All for a cup of coffee

Michael Onsando
21 May ,2019

‘ This is because the decision making process is not guided by research or even stable projections, rather they are made to serve the egos and needs of the people who hold public resource either creating a conduit for siphoning or to fulfil an impossible promise so no one “looks stupid.”’

Considering the Public in Policy

The problem with continually writing about systemic problems is you get to see the same problem unravel itself in many different ways. You notice pervasive errors in thinking and how those errors permeate. Eventually you begin to question whether there is logic to these errors. 

On that front, perhaps one of the biggest failings of the jubilee government has been great sounding Africanisms. And by Africanisms I mean falling back on “decolonize” ideas that sound great without any real grounding in ability and possibility. One such concept was laptops for schools – it would be great if every student had a tablet but how, which, why, when and so forth were left to the gods. And the gods had other things to do.

Another such project, it seems is the Crop Ammendment Bill 2019, sponsored by Gatundu MP Moses Kuria. The bill proposes that all coffee grown in Kenya undergo processing, production and packaging locally. According to a source at the Business Daily:

‘ “Buyers are refusing to sign orders for clean (American green) coffee as they do not know what will happen in the future, with fears that they are likely to lose out on their orders,” said an official at NCE who sought anonymity so as to speak freely. ‘

Alarm over barring raw coffee export

Here’s the thing about Kenyan Coffee – it’s expensive. The Arabica that is predominant here is very pure(not sure pure is the coffee term, but sources spoken to within the industry spoke to a high grade level) which means that, in most markets it is blended with other coffees to create whatever then goes into the Starbucks cups.

Anyway, expensive is good yes? More money! Why give the money to others when we can make it directly? Buy Kenya sell Kenya – and other great sounding Africanisms.

Well, in 2016, Nyeri based Gikanda Coffee pursued these Africanisms and bought 30 bags of clean coffee to be processed and packaged for sale locally. A 50KG bag cost the cooperative KES 18,000 making the total investment worth about half a million shillings (before processing, packaging or marketing). As of August 2018 500KG (of 1.5 tonnes) had expired in their stores.

What happened? Take this from the Nation:

“According to the society’s chairman John Ngure, the lack of a market and strategies to earn from their produce led to the expiry of the coffee that has been stashed in 10 cartons in their stores.

“We also did not have a marketing strategy that would promote the consumption of our coffee,” he said, adding that the society suffered a loss of more than KES700,000.”

Don’t get me wrong. There is definitely a need to “seize the means of production” in a Marxist way and bring the power closer to the labour to ensure the farmers get more value for their crops. That being said the words of the chairman of this society continue to ring true. To go half cocked into a battle will always get us the same results. Had no one told the Gikanda coffee experts that it takes muscle to break into a market? That consumers are buying brands they trust and a new brand needs strong run time to gain the foothold it needs to hold steady?

Following this failure what is the driving force behind bwana Kuria’s ideas? Well the problem he is responding to is real. With six factories already closed down to “reduce operational costs,” farmers threatening to sell raw materials straight to a dutch company and the steady decline of coffee production over the last 20 years there is a need to rehabilitate the coffee industry. And so the pressure behind the bill makes sense.

We need to do something.

But this doesn’t mean just do anything. As the Gikanda coffee society learned, market penetration and brand building takes time and capital. What’s more because the local coffee needs to be blended to create the blends that other markets are used to local production would also involve importation of different coffee to process – do we have the capacity? Do we have a go to market plan? Do we know where the coffee will be sold and for how much? Or are we spewing and pursuing great sounding Africanisms without doing the legwork necessary, leaving our farmers even more vulnerable in the name of progress?

Semenya, Imali and women who run

Michael Onsando
14 May ,2019


“Two Kenyan sprinters have been dropped from the team for the IAAF World Relays championship in Japan this week, after blood tests showed high levels of testosterone, Athletics Kenya said Friday…  “We could not risk travelling with the two athletes after the recent IAAF ruling on the restriction of testosterone levels on female runners took effect on May 8,” Athletics Kenya (AK) director of competitions Paul Mutwii told AFP.”

In 2009 Caster Semenya won the world 800m gold in Berlin in 1 minute and 55.45 seconds and ever since the IAAF has been pondering a question that gender studies has been grappling with for a while – where does gender begin? Where does it end? Let’s get a few things out of the way before we begin. First of all it is oddly suspect that these questions are particularly raised with respect to black women though the muscly Jarmila Kratochvílová (to name but one) wasn’t tested in her time. Also, remember all the people saying Serena Williams is basically a man?

