Africa’s Next Great War