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

15 min read.

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



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.


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


Is Poverty a Political Choice?

Philip Alston, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, says that international development organisations got it all wrong: not only are more people likely to be extremely poor in the next decade, but they are likely to remain extremely poor for the rest of their lives because “poverty is a political choice”.



Is Poverty a Political Choice?
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Before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, forecasters had been predicting that the world was becoming a better place: more people were being lifted out of poverty; more children were enrolled in school; fewer women were dying in childbirth; the internet was changing the lives of communities in the remotest corners of the planet; and if all went according to plan, and with adequate investment in the right science, life-threatening diseases would be a thing of the past.

International development experts and organisations have since at least the 1990s being gathering data to show positive trends in the state of the world’s people. While grim realities often surface, such as the fact that more people today suffer from depression and anxiety than ever before, the general view is that while things are not good for a large chunk of humanity, they will eventually get better for everyone – provided there are sufficient funds and investments (often couched in the language of aid) to ensure that everyone inhabiting this planet leads a reasonably healthy and productive life.

An overriding assumption made by these experts and organisations is that once a country achieves a certain level of per capita income and reduces poverty to single digit figures (i.e., becomes “developed”), issues such as healthcare and education will take care of themselves. But, as has become alarmingly evident in the United States’ COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, wealth alone cannot guarantee good quality public health.

The United Nations and financial institutions like the World Bank have made it their mission to eradicate poverty. Heads of state meet every year at the UN General Assembly to discuss their countries’ progress in various human development indicators, including poverty levels. The goal of ending poverty is renewed every decade or so (remember the Millennium Development Goals of 2000 that morphed into the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015?) but the poor, as they say, will always be with us.

What’s more, now that we have COVID-19, all the gains of the past decades are likely to be reversed. Not only are poverty levels set to increase with rising unemployment, but inequality levels will most likely soar worldwide.

However, before this pandemic, did we really see the progress that international development organisations claimed had been achieved? Or were the statistics plain wrong?

Dodgy statistics

In a highly critical report released early this month, Philip Alston, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, says that international development organisations got it all wrong: not only are more people likely to be extremely poor in the next decade but they are likely to remain extremely poor for the rest of their lives (with or without the impact of COVID-19) because “poverty is a political choice” – the result of “longstanding neglect of extreme poverty and the systematic downplaying of the problem by many governments, economists, and human rights advocates”.

In fact, according to Alston, contrary to “over-optimistic assessments”, there has only been “a slight decline in the number of people living in poverty over the past thirty years””

Alston’s scathing final report to the UN Human Rights Council’s forty-fourth session spells out in unflinching detail how the World Bank duped the world into believing that poverty lines across the world were dropping. The report says that the current international poverty line (IPL) is derived from an average of national poverty lines adopted by some of the world’s poorest countries, but its value (US$1.90 purchasing power parity per day) is “explicitly designed to reflect a staggeringly low standard of living, well below any conception of a life with dignity”.

“Almost all of these celebratory accounts rely one way or another on the World Bank’s international poverty line (IPL), under which the number in extreme poverty fell from 1.895 billion in 1990 to 736 million in 2015, and thus from 36 to 10 percent of the world’s population”, says the report. However, “escaping poverty” is not the same as enjoying an adequate standard of living that includes access to healthcare and education. The report proposes abandoning the IPL in favour of a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of poverty.

In 2014, the Standard Bank Group’s researchers made a similar assessment. Their research debunked the myth that Kenya is an emerging economy set to become a robust middle-income country by 2030. The Group’s research showed that – contrary to optimistic projections by Kenya’s Vision 2030 enthusiasts – Kenya still had a long way to go before it is could be classified as middle-income.

According to the Group’s report, only 4 per cent of Kenyan households fell into the middle class category that year, which the Group placed as those that had an income of roughly between Sh60,000 ($600) and Sh300,000 ($3,000) a month. Using this definition, the vast majority of the country’s households – a staggering 92 per cent – were considered low income i.e. those that earned under Sh40,000 ($400) a month. These figures were validated by an Ipsos Limited survey that showed that 93 per cent of Kenyan adults earned less than Sh40,000 a month and 43 per cent earned less than Sh10,000 ($100) a month.