But that this is a specific and direct attack on black women isn’t necessarily what I want to focus on. I’m not even particularly interested in the fact that while South Africa stood with their champion we’re busy “not risking the travel.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that sport was where the gender debate would occur. For categories to exist there must be clear cut boundaries. This ends here, this begins here. Before we saw gender as fluid we were really depending on genitals to tell us who sits where. The only people who have known, for a long time, the fluidity of gender are the LGBTQI community. People who have never really felt comfortable in their category – choosing to identify as differently placed along the gender spectrum. This phrase “identify as” has been turned into a weapon of the right wing conservatives to trivialize identity politics as a feeling – an imposition. It has been used to reduce the entire movement down to people who are either childish or out to manipulate a situation to their advantage.

“For the first time, I encountered the vast literature written by advocates of women’s sport who oppose the exclusion of women athletes with naturally high testosterone for both scientific and ethical reasons: scientifically, because biological sex and athletic ability are both far too complex for scientists to reduce to measures of testosterone, and ethically, because these regulatory efforts have always been characterised by considerable harm to the women athletes singled out for testing.”

Which is why the positions are all out of wonk in this situation. We have, overwhelmingly, conservative people coming out in support of the judgement showing this as a victory for women’s sport (despite several sportswomen coming out against it). Meanwhile the liberal position seems to be “let her race!”

I’m not going to claim to know enough about the science of sex to understand how many testosterones it takes to make a man. And I’m not trying to conflate gender and sex rather I am trying to dance in the space where they are interlinked. How would we react to any of these athletes if they identified as male and perhaps made different decisions around their “difference?” We don’t know. Are there male athletes that will now be asked to compete with women cos of their competitive disadvantage in men’s sports? Are trans, gender inclusive Olympics about to become a thing?

“I am so happy the way God made me to be.”

  • Maximillia Imali, 400M record holder – dropped from squad

“…Cas(The Court of Arbitration for Sport) urged the IAAF to create a procedure where athletes should not be excluded as a ‘consequence of the natural and unaltered state of their body’”

I know the answer here is more complicated than ‘stick the outties in one place and the innies in another.” So I am not trying to prescribe solutions. The discussion on gender and sex is long and complicated yet also new to the public front. A lot of people are struggling with how to handle the new information, where to place it in their memory categories and how to properly pronoun people. What I hope, besides that Kenya could stand behind it’s athletes, is that maybe this opens up the conversation a step further – beyond Ze labeled bathrooms.

Getting Devolution Right

Michael Onsando
30 April ,2019

If there was ever a silver bullet that was supposed to save Kenya from wallowing in whatever the news decides we will wallow in every week it is devolution. Having suffered under the thumb of extreme centralization of resources (one big pot to steal from) we hoped that devolution would ensure two things. First, it would spread the resources and opportunities – reducing the incentive for rural to urban migration. Second, it would bring accountability closer to the people, effectively giving them a voice in a situation where they didn’t have much say as to how their money is used.

I’m not going to go into whether or not devolution is working – it’s been about over a decade of the stuff and it was brought in to solve problems that have been entrenched for over 50 years at least. Take rural to urban migration it’s hard to know what the numbers are. We would know if the government had focused their energies on a general census (like they are SUPPOSED TO this year) instead of the hudumizer number. However, according to this report  from the British Council, we know that the youth continue her around urban centres with Nairobi and Mombasa alone accounting for over 45% of the total youth population. As to accountability 25 of 47 governors were sent home after the 2017/2018 elections and a whopping 179 of 290 MP’s lost their job in the same election. So, even if only psychological, it is clear that there has been some impact on the space (something that Uhuruto have continued to shout about  – how well everything is going).

Of course it was a chicken and egg situation as many people who argued against devolution said. Imposing this idea on our current political patronage system would only lead to more of the same. Take this report from the international crisis group:

Patronage politics that marked the former centralised system has been replicated in the new counties, making government even more inefficient and expensive. Though political leadership is now local, power is closely held, and leaders are suspicious of both national and local rivals. Certain regions, communities and many youth still feel marginalised. Political devolution has deflected but not resolved grievances that fuel militancy, which continues to be met by hard security measures driven from Nairobi. Greater inclusion and cooperation within and between county governments, as well as national-county dialogue, is needed to maximise devolution’s potential and ensure militant groups, like Al-Shabaab, have fewer grievances to exploit.

