NAIROBI: SILICON SAVANNAH – AFRICA – BEGINNING 2018
Again my ways lead me to Africa: this time to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. It is neither the migration and refugee issue nor holidays which brings me to Kenya. No, it is a visit to the „Silicon Savannah“. With this expression one describes the „New Africa“, an Africa ( Kenya ) of investment and creativity, the already existing Africa of creating jobs and opportunities. And in this respect indirectly it is also the migration issue which brings me to Africa. Because one of the most important push factors for emigration is the lack of sound economic development. To fight emigration one needs many traditional economic activities from agriculture to handicraft. But Africa needs also to use the new digital instruments and media, including in traditional sectors.
To learn about the new Africa two Austrians, Hans Stoisser and Karin Krobath organized a Learning Journey into the Silicon Savannah in Nairobi: „To most of Europe, Africa still means crises, catastrophes and wars, so we have not recognized that Africa’s businesses are booming. Our Learning Journey to Silicon Savannah will change that.“ And it did.
Migration from Africa
In the last weeks the migration issue was no longer in the head lines and therefore politicians and journalists did not deal much with the situation in Africa. And that in spite of the recent EU – Africa summit end of November 2017. Many European Union and African Union representatives pledged stronger attention to the core issues of forced migration and the dreadful experiences and sufferings of migrants on their way towards European soil. Some actions have been taken. For example Nigeria brought many refugees back from Libya where they have been maltreated. But it seems these inhuman treatments continued and the flow of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea was decreasing but it did not stop. On the other hand European citizens and politician did not increase their readiness to accept migrants – and also refugees -, rather on the contrary.
Coming back to the reason of my/our visit to Nairobi, the most important question concerns the possibility to act in Africa and to reduce the political, economic and social crisis factors which let people despair. Very often they do not see any opportunity to increase their living standards in order to support themselves or their family. As I could realize at the migration seminar which I could co-organize in Kampala/Uganda last year, many young people want to stay in their country or at least in Africa – alas with improved and improving living conditions. (see my report from the Kampala meeting here on my website – hannes-swoboda.at – and the reports on the website of Act.Now)
Some reason for hope
Particularly in three African countries we could see clear political improvements. It is too early to judge if they will be sustainable. But the new presidents in Angola, Zimbabwe and the new leader of the ANC – and hopefully soon president – in South Africa give some hope for advancing these countries. The new Angolan president Joao Lourenco is not just a stooge of the long term ruler of this equally rich and poor country. The new president of Zimbabwe Emerson Mnangagwa has the chance to get rid of his nick name „crocodile“ and bring this poor country – but with a very well educated population – into a cycle of growth and development. And the new ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa can help his country South Africa to overcome the dreadful reign of President Zuma.
All three have a heavy rucksack of their predecessors to carry but they have a chance for a new start. All three of them have been for long time closely connected with the former leaders. So let’s see if they can take the chance to turn around the downward path of their countries. Hopefully they are able to fight the „state capture“ by groups in connection with the leaders like the Gupta brothers in connections with president Zuma of South Africa.
Yes, there are also other countries where vital changes are still waiting to be started like the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Somalia. These countries are still in a very fragile situation – to say the least. And we have countries with a very contradictory situation. Ethiopia has had a very strong economic development but its citizens still wait for democratic reforms and the respect for civil liberties. But one should also look to the improvements which we can see in Ghana and Liberia. So the picture is mixed and it is too early to see a clear upward trend in Africa in general. But the general impression of Africa as a continent of failure and of despair is wrong.
No arrogance in relation to Africa
What in any way is totally unacceptable is the way President Trump calls – some – African countries „shithole countries“. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times: „Despite President Trumps reported call to reject immigrants from „shithole countries“ people of these countries actually have plenty to teach us.“ From free health care and primary education in some countries to the use of mobile money in Kenya we see higher standards than in the US. And one could add multilingualism and economic growth which are at higher levels in many African countries than in the USA.