These statistics fly in the face of African Development Bank figures that place Africa’s middle class as those that earn between $4 and $20 a day, or between about Sh12,000 and Sh60,000 a month.

Anyone living in Kenya, where the cost of living is extremely high and where there are very few free or subsidised services, knows that if you earn Sh12,000 a month, you are definitely not middle class, and that if you earn Sh60,000 shillings a month, you are really struggling to pay for food, rent and school fees, and are more likely to live in a slum than in a middle class neighbourhood. Yet, it is these kinds of figures that international financial institutions use to elevate countries to middle-income status.

Alston is also sceptical of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which he says are pegged on economic growth and private sector funding. (The SDGS, adopted in 2015, are a set of 17 goals, including eradicating poverty, achieving gender equality, combatting climate change and promoting sustained inclusive and sustainable economic growth by 2030.)

“Instead of promoting empowerment, funding, partnerships, and accountability, too much energy surrounding the SDG process has gone into generating portals, dashboards, stakeholder engagement plans, bland reports, and colourful posters. Official assessments are rarely critical or focused, and they often hide behind jargon”, he says.

He adds that the strategy to achieve the SGDs is focused on privatisation, which is problematic because privatisation often prevents the poorest and the most vulnerable from gaining access to services. In addition, the SDGs underplay the role of governments, which is “often relegated to insuring private investments”. Alston’s critique reflects the neoliberalism that has pervaded the development sector since the 1990s when privatisation and the freeing of markets were considered the solutions to ending economic stagnation and poverty.

Statistics, as Alston illustrates, often conceal more than they reveal. It all depends on who is computing them and for what aim. While statisticians and demographers will claim that their science is neutral, and based purely on verifiable numbers, carefully crafted formulas and accurate calculations, sceptics have wondered whether numbers tell the whole story.

In addition, quite often it is difficult to tell which variable impacted which outcome. Are low maternal mortality rates an indication of women’s equality in society or merely a reflection of better healthcare? Are urban growth rates a reflection of levels of industrialisation or do some urban areas grow spontaneously? Do high literacy rates and low poverty levels correlate with higher rates of happiness?

Creating just and happy societies

Interestingly, these were the questions that bothered King Jigme Wangchuk of Bhutan nearly fifty years ago when he created the Gross National Happiness Index in 1972, and declared that “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist”.

The four key pillars of this index are equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation of cultural values and heritage, conservation of the natural environment and good governance. Economic growth does not feature high in Bhutan’s happiness index because the kingdom’s policymakers consider spiritual and emotional well-being far more important than GDP, which is considered an inadequate tool to measure other intangible – but invaluable – types of wealth, such as culture and nature.

Bhutan has long acknowledged that economic growth without social justice increases levels of unhappiness in society. This reality has been supported by more recent research that shows that highly unequal societies also tend to be unhappy societies, with high levels of dysfunction.

In a ground-breaking study published a few years ago, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found that levels of mental illness within a society were related to its level of inequality. In the Unites States, one of the most unequal societies in the world, a quarter of the population suffers from some form of mental illness, while in the more egalitarian Japan, less than 10 per cent do. Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands also have less income inequality and less prevalence of mental illnesses, perhaps because these countries invest more in social welfare programmes than others.

In their book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009), Wilkinson and Pickett show how highly unequal societies tend to produce narcissistic individuals – people who are excessively preoccupied with themselves and place a lot of importance on individual success (which could explain the Donald Trump phenomenon).

The epidemiologists also found that in highly unequal countries, people tend to be physically and psychologically unhealthy as well. Obesity, depression and drug addiction are more common in unequal societies. In such societies, homicide and other criminal behavior are also more prevalent.

Because unequal societies tend to produce people prone to violence and crime, they are also fearful. Hence they tend to build gated communities and protect themselves with guns or private security. People thus become more distrustful of each other and lose their sense of community, which increases anxiety levels.