Contrary to popular belief not all ideas are good. Knowing this it is easy to understand why the control of resources that exist for the public good is limited to a select few individuals who (hopefully) are qualified by experience or (preferably) some form of institution in the art of understanding and balancing. The system of political patronage does not allow for this to happen. Rather it rushes people through systems that can give them “indicators of qualification” that they may pass the bare minimum required to appease the public. Once they pass the minimum the assumption is a good PR effort will allow their status as “close to resources” to elevate them to the office they need (who needs to know if you actually know anything). And so power continues to be handed down almost monarchically.  It is these little monarchies that that begin the organization that becomes the larger power replay that is the Kenyan government. Understanding the existence of these little monarchies allows us to understand how billions end up going missing. Like an accountant dealing with thousands of offices you realize just how much money the company looses due to pens being stolen (or how airlines charge for trivial things to keep costs down).

This is why the silver bullet that is devolution was supposed to be so powerful. It was supposed to wrestle the power away from these little monarchies rather than further establish them. It was supposed to allow the people to reject patronage. And, while it might still be too early to tell, it seems like a good time to ask the question – is there any environmental labour is being done to ensure that devolution survives? Or are we waiting for it to create a hybrid monster that we cannot stop?

Huduma kwa Wengine

Michael Onsando
23 April ,2019


It’s as if Raila’s endorsement of the Huduma number as loudly as it has happened has put the final nail in the coffin as to whether he is trustworthy. Say what you will about it, but the handshake has changed (or perhaps just cast a different light) on the politic in Kenya. With the leader of the opposition working closely with the president (look, politics across the divide!) and Ruto being shunned to the side, where he continues to complain about uprooted railways.

It has somehow made apparent what we always knew – when threatened, the elite will gather together in protection of themselves, putting their battles aside. There, however, is a problem here:

And it’s not that hard a story to sell. Kenyatta the first’s government systematically grabbed and redistributed resources amidst the political elite. Every government that has come after has participated, to some degree at least, in this tradition of creating wealth for the elite. And this wealth never translates into proper economic growth because it is not created with a plan or structure but rather through pilfering public funds and redirecting public resources.

I’m not even going to go into why I am not boarding this Huduma number initiative, Ndii says several things about it here and Rasna says some other things here – I agree with most of the things said. But, like any good speculatist, I take note of DP Ruto’s skipping the launch (yes, I know he had reasons).

*

Politics has always been a game of resources. Especially in a democratic society where one must win by the popular vote. Here, a situation is created where the populace must know about you. This involves a large amount of campaigning, roadtripping, billboarding, palm greasing and speech giving. If you come from money it is easy to see it as a business opportunity to expand what you already have. Ndii from the same place:

“During Uhuru Kenyatta’s first term the consumer price of milk increased 67 percent (from KES 36 to KES 60 per half-litre packet), while producer prices remained unchanged at KES 35 per litre), effectively increasing processors’ gross margin by 130 percent (from KES 37 to KES 85 per litre). Given the industry’s 400m litre annual throughput and Kenyatta family’s market share, which stands at 45 percent, the consumer squeeze translates to an increase of the Kenyatta Family’s turnover from KES 13 billion to KES 22 billion, and gross margin from KES 6.7 billion to KES 15 billion a year.”

All it takes is a policy change here, a government contract there and voila! You have almost doubled your annual turnover. Good businessmen know this – hence why they put together money and “install” presidents or whichever politician they can afford (here’s another app that the silicon savana guys should put together, like Uber but for politicians for hire). But when you play the game without the resources to back yourself you might get burned – something Arap Sang almost learned the hard way at the international criminal court.

Because politics is a game of resources, having them puts one on the front foot from the beginning. Not only can they maneuver better but they are also in a position to frustrate their opponent’s efforts. But this also means that they can see when someone is coming for them, because the movement of resources is not something that is easily hidden. Especially not the kind of resource you need to run a challenge for the presidency against a (generations old) tradition.

For someone who was born too late to participate in the first pilfering of the nation that established a political elite the question becomes complicated from here on out.

How do you gather the resources necessary to put up an effective campaign against the establishment? One could go the Boniface Mwangi way, writing several proposals to NGO’s and people of goodwill as well as raising number through a paybill(warning, this might jade you real quick). One could(just as easily) go the Ruto way and try and loot as much as you can so as to be at par(warning, this might alienate you from the people you claim to be fighting for).

Whatever route you choose the establishment will try to quell you at some point. They might even adopt you for a while to co-opt your audience but eventually they will spit you out – or at least try to.

Maybe it is this pattern that has given the current government some of the audacity that they have. Knowing that they can deal with most threats effectively they continue to come up with more audacious ways to use the Kenyan people to further themselves, more loopholes that can ensure that they continue to amass wealth at a rate that keeps them further ahead in the political race, populating the parliament as they please, shuffling and re-shuffling who stands where to keep the populace confused. So maybe dreaming of a reversal might be a dream too far. But maybe we can start by simply saying no – at least I plan to, for as long as I can.