Of course these comparisons do not make much sense as the conditions are very different in the US – or Europe – and in Africa. But Africa or at least several African countries have designed good development strategies and implemented progressive policies. And several deficiencies – not all of course ! – were and are connected with Western and in the meantime also Chinese activities. The extraction of mineral resources, like diamonds, gold, rubber, copper, platinum, wood, oil and in recent times especially of rare earth is often a destructive factor.
Like with the slave trade, foreign public and private investors are cooperating with local „dignitaries“ in sharing the profits. Very often this is done to the detriment of the local population and the environment. When we speak of clean energy and smart mobility we forget the conditions with which the rare minerals necessary to its production are extracted from African soil. Very often it is not very clean.
A joint heritage?
Africa is in many ways connected with Europe: politically, economically and socially. But also the cultural side should not be forgotten. The growing interest in the cultures of African people in past centuries lead to scientific research and the collection of artifacts in European museums. After recent debates in European cultural circles and a prominent speech of President Macron in Ouagadougou last autumn, the question of ownership of these artifacts became viral.
Certainly some of these objects were acquired in a correct and legal way. But others were clearly stolen or acquired by use of blackmail and force. We have to speak openly about these issues, even if the question of who would and should own these objects today cannot be easily answered. But maybe this issue is an opportunity to find ways of co-ownership and joint presentations of these museum objects in Europe and Africa. The collections of the European museums could be an instrument to deal differently and in a more honest way with our colonial past and our joint heritage.
Contradictory economic development
Africa is a huge continent with a strong diversity. And that includes the economic preconditions and performances. Also the overall rather meager economic growth is giving a wrong picture for individual countries.
If one compares the growth rate in the period 2000 to 2010 with the one from 2010 to 2015, the growth rate in the Northern African, Arab countries was going down from 4,8% to 0%! The turmoil of the „Arab Spring“ and the time after had a very negative effect on the economic development especially on foreign investment.
Also the oil exporting countries had experienced a decline in growth: from 7.3% to 4.0%. In this case a sharp decline in oil prices reduced the revenue and in consequence the economic growth of these countries. As the African „Business Daily“ wrote recently: „Ironically the continent’s resource wealth hampered economic progress, as it fueled conflicts“.
For the rest of Africa we had a small increase of the growth rate from 4% to 4.4%.
So we could conclude that the most stable countries are those who do not depend – at least too much – on resources which are confronted by volatile prices in international markets. Of course under the condition that these countries will do the necessary reforms and implement a sound economic policy. For the moment such stable countries are Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda in the East of Africa but also Senegal and Morocco. But one has to take into account that in the case of a strong rise in the oil price these countries would suffer and the hierarchy of growth performance my change – if the oil producing countries use the revenue of their exports well and avoid the so-called Dutch disease, that means overspending on short term consumption instead of long term infrastructure investment.
Priorities for sound economic policy
Nevertheless all African countries have an enormous task before them. The steep rise in population results in a high number of young people which will have to be educated and employed. Different forecasts come to the conclusion that in the coming years 33 million of secondary school students will have to be offered vocational training in comparison to about 4 million today. And in 2035 Africa will have a bigger labour force than either China or India. A thorough study by McKinsey – which, it is true, does not always give good advice – defines six priorities for a successful African growth strategy:
- mobilizing domestic resources
- diversifying the economy
- accelerating the infrastructure development
- deepening the regional integration
- creating tomorrows talents
- ensuring healthy urbanization.
Concerning the question of urbanization one has to consider that with a high probability in the next ten years 187 million Africans will additionally live in cities – that would be ten new cities like Cairo. This urbanization is not bad as it is connected with higher productivity. But it must be better planned and more socially balanced.
In general, countries of Africa should concentrate more on producing for their home consumption. There could be much more produced in Africa itself and that would also reduce the import burden. McKinsey’s study guesses that 3/4 of future growth could and should come from domestic demand and only the rest from exports into the rest of the world. Especially in respect to labour intensive goods Africa could do more for exports. The opportunity for these exports given by the EU and by the US (with tariff free imports into the US on basis of its African Growth and Opportunity Act) have not been fully exploited.