The authors say that instead of curing mental illness through increased use of drugs and psychiatric services, countries should look at making their societies more equal through policies that reduce the income gap and that build people’s resilience.

This echoes the claim that economic growth alone cannot deliver just, cooperative and healthier societies. China’s cities, for example, have become unliveable due to high levels of air pollution because China decided that growth was more important than environmental protection. China also failed to contain COVID-19 in time, which led to it becoming a pandemic, which suggests that the country still has a lot of work to do in the area of public health.

In the United States, shootings in schools and other public places have become more common, perhaps because the attackers feel disconnected from their world. In Kenya, we are building high-rise apartments for the rich but not a single public park has been built since the colonialists left. We are building more roads, but not expanding pavements or bicycle paths. Meanwhile, before the COVID-19 lockdown, motorists in Nairobi were spending more time in traffic than with their families at home.

Inequality was already out of control before the pandemic hit early this year. According to an Oxfam report released in January, in 2019, only 2,153 people had more wealth than 4.6 billion people, 60 per cent of the world’s population. In addition, “the richest 22 men in the world own more wealth than all the women in Africa”.

According to the World Inequality Report 2018, 50 per cent of the world’s population owns less than 2 per cent of the world’s wealth while 40 per cent of the world’s population (the global middle class) owns less than 30 per cent.

Such depressing figures are set to get grimmer in the near future. According to Alston, COVID-19 is projected to push more than 70 million additional people into extreme poverty, and hundreds of millions more into unemployment and poverty.

Alston says that poverty and inequality can only be eradicated if governments invest in social protection for citizens and involve the poor in policymaking. Governments must also take charge of service provision instead of relying mainly on the private sector.

Extreme poverty must be understood as a violation of human rights. “Protestations of inadequate resources are entirely unconvincing given the determined refusal of many governments to adopt just fiscal policies, end tax evasion, and stop corruption”,says Alston.

Alston concludes his report by stating: “Poverty is a political choice and will be with us until its elimination is reconceived as a matter of social justice. Only when the goal of realizing the human right to an adequate standard of living replaces the World Bank’s miserable subsistence line will the international community be on track to eliminate extreme poverty.”

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The Coronavirus Pandemic: A Breath of Life Into the Struggle for the Implementation of the 2010 Constitution?

The pandemic has hastened the national discussion on the formation of alternative political movements and leaderships that will guarantee the national peace that the elite have shown themselves to be incapable of providing.



The Coronavirus Pandemic: A Breath of Life Into the Struggle for the Implementation of the 2010 Constitution?
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My governor friend and I were discussing the implementation of the 2010 Constitution. He used a metaphor to speak about the progress made thus far: the constitution gave birth to a beautiful child destined to grow and transform all the ideological, social, economic, cultural, spiritual and political aspects of our Kenyan society.

The ultimate goal of this transformation would be to replace the neocolonial status quo with a free, just, equitable and egalitarian, peaceful, prosperous, ecologically safe and democratic society. Such a society would form the basis on which to hold a national discussion of its weaknesses and, based on this dialogue, consequently build a firm foundation for yet another, better society, at which point it would come as no surprise if another new constitution were to be promulgated.

We the people of Kenya, having created the constitution, not only imposed it on the ruling elite but we then proceeded to hand over the baby to the same elite—a political leadership of child and body parts traffickers—to bring it up. A progressive constitution requires a progressive political leadership for its implementation.

The struggles of constitution-making do not end with its promulgation. Its implementation continues the struggles between the anti-constitution forces and those forces that call for its robust implementation and, as we approach the tenth anniversary of the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution on 27 August 2020, the struggle for its implementation continues unabated.

Genesis of the Struggle

The independence constitution gave birth to a neocolonial system that ensured the colonial state remained intact. Indeed, under that constitution, the multi-racial and multi-ethnic ruling elite continued to protect foreign interests, including the British colonial powers that never left Kenya. Therefore, it is not surprising that the independence constitution was resisted right from the time of its promulgation.