#ResistHudumaNamba

Debt, Opportunity Cost or Money Lost?

Michael Onsando
16 April ,2019

By this point in time the younger generations of African nations must have made peace with the massive debt burden that we will be inheriting when it is finally our turn to take the wheel. Take this paragraph from the conversation for example:

Many of these Eurobonds will mature between 2021 and 2025. It will require these sub-Saharan African countries to repay an average of just under $4 billion annually in that period. But they are already currently bleeding a rising total of just over $1.5 billion in annual coupon payments on these Eurobonds. This represents a total of an additional $15 billion across the term of the Eurobonds. The total accumulated bonds are in excess of $24 billion. The principle amount of this is $35 billion.

35 billion is intense right? Well, here’s the clincher – that was in 2016. Kenya currently is considering another Eurobond for about $2.55 billion despite not receiving a vote of confidence from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Without out a programme from the IMF we are unlikely to secure investor confidence which means, you guessed it, this is expensive debt (we’re basically borrowing from Tala to pay Branch now).

Why would the IMF refuse to give the trade the nod? Well turns out we failed to meet the requirements needed to keep the programme we had. Requirements such as repealing the interest rate capping law. You know, the kinds of laws that these things were written about:

“Despite good intentions, interest rate ceilings have actually hurt low-income populations by limiting their access to finance and reducing price transparency.”


So, basically, laws that might not even be protecting the people that they claim to be taking care of.

But the point of this essay is not to go on about bad debt (or even good debt) and how much of it that we have. Instead it is to engage with the concept. Having themselves inherited a country that was focused on robbing itself clean rather than development, our leaders find themselves with a window of opportunity (which could be closing), as there is a paradigm shift in power. The west is not completely consolidated in its will (and that’s putting it in the most delicate terms possible) and China is rising faster using capitalism – the tool of the west themselves – against the world. Somehow, the Africas have become the battlefield on which this war plays out. Whether it is our “burgeoning middle class” or our largely youthful population it is increasingly important to have Africa on your side.

This also comes at a time when African markets are working through their distrust of local brands. Increasingly it is important for big brands not only to have their logo on some shops in major cities but also to demonstrate presence in tangible ways (beyond bare minimum legal stipulations). More local brands are holding their “localness” in high esteem and foreign brands trying to look as local as they can without having to lie outright. Simple examples of this are the current transition of Barclays to Absa or AoN changing to Minet Group Africa to make their brands more comfortable to local audiences. Jumia, on the otherhand, is being taken to the cleaners on twitter over claiming Africanness despite being registered in Germany and doing most of its white collar heavily lifting out of Portugal.

And, given the winds of the global politic, it is only likely that this trend is set to rise as consumers continue to make the link between local shareholding and wealth redistribution.

So perhaps it is this opportunity that African governments seem to be in a hurry to take advantage of. Amidst this chaos is the perfect time to call for an increment of investment in the region by both local and foreign investors. Indeed we have seen a lot of work to encourage investment with business set up costs going down and the ease and processes being cut to the point that one can basically start up a business on their own. However, we also have to deal with increased taxes and licenses such as excise duty on bank withdrawals and the cost of bringing equipment into the country – which was supposed to be solved by the SGR, a story on procurement and ideas that deserves (and has received) several essays of its own.

And this isn’t even the biggest problem facing manufacturing in the country. Take this from the star:

While the cost of energy in Kenya has been the subject of debate time and again, efforts targeted at lowering the cost of energy have had minimal impact on the overall cost of energy. However, with the modernisation of Kenya’s energy legislative framework, through the Energy Act 2019 and Petroleum Act 2019, it is expected that the cost of energy will subsequently decline, signifying a reduction in the cost of production and ultimately an increase in Kenya’s international competitiveness.

Policy measures to support the manufacturing sector

In Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking-Glass Alice (from wonderland) comes across the Red Queen, the interaction goes as follows:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Perhaps it is because they too inherited a country that was unprepared for the opportunity that lay ahead and, in a rush to meet the deadline, they have been forced to overleverage themselves, leaving us in a very vulnerable position. Or maybe it’s just bad management. Whatever the reason is, the rate at which debt is growing in relation to the amount we produce has set us up with the red queen’s race and it seems that we might have to run as hard as we can just to ensure that we don’t collapse under the weight of a burden in whose size we had no say.

Thank god we’re also a generation fascinated by running shoes.