Africa is a continent of many small and medium size businesses with 8 out of ten Africans working in agriculture. One can rightly say the African is a „born entrepreneur“. Nevertheless the continent would also need more large companies. It has only 400 companies with a revenue extending $ 1 billion per year. On the other hand those large African companies who do exist are growing faster and are more profitable than their peers in the rest of the world. What we need is both some more large profitable companies and a strengthening of innovative smaller enterprises. Investment from the outside would be welcome to support the African development.
At the end of an exciting visit to Nairobi
What can one seriously say after four days of being fed by a lot of information, by listening, asking questions, and by seeing with our own eyes the lively Kenyan capital Nairobi in all its variety? University professors, young start up entrepreneurs and innovators and people living in Africa’s biggest slum were our interlocutors. Ourselves we were a strongly mixed group of entrepreneurs, technology experts, development experts, journalists etc. – it was a very interested, engaged and supportive group which wanted to see behind the curtain of an active business scene in Nairobi.
We are aware that we saw and experienced only a small part of Nairobi, not Kenya, not East Africa, nor Africa as a whole. Nevertheless it was a very comprehensive, diverse and colorful picture we got to see, with many challenges which can be representative for Africa, at least the Eastern part of it. Africa is poverty and deprivation but in the mean time it comprises also many young and engaged talents, who try to build up businesses.
These talents want to jump into the future – often beyond what we realized in Europe. „Not macht erfinderisch“ – necessity produces innovations. And of course new instruments and media, like the smart phone create new possibilities. When there are no fixed lines of communication and of power supply, decentralized – off grid – services are in demand and will be created. When we consider that 70% of the Subsaharan population has no access to power the issue of finding innovative and unconventional access possibilities is a very serious one.
Smart phone as a multi-instrument
The mobile phone is transformed into a multi-use instrument. Besides doing and receiving calls it is used for transferring money by using the telephone accounts for sending and/or receiving money. A real revolution of payments was initiated by the introduction of the M-Pesa. Especially for regions where the next Bank outlet is far away from the potential customer.
But the mobile phone may also offer electricity to a lamp in your hut where there is no connection. Solar energy is used to provide power for individual households or for off grid communities. In both cases new parts of the poorer citizens and citizens in the periphery can be connected to the market and new chances can be realized. And of course different forms of e-learning are offered via smart phones and small tablets. In all cases the supply with power in a more decentralized form is always necessary when there is no – or not yet – connection to a grid. As one executive of the biggest telecommunication company, Safaricom said „We want to change lives“. They define themselves not just as a telecom company but an agent of improving life drastically, especially for the fringe parts of the society.
Politics was creating a good environment
There was not one reason and root for that change in Kenyan economy and society. But certainly one expert who became politician was highly responsible for a turn around of Kenyan development into a digital society: Dr. Bitange Ndemo. He overcame as Permanent Secretary in the Kenyan government many obstacles and convinced the World Bank to finance an undersea fiber-optic cable connection to Kenya and he used it to create a basic power and communication network inside Kenya. And he initiated a digital revolution. Of course he had to promote the collection and use of data in order to benefit from the use of the new media like the smart phone. The privacy of data use is also in Kenya seen as a problem. But in view of the enormous challenge of fighting poverty and promote health and education services the advantages of a widespread use of data to bring electricity, health and education to the citizens are overwhelming.
This courageous part-time politician with his intellectual background gave many young forward looking citizens courage to try new ways of doing business. Maybe not everybody had a social purpose in mind, but to go into the digital world de facto revolutionized not only technologies but also society: the involvement of people left aside and with very little connection to the urban middle class. It was initiating a social revolution.