The opposition party, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU), opposed the neocolonial status quo. Both Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s book, Not Yet Uhuru and Bildad Kaggia’s The Roots of Freedom chronicle this fact. Both authors were founding members of KPU. Underground political formations such as The December Twelfth Movement and Mwakenya, and their publications Mwunguzi, Cheche, Pambana and Mpatanishi, also resisted the neocolonial state and its policies.

The so-called Second Liberation movement was premised on the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution that decreed the supremacy of one-party dictatorship. The movement also sought to have a constitution that would be aligned to the promise of a multi-party democracy while civil society organisations and opposition political parties continued the struggle for a new constitution. When the Moi-KANU dictatorship was defeated in 2002, the Kibaki-KANU-NARC dictatorship could not resist the people’s clamour for a new constitution and the 2010 Constitution was promulgated on 27 August 2010.

Gains and Challenges

The vision of the 2010 Constitution makes clear the rejection of the neocolonial status quo and affirms the supremacy and sovereignty of the Kenyan people as those with the powers to recall their representatives in parliament. The constitution provides for gender equity and equality and reiterates that the three arms of government derive their authority from the people. It promotes a political leadership comprised of men and women of integrity and national institutions that are independent and whose authority is derived from the people of Kenya. The constitution eschews the politics of division and calls for institutionalised, de-personalised, and democratic political parties, signaling the end of 47 years of gross electoral injustices.

We have a progressive Bill of Rights running the whole gamut of political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights: decentralisation and democratisation of the imperial presidency to devolution; holding institutions, particularly those in finance and security, accountable to the power of the constitution; equitable distribution of national resources; the protection of land, our major resource, through the reduction to 99 years of the duration of leases given to foreign interests and the creation of a new land law regime that is communitarian to co-exist with a tenure system under which land is commodified (the co-existence of the two land tenures systems is envisaged as a strategy to build a future system that is based on access and use of land to all).

The neocolonial status quo served strong, dangerous, greedy and corrupt foreign and national interests that saw the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution as an inconsequential hiatus. This position has been resisted, reflecting the continued struggles for its implementation which has seen both progress and retrogression. Firstly, the imperial presidency has not been fully democratised and decentralised. Its restructuring has been resisted. It continues to oversee opaque sovereign debts and corruption and, against the provisions of the constitution, continues to maintain the colonial and neocolonial machinery of violence. Both the Treasury and the security apparatus are still departments of the imperial presidency contrary to the decrees of the constitution. And nor has there been consistent support for devolution from the imperial presidency and some institutions have become less independent while others have become moribund. No strong checks and balances exist.

We have witnessed the return of intra-elite struggles christened with various monikers: Tanga Tanga, Kieleweke, Tinga Tinga, Manga Manga, BBI, Dynasties, Hustlers. These struggles portend possible violence during the elections in 2022. They are also a reflection of a ruling elite that has maintained the politics of division (ethnic, religious, gender, generational, regional, clan, class, occupation and race) and that is extremely callous in its politics of inhumanity. It is an elite that continues to act as the loyal comprador class of foreign interests in the West and East. The forces massed against the implementation of the constitution are headquartered in the bosoms of the Kenyan elite.

Devolution has engendered in Kenyans the belief that resources will be shared equitably, that Kenya will become peaceful and stable, and that projects of state-building and nation-building will be strengthened. Under devolution, baby steps have been taken towards ending the marginalisation of certain counties and communities. In some counties, the sharing of state power with the grassroots through public participation has taken place and in others the leadership has resisted corruption.

Although the jurisprudence on Chapter 6 of the Constitution (Leadership and Integrity) is yet to be settled in the Supreme Court, we have witnessed progressive jurisprudence on the protection of devolution as well as on the implementation of the Bill of Rights (in particular political, civil, housing, evictions and public interest litigation) and on the overall protection of the independence of the judiciary.

We have seen attempts by the imperial presidency and parliament to thwart this positive trend by starving the judiciary of funds. Court orders have been disobeyed, weakening the constitution and the rule of law. Both the imperial presidency and the neocolonial parliament still believe that national resources belong to them and that—as those who hold the taxpayers’ money in trust—they are not accountable to the people from whom both institutions derive their powers.