Invisible to everything but blame

Michael Onsando
9 April ,2019

Perhaps the most critical question to the establishment of a capitalist system is the idea of the individual. In order for capitalism to exist the individual must not only exist but be a “productive member of society” contributing in whichever way to the distribution of resources and the gross domestic product. With this came the ideas of weighting and quantifying these contributions and deciding that this has further value than the other. And, of course, keeping the “high value” labour for the individuals that are held in “high esteem” or considered “better than” other members of society. In this way capitalism continues to reward those who have the capital/knowledge to exploit the system while consistently taking away/erasing the labour of those who are structurally held back. What’s more it continues to undervalue/devalue any labour that will not show immediate returns in terms of profit.

Anne Moraa writes:

Erasure makes us forget the Kenyan women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi, a woman revered by him not just as a fighter but as a strategist and thinker (…) It erases the fact that we have not found true freedom.

Unseen and unremarkable: The Invisibility of Women’s Labour

And we don’t need to go that far to understand the implications of erasure. Feminist politics has done a vast (very vast) amount of labour in touching and exposing forms of invisible labour and how the invisibling of this labour perpetuates age-old myths of value and roles. And of course with these myths of value told through a capitalist mind frame comes ideas of “laziness”  and “disposableness.” It’s not a large leap from “disposable” to “burdensome” – and who wants to carry around a burden with them? The individual, in a capitalist society, is free to use their capital as they deem fit. The capital, after all, has been earned and is a true reflection of the value of their labour (as has been pre-ordained by a capitalist patriarchal society).

A cycle of oppression that has continued to redefine the boundaries of what it is to produce value and has left us all pursuing the fast paced big deal life that is reserved for the people who hold capital, the so called “creators of employment.” This life, we imagine, is “better.” (Not going into this because who knows what better even means? But we all know that wealth gives you more access to things, which are generally nice). Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder of The Walt Disney Company, says this about starting from money:

I could be a billionaire if I wanted to be a billionaire, and I’m not because I don’t want to be a billionaire. That’s an insane amount of money. But it’s the easiest thing in the world to make money if you start with money. And then people give themselves credit for being that smart when they’re not.

And, of course, when a person in the right suit tells us how to make money we are likely to believe them – don’t they have money? Surely they know a thing or two – this is how network marketing is still a thing, or how we were caught by the quail egg bug. And, just like any network marketing * cough* pyramid * cough* scheme by the time we know it we are left holding a batch of useless information, a lot of debt and wasted time, as the individual collects their profits from the activity and walks away to be interviewed by whoever or the other financial empowerment magazine/blog.

“We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad leadership. We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad policies. Those of us who have managed to entrepreneur ourselves out of it are living in a very false security in Africa. There is growth in Africa, but Africans are not growing. And we have to questions why is there this big push for us to innovate ourselves around problems that our leaders, our taxes, our policymakers, ourselves, to be quite frankly, should be grappling with.”

This individualized thinking does a lot of work in moving and shifting the narrative away from the problems that do not fall squarely on the individual’s shoulders. It creates a situation where the individual is solely responsible for their rise and fall. And, in this environment, hunger goes up a notch. With the knowledge that we must find a way to pay for our own medical insurance, a premium for good education, naviagate overpriced, unstructured transport systems and more we leave the house with a weight, a burden on our shoulders every day. And (whatever kind of) capitalism (we have) demands that this weight is our own. And indeed it is, because the human next to you bears an equal if not greater weight.

This, in turn leaves citizens in a situation where whatever resources they can access are far thinner than whatever demands are placed upon them, creating a desperation in that hunger. It is in this desperation that we are left vulnerable to predatory loan products like those created by Tala and Branch (what even are those interest rates?) while consistently praising them for, at least, creating access to credit.

This backwards way of placing responsibility steers us way from the individuals that are actually culpable for happenings in society and turns it back on the citizen. Gathara writes:

Instead of blaming individuals for fomenting chaos, we have chosen to see entire communities as culpable. We accepted the “official truth” that we were all responsible for the 2007 tragedy, that we were all potentially murderous. In doing so, we have generated a climate of fear and hatred wherein every dispute is seen as an existential threat. Since every neighbour is a potential machete-wielding psycopath in disguise, every action and utterance is the potential spark for mindless, all-consuming violence. This is the genesis of our mutual terror of one another, the consequent quashing of dissent, and the loud and incessant calls for a peaceful silence.  

“But if he’s scared of me, how can we be free?”

Gambino, Boogieman

This idea that there’s a certain level of productivity we must achieve to “deserve” certain things is a dangerous and dehumanizing one that steers the conversation away from the one we need to be having. Which is – when will our government provide actual safety nets? Or are we to continue by exploited by state capture and self-benefiting policies while we continue to see each other as the enemy?