The necessity of infrastructure – here comes China
The extension of off-grid services does not mean that Kenya – or other African countries – do not need a more extended infrastructure. But it will take time and the people just cannot wait until an access point arrives in front of their homes or their small shops. The country who did understand the necessity of infrastructure investment was China. This country was very clever in building especially roads and rail. Of course it is also in China’s interest to have good access to primary resources and to ports. But as it is always underlined by Africans and Chinese alike: it must be a win-win situation and both sides must realize an economic gain.
China is also exporting very cheap goods, which could much better be produced in Kenya itself. Even if they do it increasingly via Kenyan – women – importers, these cheap imports often prevent the start of production in Kenya itself. It is true, some of the more sophisticated goods are already produced in Kenya by Chinese affiliates – still mostly under Chinese management. Again many our Kenyan interlocutors saw some positive trends for strengthening Kenyan influence on Chinese investment and stressed the win-win situation.
China is also bringing the Chinese language and Chinese „culture“ to Africa. We could see that at the Confucius Institute which was established at the Nairobi university. And a new Confucius center for whole Africa is already in construction adjacent to the university campus. China built also the big tower on the university campus they are situated in. The old and architectural interesting building of Nairobi university on the other hand was a gift by India – but nowadays China is internationally much more active. China is a very clever power, extending its economic and in the long run also cultural and political influence.
Of course also the US are active in Kenya but today weakened by the disinterest and derogatory language of President Trump. And Europe? This is the big question mark that hanged over our discussions. And often we were asked also by the Kenyan speakers: where is Europe, why is it not engaging more in Africa? But they wanted a Europe which is not putting preconditions for their engagement from human rights to sexual freedoms. This should not be their business: „We in Africa, especially in East Africa and here again in Kenya, we want to do business, we want to have a win-win relation with Europe – as with China“ said for example the Dean of the Strathmore Business School.
Certainly Europe must rethink its relation to Africa. The traditional development aid even if we call it development cooperation should be changed and transformed into a long term comprehensive strategy. Humanitarian aid must be given and obviously that should be done without „moral“ preconditions. Then we should engage in education and here of course certain „values“ and principles must be promoted – but again not as precondition but as influencing all forms of education and training including vocational training, economic and political management courses. And then we should promote fair and mutual economic relations where both sides can profit from. Many Africans are ready for such an open and mutually beneficial strategy. At least Kenya and its young entrepreneurial population is keen to extend its contact with European counterparts. The colonial past is today for the many young entrepreneurial Africans no obstacle for doing fair business with Europeans. And we should help them to realize their ideas and dreams.
East African specialities?
I am deeply convinced that also Europeans can learn from Africa. Kenya is trying to implement a model of capitalism that is not in contradiction to the social orientation of its traditional society. I do not want to minimize the conflicts any society has in its transformation from a traditional, agrarian society to a modern, capitalist one. But especially in Kenya there is at least some intention to bring capitalism and traditional social attitudes into a common framework.
Many of our counterparts and interlocutors saw in this double orientation a big advantage vis-a-vis the countries of West Africa. In addition they argued that the French orientation of many West African states and citizens gives them not enough orientation on their own capacities and identification with their home countries. This brings many West Africans to try to leave their country and to reach their „mother land“ – France – at least to reach European soil. East Africans are rather keen to stay in their country and develop economic activities without thinking about migration. I cannot evaluate that conclusion but there may be some truth in it. Anyway the Kenyans (East Africans ?) are quite proud of their their country and of their own entrepreneurial attitude. And they could and should transfer some of their attitudes towards the West of Africa.
A life in the slums
This entrepreneurial orientation of Kenyans helps certainly to survive in often very horrible conditions in the Nairobi slums especially in Kibera. The extreme dirt due to garbage between the huts and the small and simple huts as such do not prevent many of its citizens to show humor and to develop business activities. One woman we met is getting up daily at four in the morning in order to go to the butcher and get some meat/bones to prepare 4 liters of soup which she is selling during the day. She sells it for hundred Shillings (one Dollar) at a small place near her hut. She uses her mobile phone to receive orders from customers and also to lighten the only bulb in her home as it is not yet connected to a grid. (Therefore we saw throughout the Kibera slum many posters promoting e-payment systems.)