We have also witnessed robust protection of the constitution from civil society groups, both in the middle class and at the grassroots. We have seen the emergence of movements that are calling for alternative leaderships at the helm of the movements of transformation and political parties. We have also heard the clarion call that “We do not want reforms from the current political leadership; We want the political power to carry out authentic reforms. We are now the authentic people’s opposition”. The emancipatory spirits of Mau Mau, the independence movements, the movements against neocolonialism, Saba Saba and Limuru have been resurrected. In all these movements, the centrality of the Kenyan youth is visibly signaling new political demands from those who have been marginalised by the system.

Coronavirus: Breath of New Life into the Struggle?

Indeed, the pandemic has provided a great opportunity to continue the struggle for the implementation of the 2010 Constitution. I believe the pandemic has brought with it the answer to the ever-present political question in Kenya: Who are the friends and who are the enemies of the Kenyan people?

The pandemic has further exposed the inhumanity of the state and the elite political leadership by their actions during this crisis: extrajudicial killings; demolition of the housing of the poor in Kariobangi Sewerage and at Ruai; disobedience of court orders in regard to the pandemic; refusal to take steps to progressively bring about the realisation of the public good under Article 43 of the Constitution (food, water, education, social security, health, sanitation); and, with the exception of two, a lack of response through social justice philanthropy from the billionaires and multi-millionaires and their infamous foundations.

If any evidence were needed to show how uncaring our state and the ruling class are towards the majority of the population, it is in their demands that the poor wash their hands while failing to provide them with soap and water using the resources that they hold in trust for the people.

To oppress the poor for not wearing masks was callous in the extreme, while lockdowns and curfews became death sentences for those who had no food and those looking for casual jobs to survive. No resources were committed to implementing the right to health for all. Indeed, all we heard were the familiar tales of corruption as the pandemic provided the elite class with another opportunity to indulge their unquenchable thirst for theft and debts.

One positive effect of the pandemic has been to hasten the national discussion on the formation of alternative political movements and leaderships. Many virtual meetings and launches have been convened, events ironically made possible by the very tools developed by surveillance capitalism.

Alternative transformative movements are growing in strength. Embryonic alternative political parties exist, their mobilisation and organisation energised by the pandemic. The merger of these movements and political parties is no longer an abstract idea and, as they move in from the margins, the old normal of before the pandemic—which was neither acceptable nor sustainable—is no longer guaranteed a further lease of life.

Indeed, the pandemic has breathed some life into the struggles for the implementation of the constitution. Calls by the elite to change the constitution have been met with demands to tekeleza katiba, implement the constitution. The good news to me seems to be that this herculean struggle will result in the baronial narrative that has gone unchallenged for the last 57 years facing the resistance of strong counter-narratives. Ironically, it is these counter-narratives, these alternative movements and political leaderships that will protect the baronial elites from themselves and their politics of revenge, and guarantee the national peace that the elite have shown themselves to be incapable of providing.

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Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why GMO’s Create African Dependency on Global Markets

Rather than addressing food scarcity, genetically modified crops may render African farmers and scientists more, not less, reliant on global markets.



Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why GMO’s Create African Dependency on Global Markets
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As COVID-19 continues to lay bare the deficiencies in the global food system, imagining new food futures is more urgent than ever. Recently, some have suggested that seeds that are genetically modified to include pest, drought, and herbicide resistance (GMOs) provide an avenue for African countries to become more self-sufficient in food production and less reliant on global food chains. Although we share the desire to build more just food systems, if history is any indicator, genetically-modified (GM) crops may actually render African farmers and scientists more, not less, reliant on global actors and markets.

In a paper we recently published in African Affairs, we trace a nearly 30-year history of collaborations among the agribusiness industry, US government agencies, philanthropic organizations, and African research councils to develop GMOs for African farmers. We found that these alliances, though impressive in scope, have so far resulted in few GMOs reaching African farmers and markets. Why, we ask, have efforts to bring GMOs to Africa yielded so little?