How Long will Africa be Rising?

Michael Onsando
26 March ,2019

It’s always been imperative – perhaps even fundamental – to the western neoliberal narrative that Africa is rising.  This, of course is something we know. The developmental complex has, for years, been reliant on this image of a “rising” Africa to push reports full of words like “sustainability,” “effective,”  “emerging” and “give us funding.”

The narrative itself is obviously complex. It cannot be erased because it is grounded in some truths such as the expanding middle class and high growth rates on the continent vis-à-vis other continents (and not even talking about the potential for growth with large underdeveloped areas).   So let’s talk about Kenya instead.

A recent budget forecast shows the country will continue to import China’s fish for at least three years. The 2019 budget policy statement, the basis of the national budget, pegs local fish production at 180,000 tonnes a year. That’s against Kenya’s “requirement of 500,000 tonnes.” But “the government is working towards producing more fish”, the national treasury said in the February 2019 document.  

But many times it feels like we stubbornly place ourselves in this space of hatuna uwezo and insist that it is the case, falling on more expensive less forward thinking solutions to plug temporary stopgaps. Then, after tiring ourselves out by pursuing temporary solutions, we turn around exhausted and throw our hands in frustration delivering “stern talk” rather than results.

“ “People don’t want to buy Chinese fish because they don’t trust the [farmed] production process, but we don’t have much of a choice,” says Mechak, standing next to a big wicker basket of whole Chinese tilapia fish.

The trampled cardboard boxes used to ship the frozen fish 8,000 km (5,000 miles) are stashed away in a corner, and the fish itself is more than two years old.

It will expire in less than a month, according to the dates on the boxes.”

Chinese imports “driving fishermen to despair”

The country needs about 500,000 tones of fish per year – only 140,000 tonnes of which can be provided by local farmers. So the fish import question (like all other import questions) becomes complicated. Do we develop local capacity to fulfill demand or do we allow this fish in at risk of killing the local market?

But the question doesn’t seem to have been considered. And when considered it seems more to be a response to “Chinese imports” as a threat rather than a proactive “where we finna find this fish we need folks?” Consider this lead paragraph from Business Daily:

“Kenya is investing Sh14 billion in the fisheries sector under a new programme to bridge the deficit created by the controversial ban on China fish imports.

The aquaculture business development programme, a partnership between the government and The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), is aimed at addressing the scarcity of fish in the country.

This comes barely a month after President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that fish imports from China will be banned.

“We are implementing a new fisheries model aimed at addressing the current challenge that the country has faced over years,” said Sammy Macharia, assistant director of Fisheries.”

Sh14bn spend to bridge Chinese fish imports ban

Reactionary decision-making has been the way in this country ever since William Omamo heard of his sacking on the radio as he drove to Nairobi from Bondo. But reactionary decision-making is just a symptom of the pre-occupation of the people in power with things other than their job:

“Within this framing our decisions seems sporadic and reactionary at best, leaving us assuming that we must be working with idiots. However, if we begin to see the space as what it is  evidenced as, a whole other picture begins to show itself. As a gathering of a few powerful people who hold and control the spaces resources (mainly to their own benefit) Kenya makes a lot of sense. Whether it is from large populist projects to create a space for the siphoning of public funds to (allegedly) insisting that Kenya Airways takes over KAA to ensure that the 4 billion in debt owed to CBA (which you own) is paid.”

Considering the public in policy

Anyway, according to WITS (World Integrated Trade Solution) Kenya is one of the countries with the largest negative trade balances in the region only out-imported by Ethiopia – which is a problem given that we are also one of the largest economies in the region.

This isn’t a simple “buy Kenya, build Kenya conversation, rather it is a question. Is it about time we dug ourselves out of this “rising” narrative? Or are we comfortable to be the perpetual little brother in the world – a market for dysfunctional, discarded products and short-term sustainable, emerging and effective developmental aid?

Then again, maybe Akothee will save us.

Cheza na Nare

Michael Onsando
12 March ,2019

“New position, new position, new position every time I come in…”

There’s something about this song by Ethic Entertainment that encapsulates everything I like about urban nairobi music. The group – Reckless, Swat, Zilla and Seska – rose to fame with lamba lolo, a term that spread almost as fast as their music. Maybe it’s the simple rhythm on the synthetic instruments or the kapuka style drums genre but it’s impossible to listen to this song without at least bopping your head – and maybe even be tempted to ape the odi dance that you saw once in that video that time.

