Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Great Kenyan Politicians Wanted

Barack_4_webIt's a national holiday today in Kenya. There were fireworks in Nairobi last night and I hear that Kisumu has become one big carnival. Hawkers are walking lanes of ever-jammed Nairobi traffic, selling Obama '08 bumper stickers, campaign signs, and t-shirts with pictures of Barack Obama and "Made in Kenya" written below.

Obama's warm reception across the country was not always so widespread. During a 2006 speech at the University of Nairobi, he talked about the nearly ubiquitous corruption among public officials in Kenya. He also criticized the government for a weak anti-terror policy, and politics shaped by negative ethnicity. Those comments ticked off some of the political elite and their supporters.

The government's spokesman, Alfred Mutua, issued a statement a couple of days after Obama's speech saying that Obama was "poorly informed". I wasn't living in Kenya back then, but people here tell me that one national newspaper (which is typically government-supporting and Kikuyu-leaning) was full of criticism of Obama. Some writers said he was only pulling a JFK-style "back to the roots" political trip; the Senator from Illinois was certainly not Kenyan.

Now President-elect, Obama is all Kenyan, as far as most people here are concerned. The Kenyan papers are full of praise for him and speculation about what he might be able to do for this country. When I talked with people a couple of months ago for a Man On the Street story, Nairobians seemed pretty realistic. No one thought that an Obama presidency would mean great change for Kenya. Some people hoped that Kenya's tourist industry might benefit. They were proud that a man with Kenyan heritage was going so far in such an important political race, but they didn't think that U.S. aid dollars to Kenya would suddenly increase.

Aid dollars aside, I think there might be another way that coming together over Obama might benefit Kenya.

It was less than a year ago that Kenya surprised the world with a largely undemocratic and violent election. Kenyan politicians used the negative ethnicity that Obama talked about in 2006 to garner votes and spur protest.

If this country can rally behind a politician with Luo heritage, not because he is Luo but because he seems to be a good leader, a man who communicates ideas in a clear way, a person apparently guided by strong principles, maybe the ethnic drive behind Kenyan politics will ease a bit.

Obama was born to a Kenyan father and a white American mother. He spent his early childhood in Indonesia. His middle name is Hussein. Kenyans can see that voters in the United States, a country alternately lauded and criticized for equality or xenophobia, have cast their ballots for such a person.

Maybe that will give Kenyan voters the courage to rally behind another Kenyan politician. Maybe someone will emerge who has a bright mind, strong principles and great leadership skills. Maybe that politician will run in a Kenyan election. And maybe he or she will win on the merit of their political vision and skill, not their ethnicity.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Infrastructure + entrepreneurship = development?

George_4_web_2 George had a plan when he moved to Nairobi from Western Kenya. He shared a room in Kibera and worked for a year as a construction laborer. Making less than a dollar a day, he saved up enough money to put himself through driving school. He worked as a day laborer for another year until he found a job driving for a NGO. He's now saving money to buy his own vehicle. Once he's driving for himself, he'll save money to buy land in Western Kenya. After he's saved a little more money, he will go back to Kisumu and build some houses. He'll do the work himself. When the houses are up, George says the rent income will support his retirement.

George is in his late 20s. He knows that this plan will take him many years. It will not make him rich, but it will make him financially independent.

George is one of the most hard-working and determined people I have ever met. He is also deeply optimistic that he will achieve his goals.

Here in Kenya, I've met quite a few people like George, people with plans for how to build modest or great wealth for themselves.

I grew up in Canada. I nursed at the teat of a great social welfare state. I came out of university with a journalism and political science degree that had only reinforced my left-leaning tendencies (no fault of my professors, I studied what I wanted to study). But the longer I spend here, the more I see the power of business. I also see the critical role the government must play in supporting business development without stalling it with too many licensing and registration rules. I am increasingly convinced that infrastructure (and maybe micro-finance, though my internal jury is still out on that one) is key to helping George and other entrepreneurs to improve their lives.

Good roads make it easier for people to move materials to manufacturing centers, then to move finished goods to market. Electricity makes it possible for businesses to open earlier and close later, and for small manufacturing industries to increase their productivity.

The Kenyan Slum Upgrading Program is working slowly to provide some of that much-needed infrastructure in various communities around the country. The program is not perfect. The work is slow and sometimes involves displacing people who live in the slums, but in the end it may help improve the entire economy. If people start their own businesses, they can provide for themselves. They can also hire other people and, eventually, pay taxes that could (minus corruption and mismanagement) be invested in more infrastructure development.

I did a story for marketplace about the potential for business creation in the slums.

Someone pointed out to me recently that a more stable domestic economy is another benefit of small business development. Currently Kenya's economy depends greatly on foreign aid money, tourist dollars and internationally-owned agricultural businesses. If the country sees another, more lengthy round of domestic unrest like we had in January, the tourists and the foreign farmers may flee. But Kenyans aren't going anywhere and the money they make tends to stay in the country.

I know it's not quite so simple but for now, my hypothesis is that Infrastructure + Entrepreneurship = Widespread, Stable Domestic Development.

What do you think?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Food for thought

When I first moved to my apartment, the red roadside kiosk up the hill was selling eggs for five shillings (six cents in USD) a piece.

In late February the price went up to six shillings.

One day in mid-March I went to buy some eggs and they cost seven shillings each. The next day, the price had gone up to eight.

"What?" I asked the Ethiopian kiosk owner, "Yesterday the eggs were seven?"