One reason, of course, is organized activism. Widespread distrust of the technology and its developers has animated local and transnational social movements that have raised important questions about the ownership, control, and safety of GM crops. But another issue has to do with the complex character of the public-private partnerships (PPPs) that donors have created to develop GM crops for the continent. Since 1991, beginning with an early partnership between the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, and Monsanto to develop a virus resistant sweet potato (which never materialized), PPPs have become a hallmark of GMO efforts in Africa. This is mainly so for two reasons. The first is that GM technology is largely owned and patented by a handful of multinational corporations, and, thus, is inaccessible to African scientists and small to mid-sized African seed companies without a partnership agreement. The second is that both donors and agricultural biotechnology companies believe that partnering with African scientists will help quell public distrust of their involvement and instead create a public image of goodwill and collaboration. However, we found that this multiplicity of partners has created significant roadblocks to integrating GMOs into farming on the continent.

Take the case of Ghana. In the mid-2000s, country officials embarked on an impressive mission to become a regional leader in biotechnology. While Burkina Faso had been growing genetically modified cotton for years, Ghana sought to be the first West African country to produce GM food crops. In 2013, Ghanaian regulators thus approved field trials of six GM crops, including sweet potato, rice, cowpea, and cotton, to take place within the country’s scientific institutes.

However, what began as an exciting undertaking quickly ran into the trouble. Funding for the sweet potato project was exhausted soon after it began. Meanwhile, cotton research was put on indefinite hold in 2016 after Monsanto, which had been supplying both funding and the Bt cotton seed, withdrew from its partnership with the Ghanaian state scientific council. Describing its decision, a Monsanto official said that without an intellectual property rights law in place—a law that has been debated in Ghanaian parliament and opposed by Ghanaian activists since 2013—the firm could not see the “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Monsanto was also embroiled in legal matters in Burkina Faso, where their Bt cotton had unexpectedly begun producing inferior lint quality. Meanwhile, Ghanaian researchers working on two varieties of GM rice had their funding reduced by USAID, the main project donor. This left them with insufficient resources, forcing the team to suspend one of the projects. The deferment of both the cotton and one of the rice projects dealt a blow to the Ghanaian scientists who were just a year or two away from finalizing their research.

In many ways, the difficulties presented here from both Ghana and Burkina Faso suggest that efforts to bring agricultural biotechnology to Africa are a house of cards: the partnerships that seem sturdy and impressive from the outside, including collaborations between some of the world’s largest philanthropies and industry actors, are actually highly unstable. But what about the situation in other countries?

Both Nigeria and Kenya have made headlines recently for their approval of GM crops. The news out of Nigeria is especially impressive, where officials recently approved a flurry of GMO applications, including Bt cotton and Bt cowpea, beating Ghana to permit the first genetically modified food crop in West Africa. Kenya also approved the commercial production of Bt cotton, an impressive feat considering the country has technically banned GMOs since 2011. Both countries, which have turned to an India-based Monsanto subsidiary for their GM seed supply, hope that Bt cotton will help revitalize their struggling cotton sectors. While biotech proponents have applauded Nigeria and Kenya for their efforts, it will take several growing seasons and more empirical research to know how these technologies will perform.

As the cases described here demonstrate, moving GMOs from pipeline to field is not simply a matter of goodwill or scientific discovery; rather, it depends on a multitude of factors, including donor support, industry partnerships, research outcomes, policy change, and societal acceptance. This complex choreography, we argue, is embedded in the DNA of most biotechnology projects in Africa, and is often ignored by proponents of the technology who tend to offer linear narratives about biotech’s potential to bolster yields and protection against pests and disease. As such, we suggest the need to exercise caution; not because we wish to see the technology fail, but rather because we are apprehensive about multi-million dollar collaborations that seemingly favor the concerns of donors and industry over those of African scientists and farmers.

The notion of public-private partnerships may sound good, but they cannot dispel the underlying interests of participating parties or the history and collective memory of previous efforts to “improve” African agriculture.

This post is from a new 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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