“Hizo miaka zote nimekuwa missing lakini iko kitu hamjaniambia/

Kaa ningebaki bado ungekuwa na taki ya kuskia nikiwaimbia/

Ama by saa hii mngekuwa mnanifanya vile mnafanya ma pioneer (…)

It’s not that serious rap ni hobby/

Bila mziki bado namanga/

Ingekuwa career si ningekuwa nalia kuskia ati Naija Night Nairobi!”

The story of our ability to celebrate that which is not ours has been told so many times that it rings hollow. It is also the story that makes invisible the people behind 3 million views cheza na nare gathered online. Still the story of music is often a story of elsewhere. Experienced and loved elsewhere before home catches up.

“nobody is going to pay you $100,000 in Nigeria to do a show, or even $60k to come and jump on stage for a set. But you can easily get that money by walking into Kenya or walking into Gambia.”

In this quote, for example, Kenya is the elsewhere that Mr Eazi has created for himself while home – Nigeria- still struggles with the concept of paying the man what he believes he should make. These are commons struggles that artists meet as they grow in their career. In the same way our largest artists have worked hard to create and craft with nuances that leave space for international sales between lines. We, in the same way, fit well into the space created by artists from elsewhere – hence why we would pay substantially more for Mr Eazi than for Fena.

 “The size of the global market for creative goods has expanded substantially, more than doubling in size from $208 billion in 2002 to $509 billion in 2015, data by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) shows (…) But even with the potential of the creatives industry, Kenya and other developing countries are yet to tap into this lucrative global market.”

We see it in all the statistics – the “global” market is imperative to artisanal success. Which is why when I hear “na tuko tu pacho, kwani boss iko nini?” I am reminded of the choices that we make when we decide to identify ourselves as who we are – and what this means for our perceived value, not just as artists. And I see a choice made to insist on the existence of a “we.” An us who gather around the fires of pacho and calif. Creating a space where we are centered, contexualised and (mis)understood. It is also a belief in our ability to lift ourselves – to satisfy our own ambitions. “I trust that I can make music – and they will pay for it” despite all the insistence on “global” facing work – this music is designed to face one direction only – inwards, unapologetically.

“Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen”

And that we continue to remember that we exist is important. That we center ourselves whoever “we” wholly are is important because that is the fire that keeps us going. So, today, I want to tip my hat to all our musicians who consistently hold up a mirror and remind us that we exist. May you continue to feed our flames. And, by any chance, ikizima…  

Considering the Public in Policy

Michael Onsando
5 March ,2019

A friend of mine recently quit their job in policy lamenting that it was a waste of time. Not because policy is a waste of time but because “policies in Kenya are not guided by anything other than the whims of the people in power.” Recently, reading about the idea to have Kenya Airways take over JKIA, I see their point.

“The PIC(Public Investments Committee) says it is concerned the country would lose Sh8 billion in revenue annually if it allows KQ to run the airport — KAA’s main revenue-generating asset which also contributes 5.1 per cent of the country’s GDP.”

Inside Kenya Airways – KAA Partnership Deal – The star

The struggles that Kenya airways is undergoing are not new to any passing observer of the country. Plagued with strikes, falling stock prices and an ex-CFO who just wouldn’t go away, the company has been bailed out by the government twice already. This deal is said to be the only thing that will keep KQ from completely falling through. If we choose to go deeper we find that the national carrier had made dubious decisions when it comes to financial longevity that range from fuel hedging (a practice it might start again) to which aircrafts to buy and when. 

“To generate this kind of surplus, the railway would have to have a turnover of at least Sh120 billion. Assuming that it charges the prevailing tariff of US$1,000 per container, it would need to carry 1.4 million 20-foot containers a year, 4,000 a day. That would take about 48 very long trains every 24 hours. The busiest single line railways in the US, for instance, run 20 trains a day.”

The SGR is a great example of a megaproject that, despite numerous warnings, was pushed through anyway. Now we’re straddled with a contract that states (in part) “Neither the borrower (Kenya) nor any of its assets is entitled to any right of immunity on the grounds of sovereignty or otherwise from arbitration, suit, execution or any other legal process with respect to it’s obligations under this agreement.” It’s this loophole that had people wondering about how vulnerable we had left the port, especially after China had already taken over one port in Sri Lanka.

What’s going on?