"I know, I know," he said. "Everything is going up. Bread used to be 25 shillings. Now it's 35. Milk is up too. What can I do?"

Kiosk_4_web_2There are many factors affecting food prices in Kenya right now. Global prices for fuel, fertilizers and seeds are going up. The economy is struggling since the post-election violence. The rainy and dry seasons are no longer predictable, so farmers are unsure when to plant. And many people in rural areas who grew their own food and/or grew food for market are still displaced from their land.

The changes affect everyone: wholesalers, transporters, farmers, vendors and customers.

The government is promising subsidized fertilizer, but it's not clear how many farmers will benefit from the plan in this planting season.

Here's a short report I did for Voice of America that touches on some of the myriad issues.

It's a little frustrating to attempt to sum up such a big, important issue into a little story. Anybody want to pay me to write 2,000 or more words on it?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Friday, April 18, 2008

Speaking of Mungiki

Another Kenyan blogger, Lost White Kenyan Chick, has a good on-the-ground update about the Mungiki situation these days.

You can read her post here, and here's an excerpt:

I was talking to someone in the morning who lives in Dandora. Now personally I would have said that Dandora was really one of the better areas of Nairobi in which to live. Rents are far from being the cheapest and it is most definitely not a "bad" area of town with minimal violence, thuggery or anything else going down there - even in the post-election skirmishes - but now it seems Dandora is not the place you wish to be calling "home" anymore.

Now it seems that if you live in Dandora, first of all, you'll be lucky if you can find transport at all, as all the matatus (or mini buses) that run around the area into and out of town have been warned off the roads, and those that are operating are charging over 150/- (over US$2) per trip, which when most wanainchi make not much over that in a day is not exactly conducive to bother going to work at all. Then she tells me that all the ladies in the area have been given leaflets telling them what to wear.

It must be a skirt and the length must reach below the knee. Penalty for not following the dress code is a humiliating stripping and public beating.

Last night, SMS's were sent round all over saying that you must leave the city centre by 7.30pm or you shall be killed. Then this morning new SMS's stated that all those who work in the Industrial Area should not go into work.

It's all just fear mongering but hey how much is your life worth, and is it worth ignoring these warnings because by doing so Eric Kiraithe [the police spokesman] says you're doing the right thing ??

The public demands from the Mungiki are that they are mourning the death of the wife of their leader (who is currently inside being entertained at the country's expense), who was shot last week together with her driver, and they believe the police were involved and should be brought to book for it, and that they want some police force group that has been formed to crack down on them all, to be disbanded.

However, the leaflets now circulating on the ground "explaining" this reign of terror go with a slightly different, yet more realistic reasoning, and that is that the "Mungiki" say they have not been paid their "protection" monies from various government ministers for the last few months. They had no part in the general election and therefore gained no rewards from that, and now that the Kikuyus have not taken a majority in the parliament and just to prove how powerful they are, they are going to paralyse operations in Kenya just to show that "all is not normal" just because a cabinet has been named and all is "apparently well".

That said, there is a story in the Standard newspaper today that the Mungiki have ordered members to stop fighting. The call for ceasefire came after Prime Minister Odinga made a public request for the group to stop its protests. Public statements from Mungiki leaders promised to work with Odinga. It's a curious turn of allegiances, since the dominant public perception is that Mungiki is partially aligned with the Kikuyus and the so-called Mt. Kenya Mafia.

But maybe the Mungiki are turning into politicians, shifting allegiances and all. The group has even been holding press conferences over the past week!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"Let them eat cake"

Food has been on my mind a lot lately. Food prices in particular, and food scarcity.

The World Bank, the UN and countless other organizations are attempting to sound the alarm about rising food prices around the globe.

Here in Kenya, the food prices have already risen significantly over the past three months. That inflation is precipitated and exacerbated by domestic politics, climate and many other factors.

An op-ed in Monday's Daily Nation sums it up nicely. Rasna Warah writes:

Food_fears_oped_0408A researcher at the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa has noted that the impact of the food crisis will be felt most acutely in African countries, where there is already a lot of anger in urban areas around issues such as unemployment and lack of basic services, especially among the poor.

Kenyans are not known to protest over food prices - we tend to take to the streets only to voice our support or opposition to a political party or leader, not because we cannot afford to feed ourselves or our families.

But given our fragile political situation, rising inflation (now at more than 20 per cent), high unemployment, an impending drought and a declining economy, it won't be long before people begin to protest in other ways - through crime, looting and violence.

High food prices can thus lead to other forms of social instability and anarchy. The scenario is too horrific to even imagine.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Peeling the onion

There is a resolution, in principle, on the question of how to shape the Kenyan cabinet. Other questions remain about how these leaders will work together to run government. If it's taken them six weeks to agree on the cabinet matter...

Despite the weekend announcement of the cabinet decision, there are disturbances around the country today. We woke this morning to phone calls and SMSs about fighting in Nairobi neighbourhoods. Word on the street is that the fighting is retaliatory violency following the apparent murder of the wife of the Mungiki leader last week.

Mungiki is tough to define. They're a group with many faces: organized crime, religious sect, Kikuyu-led gang, political agitants for hire. The violence in Kenya that followed the December elections has increased the powerbase of Mungiki. The fighting along tribal lines also stimulated the growth of rival gangs who began by promising protection to members of certain tribes.

So although the cabinet question is resolved for now, this morning's violence is a reminder of the multiple layers of Kenyan politics. Here's hoping not every peel of that onion will bring tears.