So people do try develop jobs for „better“ life – also in extremely poverty stricken areas. We saw also a small place where under environmentally unacceptable conditions some people transform animal bones into small tourist souvenirs. Many of these activities are initiated by a small group of young experts from outside the slum. They also try to introduce some of the younger slum inhabitants into the digital world, especially to teach them how to use the digital instruments for a job. Of course this a small support, but at least it gives some clever and industrious people the chance for a more qualified job. What can also be seen is that many children go to primary school. One can hope that later they will also attend some sort of secondary school. Let’s hope that slowly things move upward.
What is not feasible is to eradicate this and other slums. But it will be necessary to improve the existing living conditions by bringing – clean – water nearer to the homes. And the same is true for the sewage systems. To establish some community toilets which people can use by paying is certainly not enough. Decentralized power supply and if possible connection to a power grid would also be necessary. This would give children the possibility to learn also when it is dark and help them to reach a higher qualification. Education is the basis of personal advancement and that is especially true for girls. The more girls are educated the more they are looking for a job and will overcome the restriction of being reduced to family obligations.
Another part of the society which lives very often at the fringe of the society instead of in the center – as it should be – is the rural population. In Africa in general 8 out 10 people live from agricultural activities. It is strange that Africa sees many agricultural goods being imported. Yes, the growing population needs an increased supply of food. But there is a vast amount of unused arable land on the African continent. Certainly not all land can and should be used for agriculture, but many areas can and should be used economically. Often these areas need irrigation, but that can be installed. Some of the water could also be won by desalination of sea-water. Solar power could be used to implement such desalination. Of course the ownership question concerning the land to be used is still a delicate one. But also that can be solved.
In addition the existing farmers need to be given more attention. Here again off grid power supply could help for taking useful steps of mechanization. One should not think about big agro-businesses but also small farmers could increase productivity and earnings by mechanization. Furthermore Africa needs to give its food products some additional value by building up a viable food industry. Most of the processed foods should not have to be imported but should be produced in Africa itself. Thus new jobs could be created for the rising number of young people.
Education with its emancipatory potential depends also very much from state policies. Certainly in Kenya you find good intentions but politics overall is rather dominated by party political and/or tribal rivalries. Already at the beginning of the independent Kenya we find a contest between the „father“ of independence Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga. The one was the first President the other Vice-President. Now the “young” – Uhuru – Kenyatta and the „young“ – Rail – Odinga are still at loggerheads with each other. Rail Odinga contested the presidential election last October. To many surprises the Supreme Court confirmed his complaints and the elections had to be repeated. In the meantime the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta changed some vital election laws and the conditions to appeal. That was the reason Odinga withdrew from the election and saw the installation of Uhuru as illegal.
During our stay Rail Odinga organized a swearing in ceremony in one of the city’s park as „the people’s president“. This made the government nervous, but fortunately three were no clashes with the security forces. What was widely criticized was the shut down of „opposition“ TV channels. Speaking with many of our interlocutors they were all fed up with these quarrels and the comedy of a rival swearing in. But in the poorer part of the city especially in Kibera Odinga still has his supporters.
Nevertheless it is time for looking to the real problems of Kenyan society. Politics must enhance all activities which will bring more and more people into the economy. They must fight corruption and give young people a chance to change their own but also the life of their compatriots. As the newest edition of the magazine „Africa Report“ expressed it: „Winner-takes-all“ politics blocks development. And no African country can allow its development to be stopped.
One vital element of change will be the strengthening of women’s role. In many of our meetings, women did play the major role. We were all impressed by these mostly young women with a clear perspective and the engagement for improving their own lives but also that of the country. They were well educated and used their education well. They underlined the role of education not only for individual emancipation but also for fighting early marriage and child birth. These energetic women represent the best of Africa. They give hope and promote confidence. They do not need European protection or guidance but they need economic partners and interlocutors who respect them.