The system isn’t broken, it was built this way

  • Anon

I don’t like statements that assume people in power are stupid/unthinking. Rather, I prefer thinking about what it would mean if the things that are happening are deliberate  and, maybe not planned, but a reaction/proaction towards or away from something. In this sense perhaps the mistake we have made is that assuming the state is an egalitarian democratic space (yaani, that Kenya cares about us all – and all equally). Within this framing our decisions seems sporadic and reactionary at best, leaving us assuming that we must be working with idiots. However, if we begin to see the space as what it is  evidenced as, a whole other picture begins to show itself. As a gathering of a few powerful people who hold and control the spaces resources (mainly to their own benefit) Kenya makes a lot of sense. Whether it is from large populist projects to create a space for the siphoning of public funds to (allegedly) insisting that Kenya Airways takes over KAA to ensure that the 4 billion in debt owed to CBA (which you own) is paid. 

The burdens and benefits of the use of resources and public borrowing shall be shared equitably between present and future generations.

A good state snowballs into growth. With previous generations gathering momentum from previous decisions to continue to push the mantra of progress (whatever it has been imagined as). This works because the people in power are tasked with imagining projects that would catapult their society into the future. However, a group of people clinging to legacy will find themselves caught in the past, making decisions that promise to bring back something that was. Restoring past glory, compounding bad decisions into an eventual clusterfuck that forces them to act. This is because the decision making process is not guided by research or even stable projections, rather they are made to serve the egos and needs of the people who hold public resource either creating a conduit for siphoning or to fulfill an impossible promise so no one “looks stupid.” After all, we really needed to spend 25 billion shillings on student laptops so we could know that the project wouldn’t work and finally kill it – no one could have seen that one coming.

Another Essay on Poverty

Michael Onsando
26 February ,2019

There’s a story about three blind men trying to identify an unknown animal. Having no sight for their benefit they had to use touch. One man, touching the animal’s trunk, decided it must be a thick snake. The second man touched the animal’s legs and decided it must be a tree trunk. The third touched the animal’s side and said it must be a wall of some kind. The story goes on with several variations to the ending (as fables tend to grow and change over time). The animal was an elephant.

“After all, physics does not diminish the value of chemistry; it cannot take its place and on the other hand, cannot be replaced by it. Psycho-analysis is certainly quite particularly one-sided, as being the science of the mental unconscious.”

  • The question of lay analysis, Sigmund Freud

This piece is not about Freud. However, in a series of essays on lay analysis we see Freud painstakingly try to make a case for psycho-analysis as an independent field from medicine. He talks about how the attitudes of medicine are affecting the reception of analysis and, for pages, talks about the importance of psycho-analysis as a practice. Reading the essays one can almost see his frustration, whether it is through his long windedness or how he states his case you can clearly see he is watching three bling men argue over the nature of something while trying to make it very clear that the thing is an elephant – and an elephant has different sides.

Today we hail Freud as the father of a profession. We see the importance of psycho-analysis and definitely wouldn’t go to a heart doctor for therapy. We understand that the trunk is only part of a larger elephant and not evidence of a long snake.

“In Kenya, let me be clear. You are ‘At risk poor’. There is no middle class. There is no planning. One illness or one partner losing a job any misfortune and you will be poor. Stop that your rich dad poor dad, I saved 200k on 52 week challenge so I am smart analysis”

The reactions to a 22 year old father “stealing” his child out of hospital have been something of a mixed bag. On one hand, we see the good Samaritans people who came in, paid the bill, donated legal council, gave supporting online messaging and so forth. On another hand we have the poverty shamers – how dare he not have enough, not be ready, not have a plan and so on. We, the blind, continue to touch different parts of the elephant and based on the decisions (and accidents) that we have made – relate differently to it and admonish each other for its existence.

The elephant here being poverty.

Before you continue, let me say that nothing I am going to write is new. There is little that can be said about the violence of poverty that hasn’t been said before. However, like Freud, we find ourselves trying to make something that is true apparent in an unseeing world. We touch the trunk of a father stealing his baby and we call it irresponsibility. We touch the tail of structures being rebuilt after a fire in Kangemi and we call it resilience. We touch the body of unemployment and we call it laziness. No matter how many ways you look at it – we seem to be unable to identify poverty for what it is – a systemic problem in the country, particularly driven by the absence of adequate social securities or services.

Why, for example, didn’t the young father have access to cheaper medical services? Or some insurance of some kind? Despite our first lady beyond-zeroing for years for maternal healthcare and Sonko’s various hospital raids? Or how come we can have people building in a way that is an extreme fire hazard without any intervention? And, in event of a fire, what are our emergency evacuation plans? Where are the firetrucks? And what even is job creation? And how come this environment is never really ripe for it?

As I said, old and dull questions. Questions that I am as bored of writing as we should be of reading. Questions that arise time and time again as we watch our members of parliament fight over whether they need to tell the central bank every time they move over a million bob.

Jameni.